Concerning Theology, Straw, and Basic Kindness

In New Seeds of Contemplation, Merton made this acerbic, but I think on-the-mark, comment: “Beware of the contemplative who says that theology is all straw before he has ever bothered to read any.” Historically, theology and mysticism were not two separate disciplines, but rather two sides of the same coin. Theology, or “God-talk,” sought to express what in contemplation comes to us as ineffable mysteries. Why bother, you might ask, to attempt to speak of what cannot be put into words? Like the man who climbs the mountain simply because it is there, the contemplative theologian struggles to find words to contain the mystery simply because the mystery is there, and it is our human nature to speak, even of things which no words can capture.

So far be it from me to dismiss theology. Having said that, I find myself overcome with a kind of weary malaise when I read too much theology, particularly in its more contentious or argumentative forms. After I dared to poke the sleeping beast of the Pelagian controversy yesterday, I was initially thrilled by the number of responses I received. But as the day went on, and one commentator (on Facebook) told me he considers Brian McLaren no longer to be a Christian, and another commentator derided the words of yet another as “nonsense,” and then someone else posted a lengthy note to provide “correctives” to the conversation, I began to find the conversation wearisome rather than enlightening. If this is where theology leads: to us sniping at each other and playing games of intellectual one-up-man-ship, then I’m willing to incur Merton’s contempt and dismiss it all as straw.

But there’s a paradox here. It is all straw, and we have no less an exemplar than Aquinas to thank for that image. At the same time, theology remains an essential project, if for no other reason than what I said above: it is our nature to speak of God, however, haltingly or (dare I say it?) fallibly.

At the risk of having many of my readers dismiss me as hopelessly “non-Christian” as McLaren, I have to say that the older I get, the less faith I place in non-negotiables: whether we’re talking about the doctrine of original sin, or the authority of the Bible, or the infallibility of the Pope, or whatever. I’m not so much of a postmodernist that I believe all claims of authority should be dismissed, and I continue to carry great respect for sacred scripture, tradition, and the magisterium — but I tend to find that the more someone suggests, or speaks of, an authority as being beyond question, the more red flags go up for me. Phyllis Tickle suggests that the heart of the emergence movement within Christianity today is, ultimately, a crisis of authority. I think it’s also a crisis of identity, and these two issues are not unrelated.

In the meantime, I know that many good people, sincere Christians, and faithful readers of this blog do not suffer from the same crisis of conscience that I do, and continue to place their unquestioning faith in the magisterium, or the tradition, or the Bible, or whatever. If that is you, then I hope you’ll remain in the conversation, for I need your insight and your witness. But please, tread lightly when you’re tempted to dismiss someone with a position different from your own as “non-Christian” or “nonsense” or even as standing in need of a “corrective.” At least for me, these kinds of statements are conversation killers. I’m much happier when we speak assertively, but kindly, about authority as we understand it, and then practice basic kindness toward those with whom we disagree. I think our theology will have less straw in it as we become more mindful about practicing basic gentleness and kindness toward those whose views (or understanding of authority) differ from our own.

"That God's Love Might Live in Us" — A Few Lovely Words from Thomas Merton
Seven Essential Thomas Merton Books
What Good is Religion? A Contemplative Perspective
In Memoriam: Kenneth Leech
  • Al Jordan

    Amen and amen. My son provided me with my ultimate take on theology when he shared with me a remark made by one of his professors in the School of Theology at Emory University. The professor said that the ultimate theological question was, “so what?” The conversation can get as esoteric as it will as long as I remember this bit of wisdom.

    Thank you for your transparency and sincerity.

  • judith quinton

    Amen, my friend.
    Your concerns are valid and well-spoken.
    “They will know we are Christians by our love.”
    They will know we are mystics, and spiritual seekers of any true faith, by our love.
    If I “speak with the tongues of angels…and have the gift of all prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, but have not love, I am nothing.”
    Acerbic, dismissive words that come from judgmental attitudes do not belie love.
    We have all fallen prey…I have a gift for sarcasm and putting people and their ideas in “their place” like you wouldn’t believe! ;o]
    But, God, in Christ, is making a kinder, gentler, little nation out of Judith…and finally, after 65 years on the job, He seems to be getting somewhere.
    Holy Spirit conversation among men and women should be filled with the fruits exemplified in Him…and gentleness is an over-arching one!
    Care, Carl.
    We are all in progress. We all fall short. We can pull each other up. We can choose to return soft words even when the other falls into sarcasm or dismissiveness. We always have a choice. Don’t you just love the whole “free will” thing God set down as an Absolute for us all to live and abide by…even Him?! Amazing! Incredible! Topic for another day!

  • Jane Smith


    No distillation – we live in freedom.

