Ad Limina Apostolorum (Blog) | St. Augustine's Library
Thursday, February 17, 2005

Theological Exploration 

Bill Cork's report on the CTSA's response to Haight's condemnation got me thinking.

Roberto S. Goizueta, CTSA president and a theology professor at Boston College who is currently living in Spain during a sabbatical from his teaching post, told CNS in a telephone interview from Madrid that he viewed the doctrinal congregation's notification as blurring the line between theology and catechetics. "What they're trying to do is get him to restate the 'Catechism of the Catholic Church,'" he said. "That's not what theology is. Theology is about creative exploration of revelation and the doctrine of the church."

'Exploration' is a funny word. It has two fundamental meanings: It can mean (1) to investigate or examine systematically, the way I might explore the cracks in my linoleum, or (2) to search into or travel in for the purpose of discovery, the way I might explore southeast D.C. The two are interrelated and overlap, but they point to fundamentally different processes: one penetrates inward, one thrusts outward. If the discipline of theology, as classically understood, were to be coerced into one of these categories, it would certainly be the former.

Exploring the faith does not primarily involve a treading onto unknown or uncharted territory. If the territory explored in theology is quite literally foreign to the explorer, that explorer is not a theologian, and has no business doing theology. This is not to say that the theologian will not discover realities heretofore unknown, or that the theological community as a whole will not arrive at new and even unforeseen conclusions. It is, rather, to insist that these conclusions will be attained within the context of an altogether familiar, or even 'familial' relationship. The best analogy might be the manner in which one spouse explores another. Nothing exceeds the joy which accompanies the discovery of some new and previously unknown facet of one's spouse, but the intensity of this joy occurs precisely because of the intimate knowledge which characterizes the relationship as a whole. A chunk of gold sparks greater enthusiasm when found in one's backyard than when found in the sands of upper Egypt. No one's life is transformed by uncovering a new layer in the personality of a prostitute.

Among the Fathers of the Church, no theologian was more exploratory than the great Origen of Alexandria. Indeed, the heady days of the mid-twentieth century saw a resurgence of interest in Origen, whose willingness to consider speculative theological questions, it was alleged, was never daunted by the primitive credo of the Church. Historians took some degree of pleasure in Origen's apparent readiness to flaunt the confines of ecclesiastical rigidity: chastened by a conservative bishop, Origen simply moved to a more liberal diocese; accused of taking too many liberties as a lay theologian, he had himself ordained; condemned by ecclesiastical authorities, he began a series of sermons on the moral failings of the episcopal leadership. Origen was even willing to take seriously the claims of the pagan philosophers alongside those of sacred Scripture.

Without attempting to resuscitate the legacy of the Alexandrian didaskalos, it is worth taking the time to examine carefully the exact nature of his theological 'exploration'.

Origen knew that even the most sincere churchmen had widely divergent opinions on theological questions, even those of the most central importance to the faith. In seeking to address these questions, the first task of the theologians is as follows:

"[I]t seems on that account necessary first of all to fix a definite limit and to lay down an unmistakable rule regarding each one of these, and then to pass to the investigation of other points . . . . [S]eeing there are many who think they hold the opinions of Christ, and yet some of these think differently from their predecessors, yet as the teaching of the Church, transmitted in orderly succession from the apostles, and remaining in the Churches to the present day, is still preserved, that alone is to be accepted as truth which differs in no respect from ecclesiastical and apostolic tradition (D.P. Prol., 2)."

For those points which are necessary for every man's salvation are contained already in the apostolic deposit of faith, 'with the utmost clearness' (Ibid., 3). It is merely 'the grounds of their statements' which remains to be examined by the spiritual. That is to say, what the Church believes requires very little explication (beyond, say, 'mere catechetics'), but why the Church believes what she believes? - now that is an intellectual exercise that has occupied the greatest minds of generation after generation.

Thus, Origen begins his most speculative work, the De Principiis, not with a catalogue of speculative hypotheses, much less with a set of Platonic theses, but rather (surprise, surprise) with an expository creed of the Church's faith (Ibid., 4-10): on God, His Son and Spirit, the soul, the angels and demons, etc. Only after enunciating these ecclesiastical beliefs does Origen begin to consider those secondary questions (such as the manner of the soul's origin), which are "not distinguished with sufficient clearness in the teaching of the Church", or are not detailed in full "among the ecclesiastical books." These questions must be resolved, not apart from these sources, but rather by "deduc[ing] by closely tracing out the consequences and following a correct method" (Ibid., 8-10).

In the course of the work, whenever Origen does happen upon one of those few questions to which Scripture and the Church's creed do not supply a definitive answer, he treads with caution: "But what may be the number or measure of this I confess myself ignorant, although, if any one can tell it, I would gladly learn" (II, 3, 4), always stating what "the faith of the Church" can and cannot admit (cf., III, 6, 6).

Whether or not American Jesuit Roger Haight has, for his own part, consistently expressed such deference to ecclesiastical tradition is, of course, a matter of perspective. Certainly what counts as ecclesiastical tradition has grown since Origen's time. Origen had perhaps only a handful of primitive baptismal creeds, we have now to deal with twenty-some ecumenical councils and libraries full of papal declarations. But one will also reply that we are working with a matter of principle and of theological method, not of pragmatics. Origen continued, throughout the course of his life, to operate under what I would dub a modus operandi of ecclesiastical deference. We can hardly expect him to have run every publication under the nose of his episcopal ordinary (by all accounts, Bishop Demetrius was somewhat of a theological simpleton, and embittered by jealousy of Origen's prestige). But Origen always remained prepared to defer, with regard to any of his speculative positions, to the clear teaching of the apostolic tradition.

To return to the subject of Haight's reception of ecclesiastical tradition, we hear that Haight holds that "the Tradition must be critically received in today's situation." If one accepts the judgment of the CDF Notification, at least his theological method "subordinates the contents of the faith to their plausibility and intelligibility in post-modern culture." For my part, I haven't read enough of Haight to know whether or not this is true. I must admit that some of the Haight 'clippings' being bandied about on the internet this past week don't really offend me as much as they apparently do some others. One can hardly doubt, of course, that Ratzinger and company have done their homework before issuing this sort of notification. The larger problem could be less one of doctrinal accuracy than of public scandal, i.e. that Haight has not guarded against the heterodox misinterpretation of his teaching. If so, one might expect Haight to take this golden opportunity to clarify his teaching while he's standing in the limelight; if he does not, we are left to conclude that the labels stick.

In any case, whether or not Haight is guilty of taking tradition lightly, it is certainly the case, as the opening quote from Goizueta demonstrates, that this is true of many theologians today, who see their fundamental vocation as exploring outside the bounds of tradition than probing more deeply within it. If so, then my hope is that all doubt is erased that this profound misunderstanding of the theologian's role is a properly modern misunderstanding. It has no place in the tradition.

# posted by Jamie : 4:12 PM


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