September 16, 2019
Delight in Doing Theology
Liam G. Walsh, O.P.
Before telling of my own delight in doing theology I have to say a word about the delight I take in seeing others doing it. I am remembering the students I have been teaching for 50 years and more. Most, even if not all, relished what I was inviting them to do. One Dominican student typified the things about them that delighted me. Having finished his last course of the theology programme, he came to thank me for teaching him. What he said that cheered me was, and he said it rubbing his hands in delighted anticipation and with a glint in his eye – ‘You know, Liam, now I think I am ready to start studying theology!’ He had realized that theology is not something ready-made that you learn out of a book but something you learn to do, and that you want to go on doing for the rest of your life.
Among my students I have taken special pleasure in watching those students we teach theology to in our Dominican Priory Institute, mostly by distance learning. These are men and women, lay for the most part, who do theology just because they want to and who, though sometimes struggling through the labour it gives them, let it be seen that they delight in doing it.
Doing theology is one of the great delights of my life. I realized now I have been doing it probably since my mother and father first taught me to pray. It comes with asking questions. No, I was never as precocious as Thomas Aquinas, who as soon as he learned to pray was asking his mother ‘who, what is God?’ But I am told I was asking questions about things (and what child isn’t) and some of them must have been about the holy things and practices that had a place in my home.
Doing catechism at school put me in the way of thinking about what I was being taught to believe – although I might have suffered from those ways of doing catechism that can stifle the questioning faculty by giving the impression that the only questions that need to be asked are the ones the catechism book itself sets down.
Teen-age religious instruction in my day set great store by apologetics. That also helped the questioning, although it too might have encouraged answers more than questions: the Catholic Church had all the answers and thinking was a matter of showing they were the right answers!
It was as a fledgling Dominican that I began to flex my theological muscles. I was quickly made aware that I was being called to dedicate myself to a life of preaching, more precisely to what was then called doctrinal preaching. I understood that to mean doing a preaching that made people think.
And to do that I had to be able to think for myself. Study, presented to me as an essential element of my Dominican life, was the way I would learn to think for myself. And because the preaching had to be about God and God’s ways the study had to be the study of God, which is what theology is. From the start I wanted to be a good theologian. I have been working at it for over 60 years now and cannot yet dare to call myself the good theologian I have wanted to be. I am, however, at this stage of my life probably as close to being it as I ever will get. And that is my delight, even if tinged with regrets that I should have done better.
Becoming a Theologian
What is it to become a theologian? Putting it simply – so simply that it is mind-blowing – it is to begin to be able to think with God the things that God thinks about God’s own self! Nothing less. That is what Thomas Aquinas told me when I got to reading the first question of his Summa Theologiae. He has a phrase there that fixed forever for me an understanding of what I was doing in theology. He writes: ‘theology essentially treats of God … as far as he is known to himself alone (in quantum notum est sibi soli de seipso) and as this self-know-ledge of God is communicated to others by revelation (et aliis per revelationem communicatum)’.
The Latin phrase in this quotation, sibi soli de seipso, has a lovely bit of alliteration, which made it attractive to me and easy to remember. Thomas was telling me that theology is not just coming to know God, but is a coming to share in the very knowing that God, and God alone, enjoys about Godself. Theology brings one to be able to see God, not just as we can discover God for ourselves, but as known in God’s own mysterious self-hood that God chooses to share with us. It must be something like this that was intended when theology came to be called ‘divinity’.
Of course, when one begins to be brought into these intimate, personal mysteries of God’s very being one does not expect to see them in the way God sees them. God sees the divine divinely, we see it humanly. Our way is infinitely poorer than God’s way. But it is a great way and it is our own way. We come to seeing things humanly by thinking. For all its limits, this thinking is for us a delight. Indeed, to be able to reason, to use one’s intelligence, must surely be what brings us to the summit of human delights.
And this is not only for intellectuals. Thinking and its delights are for everybody, surely for some more than others but in some way for everyone. The delight of thinking can be found in something as simple as doing a crossword; it can be experienced in solving the practical problems of making things work; those who cook well can know it, as can those who learn to play games well; and it can be a particularly satisfying delight for those who think out in their consciences how to do good and how to love well.
