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.

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.

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?

The Lord’s Prayer as a Beggar’s Prayer

I want to start collecting ideas that deal with the classic three topics of Christian catechesis, namely the Apostle’s Creed, the Ten Commandments, and the Lord’s Prayer. This is the first post in what I hope to be a whole series of intermittent posts.

In his reflections on Jesus’s poverty in The Glory of the Lord, vol. 7, Hans Urs von Balthasar makes the point that the Lord’s Prayer is a beggar’s prayer. He begins by saying that Jesus’ prayer is rooted in his own poverty, his own absolute dependence on the Father and the Spirit. He goes on to describe prayer itself as “essentially…the attitude of the beggar.”

In expositing the Lord’s Prayer itself, Balthasar says,

“The prayer which Jesus gave as a model of prayer, the Our Father, is a beggar’s prayer from start to finish. It demands God’s coming, placing at its beginning the address of intimacy, ‘Abba’, which was reserved for Jesus alone; it demands that his name will be hallowed, that his kingdom come, that his will be done on earth as in heaven—three petitions which express the same thing in different ways, the prayer that God’s power prevail where men are powerless. Then the prayer begs for bread that is necessary for life, not for a store to be laid up, but from day to day; then it begs for the forgiveness of sins, displaying its own poverty as far as righteousness is concerned (for the one who forgives his debtor waives justice); and finally, the prayer begs to be borne through temptation, for only God’s power permits us to stand fast in temptation. Total dependance on God means that the one who knocks is sure of being heard.”

One can certainly see the connection between prayer and poverty, and a strand Balthasar doesn’t emphasize here is the theme of forgiven debts in the Lord’s Prayer from the gospel of Luke. Wealth and poverty are one of the great leitmotifs of Luke’s gospel. While the themes of poverty and begging are present in all the gospels, Luke’s gospel foregrounds issues of wealth and poverty more than the other three. From Mary’s great prayer to Jesus’ own declaration of the year of Jubilee in Luke 4 to the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man, not to mention the story of the Good Samaritan, the material unique to Luke declares from start to finish that the good news is good news for the poor.

So the Lukan variation on the Lord’s Prayer which emphasis the forgiveness of debts rather than transgressions highlights this theme of poverty in special way. But can we take the next step with Balthasar and see the emphasis on poverty itself as a picture of Jesus’ own poverty, his own dependence on God? This is Balthasar’s suggestion, and it is worth pondering.

As the gospel of Luke makes clear, what we call the Lord’s Prayer flows directly out of Jesus’ own prayer to the Father. And to extend the point in Luke 11, as he illustrates the nature of such prayer, gives us a pictures of need and dependence—first the friend in need of provision and second the child in need of sustenance. In prayer we are like this friend and this child, and as Jesus goes on to teach in Luke 18, in prayer we are like the persistent widow pleading for justice. Each of these asks for that which they cannot give themselves. They are beggars. They are in absolute dependence.

But can we say definitely that Jesus gives us a model of prayer that is rooted in his own poverty, his own dependence on the Father? Maybe this is easier to say if we can take Balthasar’s next statement, which is “Another word for poverty is faith.”

All quotes taken from Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord: Theology, the New Covenant, vol. 7

The Mission of the Church: Moving Into and Through History

Further reflections on Balthasar’s essay, “The Fathers, the Scholastics, and Ourselves”

In the last post I looked at Balthasar’s image of the tree of culture from his essay “The Fathers, the Scholastics, and Ourselves. On the basis of this image, I described his admonition to receive from the past without overly romanticizing any given period, age, or thinker. In sum Balthasar argued, “Don’t so long for the past that you forget the moment that you actually live in.”

In this post I want to look at the same article and examine the larger argument he makes about the three great periods of Christianity, the patristic age, the scholastic age, and the modern age. In proposing this three fold division, Balthasar seeks to articulate what he discerns to be the inner core of each period. As he puts it, he wants, “To press on past all external and superficial features of each epoch, to focus on its innermost structural law, and then to measure each respective formal law according to the structural law of what is essentially Christian as we encounter this norm in the Gospel” (352).

