Photo by K. Mitch Hodge on Unsplash

Talking God systematically?

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.

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.”[3] Beyond knowing is acting; without act (including speech) such knowing is betrayed.

Turn toward

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.[8] 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.[9]

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,[11] 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.

Bishop in charge, Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe, 2001–2019. French-American. Musician, composer, author, happily married.

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