Monday, September 19, 2011

Historical Theology

Historical Theology studies the history of theology, especially the development of theological and religious ideas in their social, cultural, or other historical context. It's fascinating, important, and hugely influential. For Catholics HT was given a boost by the Second Vatican Council, which directed that seminary education in dogmatic theology should take the "genetic" approach:

Dogmatic theology should be so arranged that these biblical themes are proposed first of all. Next there should be opened up to the students what the Fathers of the Eastern and Western Church have contributed to the faithful transmission and development of the individual truths of revelation. The further history of dogma should also be presented, account being taken of its relation to the general history of the Church. Next, in order that they may illumine the mysteries of salvation as completely as possible, the students should learn to penetrate them more deeply with the help of speculation, under the guidance of St. Thomas, and to perceive their interconnections. They should be taught to recognize these same mysteries as present and working in liturgical actions and in the entire life of the Church. They should learn to seek the solutions to human problems under the light of revelation, to apply the eternal truths of revelation to the changeable conditions of human affairs and to communicate them in a way suited to men of our day. (Optatum totius, n.16) 

These pedagogical instructions are an incentive, at least to me, to distinguish (a) systematics from dogmatics, (b) clerical education from theological education, and (c) overall formation from theological education. OT n. 16 is typically taken as a design for individual seminary courses: each dogma course begins with the Bible, proceeds through the Fathers and the twists of Church history, pays a visit to Aquinas, and runs into reflections on the life of the Church. I think we'd do better, however, to take this paragraph of OT as a plan for overall priestly formation. Ordinandi should soak in the Bible and the Fathers, should learn church history, and should be challenged (and already motivated) to connect the eternal truth with present-day questions. The speculative penetration of divine truth and the appreciation of the analogy of faith, under St Thomas's guidance, is the properly theological part of this education. This ought not to be restricted, I'd say, to a week or two or three in any given course: instead following Aquinas's pedagogy in sacred doctrine should be the main work of every theology course. I assume, however, that the other matters--Scripure, the Fathers, etc.--are being learned elsewhere, both in the classroom and outside it.

If systematic theology (i.e., theology) courses must all be taught genetically, then what about courses in Scripture, Patristics, History, Liturgy, Pastoral Theology, etc.? Will these have dogmatic and indeed Thomistic sections, since their material is, or contributes to, dogma? Hmm, I thought not. You could wreck a good theological education program by embracing OT n. 16 too vigorously.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Curmudgeonly Note on Undergraduate Theology

A Catholic college or university should, of course, have courses (and requirements!) ensuring that undergraduates are suitably educated in the doctrine, history, and culture of the faith. Typically, though, undergrads are no more ready for theology than they are for law or medicine. Future theologians would be well-served by a good philosophy program, supplemented by spiritual formation (the liturgy and sacraments, private prayer, lectio divina) and by courses in the positive religious sciences, loosely so called. My scheme would be for the undergraduates to study the Scriptures, Church history, and perhaps apologetics, making it clear that these are preparatory subjects for theology proper.

Who should teach undergraduates theology? Those qualified and willing, of course. A Dominican with an STL, if he reads widely and constantly in theology, is an excellent candidate. I don't think, though, that simply teaching undergraduates is a good work for Dominicans with doctorates in theology proper. Unlike the brethren with doctorates in most secular subjects, theologians don't have a subject that lends itself to undergrad presentation. Nobody would dream of sending new high school graduates into a major seminary to begin a B.Div. (STB, MDiv, or whatever); but somehow we think the same rudimentary theology courses can be watered down even further to make them part of the BA curriculum. Well, maybe. But I doubt it.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Labor Day

Like the world, Labor Day was created in six days. That's how long it tool for the bill to sail through Congress and be signed into law by President Grover Cleveland in 1894. The holiday was created to soothe unionized labor in the wake of the Pullman strike (which involved railroad workers in the company monopoly-town of Pullman, Illinois; the strike became violent, disrupted the Mail, and was forcibly put down by US Marshalls and the Army, with a dozen deaths).

The ambiguity of our public holiday matches the ambiguous role of organized labor. Everybody knows unions have done a lot of good, and have also been crooked and sometimes violent. The same can be said of employers. Accordingly a Christian observance of Labor Day needs nuance, and will call for honesty, justice, and generosity from workers and employers alike.

The Scriptures teach that the need for hard labor results from original sin. While Adam was supposed to tend the garden of Eden from the very beginning, it was only after the Fall that he began to eat his bread by the sweat of his brow. During this life the redeemed must still toil, and "those who do not work should not eat." But at the same time the Gospel urges and delivers a freedom from anxiety about toil. We're supposed to work, but are not supposed to worry about what we are to eat, or drink, or wear. "Seek first the Kingdom of God, and His righteousness," says Jesus, "and all these things will be given you besides." We can be content, indeed joyful, with a poor sufficiency, knowing that God is our great and everlasting love and treasure. We work a few shifts, and as hard as they may be we can look forward to a sabbath that lasts forever, and to the crown of life, everlasting life in God, as our great reward.

(Not the sermon I preached today, but something like this might not be bad next year!)

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Man Fully Alive

It was trendy at and after Vatican II to quote this phrase from St Irenaeus's Adversus haereses (iv.20.7): "The glory of God is man fully alive...." The second half of the sentence was often omitted, as was the context of the remark.

The passage is: "The glory of God is man fully alive, and the life of man is the vision of God. If the revelation of God through creation already brings life to all living beings on the earth, how much more will the manifestation of the Father by the Word bring life to those who see God."

It's the beholding of God that gives glorious divine life to man. Without the visio Dei, we're dead. And how do you get this vision? Only in the Word, who makes God known while still preserving the invisibility of the Father. And notice that St Irenaeus also distinguishes between natural, earthly life--given by the Word in creation--and the supernatural life that comes from the manifestation of the Father in Christ. 

Keep this up and, next thing you know, people will start to think the Catholic faith is natural, so that believers can be "architects of a new humanity." Yikes!