Setting aside whether or not such a goal is even possible, especially in the span of a short essay, if we take his methodology at face value, the most important thing to determine is what he means by the “norm of the Gospel”. So what is the norm of the Gospel? It is that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and because the norm of the gospel is the Incarnation itself, it can never be an abstract principle. By extension this norm, “expresses itself in the level of history in ever-new forms without out being able thereby to call any one of these forms the absolute one” (352). Again he emphasizes that each age has sought to articulate the gospel faithfully, but even faithful articulation is never absolute. History changes so the forms the gospel takes must change too. So whether he fairly represents each period is in one sense slightly beside the point because his primary point has to do with the relationship between the Incarnation and history, a theme I wrote about in an earlier post about his book A Theology of History.

One form the gospel has taken on are the reigning philosophical systems of a given era. That the theology of the church takes on philosophic forms is both a kind of truism and a matter of heated debate. Everyone agrees that is does happen, but not everyone agrees to what extent it is a good or bad thing. Balthasar seems to argue that in one sense it must happen. The norm of the gospel must take on a form: “The Church has been sent to all peoples and to all times; and since she is expressly meant to speak in the form of the visible and the natural, she is also directed to take on the kaleidoscopic variety of the different situations of those times and peoples. Every epoch has its own language, world view, perspective; and the Church must make use of all these in order ’to become all things to all men and so to win all for Christ” (367). The “ever-new forms” include appropriating philosophical systems and concepts in order to articulate the Gospel. For him John’s use of the Logos concept to describe the Incarnation is the prime example of using this appropriation well.

Philosophical systems, such as Platonism for the Fathers and Aristotelianism for the Scholastics, are forms that theologians take on in order to articulate the gospel terms that make sense to a given culture, to a particular time and place. There are dangers in this, and Balthasar acknowledges this. With Platonism there is the possible danger of other worldliness, of escape from creation, and there is the possible danger of pantheism. With the Scholastics the danger is to naturalize everything. But this does not mean that the theologians of the those eras were wrong to adopt these forms.

Problems only arise when the philosophical appropriation becomes untethered from the Incarnation. And the temptation to untether is the problem of the Garden extending through history. The sin of Eden is for Balthasar the desire to ascend to God on our own terms, and philosophical forms can become just that. Gnosticism is the example par excellence. But that does not mean that using Platonic forms is inherently wrong or will inevitably lead to Gnosticism.

It comes back again and again as it so often does for Balthasar to the Incarnation, the Word becoming flesh. Christ as the concrete universal, the form of forms by which we measure all other forms. And the movement of Christ into history becomes the norm of the church’s mission. The Incarnation is the movement of the Logos into history, the Word becoming flesh, and as Christ’s body the movement of the Church is into history, into the particulars of each time and place that she find herself in. The Church moves into and through history, not soaring above it or standing beside it, but into the midst of it. From the Garden onward we have tried to ascend to God on our own terms, but the scandal of the Gospel is that God descends to creation, enters history, and embraces the particularity of the human form.

It is worth keeping in mind that for Balthasar it is the perennial temptation to ascend to God on our own terms that most corrupts the gospel rather than a particular philosophical form per se. When we think about philosophical and psychological and cultural forms on offer in our day, using the norm of Gospel in the Incarnation can be an extremely helpful way to determine whether we are trying to ascend to God on our own terms or to descend with him into the particulars of history.

No Golden Age? No problem.

There is no golden age, and that is a good thing.

“We are living in a time when the images of the gods and idols are crashing all about us. The spiritual and cultural traditions of vast regions of the West are increasingly being called into question; indeed, we can go even further and say they are being liquidated, quickly and relatively painlessly. Just as a tree in autumn drops its leaves without pain or regret in order to gather once more new strength from within, to renew its powers in hibernal peace, so too the tree of culture is now being stripped of its leaves.”

So begins Hans Urs von Balthasar’s essay, “The Fathers, the Scholastics, and Ourselves”, an essay where Balthasar examines those specifically Christian streams of thinking, writing, reflection, and prayer that have nourished the tree of culture in the past.

