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.