The Vocation of the Theologian

(Rev. Dr. James Heft, S.M. delivered the address below at our 2018 Convocation, held in St. Basil’s Church on Saturday, November 10.  Fr. Heft is Director of the Institute for Advanced Catholic Studies and the Alton M. Brooks Professor of Religion at University of Southern California.)

It is an honor to have been invited to speak at the convocation for the faculty of theology and the continuing education Division of the University of St. Michael’s College. This gathering also marks the 50th anniversary of the founding of the doctoral program of theology, which degree I was privileged to receive here in 1977.  I have almost nothing but fond memories of my years here in Toronto, of the excellent faculty and fellow students. There was, however, one not so pleasant memory. In 1969, when I began my graduate studies, the Vietnam war continued to profoundly divide the United States. At that time, I was driving a car that had an Ohio license plate, and was twice pelted with eggs. For the record, I opposed that war. In those days, as one of my Canadian professors told me, “Americans are as benignly ignorant of Canadians as Canadians are maliciously informed about Americans.” Over the next seven years, I overcame my ignorance of Canada and have developed and retain a great affection for its peoples.

Fr. James Heft delivers the Convocation address

I am not here this afternoon to tell old war stories, to comment on the legalization of pot in Canada or on last Tuesday’s mid-term elections in the U.S.I am here to speak about something much more important: the sacred calling of being theologians. Walter Burkhardt (To Christ I Look, pp. 98-99) reminded theologians that they deal with mystery, before which the most appropriate posture is silence and contemplation. Before we sit at a desk and write, or stand before others and teach, we should be on our knees in prayer. We distort the mystery of God whenever we try to possess it, or imagine that we can capture it conceptually. Although the reality of God and God’s revelation is objective, it should never be objectified. Good theologians are not spectators. One of my favorite atheists, Frederick Nietzsche wrote:

For this is the truth: I have left the house of scholars and slammed the door behind me.   Too long did my soul sit hungry at their table; I have not been schooled, as they have, to crack knowledge as one cracks nuts…they sit cool in the cool shade: they want to be mere spectators in everything; they take care not to sit where the sun burns upon the steps (Thus Sake Zarathustra, p. 147).

Some years ago a student sent me an email complaining about her theology professor who, in  Nietzsche’s words, left her hungry at his table. She wrote, “Every theology course I have endured seemed like logicians parsing a love letter.” I do not remember how I responded, but it should be obvious that theologians need to be on the field, in the contest and, as St. Paul tells us, gratefully running the race. If we remain spectators in the stands, we will never really understand  the game.  In other words, when theologians are personally involved with and committed to what they study and teach, students are nourished, not bored.

Forty-five years ago, in the chapel across the street at 95 St. Joseph Street, I heard a homily that I have never forgotten. Basilian priest, Bill Irwin, based it on a question from the Summa theologiae (III, Q. 42) in which the St. Thomas asks whether Jesus should have written down what he taught.  St. Thomas, as you know,  structures his questions in a predictable way. First he gives several reasons to answer positively the question he posed; then he states his own position; and finally, he answers, in the light of his own position, the questions he posed at the beginning. Let me summarize how Thomas handles this fascinating question.

He begins by presenting three reason why Christ should have written his teachings. First, he writes that since Christ said that his doctrine is supposed to last till the end of time, it would have been fitting for him to put it in writing so that it might more easily and more accurately be handed down to posterity. Second, he cites the biblical precedent of the 10 commandments–which were written in stone; therefore it would make sense for Jesus also to write out his teachings. And third, since Jesus was concerned that the truth be taught, by writing his teachings out, he would eliminate the possibility that others would distort them. Here, Thomas adds that some people already suspected that Jesus’ disciples made him out to be more than he actually was. Therefore, Jesus himself should have written out his teachings.

In presenting his own answer to the question, Thomas lists three reasons why it was best that Jesus did not write out his teachings. First, he says that the more excellent the teacher, the less appropriate it is that he or she should spend time writing. Why? Because when teachers are excellent, they imprint their lessons directly on the hearts of their listeners, just as did Pythagoras and Socrates who, because they were excellent teachers, didn’t need to write anything.

Theology grads waiting to process

Second, Thomas explains that given the excellence of Jesus’ teachings, it would be impossible to  express it adequately in writing. To back up his point, Thomas cites the gospel of John (21:25): “There are still many other things that Jesus did, yet if they were written about in detail, I doubt there would be room enough in the entire world to hold the books to record them.” Thomas explains that this is so not because of a space problem, but because those who would attempt to write these books would only skim the surface, unable to penetrate the depth of what Jesus did and taught.

