This is Why I’m Not a Theologian

Every now and again, I have to remind myself that theology grounded in philosophy is a legitimate way of doing theology and is deeply rooted in the Christian tradition.

And I have to do this because I hate theology. Or rather, I hate the kind of theology rooted in philosophy and Greek thought, as opposed to, oh, I don’t know, the story of God’s people in scripture.

This book review from First Things encapsulates all I find frustrating about the endeavor of theology:

Kasper thinks that the Catholic theological tradition doesn’t talk about mercy enough and that the classical concept of God, which sees God as perfect and unchanging, is “pastorally . . . a catastrophe.” To most people, “such a God appears to them to have little or nothing to do with the situation of the world, in which almost daily horrible news reports come, one after the other, and many people are deeply troubled by anxieties of the future.” To counter this, we need a new dogmatic theo­logy of divine mercy: “What is now required is to think through anew the entire teaching about God’s attributes and, in the process, to allow mercy to assume its proper place.”

And its proper place is as the fundamental attribute of God, while all other divine attributes are in some way secondary. Even God’s justice is to be made subordinate to his mercy, because mercy “surpasses” and “goes beyond” justice.

This sounds profound, but does not withstand examination. Mercy is a virtue that requires someone who needs mercy, someone with some sort of sin or other imperfection. The Father is not merciful to the Holy Spirit. He loves the Holy Spirit, but there’s nothing imperfect about the Holy Spirit so that he needs the Father’s mercy. For mercy to be essential to God, as Kasper holds, it would mean that God could not exist without ­expressing mercy. But since God does not show mercy to himself, it would not be possible for him to exist without there also being sinners in need of his mercy—and that notion is absurd.

So there is a good, basic reason that the tradition has not made mercy essential to God. The Father can be loving and just to the Son and the Spirit, and so to say that God is loving and just essentially doesn’t create the problems that come from saying he’s essentially merciful. It’s not hard to see how God’s mercy ­toward sinners could be rooted in his goodness and love, that when God shows mercy he’s manifesting his love in a particular situation. To say this is perfectly coherent with the classical doctrine.

I don’t have an opinion on Cardinal Kaspar’s book, Mercy: The Essence of the Gospel and the Key to Christian Life. I don’t know how much Kaspar draws on the actual scriptural narrative in his book. Perhaps I should read it.

And I’m only kind of bothered by Moloney’s conclusion. Mercy is essential to who God is because God has not only loved the world, but judged it. And forgiven it (or offered forgiveness). And acted to redeem it. Mercy is only necessary when one has been accused, has done wrong, and been found guilty. As we have been. You cannot divorce any talk of divine mercy from that reality.

(I get the focus on mercy. It speaks to people who, like me, have found themselves on the wrong side of human power and thus have the weight of judgment — frequently perceived as unjust judgment made simply because of who and what we are, and not anything we have actually done — upon us. But that is most definitely not the mercy and redemption of scripture, which isn’t for the innocent victim — aside from Christ, there are no innocents in scripture — but for the clear and guilty sinner.)

What bothers me about Moloney’s book review is he talking about God — about Love, Justice, and Mercy — without dealing, in any way whatsoever, with the story of God’s people — and our encounter with God — in scripture. Because that’s where we meet the encounter with God that bears witness to the truth of God and the truth about ourselves: God has called and chosen us, God calls us to be faithful witnesses to that calling, we cannot be, we suffer the consequences for that failure, and yet God redeems us. Again and again. Over and over.

To speak of God’s love, of justice, of mercy, one must speak of the calling, of Abraham, of Israel, of the encounter with God in the wilderness, in the conquest of Canaan, in the failure of Israel as a polity, in exile and suffering. Moloney speculates a bit on what mercy can mean, and how it went wrong, in how the church dealt with priests who molested children, noting that today “bishops do not permit themselves even the possibility of granting mercy to a priest who has been accused of such a sin or committed it only once.” A good thing to note.

But there’s no scripture in this. And perhaps the time of the Judges, the rise and fall of the monarchy, and what Israel made of God’s presence and absence, and how Israel understood and experienced God to act in its history, can tell us something about love, justice, and mercy. It may not tell us all — scripture relates a very specific story, and it neither asks nor answers many of the questions that vex us — but it is where our thinking and our reasoning should start.

Because to speak of love, justice, and mercy, as if we can have any idea what they mean absent the entire story of the people of God is foolish.

2 thoughts on “This is Why I’m Not a Theologian

  1. While I understand your need not to be a theologian, I am not so sure that your question isn’t grounded by you differences in theology. Could it be that Kasper lives with a Good Friday theology of God’s mercy and forgiveness will always be needed, while you live out a theology of

    • Sorry, I didn’t get to finish my thought. …while you live out a theology of Promise that comes through the Resurrection. I know people talk about Mercy, but I don’t always feel Grace or see Grace in that discussion. Just wondering?

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