Why Theology?

“There must be a place, between abstraction and childishness, where one can speak seriously about serious things.”

~ Czeslaw Milosz, Treatise on Theology

I have spent much of the last two weeks navigating the strangely discombobulating world of airports, taxi rides, and commuter rail through unfamiliar and crowded urban landscapes. It must be the high holy days of conference season in the world of Catholic theology!

First I traveled to Miami for the annual gathering of the Catholic Theological Society of America; second, to Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Connecticut, for the biennial meeting of the International Thomas Merton Society.

Both conferences were wonderfully invigorating—above all for their people, for the renewal of relationships with good colleagues around the country and indeed around the world engaged in the discipline and art of theology (and its myriad variations).

It is a delightful thing to be in conversation with folks who more or less share a life-world and a language for one’s daily work, even where we disagree. At its heart, for all its internal and external tensions, theology is a language of love – which goes some distance in explaining why the best theological conversations seem to happen not in the conference hall but over a meal and not a few pints of beer.

St. Anselm famously described theology as fides quaerens intellectum — “faith seeking understanding.” Note the verb in the center, which gives the discipline its vitality and expansiveness. The late Jesuit Anthony De Mello highlighted the communal aspect of theology when he described it as “the art of telling stories about the divine. Also, the art of listening.”

Theology, in other words, opens a space for a shared remembrance of God, for the good news of our hope, for love. However one tries to define theology, what I feel so palpably among those who practice it, is love, which contains more than a hint of unquenchable desire. Desire for God, desire for fellowship with others, desire for communion with the earth, desire for unity and healing in the global community called church.

Theology is certainly a “serious” business, daring to surface the most elusive questions and unrequited hopes that human beings carry in their breast each day, dreams that so often remain hidden. So yes, theology is serious. But strangely enough, it is also playful, full of discovery and delight. It is not “childish” by any means–or so it should not be–but in many ways theology is “childlike,” which is saying something rather different.

Why is this? I think it is because theology is rooted in the human experience of God, who is Love, who is abundant Life, who is “lord and lady” of the dance. What Christians call grace–an evocative shorthand for this divine-human choreography–happens in our coming together to share it, to keep our sense of the gift alive in classrooms and churches and workplaces and cities. It happens even on the journey to “get there,” in crowded airports, taxis, and subways.

Wherever we are, it is Life and Love that compel us to dance. Theology is our attempt–our commitment, our invitation–to keep up and sing along.

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