Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Theology is for Fishermen and Barbers, and the Unemployed

Call me an "old liberal" if you must but I think theology is too important to be left to theologians, at least academic theologians. I am one of those people who rather admire the theological schools of Alexandria that made theology such a popular subject that fishermen ranted theological sea shanties and barbers discussed Homoiousios and Homoousios whilst applying a sharpened razor to their clients throat. I happen to go along with "A theologian is one who prays, and one who prays is a theologian." I believe in theology for all.

The problem for all theologians can be they often appear be "straining at a gnat and swallowing a camel". Both for those outside the Church and those inside what most theologians have to say is irrelevant.

One of the disappointing post-Concilliar developments is a type of destructive elitist academic theology that seems to want to exclude the fisherman and barber from theology. I say this because one of my parishioners, who does pray and therefore is a theologian, was called theologically illiterate by a priest. When theology is no longer there for fishermen and barbers, and the unemployed too, it becomes a type of self serving masturbatory activity that belongs an in-group. It is contemptuous of the the faith of the ordinary man or woman in the pew. Rather than building their relationship with Christ and His Church it tends to destroy it. It places itself in opposition to the vast swathe of Tradition. Rather than being about faith seeking understanding, it becomes personal opinion seeking a platform.

Since the time of the Apostles there has always been a tension between the charismatic gifts and hierarchic gifts, the obvious example is St Paul trying to regulate those speaking in tongues. In the Didache (if it is really from the early 2nd cent) there are the prescriptions regulating prophets, and then a little later Ignatius of Antioch demanding all is to be regulated by the Bishop. Various early heresies especially Montanism and Marcionism but also Gnosticism seemed to establish a charismatic elite, with their particular and special knowledge, that broke away from the Church, the faith of fishermen and barbers, and the unemployed.

The theology of the Catholic Church is clear and accessible to all, it is not the babble of Babel, nor the squealing and hysterical self justification of those who present their own magisterium as being on a par with that of the Church. It is ultimately about such basics as salvation and evangelisation.  It is the servant of the Church not its master. The esoteric nature of much contemporary theology is a sad reflection on so many of the elite and effete within the Church who see their role as being about destruction of faith rather than building it.

There should be no uncertainty in our understanding of Catholic orthodoxy, it is a certain path not a meandering marginal musing, it is something that belongs to us all, including fishermen and barbers, and the unemployed, the only theological illiterates are those who are untouched by the Spirit that reverses Babel and stop their ears to the voice that calls us into communion with Peter.


Amfortas said...

Yes, of course, theology for all. But there is always the danger of anti-intellectualism endemic in Anglo-Saxon culture. Some academic theology is difficult but that doesn't necessarily mean it's illegitimate. Having said this one of the unfortunate developments - paradoxically - in the post-conciliar church is a kind of professionalising of so many things by a liberal elite. You even see this in liturgy where there is an over emphasis on the individual person 'presiding' at the altar rather than celebrating. Much better not to have to look at the priest across a table where we're focused on the 'president'. Much better to focus on the mystery taking place on the altar. Sorry if it sounds as though I'm going off at a tangent or this sounds a little like a stream of consciousness.

Fr Ray Blake said...

Yes there is a danger but there is a danger of a Gnostacism of much contemporary theology. I'm reading Gueranger on the Imm. Conc. I am not sure what he says is "democratic" but that is where he starts and ends. It is explaining the faith of the "demos", and enriching it not impoverishing it, and certainly not to put forward another Magisterium.

Lazarus said...

The Church is not primarily an academy but a vehicle of salvation. If ordinary Catholics cannot trust the plain teaching of the hierarchy, but have to defer to the convoluted (and changing) reasonings of professional theologians -particularly in the area of moral theology- the whole nature of the Church and its role in salvation changes.

Sixupman said...

Well and truly said, Father!

To obtain their doctorates, or whatever, and not to plagiarise, they produce such convoluted arguments as make them open to[mis]interpretation.

Dr Frederick Jones said...

Sixupman - I wonder if good thesis examiners would not grill such a candidate mercilessly? I can remember emerging from such a process successful but humbled and shattered.

I hope that the good Lord will be more merciful, after all His earthly experience was as a carpenter.

Doodler said...

I think I would rather have a doctor or dentist who was trained in his trade than one who fancied himself as such! The same goes for those who teach the faith.

Fr Ray Blake said...

Quite right but I think that it depends on where the qualification comes from: the London School Witch Doctory or somewhere a bit more respectable.
I tend to trust mainstream rather than fringe medicine.

We all need some knowledge of medicine, just to avoid quacks and charlatans.

Gatepost productions said...

It's a very interesting debate. One wonders what the fisherman, barber and the unemployed would make of it. Their 'common sense' isn't always sensible, and maybe needs guidance... but if the guidance is esoteric, then it might be sensible, but it is far from 'the common'.

