Why Study God? Theology, Books, Personal Conversion, and Self-Understanding

I taught my first undergraduate theology course this past fall. Near the end of the semester, a student noted that while teaching, I always seemed to be mentioning books or theologians 🙂 Guilty as charged. I have found reading theology to be a formative experience in my life of faith and can’t help but share my favorite quotes, lines, and ideas. This student, who was relatively new to the formal study of theology wanted to know what books I’d recommend. What a great question! What are the books that have truly impacted my relationship with God? Books that were not merely enlightening at an informational level or great for some exam or paper–but books that spoke to my heart and faith life. Here’s my list. I emphasize that this is my list to make the point that I think part of the joy of reading and studying theology is finding others–theologians from another era or another continent–who speak your language, your dialect or sing in your vocal range (to use a different metaphor) when it comes to their own understanding and articulation of the faith. All of us undergo conversion out of our unique experiences, our individual struggles of faith. While we share the same beliefs (in the grand scheme of things), we don’t always come to those truths through the same paths. We face different struggles of doubt, disagreement, and discouragement. Reading works of theology gives each of us a chance to hear our own stories through the observations and reflections of others–and as we hear Christian truths in others’ words, we may come to better understand our own beliefs in communion with the Church and how we reached those critical assents of faith. Okay, so here’s the start of my list (from my early 20s): Romano Guardini’s The Spirit of the Liturgy (1930) I first heard a quote from this book mentioned at my secular undergraduate college in a 400-level Natural Resources course taught by Prof. Richard Baer. Prof. Baer (who has a truly unique educational and ministerial background) then went on to summarize the main points of Guardini’s chapter “The Playfulness of the Liturgy.” For the first time, through the ideas of Guardini, I understood why I’d (for the previous 5 years) attended both Catholic Mass and weekly services at a fundamentalist Baptist church. Though doctrinally I identified more as Baptist at that time, I found an outlet and expression for that faith in Mass. Inspired to read Guardini on my own, I discovered that my liturgical spirituality did make sense 🙂 even though it would be many years before I fully assented doctrinally to the Catholic faith. In short, “The Playfulness of the Liturgy” helped my 20-year-old self discover why I worshiped at Mass. C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters, Mere Christianity, and The Great Divorce I picked up The Screwtape Letters from a big box bookstore a few years after I’d graduated college. I’m not sure why I picked it up. I remember reading parts of the Chronicles of Narnia as a kid and not liking the books. But, C.S. Lewis had certainly become a popular author for young adult Christians in the U.S. in the 2000s, so I suppose I figured I should give him a try. Once I started reading the book, I couldn’t put it down. It was just so true. Such an insightful portrayal of human existence. From Lewis, I found the words to talk about sin and understand it in my own life. I went on to read Mere Christianity and The Great Divorce. I can honestly say, I recall being extremely disappointed by The Great Divorce the first time through–it just didn’t make sense. But, for some reason I was compelled to read it again, and after that second read…bingo…I had an entrance point, a way into understanding the Catholic teaching of salvation (+eternal life, purification, damnation, etc.). Another example of finding a theologian who could explain truths to me in a dialect I could understand. Then in my late 20s, I started graduate school and formally studying theology for the first time [I’d never attended a Catholic/Christian school before]. Now, formally studying theology in school is a little different. You don’t get to choose all of the books you read (but don’t worry, they can still have a deep impact!). A recent discussion surrounding review of the University of Notre Dame’s undergraduate curriculum has spurred an outpouring of reflection on the role of theology in the university and in the believer’s life of faith. In this same theme, “Oblation: Liturgy and Life” recently republished an article by Prof. John Cavadini, “Why Study God?: The Role of Theology at a Catholic University”. Cavadini writes:

As students come to understand the sophistication of the Catholic theological tradition, I find that their sympathy for it increases. They see riches where before they saw only old, irrelevant texts. They come to appreciate that there were difficult challenges in the church long before our own time, controversies much more heated than some of those we observe today. They discover a beauty they had not expected, a variety where previously they had assumed there would be only uniformity. They find out that Scripture is not as “primitive” as they had thought. They learn that, while not reducible to reason, faith has its own logic. They learn to distinguish between what is reasonable and what is provable. They learn some of the basic doctrines of the Catholic faith, not as doors that close off all questioning, but as openings to lifelong reflection on the ultimately ineffable mystery of God’s love, which is the ultimate referent of all doctrine. It is the formation of an intellectual life continually engaged with this mystery that is the principle benefit of theology as a field of study.

Yes! It kind of goes without saying that as a graduate M.Div. student in the lay ministry formation program I came back to school (like my classmates) with a high degree of affinity and sympathy for the Catholic intellectual tradition. But, even for those pursuing a ministry track, there is always more to discover.While I was “converted” through a reading of the Catechism in my mid-20s and think the CCC is a wonderful gift in the Church, there are doctrines that cry out for more reflection, more analysis. As a student, when you find a theologian who speaks “in your language” and helps you to see the richness of our tradition and “ineffable mystery of God’s love,” this is when a book becomes a means of personal conversion. Thinking back to graduate school then, I’d say the the theologians who most had this impact on me were Irenaeus, Yves Congar O.P., Louis Bouyer C.O., and Aidan Kavanagh O.S.B. Parts of Irenaeus’ Against Heresies read like a powerful sermon that had me affirming, “Amen! Amen!” silently in my head. The centrality of redemption and salvation was striking. Earlier in my life, I’d experienced Catholicism without a clear message of salvation in Jesus Christ–Irenaeus’ writings assured me that the kerygma was at the heart of the early church. Yves Congar’s I Believe in the Holy Spirit and The Meaning of Tradition and Louis Bouyer’s The Word, Church and Sacraments in Protestantism and Catholicism and The Church of God: Body of Christ and Temple of the Spirit all gave me a language for understanding (and loving) Catholic ecclesiology. What the Church is. What Tradition is. How the Church remains Church. I’d assented to the Catholic faith in my mid-20s as an act of faith. I believed as an act of yielding to the Holy Spirit. It was hard, but brought great joy and fruit. It was something I believed to be true–but I didn’t have the words to say why. Congar and Bouyer supplied the words to bring light to, yet not contain or subdue, the widest and most awe-inspiring truth of the Holy Spirit making and sustaining the Church. Finally, Aidan Kavanagh’s The Shape of Baptism: The Rite of Christian Initiation. Now at first this might seem like an oddly specific topic/book to be on a list of theological reading that formed my faith–especially since I’d never participated in the RCIA as a catechumen or sponsor. However, as someone who did not explicitly respond to the full offer of grace in my own infant baptism until many many years later, I’d always had a nagging wonder about baptism. What was this sacrament (and my childhood initiation through Eucharist and Confirmation) really about? Discovering Kavanagh’s writing on the sacraments of initiation was for me an experience of, as Cavadini described, “discover[ing] a beauty they had not expected, a variety where previously they had assumed there would be only uniformity.” Thanks to my students from the fall for prompting me to really sit down and think about theologians that formed my faith–books with resonance beyond the classroom. I’d of course recommend these books to anyone! (I love recommending books, haha 😉 ). But, I think part of the beauty of studying theology is the discovery of just the right voices that speak to your own unique background, questions, and struggles–so I think everyone’s list will look a bit different. The important thing is to keep your eyes and ears open to the wonderful potential for theology to (gasp!) actually provide insights into our deepest questions of faith.

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