Those of us in the business know that the egos of some theologians—from the ancient Gnostics to the professional dissidents of our time—tower over Catholic doctrine. So it was refreshing to hear a very prominent theologian remark years ago, “The Church teaches doctrine, not theology.” A truly humble observation. He thus placed the art of theology into its proper role of supporting and explaining Church doctrine.
“Theology” (the study of God) is just a highfalutin word for “pondering God’s revelation.” When very smart people with advanced degrees ponder God (for better or for worse), they’re called “theologians.” But theology is a work too important to be left to the professionals. As long as we hold fast to Catholic doctrine and ponder Church teaching in cooperation with God’s grace, in our own way we ourselves can even dare to claim “theologian” status. At the very least we can rightfully claim to be engaged in true “theological reflection.”
Mary was the first New Testament theologian. She told Saint Luke that she pondered the joyful events surrounding the birth or her Son: “…and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart…” We imitate Mary’s pondering—as well as her theological method—when we recite her Rosary.
We can only begin to grasp those lengthy discourses of Jesus found in the Gospel of John preceding the Lord’s Passion through the hard work of reading, pondering, and re-reading the words of Christ. Indeed, the annual liturgical cycle is the Church’s way to ponder God’s revelation repeatedly and to endeavor to integrate his teachings into our lives. This too is theology.
In the Gospel account of the man born blind we see another facet—and fruit—of theological reflection. After being cured by the Lord, the beggar finds himself the target of the Pharisees, who attempt to persuade him to tamper with the evidence. But the man, forced to revisit the circumstances of his cure, by God’s grace deepens his understanding of the Person of Jesus. He concludes Jesus is “a prophet,” “devout,” and “from God.” And when his persecutors finally give up on him and Jesus seeks him out, the man at last recognizes Jesus as Lord and bows down in worship. Theology should lead to a sense of awe in the presence of the Lord.
The beggar’s theological reflection takes place within the context of his suffering. Similarly, reflecting upon our past—our joys as well as our sorrows—and measuring the experiences in the light of Christ, we receive many opportunities to recognize and appreciate God’s loving providence. Good theology connects Church doctrine to our lives.
True theological pondering, of course, requires the action of the Holy Spirit, directing us always in His truth. But not every act of theological reflection bears holy fruit. Some theologians—like the Devil who tempted Jesus in the desert by quoting Scripture verses—don’t like Christ or his message and presume to stand in judgment of God’s revelation. Cut off from God, their musings distort rather than clarify Church doctrine.
Furthermore, the threats to healthy Christian pondering are easy to see in our day. We do not seem to have time to ponder much of anything (anything more profound than our bank accounts), including the states of our souls. Our consumer obsessions, hyper-activities and Internet fixations are all enemies of contemplation. The “stuff” of healthy pondering is easily crowded out by hyperactivity. (I remind myself of the dangers of fixating on my smartphone by calling it “666.”)
A life of pondering the truths of the Gospel must begin in childhood. The Old Testament sacred writer speaks with urgency: “Therefore, you shall love the LORD, your God, with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength. Take to heart these words which I enjoin on you today. Drill them into your children. Speak of them at home and abroad, whether you are busy or at rest. Bind them at your wrist as a sign and let them be as a pendant on your forehead” (Dt. 6:5-8).
The great 20th Century theologian and National Baseball Hall of Fame home run king, Babe Ruth, offers a similar life lesson he learned as a child. After a dissolute personal life that often played out in public, he eventually returned home to the Catholic Church he loved. Here is his sage advice on the art of pondering the truths of the Faith:
I strayed from the church, but don’t think I forgot my religious training. I just overlooked it. I prayed often and hard, but like many irrepressible young fellows, the swift tempo of living shoved religion into the background…You can’t make kids religious, they say, because it just won’t take. Send kids to Sunday School and they too often end up hating it and the church. Don’t you believe it. As far as I’m concerned, and I think as far as most kids go, once religion sinks in, it stays there—deep down. The lads who get religious training, get it where it counts—in the roots. They may fail it, but it never fails them. When the score is against them, or they get a bum pitch, that unfailing Something inside will be there to draw on. I’ve seen it with kids. I know from the letters they write me. The more I think of it, the more important I feel it is to give kids “the works” as far as religion is concerned. They’ll never want to be holy—they’ll act like tough monkeys in contrast, but somewhere inside will be a solid little chapel. It may get dusty from neglect, but the time will come when the door will be opened with much relief. But the kids can’t take it, if we don’t give it to them.
If we hold fast to the orthodox doctrines of the Church, we too can become insightful theologians like Babe Ruth. Catholic doctrine is always worth pondering but only with humility, refusing to tinker with the teachings of the Church handed down from the Apostles.
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