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Autolalia
The Theological Art of Talking to Ourselves

In reading Robert Funk or John Spong, I often get the feeling that churchmen are forever talking to themselves. What Jesus said in one-syllable words, the educated reproduce in triple syllables. If glossolalia is "talking in tongues," surely the art of talking to ourselves might be called "autolalia."

I work at the greatest seminary in the world and am struck by the wonder of so many educated men and women who teach while they live out a simple faith. Alas, it is not so with those scholars I meet in other arenas. Autolalia often owns the day. The problems may stem from the fact that theologians often practice their theology far from the common haunts of word-a-day laymen. Theologians have a way of turning from the simple vocabulary of faith and experience to be sure they're saying things right.

Since I now travel more in academic circles than I once did as a pastor, I've found I have to attend lots of functions where it's important to look theologically educated. Hyping academics can leave you talking in words the peasant-carpenter-Son of God would never have used. Jesus seemed fond of monosyllable truths. Consider the contrasts:

JESUS: I am the light of the world.
AUTOLALIA: Christ is the illumination of our existential arena.

JESUS:: A city that is set on a hill cannot be hid.
AUTOLALIA Urbanization at certain altitudes cannot prohibit its own exhibitionism.

JESUS: I am He.
AUTOLALIA My Messiahship is volitional self-disclosure.

JESUS: Go ye into all the world.
AUTOLALIA Dissolve your disjunctive sociology in the cross-cultural matrix.

JESUS: I go to the Father.
AUTOLALIA My transcendence will shortly be absorbed into the ground of all being.

JESUS: If I go away, I will come again.
AUTOLALIA Ascension is but the apocalyptic preface to the eschatological event.

JESUS: Who will cast the first stone?
AUTOLALIA Whose projectiles are preliminary?

JESUS: Ye must be born again.
AUTOLALIA The spiritual renaissance of ego is umbilically imperative.

It's really not as hard as you may think to sound theologically "hip." I have developed my own chart for helping me get into elitist conversations at academic receptions. In the chart below you can mix and match the adjectives in the first three columns with the nouns in the fourth. If you always use them in this one-two-three order you can be the life of every theological party.

Remember, this game is more risky than convention card-swapping in hopes of getting a revival. It's finesse that really counts. It's learning to ask in a soft but firm voice, "Have you read Gerhard von Danniken's Monography on Mystery?" While the name is wholly fictitious, I always find a few scholars who have. But I have been able to leave whole circles of would-be scholars feeling bad that they haven't. The key is never to say too much nor stay so long in one group that they find you out. Keep on the move, avoid simple truths and try to develop some eccentric manners. Who knows where it could lead? You could get elected to something.


Calvin Miller is a professor at Southwestern Seminary.

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January 1996 Edition
Volume 4, Issue 4
January 1996