By Chad C. Pecknold, Ph.D., IHE Fellow and Associate Professor of Systematic Theology, The Catholic University of America
Theology is a science ordered to the end of seeing God, not reinterpreting Him through changing human standards
The young aspiring theologian who embarks on the academic study of theology encounters today a bewildering field of study. They may set out to understand their faith better, and perhaps one day come to teach it. But soon they may discover that theology is also about things other than God. They may soon come to see that theological claims are not simply true or false, but must be constantly reassessed in the light of some new theory about human experience, such as sexuality, gender, race, class, politics, climate, or simply “the future.” At the professional conferences, the young theologian is bound to hear papers which awkwardly “problematize”’ theological topics according to whatever is culturally ascendent. This is usually not done in order to bring a ray of God’s brightness into the darkest places of our cultural minds, but quite the opposite. The aspiring young theologian may thus become habituated to a discipline that trains them to talk far more about ourselves than about God. Like Narcissus, such a person can pursue the discipline of theology only to discover that they have not found God, but an image of themselves reflected in a cultural mirror.
This may sound like a criticism a conservative might make of theology today. But in the nineteenth century, something very much like this concern was raised by Ludwig Feuerbach. Following the liberal theology of Friedrich Schleiermacher, Feuerbach concluded that religion was principally a matter of subjective and social feeling, and that God was just a projection of man’s inner nature infinitely expressed. Theology was, in the end, just anthropology writ large. Feuerbach concluded that this was the essence of Christianity, and so, understandably if wrongly, rejected the ancient faith as so many of his countrymen after him have done.
If the vicissitudes of human experience are taken to be the standard by which theology is ordered and judged, I am afraid that our aspiring theologian will not find the discipline leading to the wisdom of God. It will only and inevitably lead to the collapse of faith itself. And this is why we must think better about the role of faith in theology as a sacred science which we have not made up for ourselves. As Augustine taught, only divine revelation can crush our errors.
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Originally published on 24 September 2019 at the Catholic Herald.