As a follow up to my post on theology as architecture, I mentioned wanting to write a post on theology as a map. I’m still thinking through that post, to be honest, and one reason I’ve yet to really write is that I’ve been pondering a provocation from Lesslie Newbigin’s commentary on the book of John.
Reflecting on John 14 and Jesus’ dual declaration that he goes to prepare a place for us and that he is himself the Way, Newbigin says that though we do know the one who is himself the Way, “We do not know the destination. We have no map of what lies beyond the curtain, though theologians—and others—often use language which suggests that we have.” As a theologian I’ve been mulling over this statement and trying to generalize a bit about whether or not I am guilty of the kind of overreach Newbigin mentions. In the immediate context, Newbigin is talking about not knowing what lies on the other side of death, so his comments about not really having a map are truly about what lies on the otherwise of the veil, but I think it has a more general application. Asking what it is theology can and can’t actually do and what it can and can’t accomplish is one of the recurring themes of this blog, and it is certainly one of the recurring themes in my thesis advisor’s work. In fact that’s part of the title of her forthcoming collection of essays, God, Evil and the Limits of Theology.
I wonder if my eagerness to describe theology as a map stems from the same kind of over confidence that Newbigin gently chides in this comment. Until I have good answer for that question, I will hold off on writing that post, and in the meantime mediate on the theme of theology as way finding.
My friend Christopher Benson recently posted some thoughts about the nature of systems in theology (and philosophy) and the temptation to believe that a system can actually be comprehensive and truly account for everything. The problem lies less with systems themselves and more with systematizers who believe they have accounted for everything and then dismiss all evidence to the contrary.
As a student of systematic theology, I share these same concerns. In my own doctoral work, I have apprenticed myself to a theologian who was famously wary of systems in theology, Hans Urs von Balthasar. While insisting on wholeness and the integrity of form, Balthasar also insisted that no one theology is the theology. He often spoke of theology in symphonic terms where many voices/instruments sound together to suggest the whole. Any given theologian or theology, however helpful, however illuminating, is still only a part of the whole. The first violin is important, perhaps even crucial to the orchestra, but the first violin can never be the whole orchestra.
How then to avoid the temptation of totalizing systems? Benson says stories are one check against the hubris of the systematizer. Stories, he says, resist systems, or at least, systems that insist on being absolute. In that vein, I want to offer here two other possible checks on a system becoming absolute—thinking of theology in aesthetic terms, particularly architecture, and thinking of theology as a map.
But first a word in defense of systematic theology as a discipline. In The Architecture of Theology A.N. Williams argues that theology is inherently systematic. Why? Because theology describes revelation in terms of relationships and systems describe relationships through the right use of reason. By reason I mean in a holistic sense that is both ratio and intellectus, both discursive and intuitive. I mean it in the sense Josef Pieper describes in Leisure the Basis of Culture. I mean reason in the sense that thinkers like Irenaeus or Augustine would use the word, and not in the Enlightenment sense. In any case, Williams says that trying to say anything about the two subjects of theology, God and all things as they relate to God, must involve both reason and relationship and therefore are, in terms of Williams argument, inherently systematic.
To my own broader point about thinking of theology in aesthetic terms, Williams uses the metaphor of theology as architecture to make these points. A wonderful building requires the systematic construction of different materials that are rightly related to each other (read reasonably and pleasingly related to each other). Both Dante’s Divine Comedy and Thomas’s Summa Theologica are often described as the literary equivalents to the great gothic cathedrals because both are works in which every piece proportionally relates to every other piece, and taken together there is unity and radiance, in word they are beautiful.
Thinking of theology in architectural terms is not entirely dissimilar to the case Balthasar makes for beginning theology with beauty. By beginning with beauty, Balthasar makes a case for wholeness and integrity in theology on the basis that a work of art can be complete in and of itself and yet make no claim to totality. A work of art with clarity, integrity, and harmony, means and means deeply, but no one would therefore describe it as the only work of art. Theology likewise need not be comprehensive (and can never be given God as its subject) in order to be beautiful (that is have radiance and integrity) or meaningful.
