Ten years ago, I spent six months on sabbatical at Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California. During that time, I lived at our Oblate parish in inner-city Oakland. It was a contrast of worlds. Most days I would attend classes and seminars at the University and find myself very stimulated and enriched by what happened there (for GTU is a very good school). But each day too I would attend the noon-day mass in our parish where I would find myself surrounded by the poor, by devotions, by vigil lights, statues, holy water, rosaries being said during Eucharist, and piety of every sort. It was a contrast of worlds, both socially and ecclesially, but I felt pretty much at home in both worlds.
Indeed, theology and piety are different worlds. Yet we need both. Theology needs to protect us from piety, even as piety needs to protect us from theology. What is meant by this? Without constantly being corrected by good theology, piety invariably turns God into little more than chicken soup for the soul, liturgy into little more than private devotion, and spirituality into little more than private sentiment. Conversely, without the constant corrective of real piety, theology invariably puts us on a diet of antiseptics, provides no real vitamins for the soul, and makes the gospel inaccessible to the poor. A healthy spirituality needs both.
Without theology, piety invariably runs amuck, turns faith into a sentimentalism that can slide in any direction, and, soon enough, replaces God with other things. The last time the church didn’t balance off piety sufficiently with good theology, we ended up with the Reformation. Michael Buckley, whose study on modern atheism is of singular excellence, once made this comment: “The problem with atheism is that it is not a problem, It is a situation, an atmosphere, a confused history.” Modern atheism is, as he puts it, always a parasite that feeds off of bad religion. Without the constant corrective that good theology brings, we always slide into bad religion. Without good theology, piety cannot protect itself sufficiently from falling into literalism, imbalance, distortion, excess, knee-jerk sentimentalism, false devotions, or any combination of these.
But that is only half the story. There is an equal danger in reverse. Without piety, the danger is always that theology degenerates into an art form, aesthetically pleasing enough, but now something cold and distant. Daniel Berrigan, hardly an anti-intellectual, expresses this well (and in his usual style): “Any and all claims attached to academe, regarding superior moral discernment or development are universally false. … It is rare to find, in theology departments for example, that scripture or a given religious code, is considered binding, or a call to faith. Theology, like every other discipline, is often considered an object of competence, not of faith; dry grist for the mill. Religious traditions, which have historically nourished heros and saints, are treated as matters of `speciality,’ `expertise,’ Their outcome in a given instance is nothing like a unitive conscience, political sense or passion, wisdom. None of these. But a small-minded, cold-fish attitude toward the world.” Such is the danger of attempting salvation through theology alone.
It is very important therefore that we recognize the importance and legitimacy of both, theology and piety. They aren’t in opposition, but a healthy corrective of each other. They are different languages and different energies, one intellectual, one affective. We shouldn’t be surprised then that a certain tension perennially exists between the two. Each of them, like every great energy, is imperialistic, it wants all of us. But we need to resist the temptation to give ourselves wholly to one or the other.
You see the fruitfulness of properly carrying this tension between theology and piety in the lives and writings of many of our great recent theologians and spiritual writers: Karl Rahner, Karl Barth, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Henri Nouwen, Jean Vanier, Richard Rohr, Daniel Berrigan, and Dorothy Day, to name just a few. What you see in them is good theology and real piety, constantly balancing each other off.
Several years ago, I was on a board that was interviewing a young man, a Masters of Divinity student, who had applied for a scholarship. One of the panel asked him: “Where to you attend church?” He replied: “During the week, I attend mass at the College and on Sundays I go to the local parish with my wife and kids.” “And are those liturgies different?” asked the interviewer. “Oh, yes,” the young man replied, “The one at the college is quite liberal, very inclusive of women, very sensitive to not being patriarchal, and very sensitive to ecumenism and proper language. The one at the parish is more traditional and not very sensitive at all to many of the issues we talk about in our classes.” “And which do you like better?” baited the interviewer. “I like them both,” said the young man. “They’re both good, they feed different parts of me.”
There’s wisdom in his answer.