“Faith Orients Reason”: Thoughts from Lumen Fidei

“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.

Truth and Love, Love and Truth in Lent

Photo by Mak on Unsplash

“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.

Theology as Ascetic Practice: Rowan Williams as Lenten Theologian

“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.

Reading as a Creative Act

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.

More Austin Farrer or Nice Epigraphs

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

Indwelling the Mystery: Why in Theology Mystery > System

Paweł Czerwiński

“The mystery exceeds any system.”

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 Vienna?

Paweł Czerwiński

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.

Vanity and Humility in Theology: Some Thoughts from Austin Farrer and Balthasar

“If we are never to say anything unless we said everything, we should all be best advised to keep our lips sealed: but we are all vain enough to think that if we express within a limited compass what in fact interests us, it may have the luck to interest our indulgent friends.” Austin Farrer, from the Preface to The Glass of Vision

With this statement Farrer provides a fitting mantra for the blogger and the theologian alike. Thank God for indulgent friends!

Jokes aside, Farrer expresses something profound in these words. Though he speaks of vanity, he exhibits humility, and in doing so points to something crucial for anyone engaged in theology.

Faithful theology requires some mixture of vanity and humility. Vanity because the theologian presumes to speak about God. Humility because though the theologian may speak in expressive and illuminating ways, though the theologian may clarify difficult concepts and may even (we must hope) move readers and hearers to worship, the theologian never speaks comprehensively, totally, or with finality.

For this reason, Farrer’s quote put me in mind of a couple of sections in Hans Urs von Balthasar’s Glory of the Lord, vol 7: The New Covenant where Balthasar discusses the nature of theology as an ongoing task. As Balthasar puts its, “The subject of theology is not to be ‘mastered’ gradually by the understanding through a series of approximations that circle round the subject: rather, every approach in thought is continually ‘judged’ anew by the absolute superiority of the subject. For this subject is the absolute trinitarian love of God, which discloses itself and offers itself in Jesus Christ, which disarms by its humility and simplicity every ‘stronghold’ of would-be mastering thought that ‘rises up’ (2 Cor 10:5)” (GL7, 15).

Theology therefore is “an interpretative act of standing and circling around a midpoint that can indeed be interpreted, but is always in need of interpretation and has never been exhaustively interpreted” (GL7, 103)

Though the task never ends, theologians are not condemned to a Sisyphean fate. The circle is reciprocal not vicious. Think revelation received, revelation interpreted, revelation lifted back up in thanksgiving. Think love at the center of it all.

All that being said though, theology begins and ends in silence. (For more on the necessity of silence, see these quotes from Benedict XVI in the previous post).

Favorite Books 2019

“Let pleasure be your guide.”

My thesis advisor said that to me about the next phase of my doctoral research. She was encouraging me to trust my instincts and intuitions as I read and as I write. It is a wonderfully freeing statement, and it is a statement that has far reaching effects, at least for me.

I have spent a lot of my reading life reading things I was “supposed to read”. The standard works. The must reads. The best books. And there is something important about building a foundation. When you begin reading, there is something to be said about guides, about people advising you about what is good and what is bad and how to tell the difference.

But once you’ve developed some reading sense and have fostered your own personal taste, obsession with best can also paralyze because even while you are reading you might have the niggling thought, “Is this really the best book?” And then you plough on through never feeling the freedom to abandon what you’ve started, since if this is a “best” book clearly the problem is with you and not the book.

So in the spirt of pleasure being my guide, I’ve compiled a list of favorites, rather than a list of “Best” books. These may not be the “best” books I read this year, but they are the ones I most enjoyed. They were my favorites, and maybe you might like them too. Maybe you won’t. But again, I’d say to anyone reading this, “Let pleasure be your guide.”

Before I get to the list of favorites, I want to mention a couple of reading habits that I picked up this year.

First, I started scanning books quickly to decide if they were worth my time. Mortimer Adler called this kind of reading inspectional reading. I call it “Spend an hour with a book” in order to glean what I can. On the basis of pleasure and in the hope of better trusting my intuition, I have abandoned more books this year than any previous year. I will not be looking back.

The other habit that I picked up from The Intellectual Life was writing through my reading, which is one reason this blog exists.

A few of my favorite books from this year:

My favorite book this the year was The Intellectual Life by A.G Sertillanges (I have a series of post about that book here). Reading that book along with Austin Kleon’s Show Your Work inspired me to start blogging with some regularity. From Sertillanges I picked up the idea of getting more out of what I read by writing through it. From Kleon I picked up the idea of owning my own turf, which is why I started my own website and started blogging.

Here is a choice quote from Kleon that pushed me to start my own website:

“Don’t think of your website as a self-promotion machine, think of it as a self-invention machine.”

Some other favorites:

Favorite biography: Strange Glory, Charles Marsh – A masterful biography about an important and beguiling figure, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I learned much about him, of course, but it also gave me a lot to think about in regards to the vocation of theology.

