Theological Education – Why?
Theology “Then and Now”
More than four years ago, I published my first essay on Conciliar Post. It laid out what I consider to be the first principles of theological reasoning, but it also noted that—like all of us—I am still “on the way.” I stand behind these principles: the centrality of Christ, the contingency of created order, the need for grace, and the soul’s ascent to God. I also stand behind the fact that I need your help to continue seeking the truth. The theological project is a communal endeavor: one that benefits most when difficult questions are given fair hearing, and when charity directs us to see the good in our interlocutors. With all this in mind, and after having composed nearly fifty articles during these past four years, I’d like to take a moment to reflect on my vision for the future of theological education.
While I am neither an alarmist nor a Luddite, I find it difficult to wrap my mind around the massive challenges we face as a society. The dehumanizing effects of the internet, the rise of unabashed extremism and xenophobia around the world, the milquetoast response to our climate crisis, the erosion of charity and common sense in public discourse—these are just a few of the problems American theologians confront as we struggle to integrate ourselves (and our country’s troubled history) into the vast and changing landscape of the 21st century. We have tremendous resources at our disposal; yet addressing these challenges will not be possible unless we can unite around shared values.
As a historian of the scholastic era, I have grown to appreciate the central role of community in the search for truth. During this period, masters and students interacted with one another through methods of inquiry, such as the “disputed question,” that facilitated transformative learning. Intellectual luminaries like Bonaventure and Aquinas did some of their best work in the classroom—addressing student concerns by synthesizing tradition with the most current developments in natural science. They spearheaded an epistemic project that was at once confident in human capacities and humble in its assumption that to search for truth is to encounter diverse perspectives in community. Returning to these sources is an essential task if we are to chart a course forward for theology in the 21st century.
The greatest challenge we face is to restore a balanced approach to the pursuit of knowledge—to unite people not only in excitement to discover new information, but in measured discernment of the fruits of this labor. We cannot forget our position of dependence. We all require assistance to navigate modern life and to find happiness through personal and interpersonal growth. At the most basic level, this assistance takes the form of unabashed and uncompromising care for others. Looking beyond our fears and concerns, those who study theology are called to seek the best for our dialogue partners, as well as those we encounter on a day-to-day basis. We must model the honesty and empathy we hope to inspire—uniting pursuits of the mind with those of the heart.
A Way Forward
Saint Bonaventure provides an excellent example of this activity in his Collationes in Hexaëmeron. This series of scholastic sermons (his final, unfinished work) encourages readers to balance intellectual pursuits with personal growth in holiness—a much-needed check against the natural tendency of those with specialized knowledge to insulate themselves from the world. I am currently writing a dissertation on this text, in which I argue that Bonaventure’s treatment of philosophical errors is unintelligible outside the context of the virtuous person’s journey to wisdom. Propositions such as the eternity of the world, the unicity of the intellect, and fated necessity are not variables in a zero-sum equation “balanced out” by truths of faith. Rather, Bonaventure sees these errors as an opportunity to reflect charitably on faith and reason—emphasizing that understanding is insufficient without humility, just as knowledge is empty without love. It is one thing to denounce error; the more important (and difficult) task for Christians is to do so “with gentleness and reverence” (1 Peter 3:15-16).
Bonaventure is genuinely concerned for the spiritual health of his audience and the state of theological education in his day. But he does not respond by silencing disagreement, or throwing out sources that fail to conform exactly with his own views. Likewise, we should not shy away from engaging with those who stand outside our own traditions, nor should we close in upon ourselves by constructing a theology that is defensive and reactionary. True theological reasoning finds a deep beauty in grounded and honest reflection. We are all part of an ongoing conversation about God, the cosmos, and the human person—and there is great happiness to be found by joining our voices in this quest for meaning. In the face of the corrosive consumerism and cultural fragmentation we continue to confront in this 21st century, we can advocate for a different way of viewing the world: one that seeks to restore respect for the earth and all its creatures.
Over the past four years, I have learned, grown, and journeyed with the Conciliar Post community. For this, I am immensely grateful. I am confident that Conciliar Post will continue to serve as a home for all who desire to explore the richness of our shared Christian heritage—for people who are animated by the desire to understand others and heal the divisions that fragment the Body of Christ.