Friday, September 27, 2013

The Love of Wisdom and the Problem With the Internet

In Modernism… knowledge is equated with power… without attention to the dynamics of judgment mediating experience and thought by discovering which are true to reality and which false, moderns wrongly envisage truth as just an arbitrary decision. This is true because some in power decided it was true… knowledge in this context is generated by fear… [In the Catholic tradition] knowledge is born not of fear, but of a love of wisdom and understanding… truth has never been a category of dominative power but of wisdom.

Reflection – You will notice that I have no citation for this quote. This is because I’m writing this in transit (the Ottawa airport awaiting my flight to Philadelphia and from there, Rome, to be specific) and for reasons that are obscure and complex, I have some great quotes on my computer that don’t have the author and source attached to them. If I was in Combermere, I would have the reference at hand.

So, if you are the author of this lovely quote, don’t be mad at me, bro, for quoting you without attribution – when I get back to home base, I will edit the post to credit you. Meanwhile, what a great quote it is. Wisdom and love, and not power or dominance, as the source of truth—this is indeed the Catholic tradition, certainly that of the great monastic schools of theology and the scholastic school exemplified (but not limited to) Thomas Aquinas.

There is this strange caricature of Catholicism that it is a system of power and dominance, where Rome calls all the shots and the rest of us are cowed little sheep, chickens dogged by papal bulls (but let me stop horsing around for now, before I get your goat). It seems to me, based on my studies of the history of theology, that this is really not the case over the whole 2000 years of our Church’s life.

It would take, in fact, what it took me (six years of hard intellectual labor) to show definitively how this is so, but when you look at the great eras of theological development and action—the great patristic era of (roughly) 200-600 and in the Catholic West, the great monastic-scholastic period of (roughly) 1100-1400, the ages in which most of the fundamental vocabulary, theological theory, definitions, and the like became the solid core of Catholic theology, you simply do not see the Pope in Rome issuing decree upon decree, fulminating and excommunicating, defining and demarcarting.

Patristic theology was done primarily by the bishops, in a dialogic process. Monastic theology (think, Bernard of Clairvaux) was done by, well, monks, more often than not in the form of scripture commentaries and homilies. Scholastic theology was done in the incipient universities, generally by friars of the Franciscan and Dominican orders. There is a history of papal supervision and Roman discipline, but the primary work is done in this very different mode.

The bishops were pastors seeking to serve their people by clarifying theology in response to heresy and schism; the monks were genuinely seized by a love of holy wisdom and a desire to plumb the depths of the Word of God; the scholastics were convinced that it was an act of pious love of God to exercise the intellect to its fullest capacity and to achieve the greatest clarity of definition possible by its disciplined use.

It seems to me that it is only later, under the pressures of the Reformation, that theological energy came to be centred more and more in the exercise of papal authority. This era generally has not been looked upon as a great era of flowering of theological depth and wealth. The authority of the Pope has always been there (or so I, a Roman Catholic, firmly believe), and perhaps things had to go this way, given the tragedy of division and theological chaos the Reformation plunged us into, but when you look broadly at the whole of our life as a Church, the Pope's authority hasn’t really been exercised all that much in the realm of theology. The caricature of the Catholic Church as a top-down, repressive, tyrannical authority centred on the Pope is not borne out well by the actual facts of history.

Anyhow, all of this learned excursus, the details of which are available to you if you wish to do six years or so of hard theological labor, is not so much to cause a furious debate about the authority of the Pope or the direction and thrust of current theology--anyone who reads my blog knows where I stand on these things, I think.

Rather, I simply want to clear the ground for us to contemplate this notion of truth as coming from a love of wisdom, a contemplative spirit, a desire not to control or dominate, but to receive, serve, and love. I think this is a spirit we could do well to re-emphasize and re-enter, especially in our highly competitive, disputative, and polemical internet culture. So often it all seems to be about winning the argument and doing the other person down, rather than the quieter search for understanding and insight. Theology has been served well by bishops, monks, and scholarly friars; I'm not sure it is served at all by com-box warriors and snarky tweets.

Something to think about… as I wait in the airport lounge for my flight. Talk to you… well, probably not tomorrow when I’ll be jet lagged to the gills, but Sunday!


  1. So where does Roy Bourgeois stand, vis a vis papal power? I believe Roy to be the stand out, activist, missionary priest of our time.


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