The other image is that of theology as a map. And I want to take up that image in another post.
My friend Seth Wieck has recently started a newsletter, which he fills with his drawings, his writings, and his insights . It is lovely, and you should subscribe.
In his most recent newsletter, Seth links to an interview he did with the writer Nathan Poole. (Here is a link to the full interview.) The section of the interview that Seth highlighted in his newsletter is particularly striking for many reason, but especially around the theme of naming:
“There was a moment in my life, when I was out walking my dog, that I suddenly became aware of the fact that I was surrounded by trees, but that all I had to understand them was a singular category, “tree.” As in there’s a tree, and there’s another tree. It made me sad. And yet, in spite of the fact that these life forms were not only sustaining life on our planet, and the most ubiquitous form of life there is, I had no way of differentiating one from the next. It occurred to me that I would like to be able to call them by their names.
In many ways, this is the experience of Christians in the South, where the culture is saturated but not centered, in religion. They are offered one modality of faith, and it flattens the world. It propagates and prosecutes willful blindness, in the same way I once looked out onto a forest and just saw trees, trees, more trees. It’s not that I have a problem with the word “God” but that I wanted the experience of God to not be essentially gnostic, as in, God is in heaven and I need him in order to get there. I wanted to understand all the facets, the various ways God can be experienced, here and now.”
Poole’s remarks about knowing the names of things put me in mind of the beautiful children’s book The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane.
The book’s poems and illustrations seek to recover lost words, words for the natural world, especially certain words that had been removed from the Oxford Junior Dictionary. The book is a vivid reminder to children and to adults alike that to lose the name of a thing is to lose something of the thing itself. And such losses can be devastating indeed. The implication of Poole’s line of thought is that to know the true names of things might help us better know God.
And indeed the conviction of much of the Christian contemplative tradition is just that, namely that contemplative receptivity of the world as gift in all its particularity can be a means to receiving God himself, to learn the name of God. If this is even remotely true, then to lose our sense of the world is to lose God, a claim that Balthasar makes again and again throughout his work on theological aesthetics.
To move a step further, it should not be surprising that at the heart of much mystical theology centers on meditation on the divine names of God. Dionysius the Aeropagite’s endlessly frustrating yet beguiling book of mystical theology is called just that The Divine Names. Such seeking, seeking after the name of God, is not fanciful. It is dangerous business indeed. The revelation of God’s name to Moses shakes Sinai, and Moses’ face radiates the glory of even the merest glimpse of that unveiling.
Seeking the names of things can also be our own search for name, a quest to find a place within the world we are at pains to name. Adam’s loneliness is made more acute by his naming of the animals because he sees that there is not yet one for him, and his naming of Eve after the fall, is a kind of receiving of himself. Jacob wrestled with God, and in his travail he sought a blessing, but received a name instead. To be named by God is the blessing beyond all blessings.
“Theology is more than simply an effort of human reason to analyze and understand, along the lines of the experimental sciences. God cannot be reduced to an object. He is a subject who makes himself known and perceived in an interpersonal relationship. Right faith orients reason to open itself to the light which comes from God, so that reason, guided by love of the truth, can come to a deeper knowledge of God. The great medieval theologians and teachers rightly held that theology, as a science of faith, is a participation in God’s own knowledge of himself. It is not just our discourse about God, but first and foremost the acceptance and the pursuit of a deeper understanding of the word which God speaks to us, the word which God speaks about himself, for he is an eternal dialogue of communion, and he allows us to enter into this dialogue. Theology thus demands the humility to be “touched” by God, admitting its own limitations before the mystery, while striving to investigate, with the discipline proper to reason, the inexhaustible riches of this mystery.” Lumen Fidei par. 36
Many of the posts on this blog touch on the theme of mystery in theology. It is certainly a preoccupation of mine. As this quote highlights, mystery can be a short hand way of saying God is subject, personal, rather than object, and so God is not and can never be merely an intellectual pursuit.
One reason I think I return to this theme again and again is to remind myself to be careful. In the words of the quote, it is easy to slip into theology where reason orients faith, rather than theology where faith orients reason. Or to slip into a theology where God is object rather than subject.
