I am almost 50,000 words into writing a systematic theology, which has been a dream of mine since my seminary days. A systematic theology is an attempt to make an orderly, persuasive statement of one’s own faith. Perhaps the most famous is Thomas Aquinas’ Summa theologicae, written in the 1270s (he died in 1274). It is one of the most influential works in human history.
Here I want to run by you why I believe such an attempt is worth doing, even now, even by me.
Frances Young discusses the need to interpret the Faith — and the doctrines that express it:
On the one hand, any and every attempt at doctrinal definition is bound to be divisive and also mislead limited human minds into imagining that they can encompass the mystery of the divine in a series of propositions couched in human language and concepts. On the other hand, there are issues of truth and identity which matter and which belong to the whole corporate life of the Christian community through history, and which cannot appropriately be decided by discrete free-thinking individuals. It must therefore be the case that rejection or replacement of the traditional forms of creed and patterns of doctrine is improper, even though there is an unavoidable responsibility to interpret and reinterpret as culture and language change.
It is this unavoidable responsibility that impels me to attempt this account of the hope in me, “with gentleness and reverence”.
More like being known
Sarah Coakley writes, “… there [must be] a full and ready acknowledgement that to make claims about Godinvolves a fundamental submission to mystery and unknowing more fundamental even then the positive accession of contentful revelation… To know God is unlike any other knowledge; indeed, it is more truly to be known, and so transformed.” Beyond knowing is acting; without act (including speech) such knowing is betrayed.
Bernard Lonergan argued that theology is in fact praxis. As opposed to practice, repeating an activity to develop skill, praxis is the practical application of a branch of learning. He acknowledged that it is a key word “as a tool for some distinct and praiseworthy term” in the “liberation theologies, whether geared to liberate Latin America from the fetters of capitalism, or to liberate black Americans from the injustice of racial discrimination, or to liberate women from the domination of patriarchal society.” He wished to retrieve the word’s older origins in Aristotle to assert that all theology is a type of praxis that “depends on the personal development of theologians.” In thinking about doctrines and dogmas, orthodoxy and heterodoxy, there is “a grave risk of congealed minds.” The theologian must operate from a deeply personal knowledge “…thematized by ascetical and mystical writers when they speak of the discernment of spirits and set forth rules for distinguishing […] between being drawn by the Father to the Son, and on the other hand, the myriad other attractions that distract the human spirit.”
This awareness is at the heart of Richard Hooker’s counsel on speech about God:
Dangerous it were for the feeble brain of man to wade far into the doings of the Most High; whom although to know be life, and joy to make mention of his name; yet our soundest knowledge is to know that we know him not as indeed he is, neither can know him: and our safest eloquence concerning him is our silence, when we confess without confession that his glory is inexplicable, his greatness above our capacity and reach. He is above, and we upon earth; therefore it behoveth our words to be wary and few.
Even though the book I am writing, like all systematic theologies, is full of words, this “wariness” must always be kept in mind.
In other words: “Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers,” the Pauline author wrote. All of us need conversion, not just once, but over and over. We need to accept that we have minds with which to think, and that loving God with all our mind requires conversion toward the possibility of knowledge in general and the truth in particular, over against contemporary cynicism. “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free” (John 8: 32) — set us free by changing us, converting us. The intention to love others as God loves us also requires conversion, learning to do good even (especially) to those who hate us (Luke 6:27, Mt. 5: 44). And coincidental with these conversions is to turn toward (Latin: con-vertere, “turn toward, transform”) the One whose love is continually flooding our hearts (Rom. 5:5), and, in turn, love God in Christ through the Spirit.
