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.


Thoughts from Louis Bouyer and the Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity

The Word, Church, and Sacraments In Protestantism and Catholicism is a gem of a little book by Fr. Louis Bouyer, C.O. I’d highly recommend it for anyone who has a deep love for the spiritual riches present in both Protestant and Catholic traditions. Interestingly, he wrote this book in 1960–four years before the Church’s Decree on Ecumenism (Unitatis Redintegratio) was promulgated.

At the very conclusion, he speaks on what Christian unity means:

“For this unity to be fully realized, we do not ask our separated brethren to forego any part of what is positive and authentic in their great religious insights. On the contrary, we ask them to draw from these fearlessly all their logical conclusions. We ask them to realize that the Church does not oppose them in order to deny or to minimize what they rightly hold to be essential, but rather to safeguard the full reality, in a completeness that no truth of Christianity can possess except in the one, whole Body of Christ.

Nonetheless, to have the right to ask them this effort, we Catholics have to make one of our own…We must, in the first place, understand them and, before hastening to say ‘no’ to what is erroneous, however extensive, be prompt to say ‘yes’, frankly and unreservedly, to all truths, even and especially if they are ones to which we habitually pay little attention. Afterward, no doubt, but only afterward, comes the corresponding duty to help our brethren to sort out for themselves the great truths they have rediscovered from the errors involved with them. This second task, certainly, is no less essential to a real ‘ecumenism’ than the first; but to enter on it without regard for the first, without working at the first, would be to toil in vain.

This being so, it is equally essential for us to give a clear, positive witness to the truth that we chance, or rather have the undeserved grace, to possess. But this witness must be given to the whole truth and not merely to certain aspects of it to which we habitually restrict ourselves out of habit, facility, or mere indolence. Since there is but one Christian truth, Catholic truth in the real sense of the word [universal], that is, a truth complete and whole, it is by making this effort of total fidelity to our own patrimony, and making it fully, that we shall be best prepared to make the required effort of opening our minds to the truths rightly cherished by our separated brethren.

But we must be fully aware that all that has been said will be of no effect unless accompanied by an effort, constantly renewed, to bring our own practice, our daily life, into harmony with the doctrine we profess.” (p. 89-91)


This is how the New Evangelization can further Jesus’ call “that all may be one” (John 17:21).


Why Easter Vigil?

Why Keep Watch? Why Vigil for Easter? (Excerpts from Fr. Louis Bouyer)

If Easter night is a Vigil…this is owed, above all, to the fact that it is the night of the Exodus, the night in which the people of Israel were freed from the yoke of the Egyptians and entered into the freedom of being the sons of God…Why then did Israel celebrate this nocturnal Vigil year after year? Why did she dress as a pilgrim? Why did she eat in a hurry like a traveller preparing to leave on a journey? Was all this only a theatrical commemoration, pleasant to imitate, or the revival of a past event? There is no shadow of a doubt that in the eyes of Israel, the Exodus was the most glorious event of her whole history. Israel was the people of God, and she knew this thanks only to the undeniable election that was the consequence of the intervention of God: an intervention which liberated the people from slavery and established them in the freedom of the sons of God.

For the people of Israel, therefore, the celebration of Pasch, the memorial of the Exodus, meant celebrating their own birth and consequently, reaffirming in their own consciousness that they were God’s chosen people, and that God was with them.

For us too the Vigil must be something more than simply a service of remembrance. It is not a theatrical performance aimed simply and solely at registering historical facts in the mind. In the first place, it is something real. We stay awake because we are waiting: because we are waiting for God to pass among us and because when He comes we want Him to find us ready for the wonderful exodus which he makes possible.

Find more early Christian texts here.

And What’s With the Candle?


From: An Illustrated Guide to the Paschal Candle – FOCUS Blog.

Wishing you a sacred and blessed Vigil this evening. 

Evangelistic Preaching (Part 4) — Public Preaching is More than the Eucharistic Homily

This is the fourth post in a series on evangelistic preaching in Catholic contexts.

Our look at Church documents and history reveals that preaching is not limited to either the setting or function of the Eucharistic homily.

Okay, you say. Enough, I get it. But, the Eucharistic homily is what’s really important right? The others are just extras–you know, something nice to do, right?

Not quite. The many forms of Catholic preaching are designed to work in a complementary, not competitive way.


The Eucharistic homily does have a distinct place. A singular role. A unique function. It is specifically for ongoing formation, after the first proclamation of the Gospel.


Preaching can, of course, include multiple functions within the same setting, “the same homily…can take on both the functions of convocation and of integral initiation.”[1] However, the reality of our theology is that Mass is not designed for the unbeliever to come to faith for the first time.

In Josef Pieper’s In Search of the Sacred (1988), we are reminded that in the early Church, “barriers…excluded those who did not ‘belong’ from participating in the sacred mysteries [of the Mass], even those who prepared for baptism, the catechumens.” Although as a pastoral practice this is, “for us latter-day Christians, used as we are to taking the television broadcast of Mass for granted… difficult to comprehend,” the reality remains that theologically, Mass is not the primary place of pre-evangelization or initial proclamation–all critical stages in our robust understanding of the process of evangelization as a whole (p. 34).

Thus, Eucharistic preaching is the long pole in the “tent” of Catholic preaching–but not the only pole.


The USCCB reminds us that:Slide08

This description leads us towards understanding different forms of preaching by function, related to stages of evangelization. Preaching aimed at disposing hearers to be open to God is pre-evangelistic. Preaching intended to bring hearers to fundamental, inner converstion is evangelistic. And instruction for the faithful through preaching is catechetical preaching. The point of Eucharistic preaching is not to try and be primarily pre-evangelistic, evangelistic, or catechetical–a Eucharistic homily should be just that, a  sermon given to a gathered community of faith, intrinsically linked to the liturgical action of the Mass.

And, in order for Eucharistic preaching to be able to most authentically be what it ought to be, we need pre-evangelistic, evangelistic, and catechetical preaching — so that together these many forms of Catholic preaching can truly complement each other, together carrying the weight of the Church’s preaching. 

Additional Citations:

[1] GDC, para. 52.

Image Credits (in order):

Icing on Cupcake: https://pinterest.com/icingonthecake4/

Tent Pole: http://over40innovator.blogspot.com/2010/02/us-economy-tentpole-and-global-economic.html

Atlas with Weight of World: http://ancienthistory.about.com/od/atlastitanmyth/f/081409WorldonShouders.htm