Meeting with representatives from the Gregorian University recently, Pope Francis spoke on the work of theology and the importance of doing theology “on your knees”. What does it mean to “do theology on your knees”? Fellow DPS blogger Rebecca Royse wrote beautifully on this last week. As students of philosophy and theology, we would do well to reflect on the Holy Father’s suggestion that we get on our knees.
“The theologian who is satisfied with his complete and conclusive thought is mediocre.”
This is not a kind of solipsism, as if all one can do is to question without end, never arriving anywhere. After all, Jesus assured us, “You will know the Truth and the Truth will make you free.” (John 8:32) But the seeker of wisdom can make the intellectually and spiritually fatal mistake of thinking oneself the bearer of wisdom, which is to say an elitist, a modern day sophist. The first point of theology is that it is not ours. The theologian can never make any claim to any aspect of his study as “his” for the simple reason that it is revealed to him—revealed freely, gratuitously, and superfluously. The theologian who is satisfied with his complete thought is mediocre because he has ceased to be a theologian qua theologian. He is a hack, a sophist who forgets what he is for and what project he has undertaken. “Mediocre” is being generous. If even the philosopher (in keeping with Socrates, the father of philosophy) must realize that he does not himself possess the wisdom he seeks, how much more the theologian who receives the Divine Wisdom?
This realization is precisely what moves the philosopher to fall to his knees and begin to do the real work of philosophy, which is theology. Only from his knees, is the philosopher prepared to know that the logos of the Platonists is the uncreated Word Who called creation into being; to know that the force that moves the heavens and the earth and all that fills them is Love; to see that the ultimate ground of all reality has a Face; and to fall to one’s knees and utter, “My Lord and my God.” (John 20:28)
Speaking to young people and seminarians in New York in 2008, then Pope Benedict XVI said, “[Seeking the truth] is a discovery of the One who never fails us; the One whom we can always trust. In seeking truth we come to live by belief because ultimately truth is a person: Jesus Christ.” Theology has a special character that no other human activity has—save perhaps marriage and friendship. It is a meeting of persons, an encounter of self-disclosure. It does not begin in wonder or in questions, nor does it even begin in the human intellect. It begins in resurrection, it brings us shocked and awed and to our knees. It is wholly other. And therefore:
“The theologian who does not pray and who does not worship God ends up sunk in the most disgusting narcissism.”
Unless one learns to look up, he will never see beyond what his own intellect is capable of. Without divine help, that intellect is marred by sin and an ignorance of the light of the resurrection. None of this is to disparage philosophy, but to observe that not only can the purpose of theology not be one’s own ideas and wisdom, but that it must not even pretend to begin with the theologian. Proper theology then is impossible for the unbeliever, since the question of God’s existence is a preamble to theology. (ST I.2.2) Shocking as it may be, Richard Dawkins’ actually makes sense then when he says that he doesn’t study theology because he doesn’t believe God exists. The historical reality of the resurrection could, in a sense, be called a preamble to Christian theology.
Faith and reason always go together, to be sure. But philosophy and theology have different starting points and methodologies. Philosophy begins in the human mind and at its best, it begins in wonder at the world or the self. But theology bursts into the human experience, it is not the result of reflection on it. It is true enough to say that theology should be done on one’s knees. But unless the theologian is on his knees, he’s doing it wrong.
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