Theo-babble

On Star Trek: The Next Generation, there was a frequent employment of a sci-fi trope known as techno-babble. The actors were given highly technical sounding jargon to say in order to talk about how the ship worked or why a particular phenomenon was taking place. Scientists were often hired to help make this jargon sound more realistic, but it was still basically nonsense. The writers would use techno-babble as a way to get out from under a particularly difficult plot. They would give the actors lines like, “Maybe if we [tech] the [tech] then we can [tech] and we just might get out of this one!” The scientific consultants were left to fill in the blanks later with something that sounded plausibly futuristic.

In science fiction, this sort of story-telling technique, while artificial, can actually work if it is used sparingly. When characters speak in complicated jargon, we assume that they are doing something that would be almost impossible for us to understand. We can accept that this is so because we assume that the future will be full of unfamiliar things that yet unknown to us.

We can accept techno-babble in science fiction, but we should not have to accept theo-babble in theology.

Theology means words (logoi) about God (Theos). We cannot know God if He does not reveal Himself to us. True theology, therefore, always comes from God’s revelation of Himself in Jesus Christ, a revelation that is made manifest for us in Holy Scripture, the Holy Sacraments, and the tradition and teaching of the Church. We have theology because we have a God who wants us to know Him. He has given us the words with which we can think about Him, speak of Him, and thereby draw closer to Him.

Many Christians today are skeptical of theology though. In parish ministry, I ran across this attitude frequently. In the same strangely incongruent way that people used to say, “I’m spiritual but not religious,” a self-proclaimed Christian would tell me, “I believe in God but I don’t buy into all that theology nonsense.”

There are likely many causes of this antipathy, but at least part of the motivation is fear. Christians are afraid that if they do not understand what the experts are saying about God, they might not really know God at all.

In the last hundred years, the western Church has become more and more dependent on the academy, which has meant that theology has largely been farmed out to experts. During that same time period, the academy has become more skeptical of revelation and the truth of religious claims. This has resulted in a growing division between those who are theologically educated and those who are not.

Those who have been schooled, either through seminary training or Christian formation programs, in the historical critical reading of Scripture, the various source theories for how the Bible was written, and creative new theologies that find complicated ways of explaining away centuries of moral teaching, have become the brahmin of the ever-progressing, ever-shrinking western Church. Meanwhile, people who pray emotionally and simply, say rosaries every day, and speak about God primarily in personal, relational terms are considered simple folk who can be laughed at, pitied, or ignored. We are living through a new kind of clericalism in which the clergy’s supposed spiritual advantage over the laity comes not from a deeper life of prayer but from a greater access to secret knowledge that the simple folks with their backward faith can never understand.

None of this is to suggest that theology needs to be dumbed-down. Every discipline has its own grammar, and theology is no exception. Theology often deals with rich complexities. Theological language is necessary to talk about those complexities.

Likewise, I do not wish to suggest that the academy is not a proper place for theology. As Jordan Hillebert helpfully explains in a recent article on Covenant, “Christian theology may offer itself as one of a number of rival traditions — opening itself to rational critique but offering in its turn a critical rejoinder to other intellectual traditions. It may be that one’s theology ultimately folds under the pressure of such scrutiny. It might also be the case that theology finds itself capable of resolving certain tensions and contradictions in other traditions in a way that demonstrates its inner coherence and explanatory power.” As part of a whole, theology grounds our educational pursuits in something stable and grounded, God’s revelation, but it does so in a way that allows for a creative synthesis between all the other disciplines, all of which ultimately find their root in God’s design as well.

Theology needs its own language, but that language should not be used to create a barrier to theological reflection to keep out those who are less academic and cerebral in their approach. Padre Pio and Brother Lawrence are as worthy of the title theologian as Karl Rahner and Karl Barth.

Reading the early Church Fathers is a great way to break free from the grip of theo-babble. It is surprising just how accessible the Fathers are, despite the tremendous language and culture gaps that exist between their time and ours. The Fathers were largely preachers and pastors. They did their theology with an eye towards what was happening in their communities, always keeping in mind the need of the people to come to know Christ. This does not mean their works lacked sophistication. I defy anyone to find for me a work of theology more sophisticated than St. Augustine’s City of God. Nevertheless, even read now, their theology still feels fresh and close to the life of the people. Take for instance something like St. John Chrysostom’s sermons on marriage and family life. They are as relevant now as they were when they were written and with only minor adjustments they could be handed to any young couple preparing for the married life even today.