What also struck me about this particular quote is the relationship between mystery and humility. Theology attuned to mystery will be humble, but such humility does not say there is nothing to say about God. Rather such humility revels in “the inexhaustible riches of this mystery.” Moreover, such humility does not diminish reason but rather properly orients it by seeking the “discipline proper to reason.”
In the classic Christian understanding, as the encyclical says, “faith orients reason”, that is faith seeks understanding, so mystery tells us something about the subject of Christian theology, namely the Triune God. But mystery isn’t a convenient way to sideline reason either. Rather it properly orients reason. Faith is trust in what God as person has said and done, and reason oriented by faith seeks to understand the meaning of these words, these actions. But mystery remembers that God is Triune, one in three persons, and so he is joyfully inexhaustible. The journey goes on and on, but it is not futile, rather it is joyful.
“God is love. This does not mean, of course, that his essence is substantial love, while his other infinite properties are dissolved into this love. There is an order here: love presupposes knowledge, while knowledge presupposes being. But the love that stands at the end of the sequence as the goal of its unfolding stands, in another perspective, at its beginning as the basic impulse underlying it. Eternity is a circulation in which beginning and end join in unity. By the same token, everything that has a ground, every truth claim that needs grounding, occurs within this order, but the order itself is sustained by the ultimate ground, which is love. To be sure, God is eternal truth and by this truth all other things are true and meaningful. But the very existence of truth, of eternal truth, is grounded in love. If the truth were ultimate in God, we could look into its abysses with open eyes. Our eyes might be blinded by so much light, but our yearning for truth would have free rein. But because love is ultimate, the seraphim cover their faces with their wings, for the mystery of eternal love is one whose superluminous night may be glorified only through adoration.”
Hans Urs von Balthasar, Theo-Logic: The Truth of the World. (272)
If Balthasar is right then a loveless truth is no truth at all, nor is a truthless love any love at all. Moreover, if he is right then he gives us an apt reminder of what Lent really is—a season of truth and a season of love. It is, to take a phrase from the Book Common Prayer’s liturgy for Ash Wednesday, an invitation, an invitation into self-knowledge, which is a truth without which we can never truly repent, and also an invitation into love, because it is an invitation to know ourselves in the light of God and to know him as the Lord of mercy.
Here is that invitation:
“I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word. And, to make a right beginning of repentance, and as a mark of our mortal nature, let us now kneel before the Lord, our maker and redeemer.” Book of Common Prayer, 1979
The invitation is in the name of the Church, yes, but the dear hope is that it is God inviting us through his church into this season. For if it is truly God who invites us into repentance, then it is an invitation grounded in love. And whatever truth emerges through “self-examination and repentance” is truth, however seemingly painful and insurmountable in the moment, grounded in love.
Without the grounding of love, such self knowledge might prove unbearable. To put it another way, Lent without love is a terror, just as life without love is a terror. The season changes, and the emphasis may now be on repentance, but God’s character does not change, so the invitation into a holy Lent is a loving invitation to come to see ourselves honestly, and as much as we can bear it, to come to see ourselves as God sees us.
Not that love does not have its own terrors. As Dovestoesky said, “Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams.” And Balthasar recognizes this too. The seraphim cover their faces in the presence of holy love. Though we, as Paul says, behold his glory with unveiled face, we are still gazing upon the unfathomable mystery of glory and love. Adoration then is its own holy terror that remakes into the image of the one whom we behold. And this after all is our greatest end.
“For Williams, therefore, the point of theology is not solve our puzzles or answer all our questions. Nor is it the hubristic enterprise of creating unassailable systems of thought. Theology rather is a spiritual discipline, a labour of intellectual asceticism. It is the cultivation of patient, attentive adoration of the mystery of God. Theology and spirituality meet in contemplation, where we are no longer describing God from a distance, but participating in a mystery that penetrates the whole world of human experience. We ‘are questioned, stripped naked and left speechless’ by a reality we cannot control.” Ben Myers, Christ the Stranger: The Theology of Rowan Williams, quoting from Rowan Willams, The Wound of Knowledge
These words from Ben Myers excellent treatment of Rowan Williams’s theology, Christ the Stranger, not only speak to a core theme in Williams’s thought and spiritual practice, but also to an idea that I have blogged about frequently, namely the interplay of theology and spirituality and the abiding and unfathomable reality of mystery.
