Saturday, March 12, 2011


In his book Encountering the Mystery, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew makes the fascinating and challenging observation: theology is not a study one does; it is a gift one receives. This would surely be a shock to the faculties at university theology departments, or divinity schools, or seminaries—that many of the Ph.D.s teaching there are not “theologians” in the Patriarch’s sense. What does he mean?
His first comment is that in Orthodox history only three people have been designated with the title “Theologian”—St John the Divine (Fourth Evangelist); St Gregory the Theologian (Gregory Nazianzen), and St Simeon the New Theologian. It is worth noting that many great saints do not make the cut on this criterion: St Athanasius, St Basil, St John Chrysostom, St Gregory Palamas, St John Damascene… So what set these three apart from their noble fellows?

In all three cases it was a mystical experience that was a “donation” of sorts, typically mediated in a vision, which involved receiving the gift of theology as a commission. Interestingly, St John Chrysostom and St Gregory Thaumaturgus (the Wonderworker) were also said to have had the encounter which resulted in their being given the gift, but they are not designated as “theologian.” Nevertheless, these other names all can participate in the gift—and how they do so is pivotal for Bartholomew:

[T]heology is the study of…the Holy Trinity. It is, however, never simply the accumulation of knowledge about the divine nature; …theology is an encounter with the living, personal God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
…Thus, theology is always received; it is never merely repeated. It is an act of the Church…
It underlines the importance of theology as encounter and communion; theology is a divine gift to be shared…
If one speaks theologically, then one always does so within the context of an intimate relationship with God, who is the source of all theology.

The Ecumenical Patriarch thus reminds us that the ultimate act of theology is one of prayerful communion with the Trinity—it can never be abstract but always personal and affective and experiential. It is why it is often said that theology cannot properly be “done” except on one’s knees. Libraries are often useful, but on this understanding they are never essential, nor are they ever sufficient. A doctoral dissertation on its own cannot make one a “theologian”…

It is easy to see why his book is titled as it is.  It is a worthy companion for the journey of Lent.

1 comment:

  1. I have always felt there is an aura of mystery re the word, theology. That the study of theology is of particular attraction to only the keenest and most delving brilliant minds. The resultant accumulation of conjectures and insights still leave us with no solution to the mystery of understanding God, the Father, God, the Son, and God, the Holy Spirit.
    I do agree with the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew that theology is a gift received through a mystical experience, mediated in a vision. That makes sense to me. Perhaps it's God's way of testing us -- how strong a faith do we have without having the spiritual knowledge which explains the unexplainable. In our daily pursuits, we may have our own personal theology, which develops in our ongoing journey to follow the dictates of our Catholic faith. With perseverance in following and drawing on the many gifts of our faith, we can experience a growing love and friendship with God, our own personal encounter.