Theology, Sanctity, and the Academy
It could be said that, throughout history and even now in the “less enlightened” parts of the world, the cults of the Saints drive not only the practice of Christianity but also speculation (in the older, more revered sense of the term) about Christianity itself. That is, hagiography as such – the vitae Sanctorum – is not a strange collection of bygone myths (in the newer, less revered sense of the term), but the pulse and impulse of Christian life itself. A readily accessible example would be that of Saint Francis. In Saint Bonaventure’s lives of Francis – which I have been reading as of late – this intersection between hagiography and theology is marvelously clear.
We find this impetus in one of Bonaventure’s definitions of theology: ut boni fiamus, that we may become good. During Bonaventure’s time, the argument over the “science” of theology was polarized: the speculative or contemplative aspect overagainst the practical or active life. Is theology a discipline of the mind or an ethos of actions? This dichotomization, it could be argued, persists to the present time. Yet Bonaventure was dissatisfied by either notion in solo, and articulated theology as a “sapiential habit” that encompassed and even transcended both. Theology is a discipline ordered to the life of the mind and the body, to the unification of the two aspects. This notion deeply influenced Bonaventure, for whom the exemplar of St. Francis represented the “apex” of the Gospel.
Not so in academia. The prevailing assumption in the academic study of theology is that hagiography represents an historical and/or social curiosity, but is ultimately devoid of any theological value. Saints’ lives are of merit because they present a window into the social expression of the Church at that particular time, but are little more than fantastic fictions gathered and redacted by their authors from spectacular flights of imaginative fantasy circulating among the masses. And why not? Not only are they intellectually suspect, given their strange sense of the Christian life, but they are also basically false because, well, saints do things like miracles, and we cannot be privy to such nonsense. They are fun to read and historically helpful, but they do not present us with any theologically sensible ideas. Even if they do, they are certainly ideas already present in, say, the Summa of Thomas. They are at best, beyond their socio-historical value, redundancies.
So go the litanies.
But why did theologians of old such as Saint Bonaventure have the stulted gall to take them seriously? Perhaps this is due to the fact that they were cumbered by primitive notions that we enlightened have since grown out of. And maybe this assessment is correct.
To be honest, I don’t really care. I have no interest in crossing blades over the historicity of the Saints’ lives, nor in vying for the really supernatural, regardless of whether our forebears believed such things. Rather, my preoccupation is that these theologians took seriously the quaint idea that sanctity—holiness—is essential for doing good theology. Maybe demons exist and maybe they do not, but what is curious to me is the notion doing theology is inextricably wrapped up in doing good. Id est, it orbits about the gravitational pull of sanctity.
Were one of these theologians to visit us today, I highly doubt they would be impressed by the tweed-jacketed professor sitting in a dusty office behind a desk, leaning back in a chair purchased from the nearest Office Max, pontificating on the good life (that is, the good life, not “the good life”), comfortably lecturing about the esoteric metaphysics of the universe or the social good of non-violent civil resistance a la Thomas Aquinas or Martin Luther King Jr. Not that they would fail necessarily to perceive the good in either activity. It is good to think about the vast and terrifying universe we inhabit, and it is good to serve and stand in a Christ-like manner for those so marginalized by the vain vicissitudes of sinful humanity. Nor do I think they would denounce the value of our “science” or push for the reinstatement of Galileo’s excommunication. But I do think, however, that they would be rightfully agitated by the reduction of what they figured was the highest vocation to a university-business wissenschaft—apparently sanitized of preconceived biases or the deep teleological intention of theology for one’s life.
Indeed, I suspect that they would be rather unimpressed, and perhaps disheartened, because they believed that Christianity, in its purest form, is found not in the abstractions of speculative theology or the promotion of pietistic practical action, but in the wise intersection of the two. That is to say, Christianity is found in the lives of the saints, who admonish, comfort, and astonish us in fully enacting a transcendent, and seemingly unattainable, Gospel, within the bounds of space and time. The saints are the continuation of the Gospel; they show us the power of faith the size of a mustard seed. In their lives, they urge us to imitate them as they imitate Christ, the author of life and our faith. The business of theology is not simply to make great thinkers, protect correct doctrine, or induce right action. It is, of course, all of these things, but fundamentally because the business of theology is to make saints. It is in this work that we are aided in being conformed to image of Christ. It is in this that we are saved.
