Now that I have a daughter, I can look forward to some day standing in front of a puzzled class of Grade One students on Career Day explaining that I am not a doctor, lawyer or carpenter but a “theologian.” (Or better yet, a “theologue.”) I’m the first to admit that it’s a strange career choice. It sounds like I spend each day meditating on obscure and invisible conundrums, like trying to figure out how many angels fit on the head of a pin.
In explaining to people what it is exactly that I study, it is painfully clear that “theology” seems remote not only from real life in the twenty-first century, but even from the profound experiences of the “spiritual” and numinous many religious and non-religious people have in connection with art, beauty, nature and community. And that’s precisely the sentiment, I believe, that underlies another great song on the playlist of my own journey between faith and doubt – a song that reminds me that words about God can never quite capture the mystery of human experience of the divine – “Theologians,” from the Wilco album A Ghost is Born.
The very first line of the song says it all:
They don’t know nothing
About my soul
Take a listen:
Can I, as a theologian or an artist, really argue with that? Perhaps the very best theologians can speak to the inner depths of the soul; at such points theology crosses into poetry, as in Bonaventure and Balthasar (even Barth at some points). Yet too often “theology” does not go beyond intellectual gymnastics to real engagement with our hopes, dreams and desires, the quintessentially human longings which give meaning and structure to our lives (see William Dyrness’ Poetic Theology on this point). It’s no wonder Jeff Tweedy, not a religious type himself, doesn’t look to theology but to music to express that deep, almost inexpressible feeling.
Later on he sings “Illiterati lumen fidei / God is with us every day.” As best I can tell, the Latin phrase means simply that the light of God shines even on the ‘illiterate’ – those who, in their supposed “blindness” and “ignorance,” cannot read the ‘text,’ the holy words of religion. Tweedy puns on this by calling God’s presence itself an “illiterate light.” We are simply being elitist if we think “theologians” and religious people are the only ones who can see, hear and feel a presence in our midst; those who we think of as “illiterate” may have a better grasp of the holy than the “intellectuals.” [From which medieval theologian did Wilco borrow this bit of Latin? I am not sure, so please let me know if you have any insight!]
Just before the bridge, the lyrics turn into a kind of creative riff on John 8:21 and 13:36-37. I’ve always found this lyric, in counterpoint with the main “Theologians / They don’t know nothing” theme, to be quite disarming and strangely emotional.
I’m going away
Where you will look for me
Where I’m going you cannot come
No one’s ever gonna take my life from me
I lay it down
A ghost is born
Who is speaking here? What kind of “ghost” is born (bearing in mind that this line is also the album title)? The Holy Spirit? Or some other kind of “cherry ghost”? I am not trying to do some kind of ‘gospel according to Wilco’ thing here, suggesting that Jeff Tweedy is covertly hiding Christian themes in his songs. As in many of his songs, these images and phrases are there for literary and aesthetic reasons – the biblical material serves a rich, allusive purpose in his poetry, not a devotional or ‘religious’ one. Yet there is a profound “theological” truth here as well… the self-sacrificing “greater love” of the cross disrupts our whole idea of who God is, and the coming of the Spirit reconfigures human life into something mysteriously holy. This is a secret which speaks to the soul.