Why studying theology helps Catholics love God more and defeat heresies
December 20, 2018 (LifeSiteNews) – I have been struck by a paradox of modernity. It seems that the further we go towards “technological liberation,” the less time we actually have for leisure. The development of technology was initially promoted by the likes of Descartes and Bacon as a cure for man’s woes and a relief of his labors, but as time goes on and our devices multiply in number and power, do we not feel burdened by many new and subtler woes, and weighed down by seemingly endless petty tasks? Our time is limited, and sometimes our technology, instead of being a tool, is a vacuum or vortex into which our attention is sucked and stripped of its vitality, flexibility, and depth. We can become blind and deaf to the glories of creation.
Given this fact, it could seem cruel or ironic for me to recommend that every Catholic, without exception, should spend time studying theology. But it is true: we have an obligation to improve our grasp of the mysteries of Faith that we profess. It is not an obligation that binds at every moment or under pain of sin; it rises rather from our God-given human nature, which seeks the truth, and from the nature of the act of Faith, which is a light shining in our intellects.
To profess truths without seeking to understand them better, according to the possibilities at our disposal, is a kind of contradiction in terms. In the long run, our Faith may weaken under the pressures of unbelief or be contaminated by heresy if we do not make a point of expanding and deepening our knowledge of it.
But couldn’t someone object to this counsel that we should not study things that are “too high for us,” as even Scripture warns? We will never be able to understand the mystery of the Incarnation, because, first of all, we cannot understand God (whose essence is to be!); second, we cannot understand the Trinitarian relations; and third, we cannot even understand creation, which reflects the unknowable depths of God. St. Thomas Aquinas once wrote: “Even if you spent your whole life studying a fly, you would not get to the bottom of it.” We do not even know ourselves. Any truth having to do with God is beyond the finite capacity of our created intellect. As St. Augustine said: “Si comprehenderis, non est Deus” (if you can wrap your mind around it, it isn’t God).
If our minds are so limited, why do we bother to do theology? Why not simply recite the creed, accept what it says “on faith,” and carry on with our workaday lives in the world?
The first and most essential reason is this: the lover desires to know the beloved. The lover cannot rest content with a superficial knowledge but strives to penetrate to the very innermost being of the one loved. Jesus Christ is the lover of mankind, the lover of souls, with an infinite love. He is the one we are striving to know better, and, with faith in His revelation, accompanied by His grace, we can and will know Him better—certainly with our hearts, but also with our intellects.
What comes first, always, is faith. “Without faith, it is impossible to please God,” says the Epistle to the Hebrews. Why should faith have to come first? God wants to share with us His Trinitarian life, which is infinitely above our nature. There is no possible way that our nature could know this life or that our nature could attain it by its own efforts. He must pour it into us, and we must receive it as He gives it to us. Our mode of receiving in this life is faith; in the next life, the beatific vision. In faith, we trustfully submit our mind and will to Him, journeying in a state of some darkness; in vision, we ecstatically give Him our mind and will, bathed in the light of glory.
Back to the original question, then: Why are we trying to understand that which our mind cannot be expected to understand? It seems that even though we are permitted to love God, our intellect remains at such a disadvantage that we should be content just to love Him, and let the intellect take its turn in heaven.
This may sound pious, but in reality it is a false modesty.
First, believers can and do make progress in their understanding, but it takes commitment and effort, like anything else worth doing. It is the greatest challenge the human mind can dare to undertake, but also the most fulfilling, the most satisfying of our hunger for reality and the very source of all reality. It is better to have a little understanding of the noblest things than much understanding of petty things. As the Church reflects on the mysteries of the Faith, she sees more and more into their beauty, fittingness, and interconnectedness; theologians receive the fruits of this reflection from the Church and, in return, contribute to those fruits. We can share in this plentiful banquet even now.
Second, there are always errors and heresies arising, and these need to be met with sound arguments, persuasive reasoning, accurate distinctions, well-formulated language. Especially in an age of great intellectual confusion, moral anarchy, and ecclesiastical decadence, we need to know what we believe and be able to express it; we need to know how to respond to objections and misinterpretations, which the weak human mind will always be throwing against Divine Revelation.
The ancient Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon speaks to both motivations, the negative and the positive: “The Council has accepted the synodical letters of the blessed Cyril [of Alexandria]. . . as being well-suited to refuting Nestorius’s mad folly and to providing an interpretation for those who in their religious zeal might desire understanding of the saving creed.”
Some recommended books for study:
- Frank Sheed, Theology for Beginners; Theology and Sanity
- Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma (new and emended edition)
- Council of Trent, Canons and Decrees; Catechism
- Michael Sheehan, Apologetics and Catholic Doctrine
- Thomas Kocik, The Fullness of Truth
- Roger Buck, Cor Jesu Sacratissimum: From Secularism and the New Age to Christendom Renewed
Those who have some background already in philosophy or theology could profitably imitate the practice of the great American fiction author Flannery O’Connor, who made a point of reading an article of the Summa theologiae each night before bedtime. I’ve met a number of people who, by doing this, have succeeded in reading through this mighty tome, which is probably the single greatest work of theology ever composed.
But all of us can afford 15 minutes a day of reading, whether early in the morning or before turning out the lights at night. This food for the believing intellect is, in its own way, even more important than the food and drink we take in for our bodily life.
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