It all started with a joke during tea time that hinged on everyone’s awareness of a certain dead German theologian of the early 1900s. Everyone laughed, sipped their tea, and moved on to the next topic.
Five minutes later, Wikipedia received a search request for said German theologian; actually, Google received it first, primarily to make sure the spelling was correct, then Wikipedia. Google has yet to release the search logs regarding who actually submitted the request, but the NSA surely has received it already. But I digress.
Everyone knows that seminary jokes are pretty bad. But PhD jokes are even worse, and this moment during my first week here brought home to me a certain and painful realization: “We’re not in Kansas anymore.”
Hegel was right, at least about one thing
Only a few days ago was I able to begin articulating the implications of this brief tea time exchange. Strangely, perhaps, I can best describe it in terms put forth by the German philosopher (not the guy from the joke, to be clear) G.W.F. Hegel.
Now, I admit it’s incredibly odd to describe anything in my life in terms of Hegel. As one of my philosophy professors in the past said, “Of all the philosophers I’ve studied in detail, Hegel is hands down the hardest. I don’t think I’ve ever really understood anything he said. In fact, I’m not sure Hegel understood what Hegel was saying.” Hegel was a complicated thinker who influenced in a dramatic fashion numerous post-Enlightenment politicians, scientists, philosophers, and theologians. He was fundamentally an atheist who redefined God as some sort of transcendent universal mind or spirit (Geist) towards which all human progress is working; his “god-talk” was actually an extreme form of humanism (hence my comment about how it is bizarre to bring him up here).
In the course of time, as philosophical whims ebb and flow, Hegel’s philosophy has been regularly challenged and overturned, but his shadow still looms large. One of his most well-known concepts, which was a key contributor to the rise of the higher criticism within biblical studies, is now known as the Hegelian Dialectic.
Hegel tends to deny summarization, but to keep it very simple, the “Dialectic” runs like this. Historical patterns of ideas, trends in what is in vogue or not in vogue, and even actual historical events themselves all operate according to the following three-stage process:
(a) Thesis: the initial idea or starting point.
(b) Antithesis: the negation or opposite of that idea, brought forth from internal or external circumstances fighting back against the thesis. This contradiction would, in effect, bring everything grinding to a halt.
(c) Synthesis: a third idea that resolves the contradiction of the thesis and antithesis and provides a way to move forward out of the impasse.
To illustrate, we could frame the rise of representative democracy in America along Hegelian dialectical lines:
(a) Thesis: absolute rule by a single British monarch representing all the people
(b) Antithesis: every man representing himself in absolute rule (e.g., anarchy or mob rule)
(c) Synthesis: rule of all people by a plurality of (elected) representatives
To be sure, Hegel’s Thesis + Antithesis ==> Synthesis dialectic has been shown to have a lot of problems; history (political, intellectual, religious, you name it) simply does not operate along these clear cut lines.
However, I think Hegel’s framework is still right about one thing.
The Hegelian dialectic in ministry
The phenomenon experienced by a new PhD student is much the same as what a new seminary student feels, or what a new pastor feels, or what a new missionary feels, or what a new children’s ministry coordinator feels. For everyone transitioning into a new stage of ministry, the Hegelian dialectic plays itself out in a clear and simple way that may be described as “Being humbled.” Let me explain.
Everyone, whether they admit it or not, approaches a new stage in ministry with a certain track record (and I don’t mean that in a negative sense, but rather in the more positive “recognition of ministry fruit” sense). The problem is that our sinful natures tend to inflate this track record, such that we think we are somewhat “better” (however that may be defined in the given context) than we actually are. We think we have what it takes, that we’ve arrived, that we are good to go. That is our thesis: “Let’s be honest, I’m a pretty big deal.”
Then we face the antithesis, and we nearly fall apart. “Sorry, friend, you are not that big a deal.” This leads to an impasse, a crisis of conscience, a terrifying moment of realizing you may be “found out” or exposed as a fraud. You feel like you might need to pack it in. Fortunately, God’s tender but stern hand of providence is actually at work to bring about a synthesis, which allows you to move forward more sanctified, more humbled, and, ironically, more equipped to do what you’re called to do because the overinflated thesis has been cut to shreds.
In other words, the dialectic yields sanctification.
