October 2001

On learning to be wise

Nicholas Lash

It is incumbent on all Christians to try to make their faith intelligible. Nicholas Lash, Emeritus Norris Hulse Professor at Cambridge University, shows here how theology, as a wisdom, helps them to do this. He concludes ‘those who refuse to do theology — to read, think, discuss — simply do not, in fact, care about the truth of Christianity…’

A few months ago, a university chaplain, preaching on Luke’s version of the Beatitudes, contrasted it, lucidly and in some detail, with that found in Matthew’s Gospel. The homily deeply disturbed a young woman doing doctoral research in medieval German. ‘If you are right’, she asked the chaplain after Mass, ‘how do we know what Jesus said?’

Here was a devout and dedicated Catholic of considerable intelligence, highly skilled in the study and interpretation of ancient texts, who apparently had not the slightest idea how to read the New Testament. My suspicion is that, even amongst Catholics educated in many other areas of life — likely to be quite well-informed in politics and economics, in cosmology and medicine, in the plays of Shakespeare and the history of Europe — she is nearer the rule than the exception. Which terrifying thought, for anyone who cares about the truth of Christianity, shows what happens when people do not think that theology is important.

Or so St Augustine would have thought. He wrote a little book ‘On Christian Teaching’, De doctrina christiana, which remained, for over a thousand years, more or less the standard handbook on the subject in Western Christianity. Someone going into a bookshop today, and asking for a book on Christian doctrine, would probably expect to be given a commentary on the Creed, or an account of what we call ‘the teaching of the Church’. They would, in other words, expect an exposition of the content of Christian teaching. Whereas Augustine’s little book is all about the process: about how to interpret Scripture and to communicate to other people what we have discovered; a process otherwise known as doing theology.

Skill of decoding

There is no text whatsoever that imposes on the reader the ways in which it is appropriately read. Texts are just black marks on white paper and we, the readers, have to decide what these marks mean, what kind of text this is, and in what context it is to be read. This is true of recipes and poems, of novels and telephone directories — and the Scriptures. The responsibility for deciding what kind of text this is and how to read it rests upon the reader.

For the most part, we do not notice that we are taking these decisions, because part of what it is to be ‘at home’ in a culture is to have acquired the skill of decoding its texts and symbol-systems fluently. In other words, every culture functions as a kind of school, a context in which people learn how to read the texts and symbols and conventions that constitute the culture.

‘Into deep darkness fall those who follow action. Into deeper darkness fall those who follow knowledge.’ What on earth does this mean? Is it some cynic’s encouragement to do as little and to remain as ignorant as possible? Perhaps; the context would help one to decide. In this case, there is what we might call a privileged context, because these black marks, recognisable as English, are a translation from a Sanskrit text, written some two thousand five hundred years ago, and included in collections of what became known as ‘sitting-unders’, or ‘instructions’ (as in ‘sitting at the teacher’s feet’): upanishads.

In other words, in order to learn how to read this text well, it would be a good idea to attend the school that we now call Vedantic Hinduism.

Judaism is such a school, and so is Christianity. Yet many people in our culture seem to suppose that, in order to read Jewish or Christian texts, there is no need to go to school; that what ‘it says in the Bible’ is quite clear; that the text imposes its meaning without consideration of the contexts of its production and its use.

‘God so loved the world’

‘God so loved the world that he gave his only Son’ (John 3:16). The words are so familiar that we too easily assume that we know how to read them. But what is the ‘world’ of which the passage speaks? The planet Earth, or just the human race, or all the wheeling systems of the stars and galaxies? What would it mean to ‘love’ the human race? Could you do it? Does anybody do it? And if you have no idea, then why suppose you know what it might mean for God to do it? And what about those other passages in Scripture which suggest that the ‘world’ is tainted, doomed, somewhere from which to flee?

Moreover, if the world is everything there is, what about disease and famine, savagery and oppression, the cynical self-interest of wealth and power? How would you ‘love’ these aspects of the world? And, if you do not know, how do you know what it might mean to say ‘God loves the world’? But what does ‘God’ mean, anyway? How does that word work, and how would we find out? Is God’s loving similar to ours, or different — and in what respects? What does it mean to speak about an ‘only Son’ of God? (Does God not have other children? Does God have any children?) And who might this Son be? Is Jesus talking to Nicodemus about himself, or someone else? Last, but not least, what kind of story are we reading: is it more like an eye-witness account, a biography, a novel, or a theological meditation in the form of conversation? And, once again, in what contexts should we set the text in order to decide? That was just a random sample of the kinds of question that would need to be considered before deciding what it meant to say that ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only Son’. Perhaps it does not matter: most people in our culture would not think it worth the effort of going so laboriously to school. If, on the other hand, it does matter what this statement means, and whether it is true, then doing theology matters a great deal, for doing theology is considering such questions.

