This piece is excerpted from an address written in May 2012 by theologian and long-time Collegeville Institute board member Margaret O’Gara. Margaret hoped to deliver the address at the annual convocation of Regis College, Toronto, Canada, in November 2012 on the occasion of being awarded an honorary Doctor of Divinity degree. However, she died in August 2012. At the November convocation she was awarded the honorary degree in memoriam, and her address was read by her husband Michael Vertin. A version of this piece appears in No Turning Back: The Future of Ecumenism, a collection of Margaret O’Gara’s papers that was edited by Michael Vertin and published by Liturgical Press in 2014.
Last year I was standing in line at the bank, waiting to be helped by the teller, when I overheard two young men talking to each other right behind me. They were discussing career options. The first one said, “I want something with constant opportunities for lifelong learning.” “Yes,” said the second, “and it should have global outreach.” “Right,” said the first, “and it should be meaningful.” I almost turned around to them and asked, “Have you ever considered studying theology?”
But, what was I thinking of proposing? What exactly is the study of theology? The author of the Letter to the Colossians writes in chapter 3: “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (v. 2-3). Our life is hidden now with Christ in God. And what has happened to us in this hiding place? Because we have put off the old self and put on the new self, the writer explains, our new self “is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator” (v. 9-10).
All Christians are being renewed in knowledge, according to Colossians. Studying theology allows us to deepen the renewal in knowledge that is happening to all Christians as they live in their secret hiding place with Christ in God.
But what does it mean to be renewed in our knowledge, for our knowledge to be made new? In the account of the beatitudes provided in the Gospel according to Luke (6:20-26), Jesus gives us some hint of how our knowledge can be turned upside down and become totally new. There we hear that people who now are hungry can know already that they will be filled. People who are poor today can see themselves in a new light: the kingdom of God actually belongs to them. The knowledge they had of themselves has been changed. Those who are weeping today learn through the Gospel that someday they will laugh. And even those who are persecuted and excluded and reviled and defamed because of Christ are urged: “rejoice in that day, and leap for joy” (Luke 6:22-23). By renewing the knowledge of those hidden in God with him, Jesus Christ has turned their view of the world upside down. And he also has served woeful notice on those who are laughing and rich today: their perspective, he warns, is a false one.
The Colossians text gives us another example of this renewal of our knowledge. Here we read: “in that renewal, there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all” (3:11). This is an interesting list because it shows that the divisions imposed by our culture or even by our religion can conceal the deepest truth about ourselves as God our creator has made us. There is neither slave nor free, there is not even circumcised or uncircumcised, but Christ is all and in all. To say it again: the renewal of our knowledge means that what we think we know can be turned upside down, can turn out to be false. It must be replaced by the truth.
We have good news to announce, and we have to get it right. Sometimes that means turning even our initial knowledge of our Christian faith upside down. Theology helps us do that. Sometimes this overturning is tumultuous, a sudden breaking apart of the edifice of what we thought we knew about our faith, to have it replaced with a deeper and truer perspective, built on a more solid foundation. But usually the overturning is more gradual, a slow maturing of our understanding as we put aside the things of the child and put on the mind of Christ.
So theology helps us renew our knowledge. But once our knowledge is renewed, it must also be shared. The author of the First Epistle of Peter tells us that we must always be ready to give an account of the hope that is in us (3:15). That’s where theology comes in. Theology is the discipline that readies us to give an account of the hope that is in us. For us who study theology it is not enough to have our hope in God: we must be ready to give an account of this hope. Theology can help us do that.
And the world is longing to hear a reason for hope. The hungry are eager to hear that food is coming. Those who weep are yearning for the end of their sorrows. People are aching to hear a hopeful word, and we Christians know that people in fact are hungering and thirsting for God and for the liberation that God wants and brings for the world. This longing has been put into all people by the God who made them, and nothing can take it from them. It is our privilege and our responsibility to respond to this hungering and this thirsting with a nourishing, thirst-quenching Word.
But learning theology in order to give an account of the hope that is in us brings with it a very broad responsibility to be accountable. For one thing, we are accountable to the church throughout the entire world, in New Delhi and Munich, in Sydney and Rio de Janeiro, in New York and Nairobi and Tokyo and Toronto: to all the Christians living in all of the many local churches who live their faith in so many different ways but who believe together with the same faith that we share and celebrate.
For another thing, we are accountable to the past. We are accountable to dead people, to all the Christians who have gone before us and whose understandings of the faith we must also take seriously: to Paul and Irenaeus and John Chrysostom and Augustine; to Francis of Assisi and Thomas Aquinas and Catherine of Siena and Julian of Norwich; to Martin Luther and Ignatius of Loyola and John Calvin and Teresa of Avila and John Wesley; to Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Karl Barth and Karl Rahner and Hans Urs von Balthasar and Dorothy Day and Bernard Lonergan—so many people to whom we must be accountable. For a third thing, we are accountable to the future, to those who will follow us in the faith: our children and their children, who will live in a world different from our own. We need to be seeking an understanding of the faith that can be heard and lived by them in a future that is likely to look quite different from the past and the present.
The need for theology to be accountable to the whole church, the entire community of Christians, past, present, and future, entails a further feature: theology at its best is a collaborative exercise, not a competitive one. Collaboration, especially in ecumenical settings, means a willingness and ability to listen to and cooperate with fellow scholars who hold very different views. Understanding and agreement are among the very highest goals of serious scholarship, not competition and individual display.
Finally, studying theology takes time. No wonder it requires that we engage with so many Christian thinkers past and present, that we consider so many perspectives, that we read such demanding articles and books, that we write such precise essays and dissertations, and that we give ourselves time to grow into what we are learning. The deepened renewal of our knowledge is not finished in a year, and in truth it is not finished in the three or six years of studying for a degree. The deepened renewal of our knowledge that is theology is the calling of a lifetime, and indeed of many lifetimes from one generation to the next generation in the church. But in fact, it’s worth it: theology is worth a life!