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A medieval quodlibet

The question of how Christians - and in particular, seminarians and priests - should approach the study of theology sheds light on the importance of knowledge in the Christian life.

Few people will be surprised by the idea that seminarians are required to study theology in their formation for the priesthood. Some may question how much technical theology is necessary, or how deep the study should go in particular topics. But seminarians obviously need to be well-acquainted with the content of God’s revelation for the sake of their ministry to God’s people. Given the intrinsic importance of theological study, it is worth noting that the study of theology can be rendered less effective than the Church has long desired it to be.

Well-intentioned seminarians – and Christians in general – can sometimes fall into one of two opposite mistakes in their approach to the study of theology. On one hand, there is a view that Christianity is essentially subjective, emotive, and therapeutic. The encounter with God and growth in relationship with Jesus are largely personal matters that depend on individual needs and ways of expression. From this point of view the question naturally arises: Why all this emphasis on orthodoxy? What is so important about getting doctrines exactly right? Isn’t the important thing to experience God? Opposite to this view is one that recognizes the importance of saving truths as revealed in the Gospel, but that tends to equate conversion as coterminous with academic proficiency and the ability to articulate and synthesize abstract theological concepts. Using two words in their colloquial sense, the first view is all heart, and the second is all mind. The first tends to sentimentality and a less than firm grasp of truth; the second results in an arid and unattractive faith that seems disconnected from the rest of life. How do we best sidestep these two errors, both of which are quite common in the Christian world we inhabit?

It will help to recall some basic Scriptural principles. One is the core anthropological truth is that the most Godlike part of the human person, the part of us made in God’s image, is the mind and the will. Scripture often speaks of Christian conversion in terms of renewal of the mind (Romans 12:2; Ephesians 4:23) and the process of deepening the faith as growth in the knowledge of God (2 Corinthians 4:6, 2 Peter 1:2). Jesus called himself “the truth,” and revealing the truth and overturning falsehood is at the heart of his mission: “I have come into the world to bear witness to the truth” (John 18:37). At the same time, it is clear that when Scripture speaks of knowledge, it involves far more than the simple acquisition of data. Conversion of mind is seen to touch every aspect of the person: mind, will, emotions, physical make-up (2 Timothy 3:17). A second key Scriptural principle has to do with the heart. When Scripture speaks of the heart it is not referring to affect or emotional life; that is a modern leftover from the Romantic movement. In Scripture, the heart of a person is the essence of what he is, his deepest identity, and emphatically includes mind and will as its most important aspects (Mark 7:21; Luke 2:35).

This is important to note, because in the face of the typical experience of academic study that tends to the piling up of dry and often barren knowledge unconnected with daily life, some Christians have recommended that we should “get out of our heads and into our hearts.” One sees the point, but this way of speaking only plays into the unfortunate modern dichotomy that has tended to bifurcate abstract knowledge from emotive and relational experience.

In attempting to reconcile these various principles without falling into either of the two errors noted above, St. John Henry Newman provides a useful lens for understanding the interplay between the study of technical theology and growth in personal holiness and relationship with God. Newman distinguishes between what he calls notional knowledge and real knowledge – both of which are important forms of knowing. Notional knowledge tends to be more theoretical and abstract, and it corresponds to the sort of knowing we associate with academic study at its best. Real knowledge, on the other hand, refers to those things we know that have become living truths within us that serve as intuitive principles of thought and action. To call knowledge real is not to say that notional knowledge is somehow unreal. A few examples of the interplay between notional and real knowledge may help. We all possess the important notional knowledge that someday our life will end; but when someone close to us dies, or we have a near-death experience, the truth comes alive in a new way, and begins to influence the way we see and act.  A woman on her honeymoon may wake up and suddenly think, “It’s coming home to me that I’m going to spend the rest of my life with this person!” A married man may say: “I did not know what it was to be a father until I held my first child in my arms.” In these examples, it is not that the fact was not known; in fact the person probably knew a lot of things about death, or marriage, or children, that it will be important to remember. But now, the truth has been realized, it has come alive to the person in a new compelling way that gives strength and influence to what they have learned notionally. 

Much of what it means to be more deeply converted to Christ and to gain a renewed mind is to go from knowing the truths of the faith notionally to knowing them really. Teaching children their catechism is necessarily, and importantly, notional. At various times of life, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, those notional truths take on a more vivid presence in our minds and spirits.

Theology is by nature a notional body of knowledge. It submits the data of revelation to reverent human reason, and attempts to integrate all that we know, from reason and revelation, in order to provide a clear picture of the whole of reality. As such it is a regulating discipline, providing a clear understanding of the terrain of truth, within which our more potent but much vaguer subjective experiences can be secured and find their proper place. With Newman’s explanation of notional and real knowledge in mind, consider C.S. Lewis’s description of theology in Mere Christianity:

If a man once looked at the Atlantic from the beach, and then goes and looks at a map of the Atlantic, he also will be turning from something real to something less real… The map is admittedly only colored paper, but there are two things you have to remember about it. In the first place, it is based upon what hundreds and thousands of people have found out by sailing the real Atlantic. In that way it has behind it masses of experience just as real as the one you could have from the beach; only, while yours would be a single glimpse, the map fits all those difference experiences together. In the second place, if you want to go anywhere, the map is absolutely necessary. As long as you are content with walks on the beach your own glimpses are far more fun than looking at a map.

Maps are important for anyone who hopes to arrive at a destination, but they are especially important for guides, for those who have been given the task of keeping people on the right road and helping them avoid pitfalls and dangers. 

For the seminarian who is training to be a pastor, a cure of souls, the study of theology is essential. He needs to know the map, and have an eye for the swamps, the shoals, and the places of clear sailing. For the priest he is to become, an example and father to his people, a life of prayer and insertion into the being of God is essential. He needs to come alive to what he knows such that it is a vital power within him that motivates all he does. Yet it is not just that both kinds of knowledge are necessary to him: more than that, they are meant to go hand in hand; they are ordered to each other as two sides of the same coin. Seminarians need to know the doctrine of the Trinity notionally, and they must come to know the Triune God as a living truth. Their theological knowledge will spark their desire to come fully alive to the One who has called them, and their experience of the living God will enrich their understanding of theological truths. It has been said that theology is properly done on one’s knees: done with a mind awake and ready for the hard work hard of study, and a spirit seeking and worshiping the great Being who is the essence of all truth and the living heart of everything they are studying.

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