Christian Theologian 101: Beware Ambition
There is a wonderful but oft overlooked verse in 1 Thessalonians. Paul writes, “Aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs” (1 Thessalonians 4:11). But our day and age, this cultural moment of broadcasting every thought online, is anything but quiet. Furthermore, we associate quiet with unexciting. It’s boring. Ordinary. Honestly, who makes it their ambition—their aspiration—to go unnoticed? Who chooses a quiet life?
Unfortunately, this zeitgeist haunts theological colleges and studies. As we enter into and carry out theological studies we’re exhorted towards excellence—especially those who’re academically gifted. Thus mixed up with one’s training for ministry is often the hope of something greater: recognition and renown. Instead of aspiring to live and study quietly the theological student aims higher.
So, linked with pride and intellectual lust, the Christian theologian must wrestle with ambition. Though I can’t exactly prove it, my thesis is that this ambition becomes evident in an imbalanced life.
I’m not suggesting that hard work or excellence are bad things. After all, Paul does go on to say believers must labour (1 Thessalonians 4:11), which is a theme throughout the epistle. However an unhealthy balance between study and leading a quiet life is very likely an indication of unhealthy ambition.
Blind Ambition In Shelley’s Frankenstein
Towards the end of one of the true literary masterpieces, Victor Frankenstein says, “When younger…I believed myself destined for some great enterprise. My feelings are profound, but I possessed a coolness of judgment that fitted me for illustrious achievements. This sentiment of the worth of my nature supported me when others would have been oppressed, for I deemed it criminal to throw away in useless grief those talents that might be useful to my fellow creatures.”
Anyone who’s read Frankenstein will know that it’s a tragedy. Victor Frankenstein masters all that he puts his mind towards, starting with alchemy and ending with the successful animation of a corpse. Starting out, Frankenstein knew he was “destined” for “illustrious achievements,” owing to vast “talents.” However, his abilities mutated his ambitions. For while his initial aspirations were that he “might be useful to [his] fellow creatures,” the end of them was nothing but the death of loved ones and eventually self destruction.
Full of remorse, Frankenstein sees that he was blinded by his ambitions and aspirations—all too late. He says, “All my speculations and hopes are as nothing, and like the archangel who aspired to omnipotence, I am chained in an eternal hell. My imagination was vivid, yet my powers of analysis and application were intense; by the union of these qualities I conceived the idea and executed the creation of a man. Even now I cannot recollect without passion my reveries while the work was incomplete. I trod heaven in my thoughts, now exulting in my powers, now burning with the idea of their effects. From my infancy I was imbued with high hopes and a lofty ambition; but how am I sunk!”
An Appeal To Faithful Ambition
What makes those climactic reveries all the more tragic are the warnings that flashed along the way. One of those comes by the pen of his father. In the throes of his aspirations to create new life, Frankenstein corresponds less and less with his friends and family. This leads his father to rebuke him. Initially Frankenstein deems his father’s accusation of neglect unjust. Like all of us, Frankenstein’s instinctive reaction is defensiveness. He denies any vice, fault, or blame. But this eventually gives way to realisation.
So he proposes a rule for all studies, “A human being in perfection ought always to preserve a calm and peaceful mind and never to allow passion or a transitory desire to disturb his tranquillity. I do not think that the pursuit of knowledge is an exception to this rule. If the study to which you apply yourself has a tendency to weaken your affections and to destroy your taste for those simple pleasures in which no alloy can possibly mix, then that study is certainly unlawful, that is to say, not befitting the human mind.”
This is remarkably close to Paul’s exhortation in 1 Thessalonians. Whatever our passion or pursuit—be it theological studies or otherwise—we “ought always to preserve a calm and peaceful mind.” Or, as the apostle put it, “Aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs.” As Frankenstein says, our affections are far more important than our aspirations. Put another way, we should make the training of our affections for God the ambition of all theological studies. As I noted in collusion with Nietzsche, the simple pleasures of the theological task should always be prioritised over success and acclaim.
Choose The Balanced Life Over Brilliance
Frankenstein concludes that we should not pursue whatever interferes with our “domestic affections.” In other words, when our ambitions prevent us from aspiration to lead live quietly we should audit our aspirations rather than defend them. It would be a terrible thing to succeed at theology and fail at life, to excel in your studies and writing but forgetting your soul. Whatever your course marks, publications, and awards, they won’t earn you the title of “good and faithful servant.”