Thinking will not by itself give us access to the inner life of God. But we cannot have that access without thinking. The thinking will give way to the blessedness of vision in heaven, but to be able to have a foretaste of that in our thinking on earth is no small delight.
Thinking and Listening: The Scriptures
I learned early in life that the most promising door into thinking is listening. One must open one’s mind to let reality in. One does that by all the channels of experience – by hearing and seeing, by listening and learning, by consciously doing … Listening is crucial for receiving the reality that is experienced in the form of ideas and information. What this says about theology is that before thinking about God in God’s way one listens to God, listens to God’s telling about God-self. And this listening to God is the beginning of delight in doing theology.
The primary listening that I was doing in becoming a theologian was in reading the Scriptures, hearing them read in the Liturgy and reading them for myself. This listening to God in the Scriptures is already at the heart of Christian spirituality. In one way or another it becomes lectio divina. Keeping that in mind tells us something wonderful about doing theology. It is that spirituality is at the heart of theology, and it turns the doing of theology itself into a practice of spirituality. Reading the Scriptures doesn’t stop being lectio divina when it begins to be done in theology. It is the same self-revealing God that is being encountered. The self-giving entailed in thinking out and recognizing the truth in theology is a surrender of self, of one’s understanding, to God such as spirituality always asks for.
For me, to be able to see the reading of Scripture as a way of entering into the personal mystery of God made it contemplative and made me do theology as the thoughtful contemplation I was expected to practise in my vocation to preach to others the truth of the God being contemplated.
Theology has a variety of ways of reading the Scriptures. It can do it as an exercise in finding in them confirmation of its own thinking, or indeed of the thinking of the Church. This can well serve the interests of Apologetics, or even Catechetics. I knew that as a preacher I would have to do that kind of reading. But I learned that I would have to incorporate it in the deeper reading the Scriptures that belongs properly to Theology.
That is something I have tried to experience by reading texts as if I were seeing them for the very first time. Doing that gives one an open-minded listening to the Word of God that keeps the mind open to the possibility that one has not yet heard everything that a text of Scripture has to say. It is asking if God might be wanting to say something further to his people in this Word of his. One is being invited to the delight of discovery. One is being given something new in God to think about.
Listening within Tradition
If the ambition to find something new in doing theology seemed arrogant and risky, I found there was a good reason for not losing one’s nerve about doing it. In theology one can never be alone in listening to the Scriptures. They are God’s public revelation of God’s personal intimacy; there is nothing private about them; they are meant for everyone. They belong in a particular way to those who believe them to be the Word of God, and who in their shared belief form the Church. They have been listened to in faith and had what was heard in them reported since they were first written. The centuries of faith have given us a whole panoply of believers into which we knit our own listening.
We call this the Tradition. It is within it that theology does its listening to the Word of God. In this Tradition there are men and women whose listening carries special weight because God has gifted them to care for the common listening; they ensure that it will bring people together in faith, rather than have them be divided by contrary listening. Among these, bishops have a distinctive role: they have been authorized by those who gave us the Scriptures in the first place to oversee the listening and to ensure that it is faithful. They exercise what is called a magisterium among believers. So, the theologian does his/her listening to God’s self-revelation in that wonderful interplay of Scripture, Tradition and Magisterium, which has been so enlighteningly explained by Vatican II in its Constitution on Divine Revelation. There is a discipline inherent in the interplay, but for those who in doing theology want to think about what God has revealed the discipline is not a constraint but a liberating delight.
Thinking about Christ
Over the years of doing theology, especially when I began to teach it, I have found this delight expanded by the assurance we have, so well put in Vatican II, that the sum of all the revelation that theology is given to think about, is to be found in the person of Jesus Christ. All that the Scriptures have to say to the theologian, all that the Tradition has handed on, all the thinking that the Magisterium has cared for is ultimately about Jesus. Vatican II, following the Tradition, is telling theologians that all their listening has to be tuned to the Christ channel. All that they hear, and all the questions the hearing gives rise to have to be for telling about Christ. And here again I have found the interpenetration of theology and spirituality: they are interactive ways of being ‘in Christ Jesus’.