I suffer from granddaughters who insist on dragging me into various degrees with them. I find myself in the land of the esoteric ... using software to interrogate corpora ... and a calculator to find lexical densities ... and they call it an English Language degree!

There is this love affair with academia wherein the danger is we forget that the object of the exercise was emptying the swamp.

A Social Policy degree was more about history than policy ...

Criminology dwells is positivism ...and history ... before concluding that 'nothing works'

The point I'm trying to make is, theology seems, from what I think you are saying, to be no different to other academic studies. It runs the risk of becoming self-serving and has little to do with the fisherman, barber or the unemployed.

... at least Lincoln University was more practical and taught me about the volume of a horse's colon, which I am sure one day will be of.....

Clerk of Oxford said...

For the large part, I agree with you. Certainly, the theology of the Catholic Church is clear and accessible to all - but it's also a subject so rich and complex that a lifetime would not be sufficient to master it. Surely this is part of the wonderful paradox of our faith? I am troubled by the scorn for academia that has been evident in the Catholic blogosphere over the past few days - if it is wrong to insult a layman by calling him theologically illiterate (as it undoubtedly is), so too is it wrong to characterise the academic study of theology as 'self-serving masturbatory activity that belongs to an in-group' if it reaches above a level every single person can understand. After all, there was a time when scholarly work in theology was conducted solely in Latin; that was certainly only accessible to an elite group, but I don't think that made the theology of the Middle Ages 'self-serving and masturbatory'!

Academic theologians are simply people who have chosen to dedicate their professional lives to the thorough study of theology, and they are not all like Tina Beattie - I don't see that contempt for their work is any more appropriate or helpful than insults flung in the other direction.

BJC said...

I think the common link between the fisherman, the barber and the good theologian is that they lead good and holy lives. They get the basics right. They go to confession regularly, pray regularly and do everything they can to keep themselves in a state of grace. The bad theologian one suspects doesn't know what being in a state of grace is, hasn't been to confession for years and has little regard for the truth. Think of Kung. When was the last time he went to confession? I'd like to ask him. Its hardly surprising therefore that what seems obvious to one group seems 'complex' and 'difficult' to the other.

I guess what I'm saying is that one has to wonder about the moral life of some of the so-called theologians that signed that letter to the Times. It takes a bad character indeed to lie about what another person said in such a public way and yet none of them have shown the least bit of remorse or guilt. You don't get faults like that overnight and I don't think its any coincidence they are dissenters one and all.

Fr Ray Blake said...

Clerk of Oxford.
There are academic theologians and there are academic theologians.

They needn't be 'self-serving masturbatory activity that belongs to an in-group'. The great theologians have always sought to serve the Magisterium, not attack it and to build not to destroy, it can happily reach to the heavens but if it is Catholic and serves the Church it must be built on the faith of the faith shared with the fisherman and barber.

As for "time when scholarly work in theology was conducted solely in Latin; that was certainly only accessible to an elite group". read St Thomas More on academic Scholasticism, he is quite damning.

Physiocrat said...

Yes but what are people to make of the theology of the Mass if it looks like the Last Supper? And what is to be done about that?

A Reluctant Sinner said...


Thank you, Fr Ray!

"Father, Lord of heaven and earth, I thank you that you have hidden all these things from the clever and the learned..." (Mt 11:25).

Deacon Augustine said...

Surely the principle which differentiates good theology from bad theology, and good theologians from bad theologians is faith.

Where faith is lacking, theology becomes just another self-serving academic discipline. It becomes a means to the ends of furnishing the theologian with a living, an academic reputation, and a massaged ego.

The measure of a theologian and his theology is the amount of time he spends on his knees.

Nicolas Bellord said...

If theology is the study of God then surely all of us are called to do that according to our abilities. Further we are all entitled to discuss it but naturally we should show due deference to those who have greater expertise.

The 'Fr AS' who took your parishioner to task whilst claiming to be a trained academic theologian had such a poor command of orthography that one really wondered about his claims.

The problem I often have with academic theology is the long words they use which I have to go and look up in the dictionary every time such as "epistemological" and the meaning of such words never seems to stick in my mind which makes me wonder!

By the way 'orthography' is spelling.

Our Lady of Good Success-pray for us. said...

What is necessary for salvation? Putting into practice the realisation of our need for the merits of Christ doesn't sound uneducated about God's revelation. especially given these days when 'religion' is a smorgasbord of -ism's. Showing up for Mass ought a get people a degree these days.

Lepanto said...

On the many occasions when the poorly educated Saint John Vianney astonished the learned with his theological insights, he was asked where he had studied theology. He always pointed to his prie-dieu. His catechism should be required reading for Catholics.

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