Faith is necessary for theologians because our object of inquiry is God. A scholar may develop an extensive understanding of what others have said and thought about God without any concern for actually encountering God. Such a person may be worthy of the highest intellectual distinctions, but for all that they would still not merit the title of “theologian.” The Christian East still retains this sense of the term by designating as “theologians” only three saints whom they believe have come to an extraordinary understanding of who God is. Chronologically, the first of these “theologians” is St. John the Evangelist. Lest one think that the Byzantine reservation of the title constitutes an unnecessarily exclusive limitation, we can also thankfully turn to Evagrius Ponticus’ famous adage from his Treatise on Prayer: “If you are a theologian, you will pray truly. And if you pray truly, you are a theologian.” Simply put, theology is the disciplined speech of those who are seeking to know God. Although there is and has always been disagreement about the ways in which speech must be disciplined for this task, what unites theology throughout the ages is its attempt to employ human language and reasoning (logos) within the larger task of seeking to know and love God. In this sense, then, all those with a faith that has at some point found expression through language are “theologians.” It just so happens that some people make a career out of it…
It is only fitting to recognize, however, that this “faith component” makes theology an odd fit as an academic discipline in the modern context. Within the Christian theological tradition, there is an abiding acknowledgement that the object of inquiry which the theologian pursues is at the same time pursuing the theologian. What theologians undertake to discover is a being who perpetually renders itself discoverable in innumerable and indefinite ways, most of all (for the Christian) in the person of Jesus Christ. So if I am to call myself a theologian, I disclose not only my belief in a God I take to be real, but more importantly my belief that this God has revealed himself within history and that this God continues to pursue me throughout my own history.
My first glimpse of God was the love which my parents shared with one another. It was a life-giving love centered upon a common faith that despite all the challenges of living out a common life together, they could entrust themselves to one another and find a path to their salvation through one another. The true character of this love was revealed most poignantly to me when my mother was on her deathbed, emaciated and disfigured by the effects of aggressive cancer treatment. As the options dwindled, my father became more and more desperate, trying every possible medical and spiritual avenue to avoid losing my mom. One afternoon, as he was venting his frustrations to God before a simple wooden crucifix, he heard God interrupt his stream of thoughts almost as if he were speaking audibly: “Do you trust me?” was the simple question posed to him. Later, closer to the time of her death, my dad was able to look down at my mother’s unconscious face, and say “I have never loved your mother more than I do right now.” It is an inestimable blessing to be able to root one’s analogical appeal to God as “Father” in that kind of experience.
Hospitality and community were also key parts of my religious formation. My mother grew up in the Church of God (Anderson, IN) and decided early on in my childhood to try to start a new congregation together with a few other couples in the area. The result was a church community that met for over ten years in the ballrooms of the local Sheraton hotel. For many of those years we did not even have a pastor, and depended upon the national office to send us preachers each week to fill the pulpit. These preachers would almost always stay with our family, and we developed deep and lasting friendships with many of them. We survived from week to week by collecting enough money in the offering plate to rent the ballroom again next Sunday, and on special occasions when someone requested baptism we also rented out the swimming pool for an hour. Yes, I was one of those baptized in that Sheraton pool, complete with a high school lifeguard looking on, twirling his whistle. We used to have Sunday school in the guest rooms, many of which (for some reason) featured beds that could fold up into the wall. You can just imagine what trouble a bunch of wound-up young boys would get into with those things! I dare not even mention the hotel video arcade…
From age 5 until I left for college, my father was my Sunday school teacher. I often wonder now how he got away with following me through my entire religious education, but perhaps he was concerned that other parents might have to deal with my bad behavior and intentionally subversive questions. Each Sunday I helped my dad carry all the Bibles he would distribute to the class, and on many occasions I would help my mom carry all the communion supplies which it was her task to manage. (I remember now with a slight shudder how I would gorge myself after church with the leftover bread-bits and shot glasses of grape juice.) My childhood church was in many ways a ramshackle affair, but it not only served as a vehicle for my evangelization but also gave me a clear sense of the vital connection between evangelization and concrete community. For better or worse, our small band of families journeyed together and depended upon each other for our spiritual nourishment and growth.
I knew relatively early that I wanted to study theology, and perhaps pursue it into the ministry or academia. My quest to understand the truths of faith began with the reading of Scripture, but soon led to books and conversations that eventually cultivated in me a deep love for Christian literature. Towards the end of high school, a family friend (one of the preachers who regularly visited our home) suggested that I might think about pursuing Theology in college.
During my years in college, I was deeply formed by teachers and mentors who served as exemplary models of Christian scholarship and discipleship. Chief among these mentors was Edward P. Mahoney, a priest and philosophy professor specializing in late medieval Platonism. Many took him to be a grump because, well, he was quite grumpy a good bit of the time, but he was a loyal and constant mentor to several of us on campus who showed interest in studying philosophy from a Christian perspective. I can remember one time when I came to his office to ask him a question about so-and-so’s pneumatology, he began exclaiming “shut the door, shut the door! Don’t you know you can’t just start talking about the Holy Spirit around here?” Once when I was having a particularly difficult time understanding Plotinus, he advised me to go to my room and say “the one and the many” over and over again to myself until an insight came. His best line, though, came in response to a doctrinal novelty I once proposed to him: “look,” he said, “I didn’t give up sex for that sort of mushy-headed nonsense.” “Gee,” I thought to myself then, “some Catholics must be really serious about their faith…”
God’s grace eventually led me to the Catholic church via books, friends and the liturgy. Though my childhood denomination admirably emphasized ecclesial unity, it woefully lacked any theological account of history and ecclesial tradition. So I knew I would need to look outside the Church of God for resources to understand the irreducibly historical character of the Christian faith. I don’t know if I would have become an atheist had I not become Catholic, but I suspect I would have ventured in that direction. My experience of God up to that point in my life was inextricably linked to concrete experiences and relationships, and it was at this critical juncture most of all that I yearned for the consistent tangible embodiment of the Gospel through time. So looked not to the realm of ideas but to concrete signs to guide me.
That’s how I found my way to Holy Cross Catholic Church in Durham, NC. There I came into contact with African-American Catholicism, and also had my first experience with Jesuits. Rose Wright, my RCIA instructor, was the undisputed matriarch of the parish, and without her guidance and care I do not think I would have become Catholic. Fr. Brendan Horan, SJ was also instrumental to my “conversion.” I did not know it then, but my encounter with the Jesuits was just beginning. I would attend a Jesuit college for my master’s degree, be married by a Jesuit priest and eventually get a job at a Jesuit school. And now there’s a Jesuit pope… if anyone has reason to suspect a grand plot at work here, it would be me!
Coming to the end of this brief reflection, I cannot help but think I have been too rambling and autobiographical. I haven’t spoken as much about my own relationship to God as I have about my relationship with other people. Yet I think this asymmetry and these external references accurately reflect what my own experience has been regarding faith’s role in the life and work of a theologian. As Pope Francis himself has been fond of emphasizing of late, the faith is transmitted not so much through the ether of ideas and Zeitgeists as it is through real contact between real people. It is one thing to recognize the ways in which people have “influenced” one’s life and work, but the real people who stand behind these influences are not ladders to be kicked away; they are rather authentic vehicles of God’s grace—and thus of God himself—whose destiny is coextensive and convergent with our own. We need others, we need each other, if we are one day to reach the goal of our common theological quest.