Third, Thomas claims that Jesus should not have written down his teachings because, if he had, then passing on his teaching would not require the active involvement of others. Just as Jesus  taught his disciples in word and deed, so he wants his disciples do the same. Had Jesus just written books, all his followers would have to do is distribute them.

Finally, Thomas responds briefly to the three reasons he gave at the beginning of the question as to why Jesus should have written out his teachings. He explains, first of all, that we should remember that Jesus is the head and all believers are members of his body. Therefore, it is not quite true, then, to say that Jesus did not put his teaching into writing. Why? Because Jesus moved some of his disciplines to write down, as best they could, what he did and taught. In Thomas’ own words: “For at his command they [the disciples], as it were, wrote whatever he wishes us to read concerning his deeds and words.”

Second, although the old law was given in the form of sensible signs, the new law, the teachings of Jesus should be written not in ink or on tablets of stone, but in the Spirit of the living God, written directly on the human heart.

Finally, concerning those who claim that they would accept what Jesus himself had written, Thomas points out that anyone unwilling to believe what the disciples had written would have also refused to believe what Jesus himself would have written.

I have summarized at some length this question in the Summa because I think it sheds light on what it means to be theologians and teachers of the Christian faith. I think there are  three lessons that we can draw.  The first has to do with the care we need to have  with how we use language when we speak of God. British theologian Nicholas Lash speaks of the Church as an academy of word care–a place where we learn to take care of language, and where, slowly, by a divine gift not of our doing, we learn from each other to tell the truth. Since the word of God is sacred, when we speak it, we should speak with reverence.  One of the brightly colored posters created by the artist Corita Kent, featured these words: to understand, is to stand under, which is to look up, which is a good way to understand. We are not looking down cracking nuts.  We are looking up in reverence.

New Theology grad pose with the President and Chancellor

Thomas reminds us that  when we affirm the doctrines of the faith, the words that we use only point to the divine mystery; they never capture it (Summa theologiae, II-II, Q. 2, Art. 2).   Theologians need to learn, as the poet  Emily Dickens reminds us, to tell the truth slant. Every time students ask me “What exactly does” this or that mean, I remind them that we are dealing with realities that can’t be exactly described or defined. Dogmatic definitions protect the truth more than they explain it. At the heart of Christianity is a person,  not a philosophy. There are good reasons why Jesus spoke mainly  in parables and paradoxes. Definitions limit the richness of the reality of the divine mystery. In the hands of an amateur, defining the things of God slips into sterile rationalism.

Second, when we do theology, we are not spectators; we are witnesses. In the early Church, martrys were witnesses. Witnesses have skin in the game; spectators do not. Witnesses are so involved that they willingly lay down their very lives for what they love and treasure. Pope Paul VI famously said that while we need witnesses more than teachers, what we most need are teachers who are witnesses. We  need to take care of language, knowing that what we write or say can never adequately convey in words the mystery of God and human existence. We also need to be witnesses, because who we are conveys powerfully the meaning of what we say.

Having stressed that words are severely limited when talking about the things of God and that deeds speak powerfully enough to drown out words they contradict, it is time to make my third point: we still need to write. We must write because witnessing through our deeds is not enough. In recent years, you may have heard the words, attributed to St. Francis: Preach the Gospel at all times, and if necessary, use words. But we must also use words Certainly this is why we read in 1 Peter 3:15-16 that we should not only “venerate the Lord, that is, Christ, in our hearts,” but that we should also be prepared and ready, should anyone ask us the reason for the hope that we have, to give a reply. Reply how? Gently and respectfully, advises 1 Peter 3:16.

It would be wise, then, for each of us to be mindful about how we go about our vocation as theologians and religious educators, remembering  that we  need to pray before we speak, and to speak with humility, and most importantly, give evidence in our words and deed that we love what we are called to teach.

I congratulate all of you who have received degrees. I thank the faculty who have dedicated their lives to his sacred work of preparing you to be teachers who are witnesses. I remain very grateful to the Faculty of Theology of the University of St. Michael’s College who educated and formed me as a theologian. I am sure that all of you who are graduating this afternoon are also grateful!

James Heft, S.M. (Marianist)

Nov. 10th, 2018

St. Michael’s College, University of Toronto