But this opening points to something that is especially worth taking to heart: Look at the tree, he says. Stop looking at the dead leaves on the ground. Stop lamenting that you live in autumn. Look up. Though the season speaks of coming death, the tree isn’t going anywhere.

The point is worth taking because looking at the tree and rightly discerning the season in which we live helps us guard against a temptation Balthasar readily describes, namely the temptation to return to some golden era, some previous age that is imagined to be better and purer simply because it was prior. First is best, we might say. Earlier is purer. And because of this temptation we might lament living through autumn rather than spring. He argues that we are especially prone to look back to the Patristic period with “Romantic longing”. Why? Because the Fathers were first and are therefore purer. But to return to the image of the tree, the argument of first is best, first is purer, is like saying “I would rather have a sapling than a redwood.”

To be clear Balthasar notes the ways in which there is a purity to Patristic thinking, a spring time newness to things. And there is a sense in which what they faithfully did, what they thought and what they died for, set the parameters and the terms of the conversation that continued in their wake. But they have not said everything. We must keep this in mind because of this temptation to look back on a particular historical moment or a particular thinker and believe that their way is the way, that their way is the only way to approach things.

This does not mean that we don’t have anything to learn from earlier ages and earlier thinkers. Quite the contrary. Take the example of Paul, though we must begin with understanding him in his context in order to faithfully preach what he preached, it is not enough to simply say,this is what Paul said, and then imagine that we have said everything there is to say. We must move to the next step, which is coming to terms with what Paul is saying to us in our time and in our place. Now what Paul is saying will not wholly contradict what Paul said. Remember the primary metaphors Balthasar employs are organic—the tree, the stream—so this is not about radical discontinuity and rupture. But being faithful to the word is something more than being able to say, this is what it meant. We have to be able to say also this is what it meant then, and this is what it means now, because the word of revelation is a living word.

I find Balthasar’s point about avoiding a naive nostalgia about the past especially interesting because I grew up in a context where the church of the book of Acts was held up as the golden age of the church. It was a variation on the argument that first is best, that first is purest. And Balthasar will have none of that thinking. I know people, and I myself have been guilty of this, who have traded the church of Acts as the ideal for the theology of the Fathers as the ideal, but Balthasar challenges both ways of thinking and says, yes, looking back is part of being faithful, and s we should look back, and we should read and learn and understand, but not so that we can perfectly replicate what they did in their time and place, but so that it might source our own faithful expression in our own time and place.

An historical example, he says, is only ever an analogy, and for him the inner paradox of analogy is that for all the similarity, there is always the ever greater difference, which means that we can glean things, yes, but we cannot perfectly replicate them, nor should we try. Take for example an argument that I hear a lot, namely that the time in which we are living in is like the fall of Rome. There is something to this argument that resonates with people, and we can readily find touch points, and it is a reason that some many are finding great nourishment in returning to Augustine and The City of God. Though we should read Augustine and learn what he is saying to us now, the analogy is never perfect. As Balthasar puts it, theology at its best in a given era is the the light of Truth breaking through “a vast number of mosaic shards of broken and smokey glass: in the thousands of many forms in which it is announced, systematized, humanized” (369). Which means that even in autumn, and even in a coming winter, the light comes and is coming into the world, and though we might only be a shard of broken glass, we are still able to let the light shine through. So the question becomes what might it mean to faithfully speak the living word in the midst of an autumn?

Does theology have anything to do with holiness?

In this post and in the next few posts, I want to explore some of Hans Urs von Balthasar’s reflections on the relationship between theology and spirituality, or what he tends to call the relationship between theology and sanctity, what we might now call the relationship between theology and holiness.

Now these two words, theology and holiness, might seem a curious pairing to us, and this is precisely the issue Balthasar hopes to address. Theology/holiness, contemplation/action, believing/living—we tend to see these more as dichotomies and dilemmas rather than as dynamically related and mutually informing realties. But the two absolutely belong together, and the fact that they aren’t seen as belonging together is for Balthasar a story of decline and a story of divorce. Their separation is therefore grievous and unnatural. To illustrate Balthasar offers this striking image in the essay “Theology and Sanctity”, saying that theology without sanctity is “bones without flesh” and that sanctity (spirituality) without theology is “flesh without bones”.

