It is significant that the Confessions, arguably the most significant theological treasures in Western Christianity, is at the same time the world’s first Christian autobiography. Theological reflection for Augustine was something that grew out of contemplation of his own engagements of the world with his mind and his body. At the same time, the theology of the Confessions is entirely set against the backdrop of a prayer Augustine writes to God. Theology for Augustine was not a schema of the mind, but a narrative of the movements of the heart towards God.
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Fr. Robert Barron, in a recent installment of his Word on Fire series of Youtube broadcasts, made a reference to his theological hero, Hans Urs von Balthasar. In this broadcast, Barron repeated von Balthasar’s call for theology to become a “Kneeling Theology”, a theology that is not only neatly laid out in the various schemata located in the mind, but one that expresses itself in our material lives, but most particularly in our worship.
This reference to von Balthasar’s call for a “Kneeling Theology” seems apt in light of the Church’s celebration on Tuesday this week of the feast of St. Augustine of Hippo, a Church Father so influential in the Latin Church that he is sometimes dubbed “the Doctor of the West”. Augustine is a unique figure in the line of Doctors of the Church because, as his Confessions makes quite evident, his theology is one that is grounded in his own personal experiences rather than mere abstract reflection.
This Augustinian disposition is reflected somewhat strangely in an exchange in Fyordor Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot. In this exchange one of the story’s main characters, Rogozhin, declares to the Christ-like Prince Myshkin of a realisation concerning the essence of Russian Christianity. For the almost-Nietzschean Rogozhin the essence of Christianity
has nothing to do with reason, or atheism, or crime, or acts of any kind…There is something besides all this, something which the arguments of the atheists can never touch. But the principal thing, and the conclusion of my argument, is that this is most clearly seen in the heart of a Russian
Rogozhin is right in seeing, like Augustine, the heart as the principal element of the Christian religion, but it would be too easy to see, like Rogozhin and unlike Augustine, the heart as something cut off from the other parts of the body. The correct way would be to see, with the Old Testament Jew, the heart as the primary engine and also envelops the entirety of one’s person. This is why the foundation for the Judeo-Christian, embodied in the famous exhortation in Deuteronomy 6:5, is one built on a love of God that begins with the heart and eventually engulfs one’s bodily strength. In a similar vein, theology must not remain encased in one’s skull, but emit to the extremities of one’s physique, and eventually call one to conform to a pattern of life of the worship of the one true God.
Conversely, as suggested in a CathNews blog post, the Christian must also be aware of how the configurations of one’s body by his or her environs can also affect the movements of the heart and ultimately one’s liturgical and theological leanings.