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What is Theology Really All About?



The bookshelves in my library tell one long story of my journey back to the Church. These shelves hold the many books over the many years that I've read since returning to the Church just over a decade ago. I love standing in my home library and recalling when and where I first read "Reasons to Believe" by Scott Hahn or "Search and Rescue" by Patrick Madrid or "Introduction to the Devout Life" by St. Francis de Sales.


Hahn helped lay the groundwork for future study in the Faith; Madrid provided principles and tactics to evangelize fallen-away Catholic family members and friends; and St. Francis was the first spiritual book I had ever read.


But the year of 2008 is now long gone. Since then, I have added many, many more books to the shelves (and have had to build more shelves!). Thinking back on when and where and why I bought this or that book helps remind me of "that time in my life when..." When (say) I was really into apologetics or philosophy. When I was focusing on learning St. Paul or St. Augustine. When I was really into the mystics. When I was getting my Masters in Theology at Franciscan. And so on.


At crucial points I, like so many of my friends, have found myself asking fresh questions and gaining new insights. One of those questions that has arisen as of late, is the nature and purpose of theology. There is, of course, a book on that: "The Nature and Mission of Theology" by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger. There are, in fact, many books that seek to answer this question and versions of it: What is theology really all about?


There are different approaches to answering this question, different levels of depth, and different dimensions that all find their level of appropriateness according to the vocation of each person. But there is an answer that seems to be appropriate to all: theology is the way to holiness.


Defining theology like that has major implications. Not just for the one who does it, but also for those who should be doing it—namely, all of us.


The person who converted me on this one point was St. Bonaventure of Bagnorea. He defined theology as a gift of the Holy Spirit (and called it wisdom) that was necessary to make us saints. He believed that theology was the moment when one approached God. As the High Priest enters the Holy of Holies, he is at that moment doing theology. When Isaiah has his vision of God's throne room, he is at that moment doing theology. When we go up to receive communion at Mass, we are doing theology. Whenever and wherever we approach God—in prayer, in sacrament, in service, in word, in thought—we are either given the gift of theology or not, given wisdom or not.


For those who do theology—which ought to be all of us—it is not simply a difference in temperament. One is (say) more attuned to scripture study while another is more accustomed to be with the mystics or the philosophers or the poor. That is not it at all. It is much more like what Clement of Alexandria says in his Stromata: "God is love and he is knowable to those who love him." That's much more like it.


But theology is not merely mystical in that sense in which many might take it: love God and begone with all that other academic stuff. For St. Bonaventure, scientific study of the scriptures, what the author originally meant in their historical context and why, was part of the mystical dimension of theology. Thinking proper thoughts about God's nature—call it philosophy or metaphysics if you want—was as important as the time one spent in mystical union with him. In fact, it was really one and the same.


But study was always done with a purpose and within a context: growth in holiness.


As Catholics living in Los Angeles, we above all need to get this right. We are in the midst of a storm, and do not have the luxury of being complacent about what theology really is all about and why. We cannot afford to relegate theology to those at the University of [insert Newman Guide school]; rather, we are all on the royal road to holiness and that royal road is, as it was for St. Bonaventure, the road of theology.


My prayers are with you all!


Jesus and Mary, be with us on the way


Christopher Plance

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