If theology wishes and should be something other than religious studies, other than occupying ourselves with ever unsolved questions concerning what is greater than ourselves and nonetheless makes us what we are, then it can be based on starting from an answer that we ourselves have not devised; yet in order for this to become a real answer for us, we have to try to understand it, not to resolve it.
That is what is peculiar to theology, that it turns to something we ourselves have not devised and that is able to be the foundation of our life, in that it goes before us and support us; that is to say, it is greater than our own thought.
Pilgrim Fellowship of Faith, 31
Reflection – OK, we haven’t had a passage like this for quite a while on this blog. A bit on the dense side, a bit remote, perhaps, from our daily lived experience. What’s it mean, and what’s it got to do with you and me who are not (especially) theologians? Why should you waste your time reading this blog post today?
OK, well first, we’re all theologians in a manner of speaking, or at least philosophers. Everyone has to make some kind of sense of life, has to come to some position about the nature of the world, humanity, God.
Those who work in the academic fields of philosophy and theology are simply doing in a focused disciplined way what all of us do sub- or semi-consciously. We cannot not try to make sense of life, even if our efforts are partial and poor.
The point Ratzinger is making above is about the distinction between theology and religious studies. Religious studies is just that: the study of the field of religion in general, analyzing and comparing the various answers and paths offered by the diverse religious traditions of the world. All well and good, but theology is not that.
Christian theology begins with faith. And faith is just what he says it is here: to receive an answer that is not ours and make it the foundation of our lives. And this is where (I hope) we can all see that this is not some abstract point of intellectual taxonomy to distinguish one academic field from another.
All of us are in need of a truth to build our lives on. The way of philosophy is the way of coming to a truth by our own intellectual power, a truth that emerges from our observation and analysis of our experience of life. The way of theology is the way of reception and entrustment. A truth that we did not come up with, a vision of reality that is not based on our experience and analysis, a revelation offered, which we choose to receive.
This is faith which gives rise to, among other things, theology. It also gives rise to obedience, discipleship, contemplation. Some would argue that faith is improper for us, that human dignity and freedom precludes accepting something as true that human intellect cannot demonstrate. I have blogged about this many times before already – clicking the ‘faith’ label below will get you there.
What theology shows us is that faith is not the demise of intellectual activity, the squelching of the mind by mystery and dogmatic obscurantism. Rather, faith, by putting before us truths that we did not and indeed could not have come up with ourselves (the Trintiy, the Incarnation, the Redemption, the Resurrection, and associated dogmas and doctrines) spurs our minds on to deeper and deeper activity.
Faith gives us something to think about. It is not the end of our thinking, but the beginning of a whole new level of thought. Just as faith is not the end of our human engagement with reality, the final answer that we hug to ourselves as we retire into our little safe corner. Instead faith spurs us on to deeper and deeper engagement with the world, with the passion of humanity, with human suffering and striving. The revelation of truths that are greater than we are and that promise to sustain and support us beyond our human powers is precisely what frees us both to extend our minds to the heights of heaven and upwards towards God, and to lay down our lives in love and service for our brothers and sisters.