From after about 1950, that is.
I’m neither boasting nor confessing when I tell you I don’t read much theology anymore, at least of the modern variety.
(A quick side note: When I say theology, that's exactly what I mean - the fruit of the academic discipline. Not spiritual reading, not mysticism, not church history, not apologetics, not Scripture studies. Those aren't "theology." They may be related to it and rooted in theological thinking, but strictly speaking, they are not theology)
It’s just a fact. When I was younger – in my twenties and full of faith in the power of the progressive modern intellect to explain God, I devoured it in a pretty self-satisfied rash of inquiry, the object of which was not as much to learn anything but to show how smart I was to be a twenty-two year old reading big fat obtuse books ostensibly penned by Dutch theologians (but more, I understand now, by their hapless, ever-anonymous research assistants.)
But it was always a shaky relationship, beginning with my attempts to take philosophy courses at the University of Tennessee. Oh, I did fine, but they were terrifically difficult for me because I would sit and listen to the professor lecture, go back and read some Plato or William of Ockham or David Hume, and realize with frustration and horror – I just did not understand.
I couldn’t follow the arguments. Heck, I couldn’t remember the arguments from one step to the next. I was bedeviled by the same problem when I took my first graduate course at Vanderbilt, in Christology. Now, as far as theological disciplines go, you’d think that Christology would be one of the more concrete among them, but it wasn’t to be, with all that talk of divine and human nature and homoouisius and Trinitarian grapplings.
I had to reconcile myself to the fact that I’m just not an abstract thinker and then settle much more comfortably and confidently among the real people, places and movements of history.
Stories – it all comes down to stories. Jesus didn’t preach a lot of what we think of as theology. He told us what God is like in ordinary terms and he told stories. The Judaism from which he emerged emphasized knowing God through what God has done – creation, the call of Abraham, the Exodus- rather than speculating on matters of ontology and metaphysics. Oh yes, of course, Judaism had its share of philosophers and theologians, from Philo to Maimonedes and beyond, but if truth be told, their metaphysical bent came not from the core of the Hebrew Scriptures, but from interaction with those Greeks. Jews knew God through how He acted among them, not through working through syllogisms.
So ever since those heady, rather arrogant days of trying to comprehend Schillebeeckx and Rahner, I've moved to a different place. For my spiritual growth and understanding, I immerse myself in works rooted in stories rather than in the incomprehensible words of (especially)contemporary theologians, many of whom, I suspect, write, not out of a search for truth, but out of the need to publish something “original” for the sake of tenure or promotion.
In that framework, I have to say that the most trustworthy ancient theologians that I do continue to read (the Greek and Latin Fathers, Augustine, Aquinas, Boneventure, von Balthasar and a few more) didn't work out of that professionalized and ultimately secularized academic space. They're using philosophical and theological language, they're disciplined and rigorous, but they're still telling stories, in a way, and for that reason, I get it.
So it is when people tell me stories about
how God has worked in their lives -- how He sustains them through difficult times, startles them out of complacency, and gives them purpose. I get it.
I read novels, as you all well know, for I speak of it so often, in which writers tell stories about the edges of faith, the shadows where human beings struggle between darkness and light. I get it.
I continue to read history, which, as depressing as it can be sometimes, cheers me when I think that times are bad today, even in the Church. It’s always been a mess, it’s clear, even from the time Jesus walked the earth accompanied by apostles who spent their time arguing about who was going to get to sit on Jesus’ right hand in the Kingdom.
And I read a great deal of spiritual autobiography.
It begins, of course, with Augustine’s Confessions, which I have read many times and recommend (at least the first ten books of it) to anyone interested in an amazingly honest account of a struggle to faith.
Close behind are two twentieth-century Confessions, Thomas Merton’s Seven-Storey Mountain
and The Long Loneliness by Dorothy Day, modern accounts of the restless heart winding itself towards God.
What strikes me when I consider all of these works together is the fact, which may be either a comfort or a bother, depending on your point of view, that the life of holiness flows from radical transformation. Abraham, Moses, Mary, Paul, as well as those I’ve mentioned all had a “before” and “after” in their lives. There was a “before” of searching and wrong turns and faith in temporal joys, all of which failed, and an “after” of peace, openness to God, a Yes that demanded a No to the falsehoods of the past.
Over the past couple of years, there is only one segment of book publishing that has shown any substantial growth: religion. Some in the industry speculate that this growth has been mostly Millenial anxiety, and we'll see if that's true as time passes. I don't think it is. I think the growth shows that Americans, Christians included, stand in a strange, paradoxical place of complacency in our comfort yet unease with that same comfort.
We would learn much if we’d turn from works churned out to make a profit, either by “inspirational” writers of the Hallmark School of Prose or academics seeking to promote their own careers and find our roots once again in the story:
The story of Jesus and those who’ve followed him and gifted us with their own stories of forgiveness, peace and surrender we can embrace, not because someone proved that it was possible with logic or manipulated our emotions into believing, but because we see it lived in the stories of those who found that in the end, the love of God was enough.