Collecting Quotes – On Keeping a Commonplace Book

For the last few years, I’ve been using the Bullet Journal system with my notebooks to organize tasks, keep my calendar, take sermon notes, write down interesting things, jot down books to find and music to listen to, etc. In every notebook I always reserve ten pages or so in the back as a commonplace book where I can collect striking quotes, phrases, and ideas. Sometimes those quotes turn into a blog post. Sometimes they make their way into sermons or other writing. But sometimes they simply sit there, waiting for me find them, to be struck again by their beauty, to ponder their strangeness, to be challenged, or to wonder what possessed me to write it down in the first place!

As I’ve written before, a commonplace book is a great way to collect and capture quotations in one place. It also provides a snapshot of recurring themes and preoccupations over the lifespan of the notebook. If you look at the tags for this blog, you will not be surprised to see that the quotes are often about contemplation, beauty, the vocation of theology, and the necessity of Christian holiness.

This is what this looks like in my notebook. Good luck reading it! I like to write with nice pens, but that doesn’t mean that my handwriting is worthy of the pens I use!

Here is a picture of my commonplace book from my latest bullet journal.

(In case you are interested, I typically use the Leuchtturm 1917 notebook with the dot grid. These notebooks are especially suited for strict users of the Bullet Journal system, because the pages are numbered and there is a table of contents in the front where you can “index” your entries. But I have not been very diligent about keeping an index, and I like writing with fountain pens, so I am switching to this Rhodia notebook. The Leuchtturm works well with fountain pens, but Rhodia paper offers a completely other level of quality. If you want a great starter fountain pen, I especially like the Kaweco Sport. If I’m going to take the time to write things in my commonplace book, I want a good writing experience.)

When I finish each notebook, I like to also capture some of the best quotes here on the blog. Here are a few highlights from the notebook I just finished:

First, some obligatory Balthasar quotes:

“Let us go forth to behold ourselves in your beauty.” HUvB, The Glory of the Lord, vol. 3

“I have to say that for me the only truly interesting theologians are the saints: from Irenaeus through Augustine to Anselm to Bonaventure or figures that allow the radiation of holiness to show forth, such as Dante or Newman; one could also mention Kierkegaard or Soloyvov. I have actually never written because I wanted to achieve results, but in order to show individuals something that I think must be seen.” HUvB, from the interview “Spirit and Fire”

“Only an eye serenely at rest sees eternal patterns and intimations in earth’s passing forms, and only such an artistic eye can show in symbol what the world is capable of revealing to the gaze of contemplation.” HUvB, “On the Christian’s Capacity to See”

Other quotes on theology:

“A theologian is most highly honored and most ably put to use when named as a doctor of the sacred page.” Katherine Sonderegger, Doctrine of God

“Not all is Christology!” Katherine Sonderegger, Doctrine of God

“If writing is a mode of exposure to truth, then even failure can be exemplary.” Ben Myers, Christ the Stranger

“God is the grammar of holy lives, their dark and dazzling intelligibility.” Ben Myers, Christ the Stranger

“Only if there is…astonishment…can there be serious, fruitful, and edifying Christian thought and utterance.” Barth, CD IV/3

On Feeling “Useless” in a Pandemic

“The reason why the philosopher can be compared to the poet is that both are concerned with wonder…” St. Thomas Aquinas

So goes the epigraph to the extraordinary chapter “The Philosophical Act” in Josef Pieper’s Leisure, The Basis of Culture.

Pieper’s book has been an absolute balm to me over the past few months. I will remember it, along with The Power and the Glory, as a book that helped me get through COVID-Tide. As I’ve written before, his discussion of the classical distinction between ratio and intellectus helped me name my own tendency, not to mention the broader cultural tendency, to not only privilege, but to live as if there is nothing but ratio, nothing but discourse, logic, practicality, nothing but total work. But Pieper’s book reminds us that not only is there something more than ratio, and the world of total work it brings in its wake, but that the contemplation and the leisure and the festivity of intellectus is what truly nourishes, what truly establishes culture.

There is indeed another “logic”, the logic of intellectus, which is the logic of wonder, the logic that fuels prayer, poetry, and philosophy, what Pieper collects together as the Philosophical Act.