If the sentence, “Theology rather is a spiritual discipline, a labour of intellectual asceticism”, were tattooed on the forehead of every would be theologian, (I include myself here), we might end up with less theology in the world, but the theology we did have would, I dare say, be the richer for it.
It must be said, that linking prayer with theology, or saying that theology begins in prayer is not uncontroversial, but again I would say as someone situated in the church, who has to stand up and speak about God, I have to hear these words. I have to be driven to my knees. If not, how else would I dare to ever say anything? Balthasar famously said that theology begins on its knees, and as a churchman this is intuitively the case, and to forget it is to risk more than I am willing to venture.
Beginning in wonder and nourished by contemplative receptivity, for Balthasar, there is no real theology that is not marked by both adoration and obedience. If this is true, how then does William’s own spiritual practice, his own asceticism shape his theology? Myers speaks convincingly of the austerity of Williams’ theology, an austerity that he says comes from Williams formation in Russian Orthodox theology and, more importantly, contemplative prayer.
Williams’ thought is not just rooted in ascetic practice, but also in an ascetic frame of mind, for Myers also describes Williams’s approach as a Lenten theology. He helpfully adds that though such theology might be a necessary corrective to overblown and overly optimistic accounts of the faith, “A theology of Lent is a great thing: but one cannot live by ash alone.” This is so nicely put and so apt, I had to quote it, but I also wanted to say that as we move into Lent in 2020, perhaps Williams might be an able guide, and perhaps he can lead us first into the silence of the wilderness, where we can wait, where we can prayer, and where we might hear anew.
I recently posted some epigraphs from the novel Absolute Truths by Susan Howatch. In that novel most of the epigraphs come from the Anglican theologian Austin Farrer whose theology provides a historical backdrop for the novel itself. Farrer’s words also serve as a foil and as a guide for the narrator in the novel. In this post, I wanted to look at a passage in the novel where the narrator, Charles Ashworth, picks up one of Farrer’s book of sermons. His reading of Farrer sets off a series of connections and insights for him, and Howatch masterfully shows us how reading itself can be a creative process.
In the scene Charles begins to ruminate on a profound encounter he had recently had with a sculpture. When he was looking at the sculpture, he and the artist began to discuss the intimacy of creating, the deep emotional investment the artist makes in order to create. Later, as he remembers the scene, his mind turns to a sermon he had recently read, so he picks up a copy of Austin Farrer’s sermons Said or Sung and turns to this passage on the divine creator:
“The skill of the divine potter is an infinite patience of improvisation. No sooner has one work gone awry than his fingers are pressing it into the form of another. There is never a moment for the clay, when the potter is not doing something with it. God is never standing back and watching us; his fingers are on us all the time.”
After reading the passage, he begins to think of his own life, the loss of his wife and the ensuing catastrophe, and he remembers the way in which the artist had caressed her own sculpture: “When I remembered how she had caressed her sculpture, I knew I was being called to believe in a creator who never gave up, a creator who suffered alongside his creation, a creator who was driven by “an indestructible sort of fidelity,” by an “insane sort of hope” and above all by the most powerful form of creative love to bring order out of chais and “make everything come right.”
I love this scene because beyond being a lovely meditation on the beauty of art and the redemptive love of God, it is striking representation of the process of reading itself, of thinking along with a book. Charles has a thought that leads him to pick up Farrer’s book. As he reads the sermon, he imagines himself as the ball of clay being sculpted and re-sculpted by God, which then turns his mind again to the artist and the sculpture he had recently seen. And then he ruminates more, reflects, and as he does more of Farrer’s words begin to interweave with his own thoughts. What he had seen in the studio, what he now reads on the page, all interweave to affect a profound thought which helps him see his own circumstances in a new light.