Taking this image of the body, we might say that what results from the separation of theology and sanctity is a kind of formlessness, something incomplete and not wholly itself. As he concludes, “Only the two together (corresponding to the prototype of revelation in scripture) constitute the unique ‘form’ capable of being ‘seen’ in the light of faith by the believer, a unique testimony, invisible to the world, and a ‘scandal’ to it.”

Thinking of scripture as offering the prototype, I was put in mind first of Paul, and the way the opening prayers in his epistles are so often road maps to his theological reflections, and the ways, like in Romans 8, that his theological reflections are transposed into prayer and doxology.

I was also put in mind of Augustine and how so much of his work is either actually prayer or is suffused, surrounded by, steeped in, prayer. The Confessions are of course a famous example of this, but you can see it throughout his work. Here is a portion of a prayer from the end of The Trinity that nicely captures Augustine’s deep desire not simply to understand something, or to explain something, but rather to see and be transformed by what he has sought to understand:

“Do Thou give strength to seek, who has made me find You, and has given the hope of finding You more and more. My strength and my infirmity are in Your sight: preserve the one, and heal the other. My knowledge and my ignorance are in Your sight; where You have opened to me, receive me as I enter; where You have closed, open to me as I knock. May I remember You, understand You, love You. Increase these things in me, until You renew me wholly. “

The Trinity, XV.28, taken from

As another example, I think of Anselm who calls his work the Monologium “an example of meditation on the grounds of faith.” In other words, to use a more famous phrase of his, he is engaged in “faith seeking understanding”, and this prayer from the Prosologium illustrates how central prayer is to that larger quest of knowing God:

“I pray, 0 God, to know you, to love you, that I may rejoice in you. And if I cannot attain to full joy in this life may I at least advance from day to day, until that joy shall come to the full. Let the knowledge of you advance in me here, and there be made full. Let the love of you increase, and there let it be full, that here my joy may be great in hope, and there full in truth. Lord, through your Son you do command, nay, you do counsel us to ask; and you do promise that we shall receive, that our joy may be full. I ask, O Lord, as you do counsel through our wonderful Counsellor. I will receive what you do promise by virtue of your truth, that my joy may be full. Faithful God, I ask. I will receive, that my joy may be full. Meanwhile, let my mind meditate upon it; let my tongue speak of it. Let my heart love it; let my mouth talk of it. Let my soul hunger for it; let my flesh thirst for it; let my whole being desire it, until I enter into your joy, O Lord, who are the Three and the One God, blessed for ever and ever. Amen.”

Prologium, CHAPTER XXVI.

In these prayers both Augustine and Anselm assume not only a relationship between theology and holiness, meaning that what they believe ought to have some effect on how they live, but also the relationship between love and knowledge, that what they know of God moves them to deeper love of God, and deeper love moves them to deeper knowledge. The divorce between love and knowledge is the deeper issue faced by theologians today, and in my mind it is only in restoring that relationship that we can then heal the divide between theology and holiness. This is why Sertillanges and Griffiths are both such important voices in their respective descriptions of the intellectual life. They both understand the vocation in terms of love and desire. I pray that the same would be true for me and for a whole generation of theologians who hope to serve the church with theology.

Originality is Overrated

“Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.” C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

In this post I want to continue diving into Paul Griffiths’ book The Intellectual Appetite and say one more thing about his discussion of curiosity as a vice in the intellectual life. I’m specifically interested in his notion that curiosity is the desire to possess or own knowledge. This is in contrast to the virtue of studiousness, which is about receiving knowledge rather than taking knowledge.

In his discussion Griffiths links the desire for ownership with the obsession in academic theology for originality. Speaking of his own approach to the topic of originality, Griffiths does not think of his own intellectual contributions in terms of ownership. He thinks more in terms of stewardship. Even in using the curiosity/studiousness paradigm, he acknowledges that he is not saying anything new or original to him. Rather, he says, “The definitions that follow are concordant with those found in the Christian tradition, but are not identical with any of them. I give them not in an exegetical spirit, but rather as a contributor to a tradition of thought whose authority I accept, and that I consider it a privilege to speak out of and thereby to extend” (20).

