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To a young aspiring theologian – don’t neglect Faith

Aquinas: Thomism is arguably the most significant Catholic theological tradition

Theology is a science ordered to the end of seeing God, not reinterpreting Him through changing human standards

The young aspiring theologian who embarks on the academic study of theology encounters today a bewildering field of study. They may set out to understand their faith better, and perhaps one day come to teach it. But soon they may discover that theology is also about things other than God. They may soon come to see that theological claims are not simply true or false, but must be constantly reassessed in the light of some new theory about human experience, such as sexuality, gender, race, class, politics, climate, or simply “the future.” At the professional conferences, the young theologian is bound to hear papers which awkwardly “problematize”’ theological topics according to whatever is culturally ascendent. This is usually not done in order to bring a ray of God’s brightness into the darkest places of our cultural minds, but quite the opposite. The aspiring young theologian may thus become habituated to a discipline that trains them to talk far more about ourselves than about God. Like Narcissus, such a person can pursue the discipline of theology only to discover that they have not found God, but an image of themselves reflected in a cultural mirror.

This may sound like a criticism a conservative might make of theology today. But in the nineteenth century, something very much like this concern was raised by Ludwig Feuerbach. Following the liberal theology of Friedrich Schleiermacher, Feuerbach concluded that religion was principally a matter of subjective and social feeling, and that God was just a projection of man’s inner nature infinitely expressed. Theology was, in the end, just anthropology writ large. Feuerbach concluded that this was the essence of Christianity, and so, understandably if wrongly, rejected the ancient faith as so many of his countrymen after him have done.

If the vicissitudes of human experience are taken to be the standard by which theology is ordered and judged, I am afraid that our aspiring theologian will not find the discipline leading to the wisdom of God. It will only and inevitably lead to the collapse of faith itself. And this is why we must think better about the role of faith in theology as a sacred science which we have not made up for ourselves. As Augustine taught, only divine revelation can crush our errors.

St Thomas Aquinas famously does this in the first question of his Summa Theologiae. He acknowledges that we can come to know the unchangeable God through the changeable things which have been made, and that philosophy is that love of that wisdom, built up by human reason, which aims at God as the highest good. But we cannot build a tower high enough to reach God by our own efforts. The truths we can know about God by human reason are very hard-won over a long period of time, often very obscure, “and with the admixture of many errors.” Our salvation does not depend on making sure theology is suited to our time, our salvation depends on “being taught by a divine revelation” in our time.

Far from being anthropology, theology must proceed from God and aim at God through divine faith assisting human reason. The gift of Faith “sets something up in the soul,” St. Thomas teaches. It is God moving in the soul, giving us a new power to see and understand, to know and love Him. God is the first mover of faith in us, and so it is really God who is the principle of our knowledge of His revelation of Himself.

Theology is thus not found in how well it “adapts” to every age. By definition, the unity of theology is God, and it is not God who must conform to the world, but the world which must be conformed to God. One of the greatest nineteenth century German theologians, Matthias Scheeben, said that from a single revealed principle, a theologian could, aided by the act of faith, conform his intellect to know all of the sacred mysteries connected to it. While unaided reason can limp towards God, the act of faith can help reason to see far beyond what it can see without faith.

Many modern theologians have tended to think of this as religious or “catechetical” piety rather than as something essential to the task of theology. Instead the theologian might develop a range of other ancillary skills, or may become a kind of analyst of “best practices,” or as one who arranges theology in such a way as to be “relevant.” But they will not be taught how to speak well of God. This isn’t new. There were ancients and medievals who thought theology was principally a practical science. And there is some truth in the claim that theology is a practical science. But the Feuerbachian danger is that such ‘practical’ theology will not proceed from God, nor end with Him. Socrates had insisted that while philosophy was a speculative science, ordered to seeing the Final End, our intellectual capacity to see the Good required the purification of our moral life, and so he united the speculative and the practical. Aquinas says something similar. Theology is a science ordered to the end of seeing God, and so even theological reflection on human activity must be ordered to this same speculative end — “more concerned with divine things than with human acts.” Understanding theology as a speculative science is thus an essential makeweight against the tendency to reduce theology to a reflection on ourselves.

The lesser human sciences are not worthless, but the aspiring theologian must be taught that constantly evolving accounts of human feeling and knowledge should not be what orders or judges theology. As St Thomas says, “from the divine knowledge…all our knowledge is set in order.” Theology thus requires wisdom on the part of the theologian. “It is the part of the wise man to arrange and to judge.” Yet according to what standard? Here the theologian needs to join his reason not to the authority of men, but to the authority of God, and this he does by the infused virtue of faith. Theology is ordered to wisdom in a much higher way than even philosophy because it is aided by divine precepts, revealed truth. But the theologian also must be ordered to wisdom in his very soul. Faith is that quality which enables the aspiring theologian to understand the intelligibility of all the revealed mysteries of Christianity. Without faith, theology does not become a way for us to know God, nor does it even become a way to know ourselves in the light of divine revelation. And we must be honest about this danger.

The theologian must not think their job is to be original, or creative, or assert their practical or personal interests as the end of the theological task. The theologian’s job is to “stand under,” and so conform their intellect and will to these revealed truths, with the assistance of the infused virtue of faith, that they come to be the kind of person who habitually talks about God. For the aspiring theologian who comes to understand faith as essential to the theological task is able to see revealed truths as the proper standard for theology. Then theology becomes a discipline which puts the theologian on the path of wisdom. Far from leaving reason behind, this gift of faith aids human reason to understand the unity of this faith in Jesus Christ, delivered once for all through His Body the Church. Faith helps the theologian to see how all the parts of theology relate to the whole, namely God, divine wisdom. The theologian who thinks with the faith of the Church is thus freed from the Feuerbachian dilemma — free to see the inter-connectedness and unity of all revealed truths, free to reason from revealed premises to certain conclusions, free to conform the mind to eternal truth instead of enslaved to the drudgery of constant updates. There is a humility in this. But the great reward is that the servant of divine revelation can be united to God Himself.

Remarks delivered on “The Role of Faith in Theological Education” for the 47th Annual Faculties’ Convocation of the Washington Theological Consortium on September 23, 2019 at the Pontifical Faculty of the Immaculate Conception at the Dominican House of Studies.