May 21, 2012

Theology: to Study God's Word with Understanding

Is there a right way to read the Holy Bible? Are there rules to be learned or do we simply rely on the Holy Spirit to guide us alone? In the prologue to his work De Doctrina Christiana, St. Augustine answers critics who think that proposing rules for the study of Sacred Doctrine is a waste of time.  He starts by observing some critics might not understand his rules or else they might not be able to apply his rules. There is a beautiful truth which presents itself when we consider what he proposes to these critics, and pointing to what he sees is itself foundational in the effort to fruitfully contemplate that to which the Holy Bible bears witness.

To deal both with those who do not understand his teaching as well as those who cannot apply what he proposes, he offers a fascinating metaphor: like an astronomer who points to the heavens, so to his effort to elucidate sacred doctrine. The inability to understand Augustine does not negate his effort to teach anymore than it negates an astronomer's effort to point to the wonders that fill skies. Similarly, the inability to make use St. Augustine's teaching to understand the words of Holy Writ no more invalidates what he teaches than one's own blindness to the stars and planets negates the value of astronomy.

The dynamism of this comparison lives in St. Augustine's certitude that his theological teaching is pointing to something far beyond his own cleverness and personal preferences, to an astonishing reality wholly objective and wonderful to behold. In other words, right off the bat, Augustine is making clear to his readers that theology is not mythology.  Theology is rooted in the way things really are, the way God truly is.  It raises human intelligence not by imposing cleverly contrived categories on what we would like the truth to be but rather by opening the capacity of the heart to be amazed by the Truth revealed by God.

Mythology, oftentimes mistakenly identified with Christian theology, is the study of myth. A myth is contrived to help us understand something about the way the world works. Like the conflicting narratives spewed by our competing news outlets and political forces, myth appeals to the imagination.  Mythology does not point to the stars even if it tries to explain their movements.  Those who live by such magical thinking never really enjoy what the heavens proclaim.

Theology is the study of God and all things in relation to God.   This sacred doctrine is received and passed on by the Church on the basis of what God has revealed to the world. It surpasses anything that can be imagined.  Unlike myths which are subject to all kinds of whims of the moment, theology studies the only narrative we can ever have any absolute certitude over: God's narrative, the story He is telling through space and time, people and events. Christian theology is not an exercise in religious fantasy to validate a prevailing ideology of this or that cultural force; but rather, this branch of science is the engagement of the intellect in the wonder of what God has accomplished to validate the hope that comes from Him.

Whether we understand good theology or we are able to use good theology in our own efforts to give an account for the hope we have inside does not make the theological enterprise superfluous, it only means we do not benefit from it.  It is possible to gaze upon the stars without the benefits of astronomy.  In this case, do we understand what we see and can we give an account of the wonder we behold?

Yet is is precisely to give an account for the hope we have that we search the Bible and our holy tradition with all the effort of our intelligence.  Only in this way are we able to pass on the priceless gift we have recieved.  Through his comparison, Augustine is chiding us to make a better effort to see the wonder to which he points.  The implicaton is striking: those who make this effort can discover not only a source of personal joy, but also a gift that enriches the lives of each of those God entrusts to them.