What is the longest dirty word in the English language? For many Catholics, it is theology. I am often left speechless when I am invited to speak and told that the talk needs to be “practical and not be filled with theology.” The last word is always said in a tone of disdain. I nod knowingly and then set out to prepare a talk that will be filled with theology. If I had the courage I would ask what exactly they are expecting when they invite someone trained in moral theology to speak. That would probably ensure that I would not be invited back, but the fact is that all Christians should study theology.
Augustine defined theology as “reasoning about God.” Based on this definition it becomes readily apparent that man is a theological animal. What I mean by this is that we are all theologians to one degree or another. The questions surrounding God are so linked to what it means to be human that one cannot help but to apply reasoning to God. Even atheists are theologians who operate under certain understandings of God. Therefore I am not saying that everyone should seek an advanced degree in theology, but certainly it is necessary for all of us to develop an adequate theological toolbox.
The Universal Doctor of the Church, St. Anselm’s motto was fides quaerens intellectum (“faith seeking understanding”). Contained within this short motto is the reason why theology is so important. Properly speaking the gift of faith is a share in God’s knowledge of Himself. On our part it is merely intellectual assent to the truth of what He has revealed. Faith may be a form of knowledge but it is an imperfect knowledge. Its goal is to develop certitude. That is why it will pass away when we see God face to face. Then we will have certain knowledge. As pilgrims our goal ought to be to grow in certitude. This only happens with an increased understanding. With greater understanding we grow in love because we have more reasons to love. This is why theology is so important—it enables us to grow in understanding. It gives us a science and a vocabulary in which to speak and deepen our understanding.
An example might help to see what I am driving at. Revelation tells us and we accept on faith that Christ is true God and true man. What we do with these facts can have a profound effect on our love for Christ. We will not love Him merely based on this fact. It is our understanding and the implications of this fact that changes us.
Let’s look at one of the places where we see the two natures of Christ most operative—in the Garden of Gethsemane. We know that Christ experienced fear in the face of sin and death to the point of sweating blood. Now everyone has their own interpretation of how this was possible (remember we are all theologians), but a solid understanding of theology allows us to penetrate it and understand its true meaning. Recall that Jesus was not fallen like the rest of humanity. What this meant is that His emotions were perfectly under the control of His human reason and will. Anything that He felt, He willed to feel. He could have remained absolutely a stoic and not willed to feel fear in the Garden. He could have greatly tempered it so that it was only a little. But instead He willed to feel fear beyond a level we can even conceive—to the point of shedding blood. No one would will to feel that horribly except for one He loved.
Our response? We ought to be more in awe of the depth of His love (He could have left this unpleasant experience out) and love Him in return ever more deeply. But without a cursory understanding of theology, in particular, what happened to man when he fell, this level of understanding and love is not possible. With a misguided understanding of theology we might even think that He could not help being practically crippled with fear and that He was a mere victim of circumstances or whim of a vindictive Father. And maybe He wasn’t yet God’s Son. Maybe that came after the Resurrection. Bad theology leads not just to heresy but away from the One Whom my heart desires. Good theology leads me more deeply into His grasp. Why would I ever avoid teaching theology? What could be more practical than chasing someone into the wounded hands of Jesus?
Trained theologians bear some of the responsibility for why theology is treated as a dirty word. According to Cardinal Ratzinger, the theologian’s “role is to pursue in a particular way an ever deeper understanding of the Word of God found in the inspired Scriptures and handed on by the living Tradition of the Church. He does this in communion with the Magisterium which has been charged with the responsibility of preserving the deposit of faith” (On the Ecclesial Role of Vocation of the Theologian, 6). What he means is that the task of the theologian is to explain what we already know to be true. That means theologians are not an authority unto themselves but merely teachers of Divine Revelation even if they have unique teaching styles. Their approach cannot be merely academic but should be the fruit of a prayerful understanding of their vocation in the Church. It should be preferred (for all of us) that we study theology on our knees rather than at a desk. Avoid reading known dissenters and pray for the Gifts of the Holy Spirit, particularly understanding. This gift allows us to develop a “Catholic nose” that sniffs out things that are wrong, even if you can’t fully explain why. So often I hear someone start a question with “so and so said this, but it just didn’t sound right.”
There are two other reasons why it is treated as a dirty word—one internal and one external. The internal is one of the seven deadly sins, sloth or acedia. St Thomas defines it as “sadness in the face of a spiritual good.” It is marked by a certain indifference towards what is truly important and is pervaded by a spirit of “whatever.” Dante describes the slothful as suffering from lento amore or “slow love.” It is hard work to understand revelation. If it were simple then it wouldn’t be God. A slothful generation is marked by a plethora of “seekers” who never really settle on anything. Finding often requires something of us and there is a certain comfort in merely seeking. We are OK with a fuzzy Jesus, but the true Jesus can often make us uncomfortable. Sharp theology brings Him (and His demands) into focus.
The external reason is a cultural obsession with practicality. We demand that all things have practical value. But nothing is practical without principles underneath it. The wheel may be the most practical thing man has ever made, but in order to be made, the first man had to understand many principles of mechanics, friction, etc. The practical follows from the theoretical and if we disdain the theoretical then we will lose the practical as well. This is hard for us to grasp when our society suffers under the “tyranny of the expert” (including the theologian). Experts can cripple us because they make us reduce our personal understanding because we just simply rely on their knowledge without developing our own understanding. Soon we just assume that they have that area covered and do not even attempt to learn the principles of reality under which the experts operate. The rest of us just operate as experts of practicality. But as Chesterton said, “[T]he man who is theoretically a practical man…will never believe in anything long enough to make it succeed.” What I do practically as a Christian depends upon my theological understanding of what it means to be a Christian.
The best argument for studying theology is found in Frank Sheed’s book, Theology and Sanity, “…a virtuous man may be ignorant, but ignorance is not a virtue. It would be a strange God who could be loved better by being known less. Love of God is not the same thing as knowledge of God; love of God is immeasurably more important than knowledge of God; but if a man loves God knowing a little about Him, he should love God more from knowing more about Him: for every new thing known about God is a new reason for loving Him.” Theology gives us more reasons to love God, what could be more practical than that?