Should Theologians be Spiritual? Part 1

There is a sense where this question is obvious. Of course theologians should be spiritual, shouldn’t everyone? hans_urs_von_balthasarBut the question is a bit deeper than this. In taking upon oneself the task of being a theologian under the Word, for the church, is part of the task holiness? In so doing, we will be asking a further question, namely, does personal holiness in any way affect the quality of theology?

I will do a handful of these posts looking at this question as somewhat of a follow up to my previous post on the seven deadly spiritual sins for theologians. In this post, I will look at Hans Urs Von Balthasar’s Word and Redemption to see what insight Balthasar has for this question.

The Great Divide: Theology and Spirituality

Balthasar starts his chapter entitled “Theology and Sanctity” with:

In the whole history 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” (49).

Balthasar goes on to note that this wasn’t always the case. Prior to scholasticism, Balthasar believes that “the true great saints” were also great theologians. “Theology and spirituality have become, as it were, each a world of its own, with hardly any point of contact, and so the saints and spiritual writers are more and more ignored by theologians” (63). But, is this necessarily bad? After all, in the modern world of specialization, isn’t this bound to take place? Balthasar goes on:

And then compare, if you can bring yourself to do so, the nourishment offered by a modern theological manual for a life of holiness with that contained in any patristic commentary on scripture. The impoverishment brought about by the divorce between the two spheres is all too plain; it has sapped the vital force of the Church of today and the credibility of her preaching of eternal truth” (65).

Balthasar suggests a new unity of theology and sanctity, but just prior makes a statement I must quote: “Christianity, about which theology is concerned, has no need to borrow its modes and movements of thought from those current in the secular world. Its very law of life raises it above the ebb and flow of secular culture; and one sign of this should be that it draws the remedy for its ills from its own store of supernatural strength” (66-67).

Toward a New Unity

Balthasar boldly suggests that we need a “serious reassessment” of the very nature of theology itself. He goes on to define theology by saying: “Once again, we mean by theology the central science of dogma, to the exclusion of every possible and justifiable preparatory study or subsidiary subject…in other words, all the auxiliary sciences, whose direct concern is not the pure exposition of revelation from the standpoint of faith for those who believe” (67). Balthasar calls the theologian to “bear the tension” between, on the one hand, the revelation of Christ, and, on the other, secular sciences such as philosophy.

True theology therefore, is an attempt to bring out the meaning of what has been revealed. Balthasar explains:

That meaning does not involve teaching anything occult or abstruse, but bringing men and their whole existence, intellectual as well as spiritual, into closer relation with God. Any intellectual procedure that does not serve this purpose is assuredly not an interpretation of revelation, but one that bypasses its true meaning and, therefore, an act of disobedience” (70).

This science therefore is a science about being under the Word. Therefore, for Balthasar it seems, a theologian is only as good as he is rightly encountered by the Word. He states, “With revelation there is no such thing as an objective, uncommitted, scientific ‘objectivity,’ but only a personal encounter of Word and faith, Christ and Church, in the mystery of the Canticles of Canticles. When she understands, then is the Church holy; and, insofar as she is holy, she understands” (77). Therefore, Balthasar goes on to note (through the use of Scheeben), “Theology, therefore, participates in a special manner in the bridal holiness of the Church” (77). It seems then, in one sense at least, holiness and understanding are tied together, both tethered to a personal encounter of Christ. Likewise, Balthasar claims, “There is always a tendency in human thought – and theology is no exception – to bracket the concrete and forget it. We are prone to look on historical revelation as a past event, as presupposed, and not as something always happening, to be listened to and obeyed; and it is this that becomes that matter of theological reflection” (81). Theologians therefore, to truly do “good” theology, must not merely analyse history, must stand as hearers and obeyers of the Word – and in that hearing and obeying reflect theologically.

Therefore, in light of all of this, the “movement” of the theologian is to mimic the saint. To be an unwaivering hearer of God’s Word, to want nothing else other than what the Lord speaks to them. Even what they already know isn’t enough, but want to hear it from the Lord again as if they had never heard it before. There is no desire in the saint to abstract content away for other uses, to talk about the God of the philosophers, but only the triune God of revelation. In other words, “Their theology is essentially an act of adoration and prayer” (82). He goes on to note:

As time went on, theology at prayer was superseded by theology at the desk, and this brought about the cleavage now under discussion. ‘Scientific’ theology became more and more divorced from prayer, and so lost the accent and tone with which one should speak of what is holy, while ‘affective’ theology, as it became increasingly empty, often degenerated unto unctious, platitudinous piety” (85).

In this final turn then Balthasar hits on the re-occuring concept, that our theology is weak because it lacks spirituality and our spirituality is shallow because it lacks dogmatics. In the end, his focus is to address the form of theology (prayerful vs. desk-tethered) rather than answer our question (Does one’s holiness affect one’s ability to theologize well), but he does seem to point in a direction (however failing to specify how it does so).

So, what do you think of Balthasar’s analysis? Any thoughts or suggestions about a corrective or critique? I am particularly interested in his comment on the “accent” and “tone” of theology missing the mark of how one should speak of the holy. I’ll see if I can track down more of his thoughts on this, but it would be great to have an example. Any ideas of how this could play out for him?

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4 thoughts on “Should Theologians be Spiritual? Part 1

  1. James, that is a helpful distinction. I think I am assuming from the outset an understanding of theology that is necessarily spiritual in orientation, which came up in my last interaction with Kent. I like the use of contemplation as well, after all, didn’t Calvin say, “It is certain that man never achieves a clear knowledge of himself unless he has first looked upon God’s face, and then descends from contemplating him to scrutinizing himself?” This just seems to me to be necessary to the theological task.

    That being said, would you mind expanding a bit on the last comment you made concerning the atoning action of the Word? I would love to hear your thoughts, however tentative they may be.

  2. Of course theogians should be Spiritual in the profoundest and deepest sense of the word. Even in the necessary sense of being established in the tacit, silent and wordless language of the Awakened Heart.

    Otherwise their writings are just an extension of the non and even anti-spiritual, secular world-view in which we are all totally entangled—especially in 2009.

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