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).

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