Some may have already heard this little story. Starting the new year, however, I wish to repeat it once again.
Many years ago, one of my wife’s uncles approached me during a family reunion. He said he needed to draw on my expertise. He then pulled from his pocket a small reddish stone and said: “what do you make of this?” I looked at it and said: “very colorful.” He frowned and said: “but what is your professional interpretation?” I told him I had no idea about it. Very disappointed, he grumbled something and then said: “they told me your field of expertise was geology.” I chuckled and said: “not GEology but THEology.”
I am an historical theologian. Theology should focus on life-nourishing belief not old doctrinaire stones.
The best definition of THEOLOGY is still that of Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109): Fides quarens intellectum – “Faith seeking understanding.”
When people do theology, they reflect in depth about Reality and their Faith experiences: experiences of being touched by God, even for people for whom the word “God” may be problematic. I remember the words of Dag Hammarskjöld (1905 – 1961) in his book Markings: “God does not die on the day when we cease to believe in a personal deity, but we die on the day when our lives cease to be illumined by the steady radiance, renewed daily, of a wonder, the source of which is beyond all reason.”
When we do theology, we necessarily express ourselves in the symbols, words, and rituals that are products of our culture. In fact, all of our concepts and experiential interpretations are shaped and influenced to a great extent by the culture and the language out of which they emerge.
In every age, theologians should strive to better articulate the human experience of the Divine for contemporary believers. I hope I can make at least a small contribution to that.
I shared the story of my wife’s uncle and his stone with an adult discussion group, which I moderate. One lady in the group, a retired professor of sociology at our university, then asked: “ok…but in these days of alt-truth, how do we distinguish healthy and unhealthy theological developments?”
A very good question, because some theology does indeed appear unhealthy — more like a collection of old stones.
Healthy contemporary theology should speak to contemporary people in contemporary language. It should help them discover the signs of Divine presence in human life and promote a morality of interpersonal respect, compassion, and solidarity. Jesus taught and lived the truth that love of God cannot exist without love of neighbor.
I suggest five points for evaluating theology, regardless whether it comes from episcopal lips, from the local church pulpit, or from the keyboard of an older theologian.
1-The aim of theology cannot be a kind of nostalgic retreat to recover a lost mode of being in the world: the “good old days.” We need contemporary fresh air. Pope John XXIII when he opened the Second Vatican Council said it was time to “open the windows and let in the fresh air.” Some archconservative contemporary church leaders want to slam them shut and retreat into an earlier closed environment. They forget that the good old days were really not always that great.
Nevertheless, we really cannot turn-back the clock. We should not even try. It would mean becoming a religious child again and thereby abandoning our adult capacity to think and make one’s own judgments, based on critical reflection and developmental human understanding. The current upsurge of populist fundamentalism – with its appeal for “the good old days” — is not just annoyingly offensive. It is dangerously subversive and destructive. We must live today where we are planted.
2-Theological thinking today needs to reflect on the “call” of the Sacred (the Faith experience) by interpreting and thereby re-creating the meaning and power of religious language. The Sacred has not abandoned us, but we may need to better attune our awareness. There are many Catholics and other Christians today who are no longer comfortable in a church that does not speak to them. Nevertheless, many have indeed felt the presence of the Divine in their lives but do not have a language to express it. They speak about experiencing the “unbelievable,” or the “indescribable,” or their own sense of awe.
A few years ago, I began this blog to encourage people to think and speak with “another voice.” The truly contemporary theological thinker must have one foot anchored in the present and the other in the tradition of the past: maintaining a dynamic tension between contemporary religious exploration and consciousness and earlier religious consciousness. We explore and we grow. I am reminded of 1 Corinthians 13:12: “Now we see things imperfectly, like puzzling reflections in a mirror, but then we will see everything with perfect clarity. All that I know now is partial and incomplete, but then I will know everything completely, just as God now knows me completely.”
3-When we do theology – when we reflect in depth about our Faith experiences – we necessarily express ourselves in the symbols, words, and rituals that are products of our culture. But we also look for resonance and dialogue with tradition: with the theological expressions of earlier cultures. I often tell people in my lectures that I am not a far-out anti-historical liberal but a Christian traditionalist. Most people start laughing and then I do have to explain…It is living and believing today but with interpretation and resonance with earlier understandings.
4-Authentic and life-giving theology can never be self-serving narcissism: the expression of individual, subjective experience. Theology is the result of deep reflection about my Faith experience AND your Faith experience AND the Faith experience of the community of Faith. Today as well as Yesterday. Yesterday’s theology invites critical reflection and becomes a heritage, a tradition that finds an expression in historical doctrine, scripture, symbol, ritual, and patterns of conduct.
5-Theology therefore relies on culture but can never become locked within a particular culture. It cannot, for example, venerate just ancient or medieval European culture. Jesus, for example, was not a fair-skinned European male.
All cultures perceive reality through their own particular lenses. These lenses are shaped and adjusted by shared human events and the great movements in human history. When a theology becomes so locked within a particular culture that it is hardly distinguishable from it, we are on the road to idolatry. Then the words, symbols and rituals of a particular culture no longer communicate and connect people to the depth of the human experience but become hardened old stones and become objects of worship in themselves.
My warmest regards as we move into 2023. I look forward to traveling with you.