The Spiritual Character of Theology

If theology is a spiritual task, then might it not follow the same sort of pattern as the spiritual life? Might spiritual blindness, sin, rebellion, light, faithfulness and fellowship with God not mark the character of a theology? And might spiritual maturity then be a factor in how we present theological knowledge? That is, is the fullness of orthodoxy only to be taught to the “mature” (1 Cor. 2:6)? Love of novelty, for instance, can be a sign of both pride and immaturity, preventing one from accepting the truths of Christian faith in favour of something newer and more appealing–the Fathers always asserted the ancientness of their message over against the innovations of heretics.

Perhaps, then, one’s own development in theology follows something like the classic three-stage model of spiritual progress–though, as Sarah Coakley warns, these are not three discrete stages: “[W]hile the distinction between levels has an important heuristic value, in the messy reality of life the levels may not clearly supersede one another but blend into a continuous whole” (“Deepening Practices,” 79). It begins with the “purgative” stage, the stage of repentance, turning from sin and renouncing the world. Our understandings of God, our persistent tendency to (even conceptual) idolatry and our materialistic thinking all need to be checked. Augustine highlights the latter when he writes of the person who “can only think of masses and spaces, little or great, with images of bodies flitting around in his mind like ghosts” when thinking of the immaterial God  (On the Trinity, 7.11).

The second stage is the “illuminative.” It is characterized by what Coakley calls “a habituating of love” and is less focused on the renunciation of the world as on growth in and imitation “in a more than extrinsic way” of Christ’s life (86). The illuminative stage is one of progressive deepening, of a fellowship with God in which we are shown new truths–or rather, the ancient truths bathed in an ever new light. This may correspond to the ever deepening understanding of God’s revelation which, like a prism, casts light in all directions and invites ever new reflection. As von Balthasar writes, the task of theology “[t]hrough the millenia” has been the “understanding, in ever new and different ways, of the same love of God in Christ” (Glory of the Lord 7, 103 n.12).

The final stage is the “unitive.” Here, depending, I suppose, on one’s theology (!) the person is given, in rare moments–if, indeed, at all–ecstatic experiences where the presence of God is so intimate, so close, so full that the distinction between God and I seems to disappear completely. Merton describes it this way: “If a man who had thus been vindicated and delivered and fulfilled and destroyed could think and speak at all it would certainly never be to think and speak of himself as something separate, or as the subject of an experience” (New Seeds, 248-49). And here is the intriguing pinch for theology: when one of the greatest theologians to ever live, St. Thomas Aquinas, had just such an experience, he ceased writing theology. For he claimed, “Everything I have written seems to me so much straw compared with what I have seen” (After Aquinas, 1).


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