Photo by Tengyart on Unsplash

Feeling Useless

Though a balm the book has also caused more than a little of what Pieper calls “existential disturbance”, mostly because I didn’t realize the extent to which I am myself under the sway of “total work”. Until any sense of normal working hours/conditions was taken away from me, until the normal metrics of success were suddenly unavailable (and, yes, this is true for a minister too. Imagine that), I had not known my own tendency to measure myself in terms of usefulness. In fact, early in the pandemic a friend asked me how I was feeling and I said, “I feel useless.” Pieper helped me understand that what on the face of it seems like a totally irrational and overly dramatic thought was in fact a sign that I had surrendered to the “logic” of total work. It is in fact rational, in the sense of ratio, for me to measure myself in terms of usefulness.

Importantly, Pieper is not arguing that we should do away with ratio . He is rather arguing for the recovery of and primacy of intellectus. By primacy I mean that for Pieper, intellectus is both the beginning place—it must come first—and the source of what really matters in life. And this is important because the things that intellectus brings are in a sense “useless” too, in that they ultimately do not produce value, rather they have value in and of themselves. (I’ve written previously in praise of useless things, but I had not yet connected that thought to my own sense of uselessness.)

Prayer, Poetry, and Philosophy

Such “useless” things come to those who attend to the world and to those who cultivate the sense of wonder, in a word to those who contemplate. Pieper numbers prayer, poetry, and philosophy among these “useless” things. They are useless yet indispensable, and when engaged in as acts of wonder are means of transcending the everyday, the working world, the world that recognizes only ratio.

But the pull of total work is so powerful, its promises so seductive, that there are also false forms of each of these. There is pseudo-prayer which is concerned with self and not with God, pseudo-poetry which merely follows trends or is nothing more than eloquent narcissism, and pseudo-philosophy which has no sense of wonder. We all must beware of these.

So if you too have felt useless, allow yourself to reimagine that feeling as an opportunity or as invitation back to wonder. In service of such wonder, might I recommend The Overstory by Richard Powers. It is a book that deeply rewards attentive wonder. Here is a passage that captures that dynamic beautifully:

“Yet still this tree has a secret tucked into the thin, living cylinder beneath its bark. Its cells obey an ancient formula: Keep still. Wait. Something in the lone survivor knows that even the ironclad law of Now can be outlasted. There’s work to do. Star-work, but earthbound all the same. Or as the nurse to the Union dead writes: Stand cool and composed before a million universes. As cool and composed as wood.”

Richard Powers, The Overstory

Love Seeking Understanding, Understanding Seeking Love: The Trinity and How Doxology Drives Theology

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been slowly working through Stephen R. Holmes’ bookThe Quest for the Trinity: The Doctrine of God in Scripture, History, and Modernity. Though the book surveys the full history of Christian theology, Holmes begins with what has been called the 20th century revival of the doctrine of the Trinity. In rehearsing the resurgence of interest in the Trinity, Holmes asks whether the so-called revival was in fact much more revisionary than is typically thought. With that question in mind, he carefully works through the Trinitarian debates of the first few centuries in order to articulate the key figures, moments, exegetical moves, and doctrinal insights which together gave the Church her creeds and her understanding of the Trinity.

I hope to have more to say about the overall argument in a later post, but for now I wanted to share a striking observation that bears on the task of theology itself.

Holmes notes that the doctrine of the Trinity, and the attending understanding of the person of Christ, emerges as a theological articulation of the already existing fact of Christian worship. That Christ was worshipped as God from the very beginning of the faith is historically undeniable, and yet the attending theology of the divinity of Christ and the relation of the Son to the Father within in the life of God took a few centuries to work out. In other words, one way to look at the emergence of the doctrinal expression of the Trinitarian life of God is that the Church’s theology had to catch up with the already existing reality of the Church’s worship. Theology gave expression to doxology. Or to put it more boldly, doxology can and often does drive theology.

As a vivid example of this, at the end of his own extensive reflections on the Trinity, Augustine prays, and as part of his elaborate and beautiful prayer, he asks God this, “May I remember You, understand You, love You. Increase these things in me, until You renew me wholly” (On the Trinity Book XV.28.51) He links understanding and love, and the full prayer makes clear that understanding is never meant as an end in itself but is meant to serve and increase love. Theology that serves the church is sourced from love, from a determination to know the one whom we worship, to come to know more and more the one we are commanded to love with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength and then to love him.

