Theology on your knees
Rebecca returned from the library yesterday with a book that captured my interest – The Collar, by Jonathan Englert. Englert is a Catholic journalist and his book follows a class of seminary students over the course of their first year of formal preparation for the priesthood. The book is interesting because Englert is unflinching in his telling of the events. The result is a book that gives a glimpse of how sausages are made, and there may well be some people whose enjoyment of them might be troubled by seeing their manufacture. For those of us who aspire to a mature and realistic faith, however, this book is a most interesting read.
I’ve only begun the book, but I want to share this bit from the class’ introduction to theology:
After apologizing for the cost of the theological dictionary that the new men had to buy for his Fundamental Theology course, Dr. Steven Shippee began his first class by addressing the heady question of what theology is. Many of them came to the seminary with an incomplete knowledge of the purpose and nature of theology. It was Dr. Shippee’s job to disabuse them of their misconceptions, which often were sentimental holdovers from childhood faith.
Theology at a Catholic seminary is not an exercise that can be practised by believer and nonbeliver alike, Dr. Shippee said. Theology is the province of the insider, someone with a living faith. If this were not the case, the exercise would be merely the study of religion.
“Theology,” Dr. Shippee pronounced, “should be done on your knees.”
Dr. Shippee’s delivery buzzed and zipped. The hand that held the chalk darted through the air like a hummingbird from flower to flower. He told the story of Reinhold Niebuhr, one of the most famous theologians of the twentieth century, once entered a lecture hall and said, “God,” then turned around and left. When Niebuhr returned five minutes later, he announced, “Whatever you thought of when I said ‘God’ was not God.”
The object that the seminarians sought to understand in theology was God, but God was by definition limitless and beyond complete understanding. The Church, Niebuhr would later say, did not possess a word about God, but instead possess God’s own self. A person is not saved by the formula of Jesus Christ, but by Jesus Christ. The words point to the reality of God but are not the reality themselves. I’m not saved, Niebuhr would say, by having a theological grasp of words. That would be idolatry.
“I can’t imagine a better job,” Dr. Shippee would regularly effuse about his chosen profession. He quoted Saint Bonaventure on his course outline: “Let no one think he will find sufficiency in a reading which lacks unction, an inquiry which lacks devotion, a search which arouses no wonder, a survey with no enthusiasm, industry without piety, knowledge without love, intelligence without humility, application without grace, contemplation without wisdom inspired by God.”