Notice that the goal is to contribute by extension rather than by novelty. Notice also that there is a strong sense of continuity, but continuity is not the same thing as exact replication. It is a conversation that moves forward, not because every conversant says the same thing in the same way, but because every conversant is committed to having the same conversation.

Sertillanges made a similar point , saying that what we might call originality is the convergence of a unique someone speaking something true in a true way. What is unique is the individual rather than the idea or concept. Now this does not mean that there are not such things as breakthroughs or new ways of thinking about things or paradigm shifts, but first, by and large all such shifts come from speaking within an existing paradigm or tradition.

In a recent email exchange, with a friend of mine, Christopher Benson, I tackled the same topic in a similar way. In that context I said:

Novelty has its place in theology, but it can’t be the driving force. In my mind the theologian is primarily a steward, first of divine revelation, and second of the tradition of the church. Jesus says something similar to the scribes: “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house, who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old” (Matt. 13:52). Notice that there are new things to bring out, yes, but novelty isn’t the goal. The goal is properly stewarding the house.

The theologian usually doesn’t say new things. The theologian is more a steward of memory and reminds the church what she has forgotten.”

Style and Truth – What Self-Expression Really Means

Some of my doctoral research concerns the question of style, specifically what Hans Urs von Balthasar means by the idea of theological style. So I was stuck by Sertillanges’s thoughts on the subject of style as it relates to the intellectual life and to the quest for truth. (See previous posts on The Intellectual Life here)

As always Sertillanges relates the question of style to the broader themes of the book, namely that style must serve truth and express truth truly. But style also must express the self: “My style, my pen, is the intellectual instrument which I use to express myself and to tell others what I understand of eternal truth. This instrument is a quality of my being, an interior bent, a disposition of the living brain, that is, it is a particular evolution of my style” (201). I find this fascinating because clearly style is more than self expression, but it is for Sertillanges nothing less than self expression either. Style at its best expresses both truth and the self, because within the vocation of the intellectual life the ultimate desire is that the self would conform to truth. So his version of “express yourself” is not the trope that launched a thousand self-help books because he is not saying that if I have expressed myself then I have expressed truth. Self-expression as an end in itself is at best a minimal standard for truth, namely the ideal of “my truth”, and at worst it is an imposter for the kind of truth Sertillanges commends. Rather he is saying that there is a possible harmony and correspondence between self and truth, and style is meant to express this correspondence.

One interesting implication: as long as there are selves seeking to express truth, there will always be interesting, creative, and original things to read and to wrestle with because, one, no self is the same, and, two, no one, not even Thomas Aquinas himself, can comprehensively express truth. In this regard, he says something about originality akin to C.S. Lewis, namely that aiming at originality is a fool’s errand and that originality emerges in the midst of seeking to represent truth truly.

Honestly, the best way to get a sense of what he means by style is to read the book. It is truly a pleasure to read and exemplifies many of the things he commends. For example, reading this description of style made me think of his own book: “Style excludes everything useless; it is strict economy in the midst of riches; it spends whatever is necessary, saves in one place by skillful arrangement, and lavishes its resources elsewhere for the glory of truth. Its role is not to shine, but to set off the matter; it must efface itself, and it is then that its own glory appears.” Style is about what to say and what not say, what to leave in and what to take out. It is about patience. Like music, it is about dynamics, and requires listening. Listening first to the material, listening to that which we desire to express, and listening too at the level of language, to the ways words sound against each other and how they sound in the whole sequence of words.

A couple of other things to note. First, he commends taking up the pen earlier rather than later because it is through writing itself that thoughts are expressed and are sharpened. It is through the practice of writing that one develops certain habits of thinking, and it is in thinking that one pursues truth. There is an iterative circle, thinking produces writing, which in turn produces thinking, which in turn, one hopes, moves one closer and closer to truth. Second, I don’t take this as a prescription for all kinds of writing. Remember he is considering everything under the heading of the intellectual life, which he sees as a particular vocation, so he is discussing writing in these vocational terms. On the other hand though, it is not bad advice for poets, novelists, or even, dare I say, bloggers.

