The Central Question for Theology

What is the foundational theological question? Some would say the question is “Who is God?” Others, “Who am I?” (Or, one could split the difference and say, “Who am I in relation to God?”

In Face of Mystery: Constructive Theology, Gordon D. Kaufman gives his view, writing:

The central question for theology is not merely, or even preeminently, who or what God is, or how God is to be distinguished from the idols; nor is it what humanity is, and what the central problems of human existence are. It is not primarily a speculative question, a problem of knowledge at all. Most fundamentally it is a practical question: How are we to live? To what should we devote ourselves? To what cause give ourselves? Put in religious terms: How can we truly serve God? What is proper worship?

I was reminded when I read this of some lines of Pedro Arrupe that I am fond of giving people to reflect on:

Nothing is more practical than finding God,
That is, than falling in a love in a quite absolute, final way.
What you are in love with, what seizes your imagination will affect everything.
It will decide what will get you out of bed in the mornings,
What you will do with your evenings,
How you spend your weekends,
What you read,
Who you know,
What breaks your heart,
And what amazes you with joy and gratitude.
Fall in love, stay in love, and it will decide everything.

How are we to live? Don’t spend your time thinking about God or studying about God or talking about God. Instead, fall in love with God. Fall in love with God and the question of how we are to live will answer itself.


Lack of Formal Theological Education

I just finished reading Karen Armstrong’s, The Spiral Staircase: My Climb out of Darkness.  I’ve been impressed at videos I’ve seen of Armstrong speaking and have a number of her other books on my bookshelves.  In the process of writing my own book about my conversion from Catholicism to Buddhism and back to Catholicism, I was particularly interested in this book, the story of her difficult adjustment to lay life after leaving a Catholic convent and what she learned about God and herself through her exploration of comparative theology. 

One of the things that caused me some hesitance when I started training as a spiritual director and began giving retreats was my lack of formal theological education.  I had read a lot on my own, but, apart from the basic theology courses I took as an undergraduate at Georgetown, I had not studied theology as an academic discipline.  Those who were mentoring me kept assuring me that I had much to offer and that what I was being called to offer people was not academic theology, but aiding them in deepening their relationship with God.

Thus, I was interested in what Armstrong had to say about her own lack of formal theological training, given the subject of her books.  She writes

I think I was lucky not to have studied theology or comparative religion at university, where I would have had to write clever papers and sit examinations, get high marks, and aim for a good degree. The rhythm of study would have been wrong – at least for me. In theology, I am entirely self-taught, and if that makes me an amateur, that need not necessarily be all bad. After all, an amateur is, literally, “one who loves,” and I was, day by solitary day, hour by silent hour, falling in love with my subject….Occasionally…I would experience miniseconds of transcendence, awe, and wonder that gave me some sense of what had been going on in the mind of the theologian or mystic I was studying. At such a time I would feel stirred deeply within, and taken beyond myself…

I was, moreover, discovering that many of the great theologians and mystics whose work I was studying would have found the idea of a purely academic degree in theology rather odd.

She goes on to explain that in both Islam and Judaism, study was inextricably linked with “a heightened awareness of the divine presence.

Her comments struck a chord with me.  Part of it is my conviction that “head” study divorced from affective experience is of limited value in terms of our spiritual growth.  Hence, the appeal to me of her description of Islamic and Judaic study.  But I also think there is something to the notion of “amateur” that appeals.  And it is not just the idea of the amateur as one who loves, but of a humility that comes from viewing oneself as an amateur.  I would doubtless bring different gifts to the table if I were formally schooled in theology, and it is good that there are people in the world who have such training.  But, like Armstrong, I have come to think that for me, it is not bad that I am self-taught.

Although this book sat in my shelf for a few weeks before I picked it up, once I did start it I couldn’t put it down.  One can learn much by reading of this woman’s spiritual journey.

Being with God and not just Talking about God

John Eudes Bamberger once said of Thomas Merton, “He was a theologian in the patristic manner, that is to say, one who could speak of God because he has experienced Him.  Evagrius had put it very succinctly: ‘A theologian is a person who truly prays; the one who truly prays is a theologian.’”

We talk about a lot of things.  One of the things we talk about is God.  Talking about God is not a bad thing.  But if we only talk about God, if we don’t the time to be with God, our talk is just dry words.  We need to experience God and we need to make sure all the words we so love to use don’t get in the way of that.

Equally, we need to be sure that the people whose words we are listening to are “theologians in the patristic manner.”  People who truly pray.  People who experience God and who speak out of that experience, and not merely out of their own heads.