In some ways, the birth of theo-babble can be traced back to the scholastic period (roughly 1100 AD to 1700 AD). It was during this time that theology became an academic rather than purely spiritual pursuit. Critical thought, often in contradistinction to Scriptural reflection, became the dominant mode in many forms of theological exploration. Theological treatises often became long, weighty tomes.

Yet despite these generalized tendencies in the work of the scholastics, there is a genuinely mystical heart to medieval theology. While a St. Anselm or a St. Thomas Aquinas might be difficult to understand without a heavy philosophical background, the heart of their writing is clearly their own lives of prayer and their desire to move the reader, in an ordered way, towards a deeper realization of God through prayerful reflection. In this way, they anticipate great twentieth century theologians like Hans urs Von Balthasar and Vladimir Lossky, writers who require a bit more intellectual heft to read but who deliver as much divine poetry as they do scholastic prose.

Theology is unavoidable. Anyone who has ever said anything about God has engaged in theology. The question is not if we will do theology or not but whether our theology will be true or false, helpful in bringing us deeper into the mystery of God or a blockade that keeps God at arm’s length. Far too often today, what we hear in our churches is theo-babble, offered to obscure the truth rather than reveal it. Leaders in the Church, clerical and lay, have a responsibility to impart good theology to the world. Pastors have a responsibility to offer good theology to those whose souls have been entrusted to them. Parents have a responsibility to raise their children with the kind of theology that will ground them in the truth. Instead of building locked doors with our words, we ought to be giving the people we love words shaped into keys.

At the end of the day, all we have is theology – words about God. That is all that God has given us to know Him with and love Him. It is all that we need. God’s Word became flesh for us, that our flesh might be redeemed in Him. “I have decided to know nothing among you except Christ and Him crucified,” said Paul (1 Corinthians 2:2). Our words may be made simple because the God who gave them to us is ultimately quite simple, even in the mystery of His unknowable essence. Simple, elegant, and beautiful. God spoke but one Word, and the world bent the knee and tasted the glory.

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God’s memory

cross of christ built into a brick wall

The Lord has remembered us. He will bless us. He will bless the House of Israel. He will bless the House of Aaron.
– Psalm 115:12

We have a funny relationship with memory in western culture today. There is a massive market for nostalgia. Old television shows and movies are remade constantly. We have at our fingertips more ways of photographing, recording, and documenting life events than ever before. There is a constant craving to capture the past, to bottle it and dip our toes in it from time to time.

Yet this great nostalgia does not include a desire for continuity. We dislike the idea of tradition in any form. If an idea cannot be demonstrated to be useful by contemporary sensibilities, it is instantly tossed aside without a second thought. The same past that we view with misty-eyed sentiment when it comes to things like pop culture and fashion is seen as a tyrant when it comes to how we live our lives, our values, and the seeking of life’s true meaning.

Memory is far more than what we think it is. Memory is not just an assortment of images and recollections. To remember is to know something and make it real. It is to bring a person or an idea into the narrative of life. If I remember you, I know you. You are a part of me, and I am a part of you. This is what makes memory loss so tragic, not that it just robs us of our past, it robs us of our present as well. If I cannot remember you, I cannot know you.

Fr. Stephen Freeman, in this wonderful reflection on prayers for the dead, remarks that the divine memory is an important and central part of the Orthodox burial service. He says, “Funeral services conclude with the ancient hymn, ‘Memory eternal!’ in which the Church prays that God will forever remember the departed. To be remembered by God is nothing less than life eternal.”

This is ultimately what salvation is. It is to be remembered by God. Our memories are finite. They eventually give out. When we die, our memories die with us. Even the most famous and well known people will eventually be forgotten by history. But God remembers eternally. When He remembers you, you live. When He calls you to mind, that very action calls you into being. God chooses not to remember your sin, only your light, which is ultimately His light shining through you. Your sin is forgotten through the blood of the cross, but your life is remembered eternally through the love of God.

This is the power of the biblical concept of memory. Whenever God “remembers” someone, blessing follows. When God remembers Noah, the waters subside (Genesis 8:1). When God remembers Ruth, He opens her womb (Genesis 30:22). In remembering Ephraim, despite his sin, the Lord’s heart is warmed and He has mercy (Jeremiah 31:20). Examples abound. Whenever God remembers His covenant with Israel, He restores Israel. When He remembers us, He restores us as well.

On the cross, the thief who has faith in Jesus says to Him, “Jesus remember me when you come into your kingdom!” And Jesus replies, “Today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:42-43). He doesn’t say, “Sure thing, Buddy. I’ll think about you all the time.” He tells him that he will be with Him. That is the power of memory for God. That is what it does. It makes things real.