Embracing the dialectic
It seems like John the Baptist’s profound ministry experience expresses this very dialectic. He had arrived on the scene in Judea preaching, teaching, and gathering quite a following. The time had come for him to fulfill his fundamental role as Isaiah’s “voice in the wilderness” that would prepare the way for the visitation of God himself in Jesus Christ. The thesis that was making the rounds in his group of followers was that John might himself be the big show, that he might be the Christ (Luke 3:15). However, John expressed the following antithesis: I am not the Christ, I am only the forerunner (John 3:28). I am not the big show you’re waiting for; I’m temporary. It’s not about ME. It’s not about my preaching; I’m just a pointer to the greater One. This introduces tension: should they just give up? Is it all over for his ministry and posse? He then states the only possible way forward, the great synthesis (which should, in fact, be the slogan of all ministry): “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30). In other words, the thesis that would make John increase meets the antithesis that Jesus alone deserves such stature, resulting in the synthesis that allows John’s ministry to thrive in an even better way than the thesis would allow: he will decrease in order to magnify Jesus more.
It is my hunch that this dialectic plays out (or should play out) in all sorts of ministry contexts. In fact, given the theses of self-congratulatory pride we bring to the table in ministry, this dialectic HAS to play out. Here are a few examples:
- New seminarian: (a) Thesis: We all come to seminary with a certain conception of our potential as ministers of the gospel which is polluted with a heavy amount of pride, sourced both internally (“I am a delightful and unique combination of the next Jim Elliott, F. F. Bruce, and John Piper”) and externally (“You are the best preacher ever“). (b) Antithesis: Then seminary pours cold water on our overheated ambitions to be the single key player in worldwide Christian revival. We realize we can’t consistently string together three coherent points in an expository sermon; the Hiphil stem in Hebrew eludes us constantly; and, most importantly, our professors, colleagues, and pastoral mentors point out our weaknesses that we are blind to (and the strengths as well, of course). (c) Synthesis: We emerge humbled. We realize how hard ministry really is. We realize how much work it takes to preach a half-decent sermon, how much life experience and tears it takes to counsel well, and how difficult it really is to lead a group of grown men and women who are not impressed by our seminary grades. In other words, the dialect breaks us where we need to be broken, so that we can heal stronger and be more able to serve Christ’s purposes rather than to promote our own ministries. At least, that’s the hope.
- New pastor: (a) Thesis: “Everyone loved my preaching in lab at seminary. I have preached, what, like 7 times! I aced my presbytery floor exam. I have a blog AND a Twitter feed with over 100 followers. Just give me a month to fix a few things at this church, and the invitations for T4G’14 will be flooding in.” (b) Antithesis: Dud sermons. Members leaving. Harsh critiques from the senior pastor (and good ones mixed in, to be fair). Disagreements over vision with key elders. (c) Synthesis: Realizing that this is not about me. If my ministry is defined by giving the congregation more and more of ME (my cleverness, my biblical exegesis, my sermon applications, my clever programs with interesting names), then I will be starving them of the real Bread of Life. I must decrease, he must increase. I can follow T4G on YouTube.
- New doctoral student in divinity: (a) Thesis: “I made good grades in my MDiv / MA / ThM program; the professors said I have the ability to write and think at an academic level. I’ve read a little N. T. Wright. I belong at the next level. I’m going to change the game.” (b) Antithesis: Every single conversation you have with people who are 10x smarter than you, plus the jokes about dead Germans you don’t get, plus the realization that those around you know Hebrew, Greek, German, and Coptic better than you know English (feels that way at least), plus the recognition that, for all intents and purposes, you are (at least for now) a poser, an amateur, a Single A bench warmer in the farm leagues. (c) Synthesis: Coming to terms with the fact that you really do have a lot to learn; that this is a whole different ball game; that you can get there, but it’s going to be harder than you ever thought to learn how to operate in this new world; and, finally, that the only true way to be a Christ-honoring “scholar” is to be a humble one who rests in Christ and who submits under the hand of God, rather than assumes a position over Scripture as an “expert.”
Obviously, these are embellished rhetorical examples, but they point to the reality that our hearts are deceitful enough to make us think we are much better / smarter / more talented in ministry than we actually are. We need the painful process by which God’s tender hand humbles us, so that we can be more useful for him in the end. The dialectic is awfully painful. Running headlong into your antithesis is not fun, for it wasn’t designed to be fun. Sanctification rarely is. But it is good.
So while Hegel got nearly everything else wrong, we should embrace the dialectic of humility in ministry.
 The American pragmatist philosopher William James was noted as remarking, “I could only understand Hegel under nitrous oxide.”