Why Theology?

Given how much bad theology there is and how often it seems to corrupt people’s faith, you might wonder, “Why study theology at all?”  Even many Catholic parents and students seem to think that studying theology is a waste of time.  “My child goes to Mass and prays regularly. Studying theology will probably just undermine his faith.”  And if you’re a devoted Catholic adult who goes to Mass and Confession regularly, why would you need theology?

A student said to me one day, “Professor Smith, I learn so much more about God watching a sunset over the lake than I do from any theology class.”  I always find it touching how much faith students like this have in me, convinced I won’t grade them down if they say things like this – something the person teaching that theology course might take offense at.  But my response was “Of course, you do!”  In theology class, we just talk about God. But God speaks to us in and through Creation. That’s why the Book of Genesis pictures the act of Creation as God speaking.  God says . . . and it is.  But now we need to learn to see God everywhere in Creation, especially in the faces of the poor and disabled.

Fine, but we don’t need to read books filled with a lot of complicated stuff to learn that, do we?  So why not just watch sunsets, work in soup kitchens, and go to Mass?

Those are good things, but most of us who teach theology know something that other people often forget.  People, especially kids, ask questions.  I was reminded of this the other day when my colleague, a brilliant and yet disarmingly sweet Dominican sister, gave a talk on the Eucharist.  She mentioned that when she was teaching middle school kids, they would ask questions like “What would happen if a mouse got into the Tabernacle and chewed on the Eucharist?  Would he have chewed on Christ’s Body?  Would he have Christ inside him?”

Anyone who has spent time around kids knows they love questions like this.  What happens after you die?  Do angels really have wings?  If you come out of the confessional, and while you’re kneeling in prayer, your mind wanders and you have a bad thought about a girl, do you have to go right back in and say, “Forgive me, Father, I have sinned. It’s been two minutes since my last confession?”

Sometimes kids ask such questions not caring much about the answers, but sometimes a lot depends on them getting the right answers. I know a young woman who met with a priest every two weeks for years trying to get answers to her questions. He just didn’t have the theological training to give her what she needed.  When she finally got to her first theology class in college, she realized that this professor also wouldn’t be able to give her the answers she needed, so she asked around and transferred to the class with someone who could.

* Two Old Men Disputing by Rembrandt, 1628 [National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Australia]

St. Augustine had questions he had to resolve before he could enter the Church.  At the beginning of the Confessions, he complains, “O Lord, you have so long been far from me.”  But then he realizes that the problem wasn’t that the Lord was far from him, but that he had been far from the Lord.  But how could that be?  If God is everywhere, then how could God have ever been “far” from him?  Everywhere he went, God was there.  He just didn’t know it.

It took him a while to realize that he had been thinking about God the wrong way – as though the Christian God was a being whom Augustine could run away from, like Apollo fleeing Zeus. Eventually, St. Ambrose helped him realize that the God Christians were talking about was the Source of the Being and Goodness of the cosmos, not just another especially powerful being in it.

The Scriptures say that Christ is “the Son of God.”  Great.  But what does that mean?  Is He a “son of god” the way Hercules or Apollo were sons of a god?  The early Fathers and Doctors of the Church were far from uncritical in their acceptance of Greek philosophy, but they used its resources to help clarify that the Son is “one in Being” (consubstantial) with the Father. And eventually, after more years of arduous theological reflection, they affirmed that those three characters in the Scriptures – the Father, Son, and Spirit – were three hypostases (another term borrowed from Greek philosophy) in one Being.

Theology is meant to be an “understanding of faith,” not an “undermining of faith.”  But when people have questions – and as Pope Saint John Paul II never tired of repeating, we always do, especially the young, and this is a good thing – who will provide answers?  And what sort of answers?

Should those answers come from secular perspectives: “Miracles don’t really happen,” or “God would never condemn any sexual act”?  Should the answers come from a fideist perspective: “Don’t think too much; just do what the Church tells you”?

St. Peter bids us “always be ready to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope which is in you.” (1 Peter 3:15)  Are we ready?  With answers that help people understand their faith so they can live it more fully in a fallen, complicated world?

If not, perhaps we should be reading more good theology and fewer angry blog posts. Things are bad, yes. In a fallen world, they always are.  But would we be better served by reading or listening on talk radio to yet another angry screed complaining about our problems, or by mining the wisdom of the Doctors of the Church to help us understand what we should do about those problems?

 There’s no getting around it.  People have questions.  And we better have good, well-thought-out answers, or we’ll lose them.  And sadly, too often, we do.


*Image: Painted when Rembrandt was 22, the identity of the men in the painting is disputed. An early engraver noted them as Elisha and Elijah; others have speculated that they are Hippocrates and Democritus. However, the generally accepted view is that they are St. Peter and St. Paul. (see Galatians 2:11)

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Randall B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.