    We can teach but we can’t hold let alone contain.

    The Way is alive and well – distilled certainty is not.


  • brazenbird

    I sometimes think theology is a diversion from the real questions we ought to be asking ourselves. If we can put a label on it and define it, then we can go along our way merrily feeling that we have figured it all out. Is theology useful? Of course. But I, like you, get bogged down in the weightiness of it all when I stand in it for too long. Theology is not where my spirituality, where my Christ centered-ness resides.

    I feel the same way about non-negotiables – they must be questioned. I’m coming away from a faith that was very definitive and limiting and am now trying to move into a faith that is open and moving. I have to question all that I was taught. I also have to question the people who defined it. Who were they, what was influencing them? What was their society and culture like? What were their understandings of the world? And yes, it has been scary to learn that what I was previously taught as non-negotiable is actually just another guy’s take on a spiritual concept.

  • Yewtree

    Funny you should mention this. I posted a blog-post about good and bad theology and there was a massive discussion in the comments. Normally I am lucky if I get one or two comments.

    Pleased to hear that so many previous commenters are prepared to challenge things that were previously considered non-negotiable. Well done, all of you.

  • Shadwynn

    Ditto: Amen, Amen, and So Mote It Be.

    I totally relate to your observations regarding the tendency to sharpen our intellectual weapons for intering into the theological fray. Many years ago, I hung out with a group of friends who shared intense interests in Christian doctrine and theology. Interestingly, we referred to ourselves collectively as the “Great Sanhedrin” because of our obsession with every “jot and tittle” of scriptural chapter and verse and the esoteric speculations of the Church Fathers, not to mention loads of other patriarchal, doctrinal trivia that made for endless discussions by which we could hone our debating skills with one another. (Luckily, we were all friends, so it never degenerated into serious nastiness.) But in the last analysis, like Aquinas, one could see it all as a confirmation that, used as inviolate authority or dogmatic proof-texting, theology misused can be a pile of straw waiting for a bonfire to happen. (I seem to remember a scripture somewhere: “Our God is a consuming fire…”) I am thoroughly convinced that the Divine Mystery likes nothing better than turning our pretentious theologies into an incinerated ash-heap.

    I guess that was one pleasant and more civilized aspect of being a Pagan theologian of sorts for years. Contemporary Pagans aren’t insistent that their view is the “only” one. Different traditions are simply different approaces to the Mystery which is inherently indefinable anyway. I didn’t have to worry about an “either/or” rigidity when participating with other Pagans in theological conversations. We agreed to disagree without resorting to one-up-manship or invocations of “infallible” authorities. (This is not to say that Pagans do not occasionally degenerate into egotistical claims, “witch wars”, and other silly rants, but by-and-large, they don’t seem to be infected with the Christian tendency towards a sense of condescending superiority, or know-it-all doctrinal assertions.)

    One of the nicer aspects of this web site, Carl, is your ever-vigilant attempt to convey throughout your blog musings an ever-present smattering of graciousness mixed with humility. That is what keeps this web site from devolving into a mere platform for the worst assumptions of Christian theological rigidity.

    Finally, both Pelagius and Augustine had important things to share and communicate. There is no necessity of dumping one for the other. Both of them generated a lot of intellectual chaff which waits for a fresh breeze from the Spirit to disperse them from our central considerations as being in any way authoritative. But they each raised substantive questions and issues worthy of consideration as long as we don’t make the mistake in thinking that the truth lies only in a slavish conformance to one approach or the other. We are still wrestling with the issues they raised precisely because they did not settle their differences with any finality, no matter how doctrinaire they may sound. The fact that we are still pondering and asking the same questions for ourselves is indicative of our participation in an on-going inquiry which can teach us that the questions we ask are just as important as the answers we seek to discern. Ultimately, God is the Great Conundrum toward which we quest. We question in order to discern more deeply the true nature of things, whether in morality, ethics, or the varied array of theological imponderables. But in our questioning, we show our desire to know truth in order to walk circumspectly on the path to Divine Wisdom. That is a good start…

  • Christine Anderson

    May I join the “amen” chorus? Oh my, what a balm to read such a thoughtful articulation of a perspective I share but could not have put so simply and eloquently. Thank you, thank you.

  • The Pollinatrix

    In my view, Christ IS the conversation: synonymous with it, found in it.

    I’ve always enjoyed theological exploration but have become much more drawn to mystical contemplation. I’m finding more and more that trying to have the “correct” theology is a distraction from experiencing the Presence to which that theology is supposed to point.

    Theology, like words, like everything, is valueless if it does not simply point me to the experience of the Holy. And in that experience, theology, because it can only exist in thought and form, simply becomes irrelevant.