All of this put in my mind of this lovely passage from Katherine Sonderegger’s Systematic Theology , vol. 1. , where with the evocative language of the Song of Songs, she reminds us all what theology is really for: “To speak of God, to name the Divine Perfections, should be honey in the comb, the river of delight, the freshness and strong elixir of love. Love is the Truth of God, but also the Beauty. God is sublime, a zealous Good. Love alone is as strong as death, its passion fierce as the grave. To know this God, the Living Lord, is to hunger and to delight and to hunger once more. Theology should pant after its God, the Love that is better than wine, for God is beautiful, truly lovely, the One whose Eyes are like doves. Eat, friends — all theology should ring out with this invitation — drink and be drunk with Love.” (Brad East has a lovely review of this volume here.)

I have Sonderegger’s words pinned on the bulletin board above my desk to remind myself of the true end of all my study—to know God and to love him. Balthasar sums all this up quite succinctly when he exhorts, “Lovers are the ones who know most about God; the theologian must listen to them” (Love Alone is Credible) Yes, but the theologian must not listen only, but as Balthasar’s larger work demonstrates again and again, the great task of the theologian is to become a lover of God oneself.

Theology as Architecture and the Appeal of Mystical Theology

Having recently posted about theology as architecture, I was struck by this passage about mystical theology from theologian Denys Turner. In explaining the mutual interplay of positive (cataphatic) and negative (apophatic) theology, he employs this striking architectural metaphor:

“What falls short of God is language, the whole cathedral of speech, formed at once of presenting mass and absenting space, neither of affirming mass without the space it encloses, nor of negating space without the enclosing mass—for without both at once there is no shape, no architecture; and it is only the distinctive form of their conjunction that we possess the transcending mystery of Cuthbert’s place in Durham or Abbot Suger’s at St. Denis in Paris.” Denys Turner, God, Mystery, & Mystification

Turner has done important work on mystical theology and on negative theology in general, especially in his book The Darkness of God. Given his work in negative or apophatic theology (which is generally mystical), what he has to say about the necessity of both positive and negative theology is worth paying attention to. There is a great tendency to privilege one form other the other, to use one to negate the other but because positive and negative theology do not cancel each other out, because both cataphatic and apophatic theology mutually inform each other, because the cathedral of language about God depends on both, it will not do to privilege one over the other or to exclude one for the sake of the other. To do so might bring the whole building down. Or as Turner has it, if one insists on only the positive, the cataphatic, then one will end up with nothing but “affirming mass”. And if one insists on only the negative, the apophatic, then one will end up with nothing but “negating space.”

Photo by Adrien Converse on Unsplash

Importantly, the cathedral he imagines is a cathedral of language, and it is language itself that falls short of God, including the absence of language or the negating language of negative theology. In other words, one cannot appeal to negative theology as an escape from the thorny problem of how we speak about God, and this to my mind has important implications for the on the street, or the in the pew, understanding of mystical theology which might see mystical theology (negative theology) as an escape from the language problem.

In my work as a pastor, I have seen that there is an appetite for mysticism among many disaffected Evangelicals, and for the negative theology that so often goes with mysticism. The attraction is not without merit, and I am personally not surprised that I have pastoral conversations about The Cloud of Unknowing. I acknowledge the possibility of a confirmation bias, since many who come to Anglicanism do so with an inchoate and intuitive attraction to mystery. Nevertheless, many disaffected evangelicals have felt crushed by the “affirming mass” of nothing but positive theology, and they have found some room to breathe, as it were, with negative theology. But as we make space for the negative, for the mystical, the danger becomes opening up into nothing but the void.

In accepting that language is a limitation, theologians are not admitting defeat, rather they are affirming what is and in the best cases accepting the limitations of being human. But this is no cause for despair. That we speak of God at all is astonishing, but our speaking is merely a response to an even greater astonishment—God spoke first. Yes, as Calvin has it, God’s words to us are a kind of baby talk, which is nonetheless still communication and therefore meaningful because as all baby talk, it is spoken to us in love.

Can we hear this word of love? It depends greatly on whether or not we can be quiet. For it is only in silence that we might hear the Word spoken to us.

As Fr. Stephen Freeman beautiful writes in his post “Words as Icons”, silence, and silent expectation, are themselves “reverence for words and the truth which the reveal.”

In Praise of Useless Things: Another Post on Contemplation

One recurring theme on this blog is the necessity of contemplation. In my study of Balthasar especially, and in encountering the tradition through him, I have been struck again and again by the central place of contemplation not just in Christian spirituality but also in Christian theology. If the statement that theology grows out of contemplation does not seem immediately apparent to you, you are not alone. One of Balthasar’s continual laments is the bifurcation of theology from spirituality and the resulting expulsion of contemplation from theology. But Balthasar’s own work and his re-presentation of the Christian theological tradition shows again and again that the really meaningful theology of the church has been forged in the crucible of adoration and obedience, in word it has been birthed from contemplation.

