Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Writing a comprehensive theology?

I recently finished writing a paper on the text Theology Today by the International Theological Commission. The main point of the document was to establish what unifies Catholic theology in the midst of so many diverse "theologies" that are taught all over the place. The document says theologians need to be aware of the profound unity of all theology, since God is its subject, and at one point it seems to suggest the need for a unified account of theology. Being wholly incompetent for the task, yet interested in making sure that I have a unified understanding of theology, I started thinking about how I would write a unified account of all theology. I thought of a few different approaches to theology:

St Thomas' Summa (written for beginners in theology)

  • God himself and his creation
  • How man returns to God
  • Christ, who is God and man, the means of returning to God

The Gospels (written for all)
  • The Son is sent by the Father in Spirit
  • He reveals by means of words and deeds
  • The Paschal Mystery
  • Glory

The Philokalia authors (written for monks seeking perfection)
  • The purpose of the Christian life
  • The means for attaining it
  • Doctrine is introduced as needed

I added the last because it really does seem to be the most practical theology I've ever read, answering the question, "What must I do to see God?" In answering this question, a doctrine about God, angels, and the human person ends up being developed fairly thoroughly. All three of these models involve somehow the key doctrines of the faith and the most important information about how to live. One also sees in them instruction and examples about how to read Scripture (the Gospels interpret the OT). So here's my tentative model that I want to consider more thoroughly:
  • Faith--primarily an explanation of the Creed
  • Hope--about Heaven, the Kingdom of God, and the Beatitudes
  • Charity--an exposition of Christian life
    • Prayer--relationship with God
    • Fasting--relationship with things
    • Almsgiving--relationship with men
    • (or)
    • Poverty--things
    • Chastity--body
    • Obedience--mind/will
  • Instruction on how to read Scripture
Faith, hope, and charity are necessary for salvation, so they serve as an excellent model. Hope is a nice transition between pure doctrine and its application to our life, since hope requires that we know what Christ has done for us, and yet this hope allows us to then live according to Christ's teaching.

The division that comes after charity is not some arbitrary one, but is based on the truth that Christian life is not merely following laws, but it involves a greater excellence and true relationship with God. Therefore the life of charity is not fittingly divided into the commandments (although these are certainly part of it!), but better divided into the counsels (which all Christians must follow according to their state) or into the spiritual actions named in Matthew 6. These are related to a far greater perfection, and as long as Christians are only aiming at the "good enough" of the commandments, they will probably not actually succeed in keeping the commandments and even forget the reason for which they tried to in the first place.

Finally the instruction on how to read Scripture could be difficult, but I think it is very important. The Theology Today document pointed to the Word of God as the source of all Catholic theology, and so no one can be a theologian without reading and knowing how to read that great gift from God. It seems especially fitting that a book which intends to teach about God should conclude by pointing to a book far greater than itself and more rich in wisdom and spirit. Perhaps it could be placed within the context of the main divisions, but it seems like more of a really important appendix than something that fits naturally within the main work.

It won't be as thorough as the Summa and it won't be as terse as the Gospels or the Philokalia, but will somehow serve to see theology in one vision and apply it in life. And I probably won't actually get started for a very long time...

St John of Damascus, doctor of the Church, pray for us!

1 comment:

  1. I wonder if any other way than the Gospel's can be truly unified and/or truly a theology. Is it possible to know the unity of theology according to a human mode of thinking? St. Thomas has the order that imitates the Divine Mind but it cannot be possible to exhaust the nuances of the Gospels. For, St. Thomas orders his parts according the processions but are processions the only creature through which the entirety of theology can be known? I don't know.

    On the other hand, can we call the un-syllogistic style of the Gospels a science? Mustn't we have the mind of God to see the causes of the events recounted in them? So, it seems that St. Thomas has the order but the Gospels have the content. Can humans know the unity between the two? What do you think?