This is also one of the many reasons why the mystery of the Eucharist makes no sense to the world. Jesus takes bread and wine. He tells us that they are His Body and Blood. And then He says, “Do this in remembrance of me.” Remembrance – the biblical word is anamnesis – is far more than just a nice reminder. Jesus is not asking us to think sweet thoughts about Him whenever we gather for a light snack. He’s telling us that as we remember Him, He remembers us. The bread and the wine may not look any different than they did before they were blessed, but they are different. Remember Him because He is what we receive at the altar, regardless of what our senses are telling us.

And this, of course, is also why we pray for the dead, not because we expect to change God’s mind about a sentence already passed, but because we long to know that those whom we love are alive in the mind and heart of God. We pray for the salvation of the dead for the same reason that we pray for the salvation of everybody else, because it is only in the light of the eternal memory of God that we live forever. His memory is our future.

Image from here.

The air is Catholic

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Recently, I had the rare experience of having a Sunday off. Since my wife was away, I had the boys to myself and decided to take them into the backyard to play with the hose. This is a more trepidatious procedure than you might at first imagine. Both of my boys, ages 7 and 3, are autistic. Among the many difficulties that are part of that is the fact that they will not necessarily come to me when I call them. Since they also often do knuckle headed things like swallowing rocks or running out into traffic, I have to be all over them when we are outside of the house. And since there’s two of them, I do not often take them outside when I am home alone with them since they could run in opposite directions. But on this particular morning, I decided it was worth the risk. I set up a barricade that kept them either inside our screened in porch or in the backyard and watched them play. While my oldest made the water from the hose shoot up and around in all directions, I helped my youngest draw circles on the porch floor with blue and yellow sidewalk chalk. It was an unusually peaceful time with my boys, and I allowed myself to drink that in. I smiled when they laughed. I smelled the sunscreen I had rubbed on their faces and the grass clippings from the previous day’s mowing. I breathed in the moment, trying to hold onto the feeling, allowing my lungs to fill with warm summer air.

It occurred to me later that there was something essentially Catholic about that experience. That may sound odd since obviously a man need not be a Catholic or even any kind of Christian to enjoy a Sunday morning with his children. Yet what I experienced was not just the joy of the moment itself but the way in which that joy is connected to the whole of God’s good work in the world. I felt a profound sense of connection. The sweetness of the air and the sounds of my kids playing were somehow tapped into the mystery of salvation. There is an endless continuity between that moment in time and the crucifixion and resurrection of Our Lord.

A lot of Christians, including many liturgical Protestants, have been taught that the word catholic means universal. That is true up to a point, but it is not quite as accurate as it is to say that catholic means according to the whole. That is what the Greek words that make up our word catholic, κατά and ὅλος, mean literally. When we say that the Church is Catholic, we mean that she is whole, she is full. When we say that we are Catholic, we mean that we share in that wholeness and partake of that fullness. And that means that our entire experience of creation is part of the deal. The boundaries of our faith are far more expansive than what we might otherwise imagine.

One of the things that is often hard to communicate when evangelizing is the fact that Christianity is a way of life far more than a set of theorems. To be sure, there is a rich and vibrant intellectual life in the Catholic tradition that builds off of the foundation of basic doctrine. Nevertheless, having all the basic doctrine boxes checked will not make you a Christian, nor will reading every word of the Summa Theologica give you a Catholic mind and heart. People today want sound byte answers to their questions about life, faith, God, and all the rest, but what they need is to live inside the heart of God. This is why I think that some of the best evangelism today comes not from having the slickest pamphlets with the best answers but from being forthrightly and unabashedly strange. Consider this:

Undoubtedly weird to see eucharistic adoration happening in a public place, yet by allowing the sacred to invade and inhabit the every day, we begin to wake up to the reality that everything is being made holy by the presence of Christ in the world. In a Catholic worldview, the whole world participates in the life that God has given and restored in Christ. The air is Catholic. The trees are Catholic. The act of walking down the street, of buying a slice of pizza, of feeling the sun on your face is Catholic.

The beauty of the Catholic faith is that it brings together all that is true and good into one whole. It integrates and it elevates. There is truth and goodness to be found in a marketplace, and in a classroom, and in a church, and in the backyard with the children on a warm summer day. The Catholic faith takes each of those goods and binds them together through the heart of Jesus so that they all flow forth with His life. In the light of Catholic truth, every moment becomes eucharistic.