WHAT IS THEOLOGY ALL ABOUT?Raul J. Bonoan, S.J. (Astorga, Ma. C. A. & Rosana, A.T.B. (1993). The human quest for God. Manila: Office of Research and Publications Ateneo de Manila University. pp. 11-18.)
WHAT IS theology all about? A good many of those reading this introductory article have had from seven to eleven years of religious instruction. At the very outset therefore, it is necessary to disabuse the reader of the idea that the college theology program, to which he/she is presently being introduced, is just like the catechism or religion courses which he/she may have had in the grade school or in high school. Nor is theology a series of sermons or an exhortation such as he/she hears at Masses, retreats, and weekends of spiritual renewal as the cursillos. This is not to say that he/she can properly and effectively theologize regardless of his/her personal religious and moral life, or whether the message of the Gospel does or does not bear fruit in his/her daily living. In fact, we cannot insist too much that the ultimate objective of the theology program (as well as of all Catholic education) can be none other the authentic Christian living in the world today.
An Academic Subject But if theology is to have-and certainly has-a rightful place in any academic curriculum and the life of a Catholic university, it cannot afford to be merely a haphazard presentation of the truths of the faith or a series of freewheeling discussions on the relevance of Christianity today. Like chemistry, history, psychology, or any other subject, theology must be properly a study and as such, ought to be characterized by some method or order. I hesitate to call it a science or discipline inasmuch as these words often evoke the unhappy image of an esoteric body of truths cultivated by thinkers safely locked up in their ivory towers. But if science is to be understood-as it is generally understood today-as a methodic study of our inquiry into a significant question or phenomenon (something that falls within the range of human experience), then there is no justifiable reason for depriving theology of the title of an academic science or discipline; provided, of course, that it is not misconstrued as pure theory and speculation divorced from the practice of Christian living, a point to which I shall later return.
Let us inquire further: What is the significant question that theology seeks to confront? The etymology of the word (theos, logos) readily gives us the answer: the question of God. This question however, we must note, may be viewed in a number of ways.
The God-Question as Cosmological
The God of the Gaps
It is possible, I think, to raise the question of God as a cosmological problem: Does God exist-is there a God whose existence explains the incontrovertible fact of the cosmos? The cosmological problem of God has also been formulated in the past somewhat in the following manner: Is there a God, the great Unknown, whose existence accounts for the numerous unknowns or gaps in our knowledge of the physical world? Isaac Newton, for example, imagined God as occasionally correcting the course of the planets in order to harmonize certain conflicting data he had gathered in his attempt to measure the revolutions of the spheres. What Newton failed to see was that his tools and instruments lacked the precision and accuracy of modern mathematics and astronomy.
Indeed, oftentimes in the past when scientific knowledge was at its infancy, people appealed to God to fill in the gaps of our knowledge. Needless to say, such a manner of raising the cosmological question of God goes against the grain of the modern scientific mind, which views the world as a self-regulating entity, one governed by its own immanent laws and the dynamics of natural processes. Representative of this mentality is the remark of Laplace at Napoleons objection that the scientists work contained no mention of God: I have no need of such a hypothesis. As science progresses and the area of the unknown diminishes, the God of the gaps- the God- hypothesis- becomes edged out with alarming urgency from the field of meaningful discourse.
God as Prime MoverStill, the problem of God as a cosmological question may be approached metaphysically after the manner of the great Aristotle: How do we explain the various movements in the world and the seemingly endless series of cause and effect? Aristotle concluded to the existence of God as an unmoved Prime Mover, which initiated the series of movements, an uncaused First Cause to which the origin of all things could be ultimately traced. The characteristic function of Aristotles God was a certain activity detached from all creaturely process and all human concerns- noesis noeseos, thought reflecting upon itself, intellection of the highest order. I think it is possible to establish a genetic link between Aristotles Prime Mover and the God of Deism, an intellectual movement that has its roots in the England of the late 17th century. For the Deists, God created the universe, watching the world run its course. He is, in the language of Voltaire, the Watchmaker who assembled the machinery of the world but now merely watches from afar, letting the wheels turn by them. Another deist image of God is that of the Grand Architect of the Universe, still much in use in Masonry, a secret society heavily influenced by Deism.