Shaping the imagination

‘It is not reason that is against us’, said Cardinal Newman a century and a half ago, ‘but imagination.’ The ways in which we ‘see’ the world, its story and its destiny; the ways in which we ‘see’ what human beings are, and what they’re for, and how they are related to each other and the world around them; these things are shaped and structured by the stories that we tell, the cities we inhabit, the buildings in which we live and work and play; by how we handle — through drama, art and song — the things that give us pain and bring us joy. It is not easy to think Christian thoughts in a culture whose imagination, whose ways of ‘seeing’ the world, are increasingly unschooled by Christianity and, to a large extent, quite hostile to it.

In such a situation, continuing to hold the Gospel’s truth makes much more serious and dangerous demands than mere lip-service paid to undigested information. Unless we make that truth our own through thought, and pain, and argument; through prayer and study and an unflinching quest for understanding; it will be chipped away, reshaped, eroded, by the power of an imagining fed by other springs, tuned to a quite different story. And this unceasing, strenuous, vulnerable attempt to make some Christian sense of things, not just in what we say, but through the ways in which we ‘see’ the world, is what is known as doing theology.

In case I have been painting with too broad a brush, consider, by way of illustration, the small word ‘spirit’ and its correlates: ‘spiritual’, ‘spirituality’, ‘dispirited’, and so on. What is it, when you say that ‘God is spirit’, that you see? Not, I would hope, something pitched along a line that runs from poltergeists to vodka, but perhaps a general tendency to imprecision: elusive, vague, without delineation and yet somehow large? (Is God invisible because he has not got a shape, or because he is beyond our understanding?)

A friend of mine, a distinguished American professor of law, reported recently a classroom conversation. One student wondered whether the characteristics of animals that make them a special concern for law might be spiritual rather than biological, and another student responded: ‘I don’t understand the difference between the spiritual and the biological’, to which a third explained: ‘The spiritual is what temporarily occupies the gaps in biological explanation’. ‘Spirit’ as the Cheshire cat of human understanding, slipping quietly away leaving behind an aura of benignity.

Reshaping imagination

Whatever ‘spirit’ says to us as we walk down the street will be what it says as, entering the church, we make the sign of the cross in the name of Father, Son and Spirit. In Scripture, however, and in Christian usage well shaped by the Scriptures, ‘spirit’ is not ‘not-matter’; it is ‘not-death’, vitality, creative energy, the absence of inertia. The central metaphors, in Hebrew and in Greek, are those of breath and wind; the breathing that differentiates the living from the dead, the freshness and the sometimes dangerous unpredictability of wind and storm: the power of God that inbreathes and transforms the world is never under our control. It is not easy to think Christian thoughts with an unChristian imagination. Doing theology is as much a matter of continually attempting to reshape imagination as it is of simply thinking straight.

Doing theology, as Augustine understood it, is a matter of learning to interpret Scripture and to communicate to other people what we have discovered. But what words and images and stories shall we use in the attempt, incumbent upon all of us, and by no means the sole responsibility of bishops or professors of theology, to communicate Christian truth intelligibly? (You will notice that, because this is the duty of every Christian, we are all required to do theology.)

Not easy to do well

It is, I think, important not to underestimate the difficulty of the task. It is terribly easy to talk nonsense. Earlier this year, a distinguished churchman (an Anglican, as it happens, but that is neither here nor there) was attempting to communicate his understanding of the doctrine of the Incarnation. Jesus, he said, ‘was neither literally nor biologically divine’. When someone says that something is ‘not’ this or that, we are entitled to expect, first, that the rejected possibility is at least intelligible and, secondly, that they have an alternative description in mind. ‘Nicholas Lash is not a blue square root’ fails the first of these two tests; so does ‘Jesus was not biologically divine’. The other claim, that ‘Jesus was not literally divine’, may seem intelligible, but what alternative description did the speaker have in mind? ‘My dear, you look divine!’, a P.G. Wodehouse character might say. Not literally, perhaps? I think I sense the speaker’s difficulty: many people in our culture (including many Christians) seem to imagine that orthodox Christianity supposes Jesus to have been, in some way, part human and part divine (as if, perhaps, his body were human but his mind divine?). How might we effectively communicate the truth that he is one hundred per cent a human being and one hundred per cent divine? A fundamental question, appropriate answers to which will vary according to the context in which it is being asked and answered. I cannot, however, think of any circumstance in which ‘Jesus was not literally divine’ would be other than, at best, misleading and, at worst, plain false. It is incumbent upon all of us to do theology, but doing it well is never easy.

Learning to be Catholic

Some readers may be surprised by the emphasis that I have placed on theology as biblical interpretation: what about ‘tradition’? But the tradition, the ‘handing-on’, the process that is Catholic Christianity, simply is two thousand years of biblical interpretation. When we try to read the Scriptures today, and to interpret our existence in their light, we do so in company with that vast and varied cloud of witnesses that is the Catholic Church.