Favorite novel: Glittering Images, Susan Howatch – A novel narrated by a 37 year-old Anglican priest who teaches theology at Cambridge who is asked by the Archbishop of Canterbury to investigate the personal life of a troublesome bishop? What’s not to love for someone like me? But more than a mystery novel set in the upper echelons of the Church of England, the book is about a spiritual journey that takes Christian faith very seriously and has much to say about personal disintegration and the gracious ways God can put people back together through the faithful ministries of others.

Favorite memoir: Let’s Go, Jeff Tweedy – This memoir by Wilco’s frontman was such a delight to read and shed a lot of light on some of my favorite music made in the last 20 years.

Favorite Commentaries I used this Year: Peter Leithart, 1 & 2 Kings; Scot McKnight Colossians , Luke David Lyle Jeffrey

Favorite Work of Theology (other than something by von Balthasar, who is the writer I spent the most time with this year):The Priority of Christ: Toward a Post-Liberal Catholicism, Robert Barron – I’ve gleaned so much from Robert Barron over the past couple of years, especially his teaching ministry, like this talk he gave at Google headquarters. This book does such a good job of situating Barron’s own thought in contrast to modernism and in conversation with people like von Balthasar.

Favorite Work by von Balthasar: A Theology of History ( I wrote about this book here.)

Favorite book of poems: 99 Poems, Dana Gioia

Favorite audio book: St. Thomas Aquinas, G.K. Chesterton

From my Commonplace Book: Vocation, Silence, and Knowing

One of my English professors in college had us keep a commonplace book where we wrote down important quotations, interesting images, central ideas, etc. from the things we were reading. It’s a practice I’ve more or less maintained since college, and when I taught high school English, I had my students keep a commonplace book as well.

A commonplace book is like a travelogue of the mind or a kind of map for the ideas and images that have served as landmarks. Mapping the world in this way is not an attempt at mastery but a desire for orientation, the desire to see what can be seen, to know what can be known in a lifetime, while recognizing the limitations of a single person to map the world in any comprehensive way. Loren Eisley reminds us of this with his striking image of the human journey in time and the desire for knowledge as a kind of caravan:

“We have joined the caravan, you might say, at a certain point; we will travel as far as we can, but cannot in a lifetime see all that we would like to see or learn all we hunger to know.” Loren Eisley, The Immense Journey

Here is a picture of one of the pages from notebook. Good luck reading it.

I recently filled up a notebook, so I thought I would collect some of my commonplace quotations here that dealt with similar themes. One benefit of keeping a commonplace book is the ability to review the themes and preoccupations that emerge over a period of time. As a preacher and teacher of scripture and as a student of theology, one perennial theme for me is the need for intellectual modesty and humility. Every intellectual pursuit has temptations and presumptions, but presuming to speak for and about God might be the biggest presumption of all. And yet as Pope Benedict XVI notes, it is the vocation of the theologian to speak, but before speaking one must listen:

“Silence and contemplation: speaking is the beautiful vocation of the theologian: in the loquacity of our day and of other times, in the plethora words, to make the essential words hear. Through words, it means making present the Word, the Word who comes from God, the Word who is God.“

The theologian speaks the word of God, but the theologian must first hear the Word and then speak. Theology then begins in contemplation, with closed lips and open ears. But the theologian does not stay silent. There are words to speak precisely because there is a Word who has spoken. There is a Word that has made and that even now upholds all things. There is a Logos that makes the -ology of theology not only possible but vital.

Such an approach to theology, one that begins in silence and then speaks, guards against two dangers. On the one hand, there is the danger of hubris, the delusion that in saying true things about God that we have said everything about God. On the other hand, there is the danger of paralyzing agnosticism. It is a kind of fear to say anything about God since it is impossible to say everything about God. Though this fear might masquerade as humility, real humility and silence in the face of mystery do not result in an agnostic throwing up of the hands or in a despairing resignation, but in a desire to more deeply indwell the mystery and then to speak truly of it.

Naming and knowing can be forms of appreciation and can be real knowledge, even if they are not comprehension and mastery. As Robert McFarlane says, “I perceive no opposition between precision and mystery, or between naming and not knowing.” Robert McFarlane, Landmarks

And mastery itself is the wrong goal. As Balthasar reminds us, “Problems do not exist in order to be solved; we can never get ‘behind’ Being. We always look with mild contempt on everything we have solved. Problems should become more luminous in the light of the great mystery in which we live, move, and have our being.” Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Grain of Wheat

Moreover, the God we speak of is love, and so we know him truly by loving him. “The person who prays begins to see: praying and seeing go together because—as Richard of St. Victor says—‘Love is the faculty of seeing’…All real progress in theological understanding has its origin in the eye of love and its faculty of beholding. “ Joseph Ratzinger, Beholding the Pierced One

In sum, what begins in silence ends in praise. Praise and thanksgiving are the fruit of true theological reflection.