Theology: The Ways In and the Ways Along

Theology is a journey, in a number of senses. First, it takes time to speak of God. As we go on speaking of God through our lives, we learn how to do it better, more faithfully–in the best instances, being taught by God how best to speak of him. (This is unlike God’s own knowledge of himself, in which he knows himself and all things instantaneously–or to use the technical term, ‘non-discursively.’)

Second, theology treats a number of different realities. Most basically, these are (i) God and (ii) all things in relation to God; but more expansively, these include God’s attributes (power, wisdom, love), God’s activities (existing, creating, redeeming), and God’s creatures (the universe, humanity, time). As one moves from speaking of God in himself to God’s activities and creatures, one journeys across a whole expanse of topics: God’s life in three persons; the creation of a reality other than God; the relation of the human creature to his Creator; the downfall and restoration of these human creatures; and so on. Where does one begin this journey? To speak simply, for Aquinas, we begin with whether there is a knowledge of God to speak of in the first place, a theology separate from human knowledges; for Calvin, we begin with the paradox that the knowledge of God and the knowledge of ourselves is intertwined: it is not entirely clear which gives rise to the other.  Hans Urs von Balthasar, on the other hand, gives the remarkable suggestion that we ought to begin with beauty, and goes on to structure the first part of his theology around the glory of God. And yet, he writes, “God’s truth is, indeed, great enough to allow an infinity of approaches and entryways” (The Glory of the Lord, vol. 1, Seeing the Form, p.17). Where one begins is not as important, he would argue, as how one proceeds along the journey.

And this brings me to my third sense of theological journeying, the one I now consider the most important. It is the journey of the theologian him- or herself–taking “theologian” here in its broad, patristic and monastic sense as the one who knows God personally,  as in Evagrius of Pontus’ famous statement that the theologian is the one who truly prays, and the one who truly prays is a theologian. We journey as we come to know God more deeply; in this process, we begin in our child-like steps by seeing things from our perspective, focusing on what most directly pertains to us; as we progress, however, we begin to see things from the other side, from God’s perspective and his reality. We might begin to know God from learning how to pray, from a proof for his existence, or hearing of his deliverance of Israel through the exodus. As we mature, we begin to see God and all things in the broader, truer perspective: prayer is part of the whole life of the person saved by Christ; God’s existence is but one of his many entrancing perfections; Israel’s exodus has meaning in relation to all of God’s other activities, looking both backward and forward.

In both his Summa theologiae and his commentary on 1 Corinthians, Aquinas compares the theologian to the architect. The architect sees the art of building from its highest cause, as it envisions the completion of a building. As someone who sees the big picture, the whole purpose, he directs the workers to this end. The theologian is someone who sees not just the art of building, but all things from their highest cause, which is God. All creatures have their end and their purpose in God, and the theologian is the one who sees all things in this light. But of course, we do not usually have this perspective, for any number of reasons; it is a perspective that must be attained through paying attention well, consciously and intentionally and in that pattern of paying attention well that is called the Church.

And so finally, the kind of journeying that makes a theologian is a spiritual journeying. It is a journey of overcoming our natural understanding of God and arriving at a proper, spiritual understanding (1 Cor. 2:12-16). This demands not only the cognitive efforts ingredient to other disciplines as well–though it does require these; theology demands a spiritual effort, or better, a spiritual grace. We must be given to understand God as he is, as Spirit, and this grace works an inversion of our usual way of understanding reality. Augustine’s De trinitate is, among other things, just such a spiritual journey. Augustine is leading his reader away from understanding God the Trinity as a material, creaturely reality, to understanding God as he is, as Spirit. This journey begins in the images of the Trinity in Scripture, and, while not leaving these biblical pictures behind, progresses to increasingly spiritual (i.e., immaterial) images of God in himself, God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, God as he truly is. The person who is spiritually immature stumbles at this point; he or she, in Augustine’s words, “can only think of masses and spaces, little or great, with images of bodies flitting around in his mind like ghosts” (De trin. 7.11).

The journey that is theology, though it begins in many places, proceeds toward the same end: God himself. Coming to know God as God truly is is the most beautiful, the most arduous, the most rewarding adventure to be undertaken by us human creatures of this loving God. Its difficulties arise from many facts: our own entanglement in the realities we are studying; the limitation of our knowing by sin and by our creatureliness before the Uncreated; the infinity of God himself, and so the endlessness of our knowledge of him. But its reward is to gain nothing less than God himself, nothing less than what and who we are made for.

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