Finding Christ in the Scriptures can be done in different ways. Theology wants to do it in the way that best measures up to the requirements of good human thinking. The mind that wants to think about Christ has to let itself be regulated by the primary Christian belief that he is God-made-man. If you want to ask questions about someone you believe to be God you are well advised to have some idea of what you mean by divinity and have some assurance that there is any such thing in existence. And then you must figure out what you mean by saying that someone is human.
I learned a way to face this faith challenge to theology when the Dominicans put me into their programme of theological study that then consisted of a continuous reading, from beginning to end, of the Summa theologiae of St Thomas Aquinas. I never had any doubt that the theology I was being taught to do was from the start about the Christ on whom my life of faith and spiritual striving was centred.
I had to learn, though, why the whole First Part of the Summa almost never speaks about Christ by that name. A teacher, who prized the Dogmatics of Karl Barth almost as much as he prized the Summa, brought home to us that the God Christian theology speaks about is none other than the God revealed in Christ; and likewise, as would be highlighted for me in later years by Vatican II’s Gaudium et Spes, the ‘man’ it speaks about is the human revealed in Christ. But the fact that they are about Christ does not stop theology from thinking abstractly and rationally about the God and ‘man’ so revealed in order to come to a clearer understanding of what is being revealed in Christ.
Thomas had put it to us in the first question of the Summa that Christian revelation includes rational truths that, because we are reasoning beings, we could theoretically arrive at by ourselves, but that God thought too important for our knowing to take the risk of our not working them out for ourselves. Believing these rational truths about God and ‘man’ given in Christian revelation, theology goes on to establish the rational truth of them and see how they can be used to help one think credibly and wisely about the historical events and persons in which they appear in the Scriptures.
So much the better that in the process they address questions that are being asked by people of every religion and people of no belief who do philosophy. I found it delightful to be able to share my theological questions with such a wide range of people, and even to have my thinking be in some ways schooled by them. It made people who, in terms of religion, might be considered strangers or even enemies into potential friends with whom one could discuss one’s beliefs and even find some levels of agreement. It let me see that doing theology could give me the joy of being an ecumenical and a peace-making participant in some of the great debates of humanity.
God Made Man in Christ
For all their value in putting me into an open-minded relationship with people of all faiths and philosophies, I was learning that the principal value of these more universal truth about God and ‘man’ for theology lay in the way they could be used, as Thomas uses them in the Third Part of the Summa, to think about the person of the Son of God in the human, historical concreteness the Word took in Jesus of Nazareth. As I got into teaching and research I came to see more and more how these truths gave credibility and depth of meaning to what the Scriptures were telling me about the story of salvation and its culmination in the historical Christ, true God who became truly human like us. They allowed me to make sense of the developments concerning the divinity and humanity of Jesus that occurred in the Tradition, and to confirm the truth of the dogmas that the Magisterium proclaimed about him.
When I came to read what Thomas has to say explicitly about Christ in the Third Part of the Summa I found theology was giving me a way of thinking and speaking about belief in Christ the Son of God that was lucid and credible because coherent with what I had learned about God in the previous Parts of the work. And it was giving me ground on which I could stand and be persuasive about my faith not only in preaching to Christian believers but in relations with thinking people of all faiths and no faith.
In his exploration of the great universal truths about humanity that Thomas does in the second half of the First Part of the Summa, and then throughout the Second Part, he taught me the value of the human sciences. He continues to use philosophy there. And he brings into play the anthropological sciences, notably psychology. He is inviting his readers to do their theological thinking in symphony with those who, whatever their stand on religious faith, think about humanity in rational scientific terms.
Again, it is an invitation to plunge one’s belief and one’s theological thinking into the universal human debate, to listen respectfully to all comers and to hold one’s own among them. In my classes in Tallaght we were still attentive to pagan Aristotle, Thomas’s preferred psychologist, but we were also discovering Jung and reading Victor White’s God and the Unconscious; and there were others to study as the years went by.
