BEATRICE: I have a question for theologians among us. Has being a theologian contributed to personal spiritual growth and clarity, and let’s name it piety, or not? How did it contribute (or not)?
SOFIA: Well, I’m a church historian, but I’ll admit to doing the odd bit of theology now and again. Has it contributed to my personal spiritual growth, clarity and piety? Well, that is a big question, but I’ll try and answer it. Yes, it has contributed enormously to all three. Before I did a theology degree, I had huge numbers of questions: why is there suffering in the world? Why is there evil in the world? Where is Jesus now? How am I supposed to live my life? Is sex good? Is creation good? What is sin? Why is there injustice in the world? What am I supposed to believe? What happens to people who don’t believe in Jesus? How does my Baptist friend’s theology relate to Catholic theology? Since I studied theology and still do, I have all the same questions, but I know what answers have been mapped out by whom at different points and why, which helps a lot. I also now know a lot of things I didn’t know I didn’t know before I found out about them, like Thomas Aquinas’ theology of charity as friendship and the Holy Spirit as charity, which are now effectively at the core of my spiritual well-being. I am much clearer about the shape of the questions. As for piety, I came from a post-Vatican II family which didn’t do piety, except prayers and Mass. So, unusually, I think, I adopted for myself a very strong vein of Catholic piety, focused on Mary and the saints, holy pictures and statues and icons and the Rosary, entirely from theological study. However, it is Pope Francis who made me theologically pious towards Jesus.
RUTH: Theology has helped a lot. I came from a very pious background which gave me false certainties that not only alienated some people but also could not give me sustainable answers when my whole life seemed to be falling apart. Theology helped me to deal with uncertainty and complexity, but also helped me to think inclusively – to hold together the old and new and to cut through any rubbish. It’s given me power to reclaim Christianity from Christians caught up in rules and their own claims and helped many of my friends, family, students, and even strangers I meet on the bus/ train to be healed of religious claims that have bothered them for years. I have no trouble with piety and in fact will pray a decade of the rosary from time to time but the practice will not be about having certainty. Rather, it is about living with uncertainty and darkness, like Easter Saturday, and asking the holy trinity and the communion of saints including Mary to walk with me in my darkness. My first peer-reviewed article was about making sense of Jesus’ cross, death and resurrection as a mother. I could only see the crosses and death as a mother of a new born but by the end of writing the article, I could recognize the resurrections and believing in Jesus’ death and resurrection became a very rich belief for me and not just part of an empty creed that I had to say in mass every week.
BRIGID: More on this later, but I often say that I don’t know how I could still be a Catholic if I weren’t a theologian. Studying theology has given me such a sense of the breadth and depth of the tradition that I have a tremendous amount of freedom within an often polarized Catholic culture in the US. And, there are some theologians whose work I find extremely edifying in terms of faith — Elizabeth Johnson, Edward Schillebeeckx, Karl Rahner, Yves Congar, Shawn Copeland, James Alison, Sarah Coakley, Tina Beattie, among others…
ELLA: I agree… I LOVE the breadth and depth and variety of what is Catholic. Intellectual stimulation is how I get my juices flowing…
CHARLOTTE: Piety in the vein of reverence for God or devout fulfilment of chosen religious practices: that has changed over the years. I used to concentrate on the meaning of the mysteries of the rosary or stations of the cross and certainly that practice improved with age and education. When I learned about Ignatian meditation practices and Benedictine Lectio Divina, my prayers became more about personal relationship with Trinitarian persons. In Theology college courses, I was often taught “we all do Theology” when we try to make sense of what has been, what is and what will be. So, I would have to say yes, it has very much contributed to my spiritual growth and clarity, for the results have made me very aware of the gifts of the Spirit in my daily life and sorting out who is God in me and who am I in God.
BEATRICE: Somebody said ‘my theology studies helped me to understand the deep structure of the Mass in a way I hadn’t before’. Can people here perhaps recommend any books or articles for non-theologians (like myself) to read about this?
JANE: Jungmann’s Mass of the Roman Rite is a heavy starting point. I’m trying to remember the more recent books. I’ll try to look up a few others.
RUTH: Why don’t you have a look at Why the Mass Matters by Gerard Moore? Or try Bread of Life, Cup of Salvation: Understanding the Mass by John Baldovin.
