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On Faithful and Faithless Theologians | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | January 15, 2011 | Ignatius Insight

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"As the Fathers of the Church said, whoever loves God is impelled to become, in a certain sense, a theologian, one who speaks with God, who thinks of God and seeks to think with God, whereas the professional work of a theologian is, for some, a vocation of great responsibility before Christ, before the Church. To be able to study God himself professionally and to be able to speak of him—contemplari et contemplata docere (to contemplate and to teach what is contemplated--St. Thomas Aquinas, Super Sent. Lib. 3 d. 35, q l, art 3, qc. 1, arg. 3)—is a great privilege."
-- Pope Benedict XVI, To the International Theological Commission, December 3, 2010. [1]

"All men and women, as I have noted, are in some sense philosophers and have their own philosophic conceptions with which they direct their lives."
-- Pope John Paul II, Fides et Ratio, #30.

I.

When the pope talks to theologians, it is a theologian talking to theologians, with this difference, one of them is also pope. The International Theological Commission meets periodically to present various reflections on issues that the Holy Father would like to see further developed. The subjects of the recent Plenary Sessions in the Vatican were, as the pope put it, "weighty topics": "Theology and its methodology, the question of the one God in relation to the three monotheistic religions; the integration of the Church's social doctrine in the broader context of Christian doctrine."

Recalling St. Paul writing to the Corinthians, the pope said that the experience of an "encounter with Christ" is the basis for thinking about these issues. "Whoever has discovered in Christ the love of God, instilled in our hearts by the Holy Spirit, wishes to know better the One who loves him and whom he loves. Knowledge and love sustain one another in turn." Here the pope touches on the classic idea that if we know the existence of something, especially if we have loved someone, we want to know more about what we know or love. Fides quaerens intellectum—our trust and faith seeks knowledge of what it is we know by faith.

At this point, the pope says that "whoever loves God is impelled to be a theologian." That is, everyone wants to know as much as he can about God. He does not have to be a professional theologian to know something of God. If this were the case, we would have few wanting to know God. The pope is not denying here the place of the professional theologian, but he is insisting that the professional theologian must himself also first love God before he can carry out his vocation. Faithless theologians are the bane of the profession and the Church.

Just as ordinary men and women are "impelled" to become theologians to know more about God, so, as John Paul II said, they also are natural philosophers and seek to know about reality so they can act intelligently in the world. "'All human beings desire to know' (Aristotle), and truth is the proper object of this desire. Everyday life shows how concerned each of us is to discover for ourselves, beyond mere opinions, how things really are. Within visible creation, man is the only creature who is capable of knowing, but who knows that he knows, and is therefore interested in the real truth of what he perceives" (Fides et Ratio, #25). What is peculiarly Catholic is how these two approaches to knowledge—especially to the knowledge of God—relate to each other. Neither theology nor philosophy is the exclusive possession of experts and academics precisely because all men are open both to what is and to grace.

Catholicism is an understanding of God that stands under His light. While God remains a mystery, the more we know of Him the better: Light upon Light. The word, "theo-logy," means the study or understanding of God. We praise God by seeking to know as much of Him as we can. We are given minds so that we can do this. The Christian witness does not tell the world of his own great ideas, but rather of what he has "seen and heard." The philosopher begins with things; the theologian begins from what he "has seen and heard," or what others have witnessed to. Theology uses sound philosophy to explain further what has been seen and heard and passed down to us.

The word, Logos, implies that we want to know. We want the reasons implicit in what we have seen and heard. Here Benedict relates philosophy and theology: "We can think of God and communicate what we have thought because he has endowed us with a reason in harmony with his nature." If our reason is "in harmony with His nature," we cannot be surprised if God addresses us in a way that we can understand. We can understand only if we first try to understand things ourselves.

Benedict often refers to the fact that St. John identifies Christ as the Logos, the Second Person in the Trinity, the Word. To accept that God is Logos contributes to peace on earth. Why? "A God that is not seen as the font of forgiveness, of justice, and of love cannot be a light on the path to peace." One might extrapolate these words to suggest that behind all human altercations are found differing concepts of God. This diversity is why the pope is so concerned with a freedom of religion in the civil order. This freedom should allow these differences to be discussed and brought to light without threat of killing those of differing opinions. A false understanding of God does cause violence. This is the clear meaning of contemporary events from the jihadists to the abortionists.

II.

Benedict tells us that men naturally seek to organize their knowledge and relate one branch of it to the others. "Yet no theological system can subsist unless it is permeated by love of the divine 'Object', which in theology must necessarily be the 'Subject' that speaks to us and with whom we are in a relationship of love." The God of revelation speaks to us; he tells us what we must do to be saved. In the telling, He indicates something of Himself. He is Father, not just an inert deist-like object who has no personal relation to us. Theology, to be itself, must be open to the divine Logos, its only justification for existence.

