This is an edited version of a talk I gave a few years ago, and it remains a good explanation of my academic vocation.
Consider with me for a few moments the academic study of theology. The progress of my schooling took me from a doctorate in political science to a second one in theology, and I’ve always been part of the Theology department here. But let me honor that beginning, and the political science courses I’ve taught, in our starting point. The first American so unfortunate as to be elected Vice-President of the United States, John Adams, is reputed to have said this: “My country has contrived for me the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived. I am Vice President. In this I am nothing, but I may be everything.” Let us take that thought, and transpose it to the discipline of theology as taught in a liberal arts curriculum.
“In this [or in myself], I am nothing,” Adams said, and we may say the same about theology. One of the most ancient definitions of theology is fides quaerens intellectum, faith seeking understanding, but if we examine that search, what do we find? We find that theology is in many ways a dependent discipline, that derives its data or its principles from outside itself. Working with the experience of faith in Scripture and Tradition, we rely on scholars of language and literature for our grasp of the ancient languages in which those experiences come to us. We rely on historians and archeologists, textual critics and philosophers, for so many of our tools and techniques. If we are engaged in moral theology, we depend on the accurate information provided by biologists and medical researchers, physicists and political scientists. (As an aside, a major reason for my own acquisition of two doctorates was simple frustration that there was so little awareness of political philosophy among academic theologians.)
Even at the most basic root, the faith whose understanding we try to develop, theology relies on the living faith of the Church and the example of the friends of God we call saints. Whether their faith be “wisely unlearned” like Saint Benedict’s, or learnedly devoted as Thomas Aquinas’s, knowledge of theology alone is not what makes that faith to live. I experience in myself every day the truth of the old saying, “those who can’t do, teach,” and am humbled by it. The discipline of theology requires a similar humility regarding its debts and dependencies, one strong enough to acknowledge the applicability of Adams’s remark; “in itself, it is nothing.”
We must, however, do equal justice to the second half of the remark: “but it may be everything.” Where do we find that potential? How is it activated? These are important questions, for the presence of theology among the liberal arts depends on the answer. I may say also that if there’s any common thread uniting the theology courses I’ve taught or the ways that I’ve taught them, this is where it lies. And when we’ve seen the answer, you’ll also see why I count myself remarkably blessed to be doing theology at a Benedictine institution like the Abbey.
Let’s begin by considering a single term, a single word, from the prologue to John’s Gospel: the Greek term Logos. As my students know, the most frequently-cited text across all my courses comes from The Princess Bride (1987). There Iñigo Montoya, the vengeance-seeking swordsman played by Mandy Patinkin, says to someone, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” Rarely is this more true than with the term Logos. We English-speakers are used to seeing it translated simply as “Word,” as it appears in our Bibles (“In the beginning was the Word”), and we take it in the ordinary meaning of communication or message. But the Greek is far more multi-dimensional; logos means at once the outward expression and the inner character of something, and it can be translated equally well as “reason,” “account,” “plan,” or “structure.” To speak of the logos of something is to speak of its basic character, the intelligible structure that makes it what it is. And so when John writes those so-familiar words, “In the beginning was the Logos, and the Logos was with God, and the Logos was God. Through the Logos all things were made, and without him nothing was made,” we have in those few lines an entire theology. Without extending this talk unduly, let’s develop just a bit of it in service of our discussion.
The capital-L Logos / Word of John’s prologue is mysteriously God and with God from the beginning as the full image of the divine being, the one divine action that includes and expresses everything that God is and does. The many words of human beings are incomplete and partial, however significant or meaningful they manage to be, because no human word can fully express the entire being of the speaker. Another reason our words are limited and partial is that we may often say one thing, and do another; plan or speak as I might, my ability to put those plans into effect must often fall short. (You’ll pardon me for hoping tonight is not one of those times.) With God, the situation is far otherwise. There is no gap between being and expression, between understanding and action.
This is precisely why the divine Logos is the agency of creation, as John recalls the “in the beginning” of Genesis. The slow drawing of created being out of nothingness and into an ordered whole, a cosmos, in the opening chapter of Genesis occurs through a series of divine words. But that is a concession to us, the audience, and to our need for sequence. The considered view of the biblical tradition sees the order and structure of the cosmos, the presence of a small-l logos in everything lending it an intelligible structure, as an echo of the one Logos of God. Everything that is, to the extent that it is, reflects in some way God’s primal expression of himself, as the divine generosity allows its own Logos to resound and bring forth being from nothingness.
“In one beam of the sun”
That is the entire reason that the discipline of theology is both nothing and everything. To see that each created thing has its own logos, its own structure and rationale woven into the fabric of its being, is to recognize the value of study carried on sine ira et studio, free from passion or distortion that might cloud the truth of things. It is to respect the ways that things allow themselves to be known, whether through historical research, statistical survey, electron microscopy, or any of a panoply of methods. Theology can be confident in its own dependence on truths brought forth in other disciplines precisely because there is truth, there is intelligible meaning open to our discovery, in every direction we turn. And whatever the nature of our study, whether or not we attend to it, we encounter the echo of the Logos in each individual thing known. That is why Thomas Aquinas could insist, again and again, that “omne verum, a quocumque dicatur, a Spiritu Sancto est” (every truth, no matter who says it, is from the Holy Spirit). Theology has nothing, but may become everything, insofar as it continually brings these larger connections before us. Where we may be tempted to single-mindedly focus on the immediate, on what is before us, the academic study of theology serves as a reminder of the wider perspective where all our particular interests and concerns find their unity. In addition, by reminding us that each created being is a unique and limited reflection of the divine Logos, we may avoid the trap of thinking anything unworthy of study or respect.
I cannot end without mentioning a passage in the Life of St. Benedict that make the entire point in an instant. In the Life (II.35), the climax of the story lies in a vision Benedict has shortly before his death, where “the whole world, gathered together, as it were, under one beam of the sun, was presented before his eyes.” It seems to me that the task and privilege of theology at a Benedictine college is to open us all to that same vision.