There has probably never been a time in the church, certainly not in recent centuries, where we have had as healthy a theology as we have today. The past forty years have been time of great scholarship in scripture and theology. There are now more theologians studying and writing than ever before and they are more scholarly-conscientious than ever before. And their efforts haven’t been wasted. Protestant and Roman Catholic scholars alike, have produced libraries of excellent books. We’re swimming in good theology. In Christology alone, there have probably been more than 600 serious, scholarly, books written in the last forty years.
Wonderful as this is, it hasn’t easily translated into an invigorated church or faith life. While capturing the intellectual imagination of people, scholarly theology hasn’t always been able to inflame the romantic imagination. That’s not it’s fault. Theology does what it does and lately it’s been doing that well. God, however, is strewn in many pieces, across many places. To ingest the reality of God so as to have an invigorating faith requires not just that the part of us that does the critical thinking be involved, but also that the parts of us that are artist, mystic, saint, and magician be equally involved. Reality is many-layered and there are traces of the divine everywhere. Critical thinking uncovers some of this, but other parts of us must unearth the rest.
One of the great complements to theology (and, in the best of times, friends to it) has been the Roman Catholic devotional tradition. This tradition doesn’t trade on critical thinking, but on the romantic imagination. It aspires to inflame the heart. Admittedly, this is risky. Feelings can lead us in many directions, but faith-without-feeling is perhaps the greater danger. The heart also needs its due.
More recently, I fear, we haven’t always given the heart its proper due, either inside Protestantism or Roman Catholicism. For better and for worse, we’ve bet all our chips on the biblical and theological – solid homilies, solid theology, solid liturgy. What else could be needed? Well-intentioned as this is, it’s been reductionistic. Afraid of food-poisoning, we’ve put ourselves on a diet of antiseptics. Now we will never die of impurities, but we might well die of malnutrition.
Where might we go in all of this? Wendy Wright, a theologian at Creighton University in Nebraska, has just released a new book entitled: Sacred Heart – Gateway to God (Orbis Books, 2001). The book is partly autobiographical, solidly theological, and everywhere insightful. Her thesis? We need to become more attentive to the rich minefield that constitutes our devotional tradition to see how it might help fan the fires around a faith that often is dry and too much simply an act of the will.
Among other things, the book chronicles how she herself was led to faith and how she now sustains herself there. At one point she shares this story:
In a library one day with her husband, she picked up a book on the Saints to look up the saint of her husband’s middle name, Hubert. First she was fascinated by descriptions of him, as a scholar, a bishop, and a diplomat of sorts. But …
“I was chugging along just fine until I came to a description of Hubert’s ability to bi-locate. The historical narrative melded seamlessly into a matter-of-fact statement about Hubert’s simultaneous appearances in North Africa and continental Europe. This was followed by a nonchalant prose passage detailing the saint’s many miraculous exploits. Profoundly disoriented, I closed the book. I felt queasy. It was as though two subterranean tectonic plates had collided inside the structured universe in which I lived. In retrospect, I know this was one moment of many at the time that brought about my inexorable turning towards God and the Catholic faith. This was my introduction to a layered universe, to a conceptual world in which time and space ceased to have the boundaries that my empirically trained mind assumed. Here was a world suffused with a power that did not conform to necessity. Here was world drenched with grace. … A layered reality is part of the Catholic imagination. To possess this imagination is to dwell in a universe inhabited by unseen presences – the presence of God, the presence of saints, the presence of one another. There are no isolated individuals but rather unique beings whose deepest life is discovered in and through one another. This life transcends the confines of space and time. … We – and Jesus and the saints – exist in some essential way outside of the chronology of historical time. We have being beyond the strictures of geographical space. And we can sense this now, in the concreteness of our lives.” (Gateway to God, pp. 47-48)
The Catholic devotional tradition has long been helpful in making us aware of our many layered-universe. We need to continue to employ its imagination if we are to help our fleshy hearts feel more really what lies inside the eternal heart of God.