Theology does not make up the content of revelation. It first receives it. The philosopher may arrive at the existence of a divine "Object" or cause. The philosopher is not necessarily closed to the idea of personhood in the Godhead, but it is not something that initially occurs to him. When it is revealed, he may see that it makes sense in many ways.

In another recent address, Benedict touched on this point. "Faith has its specific nature, of course, as an encounter with the living God, which opens up new horizons for us beyond the sphere proper to reason," he told the new Hungarian ambassador. "But at the same time it is a purifying force for reason itself that permits it to perform its task better and to see better what pertains to it." [2] No reason can be found why philosophers cannot think about the content of revelation once it is known. This is what Benedict meant when, as cited above, he told us that God communicates with us through reason which is in harmony with His nature. We are not gods, but we do have reason that reflects in its limited way the divine Logos.

Benedict next adds that theology must itself be integrated into the life of the Church. "It is true that in order to be scientific, theology must argue rationally, but it must also be faithful to the nature of ecclesial faith: centered on God, rooted in prayer, in a communion with the other disciples of the Lord guaranteed by communion with the Successor of Peter and with the whole Episcopal College." Theologians are obviously tempted at time to establish their own church. But what is important is that we received from the Church the same witness that the Church of the first and subsequent centuries received. It is this revelation that intrigues and stimulates us to think, as well as to love and to believe.

The pope here repeats the notion of faith purifying reason. "The very rationality of theology helps to purify human reason, liberating it from certain prejudices and ideas that can exercise a strong influence on the thought of every age." The bane of all theology, no doubt something Chesterton saw, was that it was more concerned to relate Christianity to the fashionable thoughts of a given era than to strive to preserve and present what the actual content of the faith was in terms intelligible to different systems and eras.

Benedict often refers to the German philosopher Josef Pieper (1904-1997), who wrote an important work on tradition. [3] The following passage made me think of this relation: "Theology always lives in a continuity and in a dialogue with believers and theologians who came before us; since ecclesial communion is diachronic, so also is theology. The theologian never begins from zero, but considers as teachers the Fathers and theologians of the whole Christian tradition." The pope mentions as an example Blessed John Henry Newman, whose conversion, as is well known, came through studying the early Church fathers and noticing the continuity that they had with the Church of Rome. What is remarkable in reading those Christian thinkers who went before us—and not just Augustine and Aquinas—is the amazing insight that they still cast on our everyday lives.

The pope adds that the theologian should also be holy. "Rooted in Sacred Scripture, read with the Fathers and Doctors, theology can be a school of sanctity, as witnessed by Bl. John Henry Newman." He calls theology the "symphony of the sciences." It is usually called the queen of the sciences, that which places the end and hence the order of all else that we know. Theology is also a service of others. "Contemplation of the revealed God and charity for our neighbour cannot be separated, even if they live according to different chrisms."

Benedict then touches on something that is also found in Chesterton, the idea that the modern world is full of Christian truths that are isolated from the whole and have become wild in their new manifestation. "In a world that often values the many gifts of Christianity—such as, for example, the idea of democratic equality—without understanding the root of its own ideals, it is particularly important to show that the fruits die if the roots are severed from the tree." Men are only equal in that they are each created by God with the same eternal destiny offered to them. To make them politically equal in everything undermines the order of any polity.

In Spe Salvi, Benedict addressed the issue of justice, the judgment of the Lord on our lives. He touches on that theme here. "There is no justice without truth, and justice does not develop fully if its horizon is limited to the material world. For us Christians, social solidarity always has a prospect of eternity." That is to say, the City of God is the only place wherein all issues of justice and equality will be settled. The attempt to resolve all final and eternal issues in this world is really the cause of most of the aberrations of modernity.

Theologians cannot be theologians "in solitude"; they should know and listen to pastors. The pope obviously relies on the work of theologians, but he does not hesitate to remind them of what a theologian is. And he does acknowledge that anyone who is "impelled" to know God more thoroughly is himself already implicitly a theologian. He is someone who takes what is given to him in revelation and ponders and explicates it in terms that we all can understand.

ENDNOTES:

[1] Benedict XVI, "Knowledge and Love: The Pillars of Theology," L'Osservatore Romano, English, December 15, 2010.

[2] Address of December 2, 2010, L'Osservatore Romano, English, December 15, 2010.

[3] That book, Tradition: Its Sense and Aspiration, is contained in the collection, For the Love of Wisdom: Essays on the Nature of Wisdom (Ignatius Press, 2006), pp. 232-94.





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Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown University.

He is the author of numerous books on social issues, spirituality, culture, and literature including Another Sort of Learning, Idylls and Rambles, A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning, The Life of the Mind (ISI, 2006), The Sum Total of Human Happiness (St. Augustine's Press, 2007), The Regensburg Lecture (St. Augustine's Press, 2007), and The Mind That Is Catholic: Philosophical and Political Essays (CUA, 2008). His most recent book from Ignatius Press is The Order of Things (Ignatius Press, 2007). His new book, The Modern Age, is available from St. Augustine's Press. Read more of his essays on his website.



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