    Theory is only good if it leads to practice, which in turn leads to experience and integration of the Presence.

  • Odysseus

    As one of the participants yesterday, I found a couple of the comments a little ‘harsh’ but I also see this as the ‘problem’ of the internet. We can’t see if someone is being a jerk or asking hard questions or dismissive or just being goofy. I don’t have an issue with people wanting to set the record straight or offer some correction in a humble, loving spirit. But, like you, I have been in situations were people are just plain un-loving when it comes to such things. Some seem very quick to label someone (me) as a ‘heretic’. I, too, have left such discussion and vowed never to return.

    However, on another facet of the jewel, I have really been sharpened and challenged and pruned and grown by having a conversation with loving, caring friends – people who CAN talk to me very harshly. But I know them. I love them and they love me. We can speak to each other in a safe way – even if we have to say the other is stupid for believing such an such.

    What I enjoy about your site (and what I think is a reflection of your heart and spirit) is that it feels like just such a safe place. Not that I would EVER call someone on your blog a jerk or they were stupid for believing whatever. I just mean that this place feels like a sacred space and I appreciate loving, gentle correction. I hope that I can offer the same to others as well.

  • lightandstorm

    The problem, as I see it, is that while theology and contemplation are indeed two sides of the same coin….there seems to be a dramatic split between them in most people’s minds.

    Not quite so much on the contemplative side…when you are in an open and receptive state it is much easier to see how theology has often been born out of mystical experience.

    But you can’t get from theology to mysticism…not easily. And theology often becomes something people argue about without keeping themselves grounded in contemplation and mysticism. Therefore, there becomes a correct way of doing things, a correct answer. And the pride that comes along with having the correct answers.

    I feel like theology can be argued about with no reference to real life and therefore becomes detached and irrelevant. A game of words that have no real meaning. And when this happens, it turns the contemplatives away from it.

    Maybe the connections need to be made stronger. I dont know. But I feel the same way as you do.

  • Aspirant


    You often speak/write about the “emerging church.” Seriously, I had to look that up and this definition on Wikipedia:

    Just wondering what your take is on how the “emerging church” is depicted in Wikipedia? Is that accurate?


  • Michael Kennedy

    Dear All
    At times I am not sure that I fully understand what people are saying in their posts. But I am filled with a sense of gratitude that someone takes the time to share thoughts on what I called the Spiritual Life.
    My own position is how credible I am in my family and workplace.
    At the end of the day I see myself as an agent for PEACE. And I trust it is the God within me that is the source of this PEACE.
    Our intellects are great gifts. But we have other gifts and in some respects more basic than the intellect.
    I am immensely grateful for all contributions.

  • dFish

    I get back to the comments on your “Pelagian-Augustine” post, and true enough, there’s a bit of a dialectical continuity that was dragged on. I am a philo grad, trained more on the German dialectics. But since the invitation to a more contemplative presence in the world has tugged my being (not just my mind), i have to debunk a bulk of this dialectical orientation (what you earlier termed as “oppositional thinking) to make way for a rerouting of my basic spiritual attitude towards a more unitive one. This transition has been aided almost in silence through the “writings” of Maggie Ross.
    A lot of this dialectical tensions have been propagated by the world of philosophy, and even the great Thomas Aquinas was not spared from “talking” by merely entertaining the question whether God exists or not. Adventurous minds are never spared from this temptation to define the Mystery. The problem is, typical of our college philo days – we turned philosophizing into an end rather than a roadmap into the Truth we all fall into Silence only when gazed upon. This is the subtlest, humblest gift i receive from courageous Christians like Maggie Ross, more of a healing one from the kind of temptation and presumptousness that the dialectics in theological circles often fall into. It’s the gift of Silence, or more appropriately in the context of blogging, again from Maggie Ross – “the balance of speech and silence.” And people of Silence easily discern when words spring from silence, or when the human mind is turned into a crowning glory of the human search of the Mystery instead of a sacrament, a pointer into the Divine.

  • Tina

    Well written Carl! Down right inspiring!

  • Phil Soucheray


    I want be among those who holds you up in your questioning. If Augustine, or Pelagius, Thomas Aquinas, et al, and (dare it be said) even Jesus of Nazareth, had stopped ever stopped asking questions, we might not have the bounty of theology that we have today. I believe a person without questions is one without a sense of mystery. And without a sense of mystery, how can we ever presume to strive to be in relationship with/to it?

