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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How to experience the presence of God

Domenico_Tintoretto_-_The_Penitent_MagdaleneI get very irritated with the Lord when He does not show up at my beck and call. This is especially true when I have blocked off time out of my busy schedule just for Him.

Years ago, while on retreat at a convent in Boston, I found myself puzzled by God’s absence. During the first two days of the retreat, though I tried to pray many times, I had no sense of God’s presence. The experience was one of utter spiritual emptiness. I would go to Mass, to the praying of the Daily Office with the sisters, and nothing would happen. After a while, I became not only discouraged but angry. It had taken quite a bit of effort to arrange for this time away with just me and the Lord. I was beginning to feel as if I had been stood up.

Then, all of a sudden, on the last evening of the retreat, I felt the Lord’s presence during Compline. It was like a lightning bolt that struck me and just kept on striking. I felt like I was kneeling in the center of a burst of light and life that had hold of me and would not let go. I was so incredibly grateful that God was finally there with me.

There was a Chapel on another floor where the Blessed Sacrament was reserved, and I decided that after Compline I would go there and make a holy hour so that I could be with the Lord a little longer. But to my great surprise, the Lord told me not to do this. There were not words exactly, but there was a definite intention given to me. I was oddly and yet definitively aware that God did not want me to go pray in the Chapel. What He wanted was for me to go back to my room, pull out the copy of C.S. Lewis’ The Silver Chair that I had brought with me, and read it.

Again, I was irritated. God finally decides to show up, and now He’s telling me to go away? But, reluctantly, I obeyed.

The Silver Chair is the sixth book in the Chronicles of Narnia and it introduces a new character, a girl named Jill Pole. Towards the beginning of the book, there is a scene where Jill finds herself in a strange place and she becomes desperately thirsty. She sees a stream up ahead and she wants to drink from it, but the great lion, Aslan, is sitting next to it. Aslan, of course, is the stand-in for Christ in the Narnia books. But Jill has not met Aslan before. All she knows is that there is a big, scary lion there, and she is afraid.

“If you’re thirsty, you may drink,” says Aslan.

“Will you promise not to do anything to me if I come?” she asks.

“I make no promise,” he replies.

Eventually, she does go and drink, and Aslan sets her on a great adventure. But what struck me then, just as it does now, is that Aslan was completely free. He made no promise to Jill because he was not hers to command, just as the Lord is not mine to command whenever I want Him to recharge my spiritual batteries.

There are twin errors that many Christians make in how they relate to God. The one is to turn the experience of knowing God into a kind of commodified emotional high. God becomes associated with a certain type of feeling, a certain posture of prayer, a certain smell in the air. The way of having God is to recreate these things. But if for some reason we can’t—if the emotions will not come—then we feel as if we have lost God entirely. Or worse, if the emotions come and they begin to tie us to things that are contrary to God’s Word, we can be led astray.

While that sort of thing is a real danger, there is a greater one that lurks particularly in certain forms of confessional Protestantism. It is a form of anti-mystical existentialism that says that God is only knowable through the pages of Scripture. It shows great skepticism and sometimes even contempt for any person who would point to the experience of God as something that is real and tangible, something that includes emotions and encounters with the miraculous. There was a period of a couple of years when I labored under just such a delusion, trying to rid myself of the notion that I could feel the presence of God, resolving myself to a cold, empiricist view of the Holy Spirit’s work. I almost had myself fully trained to ignore signs and wonders.

And then God smacked me upside the head in prayer one day. And I realized that I had been staring at a picture of someone I loved while ignoring the fact that the person in the picture was actually in the room with me.

The reason why both of these things are errors – both emotionalism and anti-mysticism – is because neither one acknowledges the radical, beautiful, indefatigable freedom of God.

There are normative means by which God discloses Himself to all of us – the Scriptures, the preaching of the Word, the Sacraments. It is absolutely true that God is present in these things even if we cannot feel or sense Him there. Some of the great saints of the Church, like Saint John of the Cross and Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, went through long spells during which they had no active sense of God’s presence and yet continued to be devoted to Our Lord in the Scriptures and in the Eucharist. Their witness is powerful. But rather than discrediting this notion of God’s freedom, it underlines it. God is the one who chooses how we will experience Him. It is our cooperation, our faith, which allows us a foothold into that experience, but it is God’s free decision which allows us to have the experience in the first place. If He decides that we will come to know Him through dreams and mystical experiences, it will be so. If He decides that we will never have a sure sense of Him outside of the concrete reality of the means of grace, then that is how it will be.

Recently, I have found myself often in prayer before the Blessed Sacrament eagerly asking God to make His presence known to me. To my great astonishment, He has done this more than once lately, flooding me with a palpable sense of His overwhelming love for me. It is wonderful, but it is also painful. I find myself craving this deep communion with God but also frightened by it. In the midst of it, I catch myself thinking, “This is great! This is wonderful! Thank you, Jesus! But there are probably things I should be attending to in the other room.” I get overwhelmed. It gets to be too intense. I start thinking about how I might write about the experience as a way of distancing myself from it. I tell God, “Hold that thought,” because I suddenly remember an email I have to send.

And God’s response to such nonsense is always the same. “Shut up. Be still. Be here.”

This is the paradox of my own sinfulness. I yearn for deep communion with God and yet I find it hard to actually have it. I am thrown off both by God’s absence and by His presence. Yet the truth is that He’s never really absent, even when I cannot feel Him. And if He were to unveil Himself and allow me to realize the fullness of His presence now, it would be far more intense than anything He has already shown me.

All of us are Jill Pole from time to time. We stand at the banks of the river, thirsty for God, yet uncertain how to find that thirst quenched. We think that we need to do something to make it happen. Either we need to stir up the waters ourselves, or else we fear that the great lion of God will swallow us up if we start to wade in too deep. But we don’t have any control over any of that really. We don’t tell God where He goes or how He is to show Himself. He comes and goes as He pleases. After all, He’s not a tame lion.

What we need is to trust in God’s love as much as we thirst for His presence. God will decide how He will make Himself known to us. He is completely free in how He chooses to come to us, but He chooses always to love us, which means that whatever way He makes Himself known, it will neither be too much or too little. We cannot capture the experience of God. Like the manna that fell for the Israelites, whatever experience of God we have today is meant for today. Yet we can learn, slowly, to trust that the Lord will never tire of feeding us.

Painting is “The Penitent Magdalene” by Domenico Tintoretto (1560-1635).