No one can think Catholic thoughts in isolation. Doing theology, as a Catholic, is, in part, a matter of continually deepening our awareness and appreciation of the richness and diversity of the company we keep — in space as well as time. In time, two thousand years of holiness and sin, of the strenuous and never-finished labour, in ever-varying circumstances, of the following of Christ. In space, at present one-sixth of the human race, of every class and colour, continent and culture, are — at least nominally — Catholic. How can we pray, and work, and study, in this great company, except we take a continual and active interest in what has been and is going on?

Such vast and turbulent diversity is, of course, at best bewildering and, at worst, chaotic. The duty of those who exercise what we call ‘teachership’, or ‘magisterium’, is to assist our use of instruments of navigation. It is not the business of the pope and other bishops to do our thinking for us, or to discourage us from thinking, but to help us to think well. Ignorance and unconcern for truth are far more threatening to orthodoxy than is disagreement.

Thinking in a school of wisdom

We are often told that Britain has become a secular society. This is true in the sense that those institutions which we think of as ‘religious’ exert today far less influence than they did only a few decades ago. A visit to any bookshop soon makes it clear, however, that, in another sense, our culture is awash with what we might call ‘wild’ religion: from astrology to newly-minted ‘ancient’ paganisms, from aromatherapy to the occult, from yoga to a hundred schools of meditation and psychic self-improvement. Sociologically, this supermarket of obsession with private truth and inner therapy is perhaps best understood as a reaction to the iconoclastic utilitarian rationalism of the public realm. As such, it reinforces ancient dualisms between heart and head, feeling and reasoning, the private and the public realm; dualisms which threaten the very fabric of the ancient schools of wisdom.

Consider, for example, the widespread belief that ‘spirituality’ and ‘theology’ are quite different enterprises, and should be kept that way. There is, undoubtedly, a distinction to be drawn between the two, for purity of heart and quality of argument are not the same thing. (There is, indeed, a distinction between ‘shape’ and ‘colour’; but, in the real world, all shapes are coloured, and all coloured things have shape!) Where Christianity is concerned, a ‘theology’ which does not spring from prayer and memory, from solidarity and suffering, and which does not lead back — through the labour of engagement with the bewildering, often conflictual complexity of the world in which we live — into the darkness of Gethsemane and the silence of the empty tomb, will be a theology diminished, attenuated, impoverished.

Similarly, a ‘spirituality’ preoccupied with individual inner states and private feelings, unconcerned with public truth and common duty, will be a spirituality from which the Spirit has been banished: a graveyard unstirred by the breath of God. Christian spirituality is, from first to last, attentive — eyes peeled in the dark, ears pricked in the silence — and, as attentive, considerate, interested, thoughtful, therefore theological: a quest for wisdom.

Do not disturb

Not many years ago, bishops were in the habit of warning theologians that they should be careful not to disturb the ‘simple faithful’. Apart from being intolerably patronising, this attitude mistakenly supposed that ‘simplicity’ is where we start from. We are, in fact, each one of us, intolerably complex: confused, bewildered, bombarded by discordant signals and demands, subject to conflictual desires and motives, unstable moods and fragile loyalties; driven by insecurity and ineffectively smothered fear. Romanticising the innocence of childhood, we may imagine that there is a simpleness which we have lost. More realistically, we learn that, if there is a true simplicity attainable in human living, it will be the outcome and resolution of complexity, and not its precondition.

God alone is simple and, as simple, wise. In the very first question of the Summa Theologiae, the question in which he considers what kind of enterprise sacra doctrina, ‘holy teaching’, might be, Thomas Aquinas asks, in the sixth article of that question, whether holy teaching is or is not ‘wisdom’?

Wisdom, for Aquinas, is the virtue of sound judgement. The wise person, we might say, can tell the wood from the trees, sees things in perspective, is in possession of a larger vision. There are, moreover, two sides to wisdom, corresponding to two ways in which we judge. Thus, on the one hand, there is the instinctive, or intuitive, sureness of touch of the person whose heart is in the right place, the person who has their head screwed on. This is the wisdom of the virtuous, and to be thus wise is the Spirit’s gift. Wisdom, in this sense, wisdom as holiness, has nothing to do with either erudition or the lack of it: it is calibrated on a different scale.

Caring about the truth

On the other hand, there is a wisdom, a skill in sound judgement, which is the fruit of reasoning and reflection, of scholarship and argument. Moreover, where the quest for wisdom in the school of wisdom that is Christianity is concerned, wisdom in the second sense is dependent on wisdom in the first, inasmuch as all our strenuous thought and erudition simply strain to catch some accent of that eternal wisdom, divine stillness, in whose self-gift we share.

Nevertheless, wisdom in this first and deeper sense is unattainable by those who systematically evade responsibility to attain — according to their gifts and circumstances — some measure of wisdom in the second sense: the wisdom that is the fruit of study. To be quite blunt: those who refuse to do theology — to read, think hard, discuss — simply do not, in fact, care about the truth of Christianity or, at the very least, do not care sufficiently to seek some understanding of that Word through whom all things are made, into whose light we have been called, and which will set us free.

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