Why Theology?

Editor’s Note: This is a revised version of a post from several summers ago, re-published with a note of gratitude to colleagues and friends around the country in the theological community.

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

~ Czeslaw Milosz, Treatise on Theology

During the next month I will spend several weekends navigating the discombobulating world of airports and taxi rides through unfamiliar urban and rural landscapes. It is the high holy days of conference season and retreats in the world of Catholic theology.

First I travel to Kansas City and Rockhurst University for the annual gathering of the College Theology Society, where I give a paper on the extraordinary work of Jewish feminist theologian Melissa Raphael; a few weeks later I’ll be in the rural environs of Nazareth, Kentucky, to give a weekend retreat for the Sisters of Charity on Wisdom-Sophia in the writings of Thomas Merton; finally, I travel to Big Sur, California, for a small conference on “The Future of Christian Wisdom,” hosted at the breathtaking cliff-side monastery of the New Camaldoli Hermitage.

For all the sometimes wearisome logistics and travel involved, such gatherings, without fail, are wonderfully invigorating—above all for their people, for the renewal of relationships with good colleagues from 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 (faith) and a language (theology) for one’s daily work, even where we often disagree on the finer points of our craft. 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 in the 11th century famously described theology as fides quaerens intellectum — “faith seeking understanding.” Note the verb in the center, which gives the discipline its vitality and expansiveness. In my teaching, I tend to add one more clause to Anselm’s, describing theology as “faith seeking understanding seeking expression“–to highlight the never-ending task of communicating the faith in ways that find purchase in the contemporary imagination. 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 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 indeed love and friendship, a relational dance which contains more than a hint of 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 hearts each day, dreams that so often remain hidden. So yes, theology is serious business. 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 and ought to be “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 to sing along.

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