Have you ever heard someone interject into a conversation the statement that they don’t mean to be critical, but …? Perhaps if they understood the meaning of our word “critical,” they might not be so hesitant. Being critical is not the same as being negative. In fact, excessive negativity is actually the opposite of being authentically critical. This should come as no great surprise if you’re familiar with the entertainment section of your favorite news source because you’ll realize that critics of movies and plays can have a positive or a negative opinion of the works they review.
Although the word is often misused, our word “critical” actually means being able to look deeply and discerningly at something: a movie, a textbook, a political stance, or even a religious doctrine. It comes to us from the Greek adjective, kritikos, meaning “able to discern.” When we theologize, we use our critical thinking skills to analyze our doctrines—including the historical situations in which they arose, the controversies that swirled around their origins, their subsequent development, their consequences, and the reaction of great thinkers to all of these varied realities. To do theology well we must engage as deeply as possible our skills of reasoning. Like all scientific and academic forms of inquiry, theology is aided not only by experience, but education and training as well.
As early as the eleventh century, St. Anselm of Canterbury described theology as fides quaerens intellectum, “faith seeking understanding.” He himself was no theological slacker, but he was also a monk who eventually served as archbishop of the See of Canterbury. From deep within our historical past, Anselm seems to be reminding us with his definition that there are many sides to the human person: psychological, physical, emotional, spiritual, and also cognitive. Our thinking skills are a gift of our Creator and there is no reason to think that they must be neglected in matters of faith. We should note as well that, for Anselm, theology presumes faith. In other words, theology is an exercise of faith; it is a way of being faithful and a way of living one’s faith. It is not synonymous with catechesis, passing on or instructing others in faith. This is because one who does theology has presumably already been catechized and convinced of the truth of Christian faith.
Furthermore, if we take this to its logical conclusion, one might say that the theological scholar differs from the religious scholar because of the place from which they investigate their areas of expertise. Theoretically, the scholar of religion studies human religiousness from “outside” religion, attempting as much objectivity as can be mustered, and without reference to personal religious identity. The theologian, on the other hand, operates from “within” his or her Christian tradition, freely professing that faith and identifying fully with its values. The Greek origins of our word “theology” seem to remind us of this: theos (“God”) and logos (“word”). In the fullest sense, perhaps theology can best be understood as the act of thinking deeply about the God we profess. Being critical of God, therefore, really means to take God quite seriously.
Objectivity is still important, and one might argue that it becomes even more difficult in this situation. However, I tend to agree with those who say that the best way to seek objectivity in scholarship is to honestly embrace one’s beliefs, openly and in dialogue with others. In this way the academic pursuit of theology becomes an example for scholars of all areas of expertise. Since we each have our agendas and value commitments, we best serve the pursuit of truth when we place those ideals on the table for consideration.
When combined with the critical assessment of doctrine, such honesty can sometimes place a theologian into metaphoric “hot water” with the hierarchical teaching authority of the Church. This tension seems inevitable if we take seriously the respective jobs of the bishop (as chief catechist) and the theologian (as critical assessor). They are two very distinct, yet interrelated vocations, and each is in need of the other. The reminder of this truth is to be found in the fact that theologians were traditionally understood as an important part of the Church’s teaching authority. St. Thomas Aquinas went so far as to speak of two “chairs” of ecclesiastical authority: the pastoral chair of the hierarchically ordained, and the teaching chair held by theologians. It would be a healthy development to see this doctrine reclaimed and reinvigorated so that controversial theologians might receive a fair hearing in the contemporary Church.
Although we professional theologians do our work as part of our careers (usually in colleges and universities), all believers spend a certain amount of time “doing” theology. As one might expect, this happens when we ponder the great questions of life’s meaning in the context of our Christian beliefs. The Benedictine monk and missionary Bede Griffiths is reported to have said that anytime we pray we are doing theology, and he was probably right in his assertion. All theologizing is not of equal value, however, and it is the job of the professional theologian to help us critically assess whether our theological notions are faithful to the gospel of the Carpenter of Nazareth—and whether or not they spur us to live that gospel in our daily lives.
An edited version of this article appeared in US Catholic magazine in the spring of 2010. Photo courtesy of franky242/FreeDigitalPhotos.net.