Wednesday, April 13, 2005

"Because it is bitter, and because it is my heart"

Why "do" theology?

Why bother with this welter of words, this declaration of definitions, this cascade of concepts and avalanche of ideas? Is it all just "mental masturbation" after all, full of sound and fury and signifying nothing?

Enter lectio divina.

Not the practice, but the concept; the focus on the word. What are words, anyway? Sounds? Phemes? Morphemes? Ideas, abstractions, signs pointing toward signifieds? Symbols of reason?
"In the beginning was the logos...." Christianity is one of the three great religions "of the Book." What is a book, but words? and what are words? The organizing principle of the universe? Was there, then, chaos, upon which order was imposed, and that order was the logos, the sign and signifier of reason, which connects us directly to God? And if not, what is? How do we concieve of it?

"In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth." Funny thing about the first Creation story of Genesis: from a culture a world away from Hellenistic Greece, the originating principle of the world is still speech, is still intimately connected to words: "God said, 'Let there be light,' and there was light." The very act of creation is a speech-act. The speech of God is itself creative. God does not command light into creation, or direct someone else to carry out the task (not even light itself has that burden): the act of speech itself is the act of Creation. So the opening hymn of John's gospel is right: in the beginning was the word.

Words, then, are how we know God. We learn about God from hymns, prayers, psalms, worship, other people. God is idea, first. The experience may come to us prior to anything else, but understanding and appreciating that idea comes through words: through questions and answers we put to friends and family; through scripture and study and reading and even praying. Sometimes our sighs are too deep for words, but words are always the gateway and the pathway toward understanding what those sighs mean, where they originate and what they portend. the goal of the mystic communion of a Christian may be the "Cloud of Unknowing," but the way there, and the way back, and the explanation of what the way is, are all bound up with words. Words are our most intimate connection with the creation, which us itself idea beyond splendor and even beyond reality. Why, then, do they seem to alienate us from Creation? Made in our Creator's image, why are we not as our Creator in what we say?

Are words, then, the purpose, the goal? Julian of Norwich had her visions early in her life; then spent the rest of her life arranging and re-arranging just the right words to express them. Without the words, the visions would have remained hers alone, and we would have lost them. St. Thomas Aquinas reportedly said that God had blessed him to understand everything he had ever read (a great blessing indeed!); and then, after a controversy, he stopped writing. When his friend Reginald (as G.K. Chesterton records it) asked him to return to writing, Aquinas simply replied: " 'I can write no more.' There seems to have been a silence; after which Reginald again ventured to approach the subject; and Thomas answered him with even greater vigour, 'I can write no more. I have seen things which make all my writings like straw.' " And he didn't. Chesterton records that, at his death, "we may be sure that the great philosopher had entirely forgotten philosophy."*

Why do we do theology? Because it is faith seeking understanding; and understanding, seeking faith. And sometimes, because it is bitter; and sometimes, because it is our heart. And perhaps the point of theology is simply to climb the ladder, until we can kick it away.

G.K. Chesterton, St. Thomas Aquinas, 'The Dumb Ox,' New York: Doubleday 1956, pp. 141-42

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