Synodal virtues: Thinking outside the box

shaping the assembly

Theology is not a bundle of facts.

Theology is the possession of a Christian skill which can enhance life for the individual and the communion of which that person is a member. It has a vital role to play in a synodal church.

I have tried to look at this in various ways in previous articles; now I want to conclude these meditations by looking at how it can change the way we see ourselves and our discipleship.


Repeat anything often enough and not only will people believe it – hence the constant repetition of adverts and why so much energy goes into ‘building brands’ – but, eventually, people will forget that there are completely different ways of thinking about a problem.

One of the duties of theology is to stop us in our tracks when those tracks have become ruts. It should get us to look afresh at reality, our place in it, and what it is all about.

Here I want to consider just two situations where this applies.

Situation 1: Living in a post-religious world; are people really not “religious”?

One of the most significant cultural developments of recent decades across the developed world is the number of people who reject any recognized form of religion, who say they do not believe in God or a god, or who ignore organized religion in their lives with the simple statement: “I’m not religious!”

Christians respond to this situation in a variety of ways.

One obvious reply is to try to “convert” them to accept the traditional language, vision and practices of Christianity.

After all, this is the basis of all missionary plans when missions were sent out in areas that had never heard of Christ and there they “won” many new people for the faith.

So why should they not view the society around them as “a new pagan land” and preach to such people?

While it is true that Christians must always proclaim Jesus as the Lord’s Christ, addressing fellow citizens does not seem to have the same impact as missionaries had in parts of Africa in the last two centuries. Part of the reason for this is that the languages and practices of Christianity appear to many post-Christian societies as simply an appeal to go backwards.

This is a point that was made in a different way recently in La Croix by John Alonso Dick when he wrote about “changing the conversation” and quoted T.S. Elliot’s poem “Little Gidding”:

For last year’s words belong to last year’s language.
And next year’s words await another voice.

Christianity – at least in its traditional language and practice – is explicitly that from which many are running away (and often for very good reasons), and they cannot abide the notion of returning.

Inviting people to “come home” to Christianity is equivalent to saying they should love the technology of the early twentieth century, outmoded social views such as the restrictions on women of the nineteenth century, or the religious clashes and bitterness of even earlier.

The situation is that they have tried Christianity and found it wanting.

Moreover, the history of clerical abuse has destroyed the credibility of the Catholic Church as a witness to anything noble in the eyes of many.

Clerical pomposity and attempts to influence public policy make Catholicism something that people reject with disgust.

It is so easy to imagine that this post-Christian situation is the equivalent to being a-religious, as so many claim. But this, for those who believe in God the creator, would be a great mistake.

Post-Christian does not equate to being without religious longings.

Are they godless?

But does that mean that they are godless, that the great questions do not trouble them, or that for this generation Augustine’s claim that every heart is restless until it rests in God (Confessions 1,1,1,) is no longer true?

If it is true that they are truly godless, then it must be a case that now, for the first time in history, there are hearts and minds in which the Holy Spirit is no longer speaking.

To say they are godless is tantamount to saying that God has gone away.

But part of the good news of the creation is that God never goes away, and in every heart, his Spirit is somehow active.

It means that the quest for God is taking new forms, finding different expressions, and the challenge facing Christians is twofold.

First, for themselves to recognize these new expressions of God’s presence in human life and work – and not assume that God only speaks in the older language with which they are familiar.

Second, to help their fellow citizens recognize for themselves these divine stirrings, the deep human need for the Infinite, and to forge with them a new language – a language and religious culture and practice – that belongs to today and tomorrow (rather than being that of yesterday spruced up for today).

This view of the situation of modern women and men was elegantly summed up in this way at the Second Vatican Council nearly sixty years ago:

For since Christ died for all, and since the ultimate destiny of all humanity is the same, namely divine, we must hold that the Holy Spirit offers all of us the possibility, in a way known to God, of being made partners in the Paschal Mystery (Gaudium et spes 22.5).

But finding this new “language” is very difficult – it is even more difficult than learning a foreign language because we do not know its grammar – and then we have to translate our older “language” into it.

In this task of translating the Christian past into the human situation of today and tomorrow, theology plays a crucial role.

So every study of theology is intrinsically an act of mission – and no explicit missionary act can take place without theological reflection. Put bluntly; the more people say, “I’m not religious,” the more those who profess faith need the skills of theology.

Situation 2: Making God in our own image – what are the limits of tolerance and mercy?

One of the depressing aspects of being a Christian is that whenever one hears of narrow-minded intolerance, one often finds that this intolerance is backed up by people who are loud in their professions of their Christian faith.

I met a gentleman recently who was not only homophobic but who also saw all contemporary tolerance of homosexuality as misguided and inviting divine wrath to come upon society for “putting up with it”.

He summed up his basic view with this phrase: “It’s against the law of God!”

And in the conversation, I could hear two other hidden assumptions: laws need a penalty if they are to have any bite; and just as human legal systems punish “accomplices”, so God must punish those who “connive” with those who break his law.