By showing us the connections in Charles’ own mind, Howatch invites us to reflect on the power of art and of reading itself. It’s a masterful scene in a profound novel.
I recently finished the sixth novel in the Starbridge series by Susan Howatch, Absolute Truths. I ‘ve very much enjoyed the entire series, and I commended the first novel, Glittering Images, as my favorite novel from last year. I was eager to read this closing volume because it is narrated by the same priest, now bishop, who narrated Glittering Images, and he was the character I personally most identified with in the whole series, both in terms of theology and temperament.
I’ll post some quotes from the novel in a different post, but here I wanted to point out Howatch’s masterful use of epigraphs. In each novel of the six novels, Howatch opens each chapter and section with a quote from a theologian or prominent figure from the Church of England. The figures she selects typically reflect the theology and spirituality of the narrator, but they also reflect the larger Church of England within the time frame of each of the novels. The epigraphs are interesting on their own, and they never distract from and often illuminate the scene that will follow in terms of character motivations. They also offer a broader sense of the Church of England at the time. I found her use of epigraphs to be masterful precisely because of this mutual informing quality, namely that I learned more about the characters through the epigraphs, but I also learned more about the Church of England through the thoughts and actions of the characters, especially the narrators.
I was especially delighted to find that Howatch selected Austin Farrer for her epigraphs in Absolute Truths. Farrer is someone I’ve blogged about here, and he is a figure I’m increasingly fascinated with. His lectures on scripture, metaphysics, and poetry collected in The Glass of Vision are extremely stimulating, and I hope to post some thoughts on his account of revelation in the future.
For now, here are a few epigraphic gems from Farrer:
“No doubt it would be more suitable for a theologian to be absolutely pickled in devout reflection and immune from all external influences; but wrap ourselves round as we may in the cocoon of ecclesiastical cobwebs, we cannot altogether seal ourselves off from the surrounding atmosphere.” Austin Farrer, Said or Sung
“The universal misuse of human power has the sad effect that power, however lovingly used, is hated.” Austin Farrer, Said or Sung
“Temptation is what distracts us, beguiles us or bullies us off the path. Temptation is what makes real life different from the world of our dreams is what makes real life different from the world of our dreams. We dream a world which is wax under the moulding of our ambitions or of our aspirations; we meet a world which faces us with trials we have not the character to surmount, and with seductions we have not the virtue to resist.” Austin Farrer, A Celebration of Faith
So says Tracey Rowland in her book Catholic Theology, and she calls this the first principle of Catholic Theology. I would be so bold as to say that this impulse lies at the heart of catholicity itself, Roman, Reformed, or otherwise, because it acknowledges a wholeness while admitting that we cannot capture it on our own. No one theology is the theology. No one witness is the witness. No one system can ever be the system.
The New Testament, after all, is a collection of apostolic witnesses, all attesting in different ways to the same revelation, the same mystery of the Word made flesh, the same mystery of the crucifixion and resurrection of the Son of God, the same revelation of God as one in three persons. The depth of these mysteries demands that we need all the apostolic voices, as well as an ever-expanding troop of expositors, faithful to the task of bearing witness to their witness. Theology, at least theology for the Church, exists to bear witness to the apostolic witness, to faithfully steward the treasures they have bequeathed us.
To extend the metaphor, though there are many apostolic voices, there is one apostolic faith, and so the sound they make together is not a cacophony. Their voices are able to speak with one voice, as a choir can sing with one voice by harmonically collecting many voices into one. However, there is no one set of harmonic relationships, no one way of making many voices sing together, and so by extension there can be no one system.
If there cannot be a comprehensive system, then what becomes of Systematic Theology itself, the very discipline I am studying right now? Rowland’s point seems to be that while mystery > system, there is still value in speaking of theology in systematic terms. From my perspective, the value of a system is not in its supposed comprehensiveness, but in its ability to speak in terms of interlocking relationships. As one of a thousand possible examples, some of my favorite work in systematic theology is around the question of the relationship between our understanding of creation as it relates to the Incarnation. By putting just these two doctrines together, a whole set of questions emerge that might not have occurred otherwise. What does it say about the world if the one who made it can put on flesh and enter it? What does it say about the one who made the world that he would take on flesh and enter it? Or to take some other examples of relating doctrines to each other, how does creation relate to redemption, nature to grace, the church to the kingdom, the old covenant to the new covenant?
