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.