In reading those parts of the Summa that examine the human I was learning to think about how wonderful it is to be human. It was good news from the beginning, because it was all about being made for happiness and having the ability to reach it in God. You reach happiness by the virtues and gifts that make human activity be good and fulfilling.
This part of Theology was designated in the curriculum as Moral Theology. It was a delight to be learning that, for Theology, morality was not all about commandment, about keeping them and breaking them, about sinning and its consequences. It was primarily about a way of being human that came from God, was providently cared for by God and that in a way that made it be free and self-directing in its journey towards God. It was a humanity that was ready for, and for historical reasons needful of, what it would become when history reached it climax in the coming of the Son of God made man.
Story and System
If Thomas made me comfortable with employing the human sciences such as Philosophy and Psychology in my theological thinking and teaching, the place of History puzzled me for a while. The Bible we were reading was a story, the history of God’s People that became the history of all peoples. The plan of the Summa, or of any manual of Theology that I could look at, seemed a long way from story-telling. But little by little I came to see how the stories and the structured systematics fitted together.
I noticed that Thomas would rarely complete his systematic explanations of an aspect of the mystery of God or of human existence without introducing a biblical event in which the truth he had been expounding became historical truth. He set a precedent for this from the start. As he completed the questions about God and the Trinity of Persons in God he puts in a question about the missions of the Son and the Spirit. This is the way the Trinity enters human history. It is the key to understanding theologically everything that happened in the biblical story, because everything detailed there is a working out of the Father’s sending of his Son and their Spirit into the human story.
Thomas follows up his question about the missions with questions about God the Creator. Once the systematic truths about this have been worked out he turns to the biblical stories of Creation. His method is to let the theoretical principles come into play in a reading of the biblical texts about Creation, in a way that lets the theologian reach a reasoned understanding of what they are revealing about God and the Universe that God brought into being.
What he is doing would become somewhat clearer to me when I would learn later in life about something called hermeneutical theory. This would be saying that when you read a text you bring your own set of presuppositions to bear on it and understand what is being said in the light of them. It seemed to me that Thomas was doing something like this as he built up his theological vision of what has been revealed in the Scriptures. He spells out step by step his presuppositions about the divine and the human and then puts them to work in giving a theological exposition of what the biblical stories are describing.
I found that one could even respect the sequence of the biblical narrative in doing theology this way. Having started with the story of creation, Thomas waits until he has worked out some basic truths about the human couple and about how humans seek God by their moral activity, the good and the bad of it, before taking up the Genesis story again and dealing with the biblical telling of the sin of Adam and Eve. Then, having made an analysis of how God is present in the search of historical humanity for salvation through Law and by Grace, he completes the theological teaching by looking at how it actually happened in the Old and New Testaments. He examines in detail the Law of Nature, which was all people had to guide them before Abraham; then, the Law of Moses by which the Jewish people lived over the centuries; and from there he goes on to consider the fulfilment of the Old Law by the grace of the Holy Spirit that is given in the New Testament with the proclamation of the New Law of the Gospel. It was delightful to have such a rationale available for the whole structure of the Bible.
And I learned from Thomas how the interpenetration of theology and salvation history can be seen in the on-going life of the Church. Having examined the mystery of grace at the end of the first half of the Second Part of the Summa, he comes back again in the second half to the virtues and gifts and ways of life by which humans seek their salvation and happiness in God, but now to see how these work out historically in the community of God’s people.
This is an invitation to do ecclesiological thinking, thinking about humanity as it is believed to reach its fullness in the Church. Thomas works out principles there that cover all the phases of that community of the saved, from its beginning, which the Fathers of the Church saw in Abel the Just One, through the Old Testament, into the forms it has today in the Church.
The Summit in Christ
The highlight of my theological journey was being able to teach the material dealt with in the Third Part of the Summa. All the systematic analysis of the mystery of God and of grace-filled historical humanity finally prepared me for this summit, which is reached in considering the climactic event of the biblical story, the Coming of Christ, divine Saviour of humanity. I was finally doing explicit Christology.