Theology has no interest in the cosmological question of God. For notwithstanding the greed, poverty, wars, and racial struggles which plague the 20th century person, science and technology still give him/her such confidence in his/her own resources as to render the God of the gaps superfluous. And God as Prime Mover, Watchmaker, or Grand Architect, is just as meaningless for theology for the simple reason that such a God is an impersonal, unfeeling, faceless God. Or, more briefly, such a God is irrelevant. The God that theology wishes to inquire about is a God that assumes a face and a heart, A god who cares for people, watches over him/her as he/she struggles in the world, and one who intervenes at certain points of space and time to direct the course of human history.
The God-Question as Religious and Existential
There is however another way of raising the problem of God, that is, as a religious and existential question. It is really the biblical approach to the question of God. However, as posed today, the question of God starts with the question of man-What is man? or, to put it more concretely, Who are you? I can answer in any number of ways. I can present my ID and say: My name is Jose de Leon, freshman BS Management, born in Quezon City in 1962. But the question really probes more deeply; it presses itself on me in a most radical way in times of decision such as, perhaps, at the end of high school or college, or in moments of failure, sickness, or death- Who are you at bottom? What is it all about? Where am I really going? Is life worth living? We may call this the existential question.
Inevitably the question assumes a social or even political dimension confronting man as social communities such as a family or nation. We may ask ourselves, as we have been asked to ask: Capitalism or Communism? Revolution, bloody or unbloody? Martial Law or Democracy? But underneath there runs with majestic yet disturbing instancy the deeper question: What is to be a man in the Philippines today? What is the meaning of our history? Amidst all the poverty of our rural areas, or amidst all the startling changes and signs of progress (hotels, International Conferences, etc.), where are we headed for in the end? What is our destiny as a people?
The verbal formulation of the question may differ, but the thrust remains on one definite direction- it hits at the core of existence, challenging people and their community. It is a question that cries out for an answer and which I constantly seek to answer and cannot help from answering. But in a certain and true sense, the question is really unanswerable, for it is- in the terminology of the French existentialist, Gabriel Marcel- not a problem, something that I can treat with cold, clinical objectivity and which dissolves upon discovery of the solution, but a mystery, something I am involved in and even as I attempt to answer, I know and am convince that there is no complete answering of it.
As I grope for an answer, trying to give meaning to my decisions and direction to my actions, I experience all that is entailed in the mystery which is my existence: the limitations of my body, the finitude of my mind and will, my moral weakness of depravity- the radical inability to be true to myself and what is expected of myself- and above all, the prospect of death. This sense of my depravity and inner alienation is what is known in theological language as the problem of sin and guilt. Sin too, like man its author, has a social dimension. The evil that I do, no matter how interior and private to myself, belongs necessarily to the wider moral disorder endemic on the whole of the human community. Mass poverty in the slums of Tondo, gross injustice suffered by hundreds of thousands of farmhands and industrial workers, class and racial hatreds, sexual exploitation of the young- all these constitute the sin of the world, the manifestations of the radical disorder that lies deep in the heart of a person.
It is at this point that the question of man is transformed into the question of God: Is there any meaning to life beyond the boundaries of space and time? Who will save me from this body of death? Is there a God that gives meaning to my being, shows forgiveness and mercy, and puts order into my life? Is there a God who plots the course of history, guides the destinies of people and nations? Indeed, the question of people contains in itself the question of God. Put in another way, and now we come to a very important conclusion, peoples existence is in itself a quest for God; a person by his/her life in the world searches for the living God.
