September 2017 Editorial

From The Editor’s Desk

Theologians are concerned about these and so many other urgent issues of our time, from violence and terrorism to immigration, political destabilization, and willful political denial of the climate emergency we face. But we theologians would do well to ask whether anyone really cares what we say about these matters. Is it not true (as Pope Francis has said in countering theological rigidity) that faith is more effectively expressed in deeds than in clouds of theological speculation?

Such issues pose a challenge to the work of systematic theology, which, perhaps more than other forms of theology, can be quite speculative and seemingly removed from practical considerations. There is a real occupational danger of constructing “word castles” in the air by finding comprehensive and organizing structures which, while claiming openness to the Unanswerable, promise intellectual and even spiritual security via an all-encompassing heuristic (be it Thomistic, Rahnerian, Lonerganian, Balthasarian, or some other school of thought, including the various constructive projects that we need today). We theologians can end up speaking only to those who can understand the academic language of a sub-field. Absent an epistemological and religious humility, systematic theology runs the risk of irrelevance.

This situation of systematic theology is somewhat ironic, for it is clearly the case that theologians are people of real and searching faith, and that they embrace their ecclesial vocation: that theology is an enterprise undertaken within and for the sake of the church’s mission to bring the Gospel to a suffering world—and to the church itself. The occasional intellectual obfuscations of theologians most certainly are not the result of a hankering for the ivory tower.

Still, we theologians might ask ourselves two fundamental questions in order to gain some perspective on our work: From what source does our theology radiate? And toward what end?

The questions that theology treats do often enough arise from the human experience of injustice and suffering. For example: What does Catholic faith have to say to violence, and in a US context, to gun violence? What could possibly constitute “just” discrimination against gender minority persons in ecclesial and civic life, a practice which many would defend? And how do we address theologically the racism and sexism so deeply imbedded in church life? These kinds of questions are starting points for many. But the work of theology raises such questions from the ground of faith. For such questions radiate, as did the anger of the prophets, from that encounter with the God who, though unknowable in any comprehensive sense, is nevertheless knowable in the ways of divine–human encounter in history and nature. The underlying reality for the work of theology as an ecclesial enterprise is understanding this ongoing encounter with the liberating God of the burning bush, seen through the lens of the Resurrection of Jesus and its upending power. A systematic theology today, rooted in reality, must therefore also be imbued with mystical notes. It must inquire into the experience of God lying behind and disclosed in our questions. To that end, we must always ask: What is the theological matter at stake in our questions? What is there to learn about God from our desire to set things aright?

A second question follows: toward what end does our theologizing lead? What is the distinctive role of faith in attending to these questions? What does the divine–human encounter ask of us? Moses stood before the burning bush, but did not stay there. He led the wandering people through the desert to the horizon of the promised land. Similarly, Pentecost was just the beginning of the mission of the Gospel, a mission not yet fully realized. Even if with only an implicit pastoral or prophetic horizon, contemporary systematic theology can take into account and integrate the praxic dimension of faith—how to help effect the revolution of the Gospel in the church and in the world we inhabit.

Attentiveness to these two fundamental questions, which are simply two dimensions of a single activity, can help secure systematic theology’s legitimacy, a legitimacy that we nevertheless cannot very well expect the entire academic world to embrace or even some sectors of the church to value. But that does not mean that the work of theology is not of its own intrinsic importance. On the basis of their work, theologians, as Christians and as members of Christ’s body, can enter into solidarity with human beings who, through various paths, are undertaking the struggle for justice that was communicated in Jesus’s dream of the Reign. And therein perhaps lies the ultimate point of systematic theology: while love is indeed expressed more in deeds than in words, we need the words, and the thoughts they express, to better understand what we believe and propose to do in the name of faith.

Paul G. Crowley, SJ