True to form, it began by thinking out the Coming in an abstract, theoretical way that showed how the great truths already examined about the divine and the human and their relationship are realized together in the Incarnate Word. But once that had been teased out in all its depths the thinking moved on to a detailed examination of the actual historical life of Christ as it is told in the New Testament. It was in this interpretation of the Bible story that it became full Christology and summit Theology.
The summit was held and became even more delightful when it led me to something that I had always loved – the study of the Liturgy as it is practised in the Sacraments celebrated in the Church, and centrally in the Eucharist. I was able to see the Sacraments, in this way of doing Theology, as prolonging in time, in the Christian Church phase of human history, the saving presence of Christ ‘until he comes again’.
And this is what brings Theology to its end. Thomas had indicated in his prologue to the Third Part of the Summa that it would end with a study of the General Resurrection. It is the study of the Second Coming of Christ, and all that it entails for humanity, that will gives Theology its last prophetic word. Thomas never got around to writing it himself in the Summa. He left theologians with the joy of speculating about it, knowing it will surely happen but having to match their speculation about how against the truth revealed in the sublime imagery of the final book of the Bible, the Apocalypse.
Where It Will End
The ultimate looking forward to the Apocalypse leaves the doing of Theology with what the scholars might call an eschatological flavour. When Thomas talked in the first question of the Summa about Theology being an entry into God’s knowledge of God-self he said this knowledge belonged to God ‘and the blessed’. He was recognizing that this knowledge that is God’s very own, is also what the blessed are given to enjoy in heaven. Because the blessed in heaven ‘see him as he is’ they have come to share, in content if not in mode, the self-knowing of God. What they see in the beatific vision is what God reveals of God-self to those still on earth. As revealed, it is seen on earth in the obscurity of faith, and becomes what Theology sets itself to think about in time.
This has told me, and my experience over the years has confirmed it, that the doing of Theology can only end in heaven. Here below there is always something else to discover in the data of revelation; one can never be saying the last word; one is always reaching towards what is to come.
Knowing that one is engaged in an ‘unfinished business’ is sobering but also inspiring. Because there is always something more to do, and because one will never do it all oneself, the right doing of Theology always makes one want to become a teacher, to hand on the doing to a new generation. It makes one a player in that ‘communicating to others by revelation’ in which Thomas saw God opening up God’s inner life to others.
Being a teacher has been for me the ultimate delight of doing Theology. It has saved me from being sad about the things I had left undone because it lets me know that there are others who will carry on the work. It helped me to live through those days when doing Theology seems more drudgery than delight. It told me that Theology will end where it began: that the company of thinkers and scholars and students among whom I have learned through the years to hear the Word of God and think about it will eventually become the blessed company of those who no longer just hear but now see God.
Liam G. Walsh, OP, has taught theology all his life – in Ireland, Rome, and Fribourg (Switzerland). He has served as a consultor to the Vatican, and as a member of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC). His most recent book is The Mass: Yesterday, Today … and Forever.
This article appeared in Doctrine & Life, May-June 2019. For information about Doctrine & Life, click here.
For information about The Mass, Yesterday, and Forever, click here.
April 20, 2021
Thank you Liam for this refresher in theology and the amazing life journey you share in living it.
The Christ centred focus that was given to us for orientation by Vatican 2 and your opening up the great work of Aquinas as it unfolded for you in its own terms as well as through the lens of Revelation with all the riches of recent learning was all very stimulating and affirming for me to read.
I once was a student of yours and benefited greatly from that experience later in life taking my Masters in and then tutoring students in Theology as a core unit of study at the University where I worked.
Once, I prepared a large group of students for an exam on the Gospel of Mark and in one 50 minute session compressed all the key points that I knew would come up for them.
In conclusion I said “now that is the Gospel of St Mark, in a nutshell- are there any questions?” And an Afghani student put up his hand and asked “Please, what is nutshell?”
So you can see your old student continues to learn so much about humanity and Divinity and humility thanks to those wonderful foundational years, long ago.
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