It is akin to the work of an artist. Jeanette Winterson writes
The calling of the artist, in any medium, is to make it new. I do not mean that in new work the past is repudiated; quite the opposite, the past is reclaimed. It is not lost to authority, it is not absorbed at a level of familiarity. It is re-stated and re-instated in its original vigor. Leonardo is present in Cézanne, Michelangelo flows through Picasso and on into Hockney. This is not ancestor worship, it is the lineage of art. It is not so much influence as it is connection…
The true artist is connected. The true artist studies the past, not as a copyist or a pasticheur will study the past, those people are interested only in the final product, the art object, signed sealed and delivered to a public drugged on reproduction. The true artist is interested in the art object as an art process, the thing in being, the being of the thing, the struggle, the excitement, the energy, that have found expression in a particular way. The true artist is after the problem. The false artist wants it solved (by somebody else).
Substitute “theologian” for “artist”: there is the real work, the true art, of theology. “Dangerous it were…,” says Hooker. Dangerous it be for a theologian to talk about God “as an art process, the thing in being, the being of the thing, the struggle, the excitement, the energy.” The yearning that one finds in people ancient and modern trying to talk about God — or like Albert Camus, strenuously trying to avoid such talk — is one that touches the heart of the theologian under conversion, always a disciple in the making.
All about love…
In the final analysis, it is about being in love, that love which is the exception to the scholastic adage, nihil amatum nisi præcognitum — you can’t love what you don’t know. The theologian yearns to know what she is in love with, to understand the height and the depth and the breadth of what can only be gift, to deploy all the power of mind to grasp what first has grasped us. Of course, all such work stands first and foremost upon Scripture, but the best theology connects with past God-lovers, when the theologian discovers that yearning in them, and learns, and passes it on. For loving God requires loving others, for they were and are as frail, flawed and blinkered as we are. It is one thing to read Gregory of Nyssa, Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin, &c., to solve our problems, or worse, to blame for those problems. It is quite another to seek the problems, the questions, they asked. Learning from their batterings against that yearning is to connect with one’s own. The great theologians pass that on: it is always a work of love, or nothing at all.
So I am not unmindful of Karl Rahner’s exhortations to theologians as he celebrated his eightieth birthday:
So often from our lecture podiums and our pulpits […] our pronouncements do not give the clear impression that they are replete with the complete humility of a creature. Only with such humility can one truly speak about God.
I pray for such humility, that my words always be “wary” even though they will not, cannot, be few. Let me know what you think, please.
 Frances Young, The Making of the Creeds (2nd edition) (London: SCM Press, 2010), 106. Her much more fulsome treatment is in From Nicaea to Chalcedon (London: SCM Press, 1983).
 “Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence.” (I Peter 3:15–16)
 In God, Sexuality, and the Self: An essay “On the Trinity” (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 44. Emphases in the original, interpellation mine.
 “Theology as praxis” in A Third Collection, ed. Frederick E. Crowe, S.J. (New York: Paulist Press, 1985), 184–201.
 Ibid., 184. It may surprise some that Lonergan thought well of the then-young (1977) liberation theologies.
 Ibid., 195. He also qualifies this knowledge as that “by which people live their lives… of which Newman wrote in the Grammar of Assent, Polanyi in his Personal Knowledge, Gadamer in his Truth and Method.”
 Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, I.2.2. (Keble edition)
 I Tim. 4:16
 This is my gloss on Bernard Lonergan’s notion of conversion, in Method in Theology, eds. Robert M. Doran and John D. Dadosky (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2017), 224ff. On the significance of this today, see among others, Karen Petersen Finch, “Lonergan’s Method as Scaffolding for Ecumenical Discernment” in Receptive Ecumenism: Listening, Learning and Loving in the Way of Christ, eds. Vicky Balabanski and Geraldine Hawkes (Adelaide, S.A.: ATF Press, 2018) pp. 37–48; Jeremy Wilkins, “Why Lonergan Still Matters”.
 In Art Objects : Essays on ecstasy and effrontery (New York : Alfred A. Knopf, 1996), 11.
 Romans 5:5.
 Karl Rahner, “Experiences of a Catholic Theologian,” Theological Studies, 61 (2000), 3–15. Here p. 6.