Thinking of a system as a set of interlocking relationships means that a system need not be comprehensive in order to be insightful or illuminating. Also, when you think of a system as a set of interlocking relationships, you can begin to ask a whole different set of questions of a system. When I speak of these doctrines as relating in these ways, what is illuminated? What is distorted? What comes to the foreground? What fades to the background?
To put it in slightly different terms, there is difference between an actual ecosystem and our ability at any one time to explain that ecosystem. But the better we understand the underlying set of relationships within that system, the better chance we have of saying true things about it, even if those true things to add up to saying everything that could possibly be said.
Our real position as creatures within a creation is that we can never get outside of our own ecosystem. We speak from within it. We speak as those on whom the light has shone, not as the light ourselves. This is exactly as it should be. As Trevor Hart wrote, speaking of the place of revelation in Karl Barth’s theology, “the mystery is never fathomed but rather indwelt.” Systematic theology is at its best when it is a means of indwelling rather than a futile attempt to swim to the surface of the mystery in the delusional belief that we can see it from the outside.
Some questions to take up in other posts: What happens when a system sings in a different key or from a different score than the apostolic voices? How can a systematic theology be evaluated? How can we say that one system more faithfully indwells the mystery than another?
What does Jerusalem have to do with Athens? Since Tertullian posed this question, it has become a short hand way to frame the relationship between philosophy and theology. But as this extended quote from the novel Mystical Paths illustrates, the better question for our age might be, what does Jerusalem have to do with Vienna? In other words, what is the relationship between theology and psychology?
“My father had long ago since grasped that the language of Christianity and psychology could form two ways of expressing one truth, but I longed for a detailed synthesis which would make Christianity blaze across the minds of unchurched mid-twentieth century masses and render its message meaningful. It’s no good performing the classic academic exercise of expressing Christianity in term of the latest fashionable philosophy. That appeals to no one outside the universities. For the mid-twentieth century you’ve got to express Christianity psychologically because even the average moron at a cocktail party has heard of the Oedipus complex. Or in other words, psychology’s the grass-roots intellectual language of our time, and if you can translate Christianity into that, everyone will finally understand what the preachers are whittering on about in the pulpit—and then with understanding will come spiritual enlightenment…”
Though the novel is set in the mid-1960’s, Nick’s insistence that “psychology’s the grass-roots intellectual language of our time” could be said for our day as well. In the context of pastoral ministry, I have seen that people have not only absorbed a lot of pop psychology and readily speak its language. They are also hungry to understand things in psychology terms. As an example, the explosion of interest in the Enneagram within Christian circles shows the deep hunger for both self-understanding and the ease with which people begin to speak a new language.
So on one level, I resonate with the quote and see the value in learning to speak in these terms and to look to psychology for resources in translating the faith within given context. I see this as related to the question of mission and contextualize, a topic I hope to pick up in earnest in the new year as I continue to work through David Kettle’s Western Culture in Gospel Context.
However, just as expressing Christianity in terms of a fashionable philosophy can have have a distorting effect, so that the theology comes to serve the philosophy rather than the other way around, so too can expressing Christianity in terms of psychology go awry. On the most basic level, psychological models change and certain models are uneasy bed fellows with classically Christian understandings of the human person. More fundamentally though, the great temptation in translating the faith into the language of psychology is that such translation becomes a reduction, so that the faith is reduced to nothing more than a kind of therapy. If faith is therapeutic then the driving question becomes how does this make me feel rather than is this true. If faith is merely therapeutic it is all the more easily abandoned for something else that “just works better.”
The deep irony, as Darrow himself comes to learn in the novel, is that the Christian tradition itself has deep reservoirs for psychological self-understanding. Augustine and The Confessions famously comes to mind, and one only needs to spend time reading John Cassian or almost any passage chosen at random from the Philokalia to see that Christianity has long had an interest in plumbing the depths of human motivation.