Scotland's National Catholic magazine

We need less theology

Ross Ahlfeld argues that when it comes to religion a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing.

Do you have any strong feelings on the epistemological necessity of Christocentric soteriology? Where do you stand on eschatological ontology?

Don’t worry if you have absolutely no idea what any of that means, fortunately for us, our salvation is not dependent on our knowledge of theology, and God’s love for us is not based on how many letters we have after our names.

We know this by the fact that our Lord Jesus Christ was a time served joiner (for most of his life!) who then selected a bunch of illiterate fishermen from the furthest edge of the empire to build up his Church, rather than the haughty scribes and classical philosophers.

Indeed, the late, great Methodist clergy- man and socialist, Donald Soper believed that ‘any doctrine which is so abstruse that it cannot be used in public discourse is as near irrelevant as makes no odds. Theology’s main task is to make it easier for the Gospels to be heard. Anything else is just academic business.’

Half the time I’m not even sure all theology is especially helpful. Take the study of theodicy for example, which explores the problem of why a loving God allows evil to exist. Despite the mountains of books written by theologians on this subject, I’ve yet to find a satisfactory answer to this question.

For me, we can never understand why God allows evil to exist and I find some answers offered by theologians, such as searching for the hidden good in a traumatic event, to be of no comfort to those suffering. This is only something we can understand after we’ve gone to our reward, until then all we can do is believe in God’s love for us.

An overly intellectual approach to Faith can alienate the ordinary faithful and make us lose our sense of the transcendent. Similarly we Catholics might be better off being nourished by popular piety, daily devotions and the sacramental life, rather than endless theology lectures that have no relevance to our lived Faith.

Not because we are all anti-intellectuals or too daft to understand theological concepts, but rather because we truly believe that unity, enlightenment, peace, rest, love and a real encounter and relationship with the living Jesus, has been made present for us in the Blessed Sacrament.

However, I’m not calling for some sort of year zero within the Church, whereby we chuck out all our theologians and academics. In reality, theology is really just ways of thinking and understanding our Faith, which should help lead us towards the same aforementioned adoration and contemplation.

I love theology and frequently name drop my favourite theologians in the pages of this magazine. Many of whom gladly share their knowledge and make their learning freely accessible and understand- able for the lay reader.

Yet, it is important for us to seek out a healthy balance between scripture reading, prayer life, study and learning, charity and social action.

A good example of this balance can be found inside my own Catholic Worker Movement; in the 1930s our co-founder Peter Maurin came up with an idea called ‘Agronomics’ which basically invited the intelligentsia and the clerics to a Catholic Worker farm to get involved in all the digging and planting and growing.

Meanwhile, those within the community more used to manual labour and agricultural work were encouraged to study and learn alongside the various economists and political scientists at the nightly roundtable meetings each evening.

Most of all, everyone was expected to come together as members of the body of Christ for daily prayers, Eucharistic adoration and daily Mass.

Put simply, it wasn’t one aspect of the Faith versus the other, it was each individual’s unique gifts, being shared in unity, made available for everyone. These days, in our own lives and in our own parishes, we can practise a modern version of Peter Maurin’s Agronomics by acknowledging those parishioners who volunteer to clean the church and keep the grounds tidy, as having a calling which is entirely equal to any other ministry.

And let’s be honest, everyone knows that the retired ladies who normally arrange the flowers and organise the teas, are much closer to the throne of God than all the rest of us.

Equally, our current journey down the ‘Synodical Path’ should maintains the same balance between clerics, lay people and theologians all working together, without one coming to dominate the entire process.

There’s no point in our complaining about clericalism but then replacing clerics with another bureaucratic tier of gatekeepers, made up of Church scholars and professional lay people, making all the decisions.

Evagrius Ponticus wrote: “The theologian is the one who prays truly, and the one who prays truly is a theologian.”

Theology is for all of us, because it’s a conversation about God, a God who will make himself known to all who seek him regardless of how clever we are or what job we do.

Ross Ahlfeld is a community worker, activist and writer who lives in Greenock.

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