BEATRICE: Thanks for the suggestions, Jane! I am eager to learn more about liturgy.
BEATRICE: I have more than once heard theologians say many of their peers lost certainty (and sometimes faith) because of their studies. Therefore, it’s uplifting to hear y’all say something else. ‘Study as prayer’, that’s brilliant!
SOFIA: In the area I teach, people are often scandalised to discover how much politics were involved with the early Church Councils. I try and point out that it’s just human beings being human beings. But the realities of church history are quite shocking. The inquisition, witch hunting and all that. It does, understandably, knock some people’s faith. But then that has always been a difficulty. A lot of important movements in the church have been caused by people being scandalised about what the Church around them was like. Including, obviously, the Reformation. But the break-away movements are never actually any more virtuous than the church they left, in the end. The religious orders are the most successful reform movements really, because they renew the Church from within.
BEATRICE: True. In Holland we have almost too many Christian denominations to count. One even more virtuous than the other, of course.
SOFIA: Dutch neo-Calvinism is in vogue among many American evangelicals these days. Hermann Bavinck and Abraham Kuyper.
BEATRICE: I googled them, but their views are way over my head.
SOFIA: Alternatively, you have more interesting things to think about!
BEATRICE: Church history and biblical scholarship are specialisations within theology, aren’t they?
SOFIA: My fellow church historians and I would insist on a distinction being made between theology and church history. All my colleagues were all actually trained as historians, using historical methodology, and they see theology as one element within the larger story of church history. If I am honest, I suppose I do as well. I was trained as a theologian and in literature, but to me church history is not just about what Christian people thought about God, but about what they did, how they lived, how they interacted with their social contexts. Traditional Patristic theology would be about the development of doctrine: creeds, Trinity, Christology, that sort of thing. I teach all that (and I love it), but I also teach about martyrdom, monasticism, education, scripture exegesis, literacy, cultural appropriation of and by Christianity, that sort of thing. I don’t study disembodied ideas without studying the people who professed them and their social and historical context. And I try to listen with an ear open for questions of gender and class.
BEATRICE: Thank you both so much for explaining this! A personal question on the side: I once knew a pastor who was also a church lawyer (he had two jobs), since he had studied both theology and had been to law school. He told me that he sometimes got bored, because he knew everything there was to know. Seriously, he said that. My own experience is that the more one knows the more one is imbued by how little one does know. But maybe there’s a critical point after which you complete the puzzle which I haven’t reached. How is that for you scholars? Do you feel you have reached a certain point of knowledge-saturation, or not at all, or in between? (please, just don’t answer this if I am asking too much).
SOFIA: I know a lot about the basic tenets of the Creed, and why they are the way they are. I guess I don’t expect to radically change my views on the Trinity or the Incarnation, for example. I should confess that a lot of modern Western problems in theology do not interest me at all, because I think they are non-problems. But there are many areas where I think much more work needs to be done, and I’d be interested then to hear about it from people who have done the work. There is a lot more to be said about the role of women throughout Church history, which I’m always interested to hear about, and about cultural interaction of various kinds. Today, there is a lot of really interesting new work being done in World Christianity, and in science and religion, a lot of which excites me. The whole question of artificial intelligence, and synthetic biology of all sorts, is really important and interesting, and I’m a novice on all that. The exploration of non-human thought in general, including mind theory in non-human animals, fascinates me. And theology and the environment remains a really, really crucial area. You have to remain interested in the key ethical questions of today, and they are legion. But getting to know these areas well enough to study them at academic level is another matter–I mainly rely on popularisations.
BEATRICE: Obviously, there is too much in the world to know within one lifetime. So, bless the souls who take an effort to write popular science literature. As somebody once said, “It is easy to make things complex, but it is difficult to make complex things easy”.
When I read things like this: ‘The empty tomb was, in [Edward Schillebeeckx’] opinion, an unnecessary hypothesis, since “an eschatological, bodily resurrection, theologically speaking, has nothing to do, however, with a corpse.”‘ (Wiki)… I suddenly understand apostate theologians…
ANNE: Theological study taught me that when you don’t understand, don’t walk away … dig deeper. It opened up the wisdom of the tradition for me – taught me that many of our questions have been asked before, and answered in many ways, all interesting. It reminded me that I am ‘a letter in the scroll’ – no more, but no less – that makes up the Christian story …
FAYE: Absolutely for me.