Doing the Work – “Wise Application of Energy”

“One does not need extraordinary gifts to carry some work through; average superiority suffices; the rest depends on energy and wise application of energy. It is as with a conscientious workman, careful and steady at his task: he gets somewhere, while an inventive genius is often merely an embittered failure.” (The Intellectual Life, Sertillanges, 8).

As we saw in the last post, vocation begins with a moment of ecstasy. This moment of ecstasy, this summons of the self out of the self towards the True, towards the Good, towards the Beautiful, is essential and necessary, but it is not sufficient. The ecstatic moment ignites, but cannot sustain the vocation itself, and this is where the work really begins.

The ecstatic moment can only provide a sense of what to work on, or at least a sense of what to move towards, but it cannot in itself provide the how. How will I move forward? How will I make progress? These questions take us into the very heart of the intellectual vocation, or really any vocation. Let’s say I want to be a sculptor. I’ve been carried away by some great work, enraptured by the possibilities of the medium. But now to begin. What must I do? What must I learn? Or even more basic, how do I hold this chisel? These are questions related to what Sertillanges means by the use of energy and the application of energy.

I’m particularly taken by the phrase the “wise application of energy”. It seems exactly right to me because it compactly summarizes something I’ve discovered about intellectual work. I’ve found that using the right time of day to do the right kind of tasks has a compounding effect on my work that little else does. An hour of hard reading, writing, and studying anytime before noon is equivalent to two or three hours of work in the afternoon, or maybe even four in the evening. This basically means I’m good for nothing in the evening in terms of intellectual work, so it’s a wiser application of energy at that point to spend time with my wife, my kids, enjoy a drink, read some fiction, watch some TV. My energy is neither infinite nor consistent across time, which means part of the work is to pay attention to my own crests and troughs and then make the most of them.

Moreover, since I am not just a student, but also a priest and a father and a dad, I’ve found that the wise application of energy is the only way to survive. But even more than survival, there is actually something freeing in having other things to do. Having other work can be freeing in its own way because the intellectual work, the quest for truth, becomes on one hand a place of freedom and play. Other work also brings clarity. With other obligations the time devoted to the work must be intensely guarded and intensely focused. The guarding of the time is in one sense the most difficult thing, at least for me. More than distractions themselves or the desire to do something else, I’ve found working on a PhD that often the most arduous task, and so the thing that so often sabotage me, is protecting the time that I need in order to do the work. Once I am in the space, after an initial bout of inertia, generally the work takes over.

The application of energy is also about pacing yourself, and I was struck by the phrase “careful and steady at his task”, which reminded me of a phrase I came across in Helen Sword’s book, Air and Time and Light and Space—the snail conquers all. These words have kept me going and have kept me sane. It’s another way of saying be a tortoise and not a hare. It’s about chipping away, it’s about committing to a set of behaviors and tasks knowing that repetition will lead to accumulation. It is slow, yes, but it is momentum none the less.

So what to make of what he is saying here? On one hand he provides a workable model and workable time frame. One of the most astonishing things about the book is that he says you can cultivate the intellectual life with two hours a day. But on the other hand, he is not talking about a leisurely two hours. He’s talking about intensity of focus. As he says later on, “The life of study is austere and imposes grave obligations. It pays, it pays richly; but it exacts an initial outlay that few are capable of. The athletes of the mind, like those of the playin filed, must be prepared for privations, long training, a sometimes superhuman tenacity. We must give ourselves from the heart, if truth is to give itself to us. Truth serves only its slaves.” (4). In other words, the “work” itself may take place in two hours a day, but the vocation demands more than just the two hours a day. It means that the rest of my time is in some sense in service of those two hours and this is where the comparison to the athlete is instructive, because athletes don’t just train and then do whatever they might want. No, what they eat, when and how they sleep, everything is in service of that training. If, as we have seen in previous posts, the great work of the intellectual life happens in quiet and silence, then how we spend the rest of our time must in some sense serve that sense of quiet and silence. This is what I think he means by athlete of the mind.

What other practices and viruses does he commend? We will turn to that in the next post.