Theological Studies

Theology is a crucial piece of Christian thought since the reflections of the whole church bring everything together. It is not as simple as reading the Bible to find a single word that God has for humanity (the phrase “God said it, I believe it, that settles it” comes to mind). I think the fact that theology is nothing like this is a good thing. It is hard, but ultimately rewarding. We have to think and reason from our historical positions because we have been informed by the traditions passed down to us. The words Pope Francis shared in Lumen Fidei, his first encyclical, offers a useful reflection on this. Francis contends that:

“Believing means entrusting oneself to a merciful love which always accepts and pardons, which sustains and directs our lives, and which shows its power by its ability to make straight the crooked lines of our history.”[1]

Such a term like “crooked lines” assumes that there are trajectories that can be misleading or outright dangerous. Human history has shown moments of extraordinary compassion and love, but we have had long ages of malice and tragedy. It is not possible to be uncritically optimistic about our prospects. We can only hope for a future where people care about remembrance. And yet, the temptation to forget the origin of values and what give them compelling sway over our lives is so easy. Even in religious communities, the importance of theology is notoriously overlooked or dismissed. This itself is tragic because we lose the very things that enrich our lives.

A Biblical Introduction to the Christian Tradition

The words “make straight the crooked lines of history” is, to me, evocative of John the Baptist’s preaching in the Gospel of John. Since I am an admirer of the Catholic lectionary (and its Revised Common Lectionary counterpart), I think it is appropriate to share a relatively recent experience I had at St. James Cathedral in Seattle, WA. I visited their wonderful noon-day mass on January 2, 2018. They were still in the midst of the Christmas season, and the deacon preached on John the Baptist. Before the Gospel reading, we sung Psalm 98 together, which had the responsorial phrase: “All the ends of the earth have seen the saving power of God.” I found this to be both a proclamation and a hope for the future. To hope for the saving power of God is to be caught up in Christian time, which is really what Advent and the Christmas season is all about. The time that this Psalm gives us the words to proclaim is one that promises to form our identity. It is in the saving power of God that our worship finds its nurturing friend.

Reading from John 1:19-28, the deacon spoke to about this crucial form of identity formation using the spiritual clarity of John the Baptist. The famous biblical response reads:

So they [the priests] said to him,
“Who are you, so we can give an answer to those who sent us?
What do you have to say for yourself?”
He [John the Baptist] said:
“I am the voice of one crying out in the desert,
‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’

as Isaiah the prophet said.”

This sentiment is one of remembrance. A teaching on identity is crucial for the formation of meaning and theological continuity. John the Baptist knows who he is and exactly who he is not. He offers us a lesson in how to be Christians in a world where Christians must be prepared to answer the question, “What do you have to say for yourself.” It is in these moments that Christians need Tradition in their engagements with the Bible more than ever. In The Meaning of Tradition, Yves Congar, O.P. said that:

“Tradition is memory, and memory enriches experience. If we remembered nothing it would be impossible to advance…True tradition is not servility but fidelity.”[2]

There are a lot of misconceptions about the role of Tradition when it comes to Scriptural interpretation. Returning briefly to Francis, I find that his admonition offers a crucial directional proposition. He says that, “by constantly turning toward the Lord, we discover a sure path which liberates us from the dissolution imposed upon us by idols.”[3] In this case, one of the most dangerous idols that religious people can encounter in the spiritual journey is to turn only to themselves. Some seekers search for liberation from the threat of a life lived as a marionette, but when this move is unmediated, they will frequently discover that they have become a hand puppet.

Reflecting on St. Paul the Apostle, Francis remarks that, “Paul rejects the attitude of those who consider themselves justified before God on the basis of their own works. Such people, even when they obey the commandments and do good works, are centered on themselves; they fail to realize that goodness comes from God.”[4] If we go so far as to make the Christian tradition about us, it will simply make our teachings shallow husks of their former potentiality. On this basis, Francis adds a profound comment that he draws from St. Augustine of Hippo to concisely clarify his warning. The quote is as follows: Ab eo qui fecit te, noli deficere nec ad te (“Do not turn away from the one who made you, even to turn toward yourself”).[5] This phrase can evoke a number of responses, but I interpret it as a follow-up result of St. Augustine’s anthropological beliefs about humanity that he made in the Confessions.

Constructing a Theological Worldview

The human heart is restless when it does not have God. The Christian life is not a self-centered, individualistic way of living. Theologically, I believe the way that Francis does; that we can be assured that goodness comes from God. This issue itself would require a lot of background to fully explain, but think of goodness as flowing out of God as the Creator and sustainer of life. The good exists because God exists. Otherwise, morality would simply be democratic. St. Thomas Aquinas named a sentiment that helps point to a broader approach to this subject: Omne verum, a quocumque dicatur, a Spiritu Sancto est (“All truth, regardless who says it, comes from the Holy Spirit”). This is a vital pedagogical point for me, especially since sharing one’s theological convictions imply a vulnerability of values and meaning. Truth is something that is vital to the Christian life.

One of the things that Timothy McDermott has helped me realize about Aquinas is that there are multiple ways that he approached the significance of the crucifixion in Christian theology. In How to Read Aquinas, McDermott gives a summary of Christian thought that is worth sharing,

“God’s majesty is displayed in the New Testament not as surrounded by angels, but as a human being alone in agony in the Garden of Gethsemane the night before his crucifixion. God’s majesty is displayed in willingly being human, at the mercy of the world he had created…God’s majesty lies in his divine consent to become a creature, a consent which finds its needed room in the human consent to live and die the life and death dealt out to one. The two consents are wedded, and the human willingness becomes, as Aquinas says, a sort of ‘tongue’ for the divine willingness.”[6]

This is that very early Christian notion that Paul displayed in Philippians 2. Christian morality is ultimately founded upon the power of weakness. It is antithetical to the power dynamics that we encounter in day-to-day life, but the sensibilities that underly Western ethics have this as an unexamined presupposition. Indeed, it is something the Christian tradition drew from its context in Second Temple Judaism. God’s consent to enter into human weakness to confront the darkness we hold within our very being is a salvific concept. It is good news.

 

Footnotes:

[1] Pope Francis, The Light of Faith, Encyclical Letter (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2013), 10.

[2] Yves Congar, The Meaning of Tradition (trans. A.N. Woodrow; San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2004), 2-3.

[3] Francis, Light of Faith, 11.

[4] Ibid., 16.

[5] Ibid., 16.

[6] Timothy McDermott, How to Read Aquinas (London: Granta Books, 2007), 105.

 

Nicene Creed

I believe in one God,
the Father almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all things visible and invisible.

I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ,
the Only Begotten Son of God,
born of the Father before all ages.
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father;
through him all things were made.
For us men and for our salvation
he came down from heaven,
and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary,
and became man.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate,
he suffered death and was buried,
and rose again on the third day
in accordance with the Scriptures.
He ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory
to judge the living and the dead
and his kingdom will have no end.

I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father and the Son,
who with the Father and the Son is adored and glorified,
who has spoken through the prophets.

I believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.
I confess one Baptism for the forgiveness of sins
and I look forward to the resurrection of the dead
and the life of the world to come. Amen.