AMY: It’s helped me dump what is superstition and embrace true spirituality and piety. I’ve been able to re-define some things — like miracle — in a way truer to my understanding of God (my “word about God” — theology). All of this has deepened by participation in liturgy and other services.
BEATRICE: If I may ask, how has being a theologian redefined your notion of miracles?
ADELE: Radically! Rather than a magical cure, I understand a miracle as a “life-changing encounter with God” If a man regains his sight, that’s a cure. If a passer-by, seeing the cure, experiences God’s presence and action in a way which changes his focus/way of life, THAT is the miracle! See Matthew’s gospel – “He could do no miracles there, aside from a few cures, because of their little faith.” The cures don’t seem to impress the author much.
ELLA: I studied my way back into church. No doubt about it. I feel an irresistible draw to Liturgy, but my personal spirituality would look freeform to someone looking from the outside. I believe deeply in the immanent, intimate, in-dwelling presence of God as Love everywhere and in everything. I rarely say the rosary or attend formal adoration but worship in the garden and the gym and by interacting with people everywhere. That all came from my academic background which confirmed what I intuited.
GRACE: I have been enriched by my studies which have generated more questions than answers and opened my life to mystery, fearless questioning, passionate love for: God as incomprehensible mystery (Elizabeth Johnson); humanity in its glorious diversity and justice particularly for women. One of the things I love about our faith is eyes to see the endless opportunities on a daily basis to be a change-maker for life whether for individuals, community, parish, nation etc.!
FAYE: I love being able to explain concepts to people – perhaps things that they “should” know being cradle Catholics but they don’t. My study of theology has given me the background to be able to teach and evangelise. (In an informal way as well as in school).
CECILIA: I think this is a wonderful conversation and a personal thank you from a theologian/student/catholic woman who continues to have an up and down relationship with both the church and theology. Since I was encouraged to do an A Level in Theology (many moons ago) I haven’t looked back and even in my years of not ‘officially’ studying, reading theological history and discussions has always been a huge spiritual comfort and challenge to me and I am so grateful to this group as a space to discuss all things spiritual!
SUSANNA: I underwent my husband’s diaconal training when I felt a vocation arise for the same calling – that of being called to service as deacon. My wise priest mentor encouraged me to get an MDiv, amongst other things, so that I could give voice with more authority to the calling. The education, along the way, opened new avenues to view myself and others … it also introduced me to the New Cosmology which totally changed how I view myself as a child of God, intimately connected to the entirety of Creation. It has also fuelled me in my endeavours to help with women’s restoration to the permanent diaconate … our history is very important to this discussion and I never would have had it without a thorough theological background — information has “informed” and “strengthened” my passion for God, others and finally myself … I cannot fully convey how study has changed me …
EMMA: I suspect some are wired to be theologians just as some are wired to became caregivers or engineers. I used to listen to a single album of hymns when I was three years old …T ennessee Ernie Ford: The Old Rugged Cross ... and because three is also the year of why … my questions were theological from an early age. I was kicked out of Sunday School at 4 for asking repeatedly I might add … about “who were the girls who married Cain and Abel”. There had to be more families … with girls. So, I think my early theological thinking contributed more to my intellectual curiosity than to piety.
ELLA: What a great story!!
SOFIA: I think I was a tiny bit older when I asked why there was a Father and a Son but not a Mother and a Daughter! My father replied ‘Well, we do say the Hail, Mary’. I didn’t really understand why that was an answer, but was too embarrassed to ask any further.
THERESA: Certainly studying theology has enriched my faith, not because I think those who haven’t studied it are in any way poorer in their faith, but because we all have different ways of journeying towards God, and for some of us the path of scholarship is a fruitful way. Having said that, I am more interested in studying theologically than in studying theology. I enjoy studying patristic and some medieval theology but I find little to inspire me and much to infuriate me in some modern theology! I find theological inspiration and nourishment more by bringing theology into dialogue with other perspectives and disciplines – psychoanalysis, art, film, literature, and of course the Bible, though I prefer a narrative and literary approach to the Bible than a historical critical approach. But because I’m a person who tends to live in my head much of the time, my faith would lack something vital if it wasn’t nourished by theological study in some form or another.
