By Patrick Schmadeke
The task of theology is to put our capacity for faith and our capacity to reason in dialogue with one another. Since God gave us our faith and our reason, one might say that theology is humanities foundational inquiry.
Theology captures the imagination and invigorates it. It lures one into deep wonder, contemplation and experience of God’s movement in the world. As St. Ambrose might say, this involves a kind of “sober intoxication.” This is an exquisite, personal nearness to the God in whose presence we find our abode. The past year of comprehensive theological coursework has broadened my understanding of Christianity and the role of theology in a faith life.
The academic study of theology, far from being cold and clinical, brings an essential principle into focus: relationship (another word for love) is the underlying fabric of reality. In short, we must live and move and have our being with the eyes of love. To approach the world with any other posture upsets the well-balanced life. We wouldn’t voluntarily wear the wrong pair of glasses — neither should we approach creation with anything but the cruciform love of God as our interpretive focal point.
If the life of faith is fundamentally about relationship, then an important consequence follows from this: God’s creative activity is ongoing; nothing is ever completely settled or permanent. This broad principle resonates with our everyday experience. Spouses are never done learning how to love one another and friendships are never finished growing deeper.
The same is true of our tradition, as it carries forward the wisdom of antiquity. But to simply copy and paste this wisdom onto our own times misrepresents the wisdom that is claiming to be clung to, and it ignores what was being done by the saints of old. They were discerning the movements of God in their own times, which was codified in church teaching and spiritual writings.
But the living richness that is codified in one age tends to become ossified in the next. This is not befitting the nature of the living God; it is a suspect theological perspective about the God who continually sustains and animates creation. The historian Jaroslav Pelikan puts the danger of this succinctly: “tradition is the living faith of the dead, traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. And, I suppose I should add, it is traditionalism that gives tradition such a bad name.”
Unlike many fields of inquiry, the search for definitiveness in theology is concomitant with the discovery of tentativeness. All conclusions about faith must be met with the proverbial “Yes, and …?” When theology is done well, doctrine never ends a conversation but serves to moderate it. Like the lines painted on the field of play, doctrine signals to us when ideas have gone out of bounds while faith and theology are what happen on that field.
What is truly exciting is that God is not a passive bystander. God is there on the field with us. Yet often God eludes our grasp and defies our expectations. This does not mean that God is foreign, but only that the operative ways of the world are not God’s operative ways. God really doesn’t seem to care in the least about the ideas of career advancement, the culture of self-promotion and the focus on instant gratification.
These perspectives are too busy to notice the quiet stillness of God’s restful, abiding presence.
If anything has become clear in the past year of study, it is that nimbleness of mind and spirit are perduring characteristics of Christian faith.
It is human nature to settle into certain ways of thinking. We must always attend to this, resisting it daily, so that the living font of God’s love may mend our wounds, correct our minds and turn our hearts. Only then, when we are living the daily experience of conversion, will God’s love flow forth from us to touch in tender affection the wounded among us. Such a life is the mark of faith, a signpost of genuine theological inquiry.
(Editor’s note: Patrick Schmadeke is a graduate of St. Ambrose University (‘13) and a student in the Master of Divinity program at the University of Notre Dame. His column offers reflections on his coursework, engaging with the richness of the Catholic tradition and its relevance to the world today.)