Fr Rodney Kissinger, S.J.
The lust for knowledge was the first temptation (Gen.3:5) and today it is still the most constant temptation of man. We want to know. And the one we want to know most about and to be most certain of is God. This can set us off on a mission impossible. I know. I was one of those zealous missionaries. Before Vatican II, I studied theology with relentless vigor and unbridled enthusiasm. I delighted in the battle with the Orthodox over the “filioque” and with the Dominicans over man’s free will and God’s knowledge of the future. Fortunately for me the mission aborted. I was taking a class in the new theology and was blind-sided by the professor’s opening remarks, “Theology is a tongue in cheek discipline. If you don’t have a sense of humor don’t go into theology.” I felt as Adam must have felt when he was banished from the Garden.
When I came to my senses I began to realize why a sense of humor is so necessary. Scripture tells us that God is inscrutable, beyond concepts, images or words. (Rom. 11:33-34) And theology is defined as faith seeking understanding. Theologians speak glibly and learnedly about God and then tell us that God is incomprehensible. We study the Trinity for a whole semester only to learn that if we understand it we don’t understand it.
Faith gives us mysteries that cannot be discovered by reason alone and once we know them by faith we still do not understand the mystery. What we understand is that what is proclaimed by faith is a mystery and why it is a mystery. If we understood the mystery it would no longer be a mystery. The problem is that we too reasonable. We have lost the sense and appreciation of mystery. There are many mysteries in life. The most real thing we encounter, the ultimate context of all reality, is mystery. Life itself is a mystery to be lived in faith, hope and love. Our response to God is awe, praise, gratitude and love not understanding.
This does not mean that Christianity is anti-intellectual. It is truly and authentically intellectual. It recognizes the necessity and the power but also the limits of the intellect. Faith is not against reason it is above reason. Faith is reasonable in the sense that we have to have reasons for what we believe; reasons why we believe in Jesus and not in Buddha or Mohammed or the gods of the Hindus. Without these signs of credibility our faith would be a purely subjective illusion or a delusion. But the sign is not the reality. Salvation does not consist in knowledge. Not all theologians are saints.
That is not to say that theology is not important. There is always an infinite distance between the human language and the immutable truth it is expressing. It is the duty of the theologians to express these truths in language that can be understood and appreciated by their contemporaries. Each generation faces new questions that the Church has never faced before. This ignites a theological disputation. In the course of time the truth is refined and crystallized.
There have always been theologians in the Church. Many of them have been great saints and doctors of the Church. In the past these theological disputation took place behind monastery walls and generally in the Latin language. Today these disputations take place in the vernacular in the news media, which are always looking for the new, the different and the revolutionary. So when a theologian gives an opinion the media pick it up and imply that this is the official teaching of the Church.
We do not get our faith from the theologians. We get our faith from the Magisterium. So do the theologians. In aerospace terminology, the Magisterium is the launching pad and mission control of theology. The theologians get the faith from the Magisterium, and then fly off into the outer space of theology. If they get off the radar screen the Magisterium calls them down. If we did get our faith from the theologians the question would be, “Which theologian?” Theologians fill the spectrum from the ultra conservatives to the ultra liberals and every degree in between. And who is to decide which theologian to follow?
Years ago, when the personally directed retreat was first introduced into this country from Canada, I was invited to Guelph with other Jesuits from all over the country, to personally experience this new phenomenon in a thirty day retreat. During the silence of the first week of the retreat there was perfect unity and peace. Then we were given a break day. Since it was right after Vatican II, we naturally began to speak of the new theology. The perfect unity and peace was shattered by some of the most violent arguments I have ever participated in. It imprinted on my mind a conviction, which has been confirmed by many theological arguments since then, that prayer unites and theology divides!
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