But we have to add something more. The statement is not complete; we cannot be satisfied with it for the simple reason that it does not do justice to the fullness of human experience. It is the truth born out by the testimony of countless men and women of all times, in all places, and of various religious persuasions, but especially of those who interpret their experience in the light of the wisdom of the Bible, that a person not only searches for God, but in fact experiences God as searching out for him/her and revealing himself to him/her. Religious experience is not so much a question of peoples effort to look for God as a matter of discovery: God reaches out to people and in a moment of discovery people touches God precisely where God addresses him/her. The knowledge of God does not depend on ones IQ, nor does one have to take theology to know God much, much more intimately than the student who gets As in all his/her theology in college; for the knowledge of God requires not mental acumen (alone) but a heart that is large, open, honest and generous.
Let us pause for a while and get back to the question I have previously raised. I have said that theology, as an academic subject is the methodic study of a significant question or phenomenon. What is this question? It is none other than the question of God posed as a religious and existential question. And what is the corresponding phenomenon that theology seeks to study? It is the phenomenon of peoples experience of God revealing himself to people.
I have touched on the important and central notion of revelation. It is precisely what theology is all about. But again, we have to say something more. If God reveals Himself to me right now (He maybe give me a more intimate knowledge of Himself or a deeper insight into myself; or may demand that I take up, say, medicine, community work, the priesthood, as my profession; or send someone to me as my marriage partner in life), I must remember that this is not an isolated case of Gods revelation. This is not the first time that God is revealing Himself to people. He has been revealing Himself from time immemorial, and His revelation has a definite history. My experience of Gods revelation is continuous with humankinds experience of His revelation in the course of history. Gods dealing with individual people and human communities come in the stream of a long history of His revelation to the chosen people, the Church, and humankind. There is a long and progressive history of Gods revelation and that history reached its climax with the appearance of the carpenter-turned-preacher, Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus is the perfect revelation of God: which means that if we want to know what God is and does, we must have recourse not to the writings and excogitations of philosophers and the wise people of the world, but to the personal history of the man executed as a common criminal on Calvarys hill. That God is, Jesus is; He is the perfect image of the Father, the Son of God. Similarly, if we want to know something about the meaning of a person, the problem of guilt and sin, the riddle of death; we shall find the answer not in learned treatises but only when we fix our gaze on the victim of that horrible and infamous execution 2,000 years ago- at once the mockery of human justice and the glorious transformation of human misery. Jesus is everything that we are: the Son of God has become the Son of Man. In Jesus we see what is to be a person, what sin has done, what death is all about. These are profound statements, which we can only mention here; the task of all theology is to understand what they mean.
Now the record of Gods revelation to the chosen people and the early Church is kept in the Old and New testaments; it is an important record inasmuch as Gods revelation in the Bible describes the dynamics of his dealings with people and is normative of the religious experience of myself as an individual and of my human community here and now. Hence, theology cannot do without that greatest book of all times, the Bible; it must be rooted in and be faithful to Gods word in Scripture. Furthermore, Gods word in Scripture is for all people and all times, and in order that it may resound throughout the ages, Jesus established the community of believers in Him, which we call the Church. It is the task of the Church to preach, teach, and explain Gods word. It is under her guidance and tutelage, or to use a technical term, her magisterium (teaching office), that Gods word is preached to all nations and handed on from generation to generation. And the presence of Gods Spirit in the Church is the assurance that this handling-on, or to use another technical term, tradition (which is more than just repetition, but includes reformation and interpretation) is basically faithful to Gods word and free from error. Therefore, theology must always be guided by the teaching of the Church inasmuch as the Church is guided by Gods Spirit.
Hence, I must always seek to understand my life in the world, a life where God is undoubtedly always present and active, in the light of the Bible and the teachings of the Church. Gods dealings with me are often obscure and subject to misinterpretation and even, owing to the reality of sin, corruption. A person is historical and God has chosen to reveal Himself in the course of history. In other words, God is not just my God, but the God of the community of believers in Christ, which is the Church.