SOFIA: I feel mean when I say I don’t have much time for many of the questions of modern theology– and I’d be interested to know whether your reasons are the same as mine or different. When I think about it, there are lots of areas of modern theology I do like or think are important– eco-theology, Black theology, obviously feminist theology– but in most other cases I think nothing added since the sixteenth century actually adds in useful way to what was already said in the Patristic and medieval periods.
THERESA: Re modern theology, my feeling is that it’s better at framing the questions that need to be asked than at providing solutions. So, with much liberationist, contextual and feminist theology, the questions seem to me absolutely fundamental and vital, and I admire the courage and vision of the pioneers who first asked those questions, but too often these lapse into a kind of political liberal moralising (Ruether would be an example of this), where I feel the mystery and paradox of faith and the significance of prayer, sacramentality and silence is sacrificed to a rhetoric of justice that I find quite reductive and rationalising. I love Charlene Spretnak’s book, Missing Mary, for its critique of this kind of theology. On the other hand, many postmodern theologians just seem to me like members of another white man’s club with very little purchase on the messy realities of material life. In all honesty, I wonder whether academic theology still too often suffers from a superiority complex. I know secularism is woefully ignorant of and closed to theological perspectives, but so often systematic theologians seem dismissive of all but their own discourses, which are increasingly becoming nothing more than echo chambers. IMHO!!
SOFIA: I agree with you that contextual theology is mainly important for raising questions. But I think feminist theologians suffer from the fact that the subject moves on so fast, what looked fresh and new quickly looks very inadequate. I call this the Mark’s Gospel syndrome, or the Justin Martyr syndrome, when your work is so inspiring and exciting that three people who are much more erudite than you immediately take it over and rewrite it and get all the credit and you (i.e. one) then look like an idiot. I could tell you everything that’s wrong with Elaine Pagels’ Gnostic Gospels, and I disagree with almost every word of it, but I still think it’s a really important book. Same with most of the women theologians of the 70s and 80s. But so many of them ended up walking away from the Church, and I’m sure they were following their consciences and therefore right to do so, but as far as I’m concerned they were walking in the wrong direction. Hmm. I think mainstream theology after Descartes is just wasting everybody’s time. So is any theology which thinks it helps at all to claim that God suffers in the divine essence, or any theology which thinks God is an object in the Universe, or any theology which thinks the Word is a different sort of God from God, or that the Resurrection or the incarnation didn’t really happen, or that all religions are basically the same, or that thinks sexual dimorphism should be projected onto the universe in any way, or that thinks only Christians are actually persons, or that we’re better off without devotion to Mary and the saints, or that thinks organised religion is anathema, or that thinks we’re all on our way to becoming shiny and nice post-humans, or super-clever humans, or ghosts in a machine. I’ve changed my mind about animal theology, and now think it has something of import to say, though it has said much which is wrong in its time. I think Queer Theology is actually really, really important, including in a positive way, in that the Church is the quintessential Queer entity in the world today, though neither side would thank me for saying that. I think justice according to Thomas Aquinas is much more helpful than modern notions of justice, though I do think human rights language is essential. The only systematicians I actually like are Orthodox, and that mainly because of their theology of Creation. I think ‘Celtic theology’ is actually on to something important, for all it’s so often an unhistorical fantasy. But I prefer my modern theology unintellectual. Perpetuating barriers and arcane discourse in this day and age seems to me to be fundamentally missing the point. (Says the person who spends her time teaching about the importance of the homoousion!)
THERESA: Sofia – every single word of this chimes in my heart. I could have written absolutely everything here–what a rare feeling of understanding and being understood that gives me!
SOFIA: Well, I knew we were on the same page when I read an account of your paper analysing the theological roots of the various arguments used to ban women from the priesthood, and where the fallacies lay. I’ve only recently discovered that Aristotle was actually right about females happening when you don’t have enough heat at conception–in the case of turtles. Perfect example of over-generalising from anecdotal knowledge. (Though I hear from a colleague who does early Buddhism that this idea appears in some early Indian texts, which might be the source of Aristotle’s ‘knowledge’.)