  • Infinite Warrior

    A lot of these dialectical tensions have been propagated by the world of philosophy

    Or perhaps it’s that oppositional modes of thinking haven’t been propogated nearly as much by philosophy as by the near-abandonment of philology. Philology doesn’t get anywhere near the airtime, certainly, and that is naturally where dialects, in all their glorious subtlety, come into play. (Not dialectics, necessarily, but dialects.) You say tuhmeytoh; I say tuhmahtoh; and if no attempt is made by either of us to understand each other, we’ll soon be in a “chicken fight” over tomatoes.

    As it happens, I don’t “believe in” the doctrine of Original Sin and subsequent Fall of Man, etc. as the church teaches it and so tend to keep silent on the subject with those who do (unless, of course, they tell me that I must), but does that mean the concept can’t have some meaning for me relative to someone who does?

    Origin: something from which anything arises or is derived; source; fountainhead. Origin-al: belonging or pertaining to the origin or beginning of something, or to a thing at its beginning.

    “Have you found the beginning, then, that you are looking for the end? For where the beginning is, there will the end be also. Blessed is he who stands at the beginning, for he shall know the end and shall not taste death.” ~ Jesus, Gospel of Thomas, 18

    Did someone mention “Presence”?

    The distinction between past, present and future is a stubbornly persistent illusion. ~ Albert Einstein

    Origin-al Sin: to fall short at any given point in time of manifesting our divine potent-ial.

    You say Man fell short; I say Man falls short here and there, now and then; and, according to Romans 3:23, “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God”, so we’re all in very good company. Either interpretation of “Original Sin” can be subverted for nefarious ends, but what is it to our inherent relationship as members of the human family if you say tuhmeytoh and I say tuhmahtoh? Philosophy is the love of wisdom, not opinion.

  • Jo

    Hallelujah! Preach on, brother!

    My philosophy in my nut-shell…..

    If I am not open to others, I may never find out where they are coming from. And how terribly sad – because I might just want to visit there.

  • Shadwynn


    I love your philosophy!

  • Maggie Daly

    Carl, your post and all the subsequent comments provide a lot of food for thought. I have a degree in theology, an inclincation towards mysticism and a questioning but faithful adherence to the Roman Church. I love theology because it is the study of God but must admit that at its more abstract and philosophical reaches theology leaves me befuddled and sometimes bored. Mysticism, however, whether in the form of prayer, poetry, reading of spiritual texts from Dame Julian to Maggie Ross is never boring.

    Theology stimulates an active intellectual search for God whereas mysticism speaks in stillness and silence. They complement each other and, hopefully, entwine themselves into a single spiritual tree. They can only do this if love enlivens both pursuits.

    Re Augustine: I can’t remember the exact wording or where it ws written but Augustine, writing on grace and free will, stated that while we are unable to move ourselves toward God without grace “neither are we dumb stones” unable to move ourselves. Grace can be sought, prayed for, accepted or rejected.

    A high school teacher of mine used to offer this little prayer: Give me the grace to accept your grace and the grace to ask for more.

    Blessings to all.

  • Karen

    Another amen from me and a nod to synchronicity – A friend and I had the very same conversation this morning — from original sin — to Thomas’s straw comment — and everything in between.

    Being a cradle catholic and revert I think I have strayed to all extremes and keep coming back to IS NOW as my only creed. To me Jesus is a way – my way of life and love.. and only know that I don’t know much at all.

    I live by this weird line now – ‘nonsense is sense to those who survive eloquence’.

    thank you for writing this heartfelt post!

    and thank you to those who wrote the above comments (and Carl) — I thank God for your very being –

  • Jon Boatwright

    I’ve always thought of the church as a sort of school: a formative place. Also, a place of communion. The mystics, both East and West, have brought a reformation from time to time to the religion as it tends to become cemented in some type of dogmatic assurance. They have often come under fire for doing such as you well know. It also seems that God may want constant movement in his body of the church and the mystics are the perfect candidates for it. No doubt only poetry can carry the weight of spiritual experience if at all and so theology is a way of trying to nail things down more exactly to keep it in line with orthodoxy. There will always be those who condemn but it’s never those who have had their own mystical experiences. It’s usually those who refuse to have them it seems. If one were to set out to talk about the uncreated light then surely they would fall way short of doing so. Perhaps poetry can carry it but in the end experience recognizes experience.

  • Brian Doyle

    I just finished reading Elaine Pagels’ _Beyond Belief_ (2003) and it strikes me that these conversations, including a recent, lively thread on the so-called “errors of Gnosticism,” are all echoes of a debate that commenced as far back as the time of Irenaeus and Valentinus and came to their fruition in the Nicene Creed.

    Ever since, the mere statement that one is a “Christian” is implicitly theological–and political….

  • The Pollinatrix

    I love Jon’s comment about poetry, and I completely agree. Personally, I can’t help but combine poetry and theology. Theology without poetry is brittle and hollow.