Around the same time, Pope Francis was reported as “changing Church teaching” by saying that the death penalty was incompatible with Christian teaching.

In response, a news program interviewed a US-based Catholic who said that this was all part of the slippery slope of the “Church losing its way and going soft on sin”. For this person, God was the final policeman and creation was a kind of police state with God watching everything and biding his time before releasing his vengeance.

When we see a crucifix, we might ask a theological question: do we think of God as power or as love?

As I watched that interview – and I have heard the same sentiments often over the years — I wondered just where the message of love fitted with this answer.

Perhaps love is not what it’s about, but power? Certainly, both the man I met and the other I heard on TV would have seen divine power as more “real” than divine love.

But while we can argue about whether or not “the bible” is for or against homosexuality, or whether or not the death penalty is needed and permitted, in both cases such arguments are only addressing the presenting level of the problem.

I suspect that there is a deeper problem. We think about the world around us, we have views on “justice”, law and order, and the role of power in human relationships. And then we build a god in our own image, a god who ought to work as we would work ourselves (if only we had a chance).

Here is a basic question each of us as Christians must answer: is the fundamental aspect of God towards the creation one of power or love?

This is one of the hardest questions in all of theology.

It is also where the whole three thousand-year history of our theology intersects with one’s personal outlook on life.

If we think of God as love, we might better appreciate the prayer for homosexual couples recently published by some Dutch bishops, and why a Jesuit theologian, Jos Moons, called having such a prayer “actually quite Catholic”.

Faber’s answer

The nineteenth-century hymn writer Frederick Faber (1814-63) proposed this very different vision to that of God-as-power, which seems to come to the very heart of the issue:

There is a wideness in God’s mercy
like the wideness of the sea.
There’s a kindness in God’s justice,
which is more than liberty.
There is no place where earth’s sorrows
are more felt than up in heaven.
There’s no place where earth’s failings
have such kindly judgment given.

For the love of God is broader
than the measures of the mind.
And the heart of the Eternal
is most wonderfully kind.
If our love were but more faithful,
we would gladly trust God’s Word,
and our lives reflect thanksgiving
for the goodness of the Lord.

What a wonderful piece of theology, though — alas — it is a hymn we hardly ever sing!

God’s love is broader than the measures of our human minds, and so we must be wary of ever presenting anything but mercy and gentleness lest we betray the God we claim to serve.

But this level of mercifulness is not just a human trait nor a psychological or social disposition: it is the very challenge of discipleship. Such a level of forgiveness and tolerance, the level the world needs if there is to be peace, can be seen on reflection to be itself a gift, a grace, and so something for which we must be eucharistic.

In formal theological jargon what those two men who wanted a god of vengeance had done was to assume that justice was a univocal concept in the human and divine spheres, and so drew god down to their own level.

What Faber did was to say that if you can imagine the widest reality you can – for him it was the sea and for us is might be the light-years that separate the galaxies – then that is less than the “wideness” of God’s affection for us.

Theology is not a body of ideas, nor the ability to provide the exegesis of doctrine, nor knock-down arguments to those who challenge Christian beliefs.

It is an invitation to imagine beyond our imaginations’ bounds. I have responded to those too-human-bound images of the divine with a piece of poetry because theology is, in the final analysis, more like poetry than prose.

Theology and theologies

Theology is not just about knowing “what you are about”.

It’s more a matter of having the skills to think about what you know and do, to clarify what is obscure and confused, and to then help others in their quest.

God’s infinity, Deus semper maior, is most truly recognized in God’s mercy; but appreciating the range of that mercy and seeing what response it calls forth from human beings is a most complex challenge – and skill in theology is one great facilitator in this task.

In these five articles on the study of theology as a help towards a synodal Church, I have worked outward in a series of circles:

  • religious questions that concern me as an individual;
  • religious questions that concern me as a member of the Catholic Church;
  • religious questions that concern the Catholic Church in relation to other Christians;
  • religious questions that concern Christians in relation to other religions;
  • religious questions that concern ‘religious people’ – those who believe in the Transcendent with other human beings.
  • religious questions that concern every human being – though many would not see themselves as asking religious questions.

We all inhabit each of these circles simultaneously because each of us is the centre of a world whose outer reaches (and they might be just next door or even among our closest friends) interact with the whole of humanity.

Being a believer in this world – exploring my own doubts and questions, working with other Catholics and other Christians, encountering others every day of every religion and none – calls on us to think through our choices, what it means to follow Jesus’s Way of Life and to reject the Way of Death, and to bear witness to hope and love.

This vocation is neither easy nor straightforward.

We both follow a well-mapped route which our sisters and brothers have travelled before us, and have to explore new routes and carve out new paths.

On this journey, being well-skilled in theology is like having a compass as well as a map.

  • Thomas O’Loughlin is a presbyter of the Catholic Diocese of Arundel and Brighton and professor-emeritus of historical theology at the University of Nottingham (UK). His latest book is Discipleship and Society in the Early Churches.
  • First published in La-Croix International. Republished with permission.

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