The indignation at such a claim, for whatever reason, can be fairly interpreted as a pique over the transcendence of beauty—the “sawdust” (as Balthasar might say) theology that voids the discipline and those practicing it of any humanity, reducing the world to simply ideas or actions or socio-economic so-called identities, rather than existing persons created in the image of the hypostatic Trinity. The key to interpreting the saints is the reception, within the life of the Church, of their basic beauty—their fulfillment of Christ’s enigmatic statement that that we will do even greater works than him (John 14:12). If we allow that theology is not only a dry discipline of speculation – from metaphysics to morals – about the world and beyond, but actually an education and edification, an initiation into the divine life originated and culminated in the life of Christ, then the saints, far from exasperating us, become a crucial enactment, elucidation, and end of our faith. But the mode of education and edification is not via treatise, predication (praedicatio), or disputation, but through the beauty of life to which they attest, to which they call us and to which we are called. The saints – similar to prayer – represent the junction where the infinite and the finite meet, and the latter is folded into the former.
Hans Urs von Balthasar wrote: “In the whole of Catholic theology there is hardly anything that is less noticed, yet more deserving of notice, than the fact that, since the great period of Scholasticism, there have been few theologians who were saints.” This is indeed the point and the crux of this piece. The Teresa of Calcutta was no theological powerhouse (at least, as we commonly know her) of intellectual prowess, nor a “model” of physiological beauty, but she was radiant. I would defy anybody to say otherwise. As a saint, she possessed in some deep sense the end of theology – that we would become like Christ, true lovers of Creation, ourselves, each other, and God. The expectation of theology is not that we would become smart, or wealthy, or respected (though of course the academic study of theology guarantees none of this), but that we would become good, reflecting beautifully the Father of lights, adorned in the majesty of Christ, by the bond of the Spirit.
Most if not all of us so-called theologians did not become so in order to be academics, but rather sought academia so that we could be theologians. The interminable gap between theology and the Church was something we inherited. Whether we wish to take seriously the lives of the saints or no, we should take seriously their basic demand: to become a good theologian is to become a good Christian, a good human. Thomas Merton recounts a conversation he had with his friend, both of whom had recently converted to Catholicism. His friend asked Merton what he wanted to be. Merton replied that he wanted to be a good Catholic. But his friend declared: “No, that’s not it. You should want to be a saint!” This directive applies to all of us Christians – we are not only to think well about Christianity, but to live Christianity. We are to imitate Christ. And the saints are the key locus for that. They demonstrate that to think well about Christianity, we must also do Christianity well.
On this point, I too fail constantly. When I was asked, before completing my Ph.D., what on earth I was going to do with my degree, I often responded, “I want to teach theology.” I have become convinced that this answer is deeply insufficient. Because to properly teach theology, to properly write about theology, is to do theology – that is, it is to become good. I have become haunted by this conviction. And so I should. And so should we all.
T. Alexander Giltner, Ph.D., is assistant professor of theology at University of Saint Francis in Fort Wayne, IN, specializing in the Franciscan Intellectual Tradition, particularly metaphysics, epistemology, and divine/human psychology from a theological vantage point. He is currently preparing a manuscript on Saint Bonaventure’s philosophy and theology called The Lightness of Being. When not studying Christian thought, you may find him caught in an invigorating conversation, cheering on the Cards, breathing deeply from a breeze, writing a story or a poem, and/or chilling with his criminally cute little beastie, Strider.Show Sources
 Commentary on the Sentences, book I, prologue.
 There is no pretension here of that vogue notion that just because it was precious in the foregone past, it is de facto a valuable idea or tradition.
 They do.
 And not that some of these professors could not be truly holy – I’ve known a few.
 The ancient tradition refers to this as divinization, deification, or theosis.
 In Word and Redemption: His Essays in Theology (New York: Herder and Herder, 1965), 49. I am indebted to Stephen Lawson for pointing me to this passage.
 Aside from a chalk-atheist in the vein of Christopher Hitchens.
 Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1948), 264.