31 August 2011
Christopher Hays - Education
Christopher Hays is a British Academy postdoctoral fellow on the Faculty of Theology at the University of Oxford. Born in California, he took three degrees from Wheaton College in Illinois before hopping across the pond for peripatetic doctoral studies, jaunting through St Andrews, Oxford, and Bonn. An expert in Christian wealth ethics (that is, the morality of money), he alternately puzzles over the insane demands of the Gospels (e.g. Luke 12.33; 14:33; 18.22), the vexing challenges of contemporary consumerism, and the ever-so-tricky task of teaching his six year-old to share. When he’s not writing or doing laundry, he’s boning up on dinosaur trivia to maintain the respect of his boys, two precocious pre-palaeontologists.
As a child what did you want to be when you grew up?
An Indian (by which I meant Native American). I was fascinated by Native American life and culture, frequented museums, and the only time I could ever colour a picture within the lines was when I was drawing in my Native American colouring book. I wasn't really clued-in about genetics and ethnicity yet, so I didn't realize that being an Indian wasn't a career choice, like being a fire-fighter or an astronaut.
Still, it's only been in the last couple of years that I've begun to understand that my own affluent existence and idyllic youth as a California boy came in part at the expense of the Native Americans; that my own nation is rich, in part, because it got away with genocide. I haven't really figured out how to respond to that yet...
What's one gem you found in your research?
Early Christians were so convinced of the centrality of charity to the Christian life that even poor Christians would fast so that they would have something to give to one another. That kind of self-sacrificial love keeps me from feeling self-righteous about pretty much any charity I might practice.
Why did you stay in education?
I entered college with the intention of being a missionary to Latin America, not a scholar. I (naively) majored in Ancient Languages, just because I enjoyed it, and then stumbled my way into one Master's program, and then another. Along the way, God crystallized for me that I was indeed called to be a missionary, but a missionary scholar, someone who trains native pastors and theologians to lead their own local and national churches. So I set off to get the best doctorate I could. Even now, as a research fellow, my salaried job feels a lot like being a student, since I'm paid to read and write (except that now I don't have to worry about exams, but pleasing publishers, who are rather more demanding than proctors).
What can second and third-century Christian wealth ethics teach us?
Early Christian wealth ethics teaches us:
1) that if you want to escape greed, you've got to stay close to the poor,
2) that if you want to help the poor, you've got to stay close to the rich, and
3) that if you want to succeed at either of these for any length of time, you've got to stay close to God.
What do you enjoy most in teaching?
Gospels. Before my doctorate I was really into Paul; I liked his abstract style of argumentation. But along the way I came to be fascinated by and to adore Jesus. I guess that previously I felt like Jesus was the squeaky-clean kid in Sunday School who was always showing me up, so I didn't really like him. But I came to see him as the guy who defended screw-ups like me, the guy who would commission losers to do gorgeous and exciting work, as well as the God who would change us so that our will would become the same as his, who would bring his work to completion in and through us. So I like teaching the Gospels, because they introduce us to that Jesus.
How has the wealth ethics in the Gospel of Luke shaped your life?
Well, progressively. When I first got it into my head that Jesus demanded that we renounce everything to be his disciples (Luke 14.33), I told God I would sell everything and go his way. Instead, God told me three things: stop going to coffee shops, stop renting movies, and stop buying books. (NB: I don't think God was saying that those things are categorically bad, but that I was wasting a lot of money on things I didn't need.) God was being pastoral, walking me progressively into deeper renunciation at a pace I could manage.
Now, we've had to up-and-leave everything a number of times now, as we moved from the US to Scotland to England to Germany and back, and we'll do it again when I abandon my cushy job in Oxford to teach in South America. In two years, my family and I will pack up our bags and move to Buenos Aires, Argentina, where I will train Latino pastors and theologians at the seminary ISEDET. Luke has helped me and my wife to do that because he has shown us how the apostles did the same (Luke 5.11, 27; 18.28-30), but I think it is God's Spirit that has guided the realisation of that practice in our lives.
Does money make the world go round?
Nope. Money can aid, tempt, inspire, transfix, motivate, or corrupt. But my physics colleagues said that "conservation of angular momentum" makes the world go round.
What is your vision for theological education?
To empower theologians to train pastors; to train pastors who lead vibrant churches; to guide and inspire churches that love God and their neighbours.
What is your dream for society?
To be ever more permeated by the Church.
What makes you happy?
Tickling my boys and hearing them laugh. Holding hands with my wife when we walk.
Tell us a joke
Two men were shipwrecked on a desert island. The first man began to panic, despairing of ever being found, knowing he would die there. But the second stretched out on the beach to nap. Exasperated, the first man asked him: "Why aren't you afraid?"
The second man explained: "I'm very rich; each month I give £100,000 to my parish church."
The first man spluttered and yelled: "How can your money help you? We're on a desert island!"
To which the second man smiled and replied: "Like I said, I give £100,000 to my church each month. My pastor will find me."