A friendly reader reacted to my “mindsets” post of last week saying: “Ok, but I have always understood that some church teachings are carved in stone and unchanging. How can age old doctrines change?” I replied that I understand the observation but would still suggest that all doctrinal statements are time-bound, because language and understandings are time-bound. All doctrinal statements, I suggested, are provisional until a better expression comes along.
In a quick reply to that, the reader asked: “If that is really the case, how do we come to new doctrinal statements?” That gave me the focus for this week’s post.
Theology is “faith seeking understanding.” Good theology helps us understand and live our faith. Truly helpful theological understandings can end up as official teachings (doctrines) when institutional leadership judges them useful guidelines for Christian life and belief.
A few years ago, a Jesuit professor of religious studies, Paul G. Crowley, S.J., at Santa Clara University, suggested some ways for students to observe and listen to human experiences when formulating theological understandings. I never met Paul Crowley but resonated with him and his suggestions. They apply of course to all of us because, regardless our age, we are all students. Sad to say, I learned very recently that Professor Crowley passed away in August 2020, after a long battle with cancer.
Here then are four of Paul Crowley’s suggestions for theological reflection and my brief followups.
1. Let theological knowledge emerge from the study of what is non-theological.
Other forms of knowledge and human experience, like literature, music, and art are crucial to the formation of our theological imagination. Sounds and symbols touch people deeply. They help us connect to the deeper dimensions of our life experiences. Music, for instance, can open us to the infinite, linking body and spirit in powerful ways.
Do you have some favorite “mystical music”? My wife and I would put the piano and cello composition, Spiegel im Spiegel, by the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt, on the top of our mystical music list.
How do we interpret our life journeys? Alonzo, an Indiana school teacher and my paternal grandfather, died in the 1919 flu epidemic. Mary Ellen, his wife, had to raise, on her own, my dad and his four brothers. She did that remarkably well. Reflecting on her own, not always easy life, my grandmother once told me, when I was a teenager, that Jesus was her “traveling companion.” Today, John Alonzo, her last living grandson, would say he very much resonates with Grandma’s theology.
At times, old creedal doctrines, like the fourth century Nicene Creed, can seem so rigidly esoteric. It may have had an important place back then; but stressing today, for example, that Jesus is “consubstantial with the Father” seems a strange kind of theological language when compared to the Fourth Gospel where Jesus says so simply and profoundly: “I and the Father are one.” John 10:30
2. Let theological insights spring from inter-religious dialogue.
By focusing on questions of human meaning, identity, and purpose in other religions, we can better understand the contexts in which belief arises and takes shape. We really should experience and explore the ways in which the human experience has been portrayed and celebrated in other religious cultures, art, and drama.
I remember the unfortunate controversy at the Catholic bishops 2019 Amazon Synod in Rome. Between October 6 and October 27, 2019, bishops and representatives from Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, French Guiana, Guyana, Peru, Venezuela, and Suriname gathered with Pope Francis in Rome.The focus was on the indigenous peoples of the Pan-Amazon region and their cultural and religious traditions. During the synod several statues, which Pope Francis confirmed were of the fertility goddess Pachamama, were featured in discussions and ceremonies. Unfortunately, a few days after the synod a group of 100 Catholics accused Pope Francis of indulging in “sacrilegious and superstitious acts” and an angry ultra-right Catholic activist later stole the statues from their display in a church near the Vatican and threw them into the Tiber. (They were later recovered.) Respecting other cultures does not always come easy for static rigid Christians. That, however, is no reason to give up.
An understanding of Christian belief through a study of the texts, rituals, ethics, and teachings of other religious traditions can lead to a deeper understanding of one’s own religious tradition. The emergence of comparative inter-religion theology has been a very promising development in recent years. Comparing, for example, a Gospel text with a Buddhist or Hindu sutra or a passage from the Gita, can greatly stimulate theological thinking. God’s revelation is hardly limited to just the Hebrew-Christian tradition.
Peter C. Phan is a Vietnamese-born American Catholic theologian. I remember his presidential address to the Catholic Theological Society of America, meeting in New Orleans in June 2002. He began with a Hindu prayer, asking God to “Draw near us in friendship…”, and later observed: “If today we recognize that we can and should benefit from the worship and prayer of other religions for our own spiritual growth, then our way of doing theology, in response to this sign of our present times, must be different from that of our forebears…..”
3. Let the lived experience of impoverished and marginalized men, women and children be our touchstone for theological learning.
Firsthand and humble learning from exposure to the difficult and painful lives of the poor, the marginalized, and suffering people can lead to a transformation of hearts and an opening of minds. They need compassionate care, service with no strings attached, and unquestioned support. And for all men, women, and children there must be a theology of hope. A transformation of hearts and minds can also open our eyes to the Sacred here and now. Recall the response of Jesus to the righteous questioners in Matthew 25:37-40: “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’” A credible theology explores and promotes the significance of this text for today’s believers.
4. Let the God-mystery stand as the horizon for all learning.
I would suggest that a contemplative attitude is absolutely essential for approaching the God-mystery. I remember chatting with the Franciscan spiritual master, Richard Rohr, who reminded me that without a contemplative mind, we are offering the world no broad seeing, no real alternative consciousness, and no new kind of humanity. “Jesus,” Richard said “was the first clear mystic in the West. We just were not prepared for his way of knowing and loving.” An enlightened contemporary theology of God must spring from the contemplative experience. In all of our busyness, we need to take time to turn off the phone, stop doing, and start reflecting. We have been well-trained in DOING. We need remedial training in BEING.
Concluding remarks: Religions are generally defined by belief and practice. “Orthodoxy” – a word one often hears in certain church circles — is about correct beliefs and fidelity to official teaching. “Orthopraxy” – a word one rarely hears in church — is about correct conduct..
Most church leaders are very strict about orthodoxy and insist on people adhering to official doctrines. In fact, however, those leaders are often putting the cart before the horse.
Genuine Christianity is first of all about correct Christian behavior (orthopraxy). Here the example of the historic Jesus is so clear. In all he did, Jesus was the compassionate minister. He reminded his followers that the Law (orthodoxy) was created to serve people but that people were not created to serve the Law. His primary focus was attending to the immediate needs of people, with love and compassion. And he says to us: “Go and do likewise.”
P.S. If there is a topic you would like me to explore, please write to me at: firstname.lastname@example.org