In Ellen Charry’s book By the Renewing of Your Minds she reclaims the pastoral role of Christian doctrines, once part of the theologian’s basic instruction, in the formation and development of our Christian life. The process of a cultivation of Christian virtues needs to be strengthened with theological content and not only with habits or repetitive actions. This is a very insightful claim that shapes the whole book through its chapters.
If used rightly, Christian doctrine is an excellent means to nurture and discern one’s personal life and our communal life. Christian theology — patristic, medieval, or modern — serves a valuable resource for this nourishment. In the end, in the same way theology must serve the church and not vice versa, Christian pastors and academicians are called to serve the church.
The situation presented by Charry is relatable: many modern Christians pastors and students present a serious issue nowadays: they tend to view the study of theology as a ‘valley of the death’ which it is necessary to pass by in order to continue to the path of graduation and ordination. Once this ‘dry field’ ends and the person graduates, the vocation becomes the means by which one is sustained. This vision of Christian formation is so engrained in our culture that it is not difficult to criticize a person who focuses on the cultivation of Christian virtues as outdated and as lacking ambition. The secular mindset or worldview of many Christians is killing their virtuous and moral life.
As Charry reminds us, knowing God through doctrine and virtue practice is important. By means of it, Christians will be able to grow. At the same time, by doing this, doctrine remains alive in us shaping our character to become more like Christ. We will be able to appreciate how different theological “schools” as the Johannine, Pauline, Patristic, and Medieval, and alike approached the Christian life reinterpreting people’s daily episodes as opportunities to grow in the grace of the Lord.
The strengths of Charry’s book are many: it is grounded on academic research and it offers a fresh perspective on the relation between theology and piety. The call to rediscover sapiential theology is an excellent suggestion for those looking to serve the church. Indeed, I wish I had read this book earlier!