Balthasar’s contention is that there is no truly deep and meaningful theology which does not come from a place of prayer, particularly contemplative prayer. But his argument is deeper than that because contemplation isn’t meant for just the “Spiritually” and “Theologically” inclined. No, Balthasar insists, in his book on prayer, contemplation is the birthright of everyone. So while I have come to see that contemplation is vital for the theological task, I want to make this broader point too. I have come to see that quite apart from theology, contemplation is central to being human, whether one is formally engaged in studying theology or not.

Another guide who has helped me realize this is Josef Pieper. Over the past few months, during the lockdown, I have been slowly reading Josef Pieper’s book Leisure, the Basis of Culture . It is in many ways the most helpful thing I have read in a long time, and most certainly the most helpful thing I have read in quarantine. Working from the Latin for the psalm, Pieper renders the famous phrase “Be still and know that I am God,” in this way: “Be at leisure and know that I am God.” Leisure is the contemplative stance, an openness to receive what is as it is, to receive the goodness of creation as a gift. This is perhaps always counterintuitive, but it is especially so in a time when I want to control things, to make things happen. Stillness, leisure, contemplation are all of a piece and are all aspects of intellectus (which Pieper, along with the Medieval tradition, distinguishes from ratio). Both intellectus and ratio are necessary and healthy aspects of the human mind, but Pieper’s concern is that we have surrendered ourselves to “total work” because we have come to believe that it is only ratio that matters.

But we need intellectus because it is through intellectus, through contemplation, that we experience the “useless” things of the world, that is things that are valuable in and of themselves, rather than things that are instrumental for getting me something I want. The “useless” ’things are what I actually need to live with integrity and with wisdom. Without such useless things, I have no chance of loving my neighbor, because after all my neighbor is never a means to an end, but someone to love.

Contemplation is a letting be and an openness to the goodness of Being, and ultimately to the one who is Goodness in himself. I have no time, I say. I have no space. I cannot. Oh but I may, and I must, if I want to receive what matters. There is a silence that must proceed any speaking that bears any weight at all.

Austin Farrer too holds up the necessity of contemplation while lamenting its loss. (Iit is not a unique problem of the internet age!), and reminds

“The chief impediment to religion in this age, I often think, is that no one ever looks at anything all: not so as to contemplate it, to apprehend what it is to be that thing, and plumb, if he can, the deep fact of its individual existence. The mind rises from the knowledge of creatures to the knowledge of their creator, but this does no happen through the sort of knowledge which can analyse things into factors or manipulate them with technical skill or classify them into groups. It comes from the appreciation of things which we have when we love them and fill our minds and senses with them, and feel something of the silent force and great mystery of their existence. For it is in this that the creative power is displayed of an existence higher and richer and more intense than all.” Reflective Faith: Essays in Philosophical Theology

The truth is that the contemplative stance, the space within from which to truly see and to truly receive, is already within us. Yes, that room may have fallen into disrepair, but it is still there, and by grace it can restored and inhabited again. Or so says Balthasar:

“Man is the creature with a mystery in his heart that is bigger than himself. He is built like a tabernacle around a most sacred mystery. When God’s word desires to live in him, man does not need first of all to take deliberate action to open up his innermost self. It is already there, its very nature is readiness, receptivity, the will to surrender to what is greater, to acknowledge the deeper truth, to cease hostilities in the face of the more constant love. Certainly, in the sinner, this sanctuary is neglected and forgotten, like an overgrown tomb or an attic choked with rubbish, and it needs an effort—the effort of contemplative prayer—to clean it up and make it habitable for the divine Guest. But the room itself does not need to be built: it is already there and always has been, at the very center of man.” Hans Urs von Balthasar, Prayer

For a helpful discussion of some of these issues, I would recommend this episode of the Word on Fire podcast called “Distraction and Useless Things”.

For a more general introduction to Christian contemplative practice, I would recommend, Into the Silent Land by Martin Laird. It was given to me by a dear friend who was a man of prayer, if I have ever met one.

Is theology a map?

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.

Theology as Architecture: On Avoiding Some of the Temptations of Systems

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.

Naming the World, Naming God: A Tip of the Hat to Seth Wieck

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.

“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.