Three Theaters of Theology

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Strong Medicine Theater

During the chaotic birth of modern medicine, some surgeons became carnies: they performed operations in a theater in front of a curious audience.

Is there a drama like the drama of surgery? A gifted champion sweats; a dying victim bleeds; life struggles against death. Doctors’ surgeries continued to sell tickets for lack of show-goers.

No, operating theaters were doomed on the supply side by the advance of germ theory. Performance was no longer fun anyway, thanks to new best practices such as anesthetizing patients and prioritizing precision over speed.

A matter of life or death

Theology operating theaters may seem more C-SPAN than Grey’s Anatomy. What could theology offer the kind of people who would pay to have their spleen removed or hooked up to Dr. Pimple Popper?

If the divine is only a mirage, theology is absurd, deleterious and boring.

If, however, the divine is the only foundation and the very destiny of humanity, then there is nothing more important, nothing more useful and nothing less boring than theology. If there really is a Theos, theology has no rival for drama: it really is a matter of life and death, and it should captivate us. If a planet-killing comet were to head straight for Earth, theology would eclipse all other fields of knowledge; studying math or history would suddenly seem absurd.

But where should we do theology? Is the college dining hall as good as the classroom? Is the monastery the equal of the afternoon talk show?

How do we know if our participation, like that of the unwashed crowds gazing at those golden-age surgical spectacles, is more pathogenic than educational?

And can we avoid the mistakes of those showman-surgeons who aimed for glory, speed and spectacle at the expense of the good of their patients, or will pride impede progress?

Operating theaters

All theological thought is shaped by its operating room. If we fail to attend to the framework, we will make errors in interpretation and application – errors that range from stupid to damaging.

Consider controversy, reflectionand care. All three theaters have produced great saints and doctors of the Church. Their approach, emphasis, and goals vary: controversy leads to truth, contemplation to beauty, and attention to goodness. Each theater has its merits and its sublime fruits, its deficits and its blind spots.

Theater of controversy

Controversy does not refer to disagreements between Christians and non-Christians. These disagreements define identities and relate to first principles, and they pertain to interreligious dialogue and evangelization.

Controversy is an internal disagreement between Christians. The object of theology in the theater of controversy is the articulation of the truest and most robust version of the Christian faith. The preservation of the union takes a back seat, because the commitment to truth is paramount here, even at the cost of peace.

As early generations of Christians worked out the implications of the gospel, disagreements abounded. Controversy among the baptized — and especially among the ordained — seemed not a bug, but a feature. The Holy Spirit prevented the early Church from enshrining all error as doctrine, but His process did not prevent banishments, riots, and fights. The Spirit worked in and through the disagreements of the faithful.

Doctor of Controversy: Saint Athanasius of Alexandria

Perhaps no mere mortal after St. Paul campaigned so fiercely or effectively for the truth as Athanasius.

The fourth century controversy centered on the divine identity of Jesus Christ. Athanasius’ fellow bishop, Arius, argued that Jesus was not entirely divine and had not always existed. For Arius, Jesus Christ is best described as the highly exalted creation of God the Father.

The Arian position has advantages: it sounds biblical; it apparently has better continuity with Jewish messianic expectations; it is easier to understand than the orthodox articulation.

Athanasius did not oppose Arius on these grounds, but rather argued that Arius contradicted tradition. If someone like Arius could innovate, then Christianity didn’t exist. If each new era could portray Christ as they wished, he might as well never have revealed himself at all.

Stubbornly clinging to beliefs passed down from apostolic times, Athanasius immersed himself in Christological scholarship. He argued that Jesus Christ was of the same substance as God the Father and had a divine nature, that the Son is eternally begotten, and that there never was a time when the Son did not exist. Over the course of his career, Athanasius has helped define the theater of controversy: he sifts through what seems novel to determine what is a flowering of a long-lived plant and what is a newly sprouted weed. .

Heresy of the Day

In every era, at least one interesting idea will emerge to throw the Church into the debate. Today, the controversy is amplified by the new media and thus becomes practically unavoidable even for the least intellectual Christians. To take an example, David Bentley Hart and several Jesuits promote the idea that hell cannot be the true destiny of any human soul.

What would Athanasius do?

He would take universalism very seriously. Athanasius delved into and read whatever he could find in the scriptures and in the early centuries of Christianity. With great care he would test the proposed doctrine for its roots and fruits. He wouldn’t let anyone’s pastoral feelings or instincts get in the way.

And if he had access to print or new media, he would only ever publish what he was sure was true – theology does not benefit from hot takes or quasi-formed conclusions. Truth should not be a matter of guesswork or opinion, even in the midst of controversy. The theology in this theater has winners and losers, but it ultimately serves as the foundation for fellowship.

theater of contemplation

Hildegard von Bingen did her theological work in a very different context: medieval monastic life, characterized by self-sacrifice, constant prayer and order.

The rhythm of prayer and silence of a monastery facilitates contemplation. Much of the fruit of contemplation is transmitted by conversation and practice, not by text and argument.

The theater of contemplation is a theater of beauty. Here we are less concerned with minute distinctions into parts and more with appreciation of the whole. Here the theology can be colorful, inefficient and extravagant. It works to imagine more deeply, illuminate more brilliantly, and transform more completely. It is deeply personal and seeks to connect all of creation to the Creator.

If there is a weakness of this theological theater, it is that outsiders do not take it seriously: Beauty cannot be measured! It defies clean and neat definition! Pace Dostoyevsky, it doesn’t seem to save the world! Perhaps this is why it took the Church 800 years to declare Hildegard a Doctor of the Church.

Yet the contemplation is very serious. He engages reality with all its joys and sufferings and, abandoning himself to the divine, he lets God transform mourning into a dance. Even the most cynical interpretation of Hildegard’s mystical visions, that they were nothing but horrible headaches, grants her that she brought forth the beauty of pain.

In her life of contemplation, Hildegard produced music, recipes, visual arts and poetry. Criticizing Hildegard’s theological work for accuracy of terminology and practicality of application would be like criticizing a brownie for not tasting like a Caesar salad.

Care Theater

Unlike the monastic rhythm of contemplation, theology in a pastoral setting is as busy and complicated as the people who need care.

In the theater of healing, theologians are there to communicate truth, not to shape or deepen it. Theology here has the task of strengthening faith, healing wounds and guiding discernment. It is very practical, and the transcendent quality of God’s goodness plays the main role.

In the theater of care, distinctions and conclusions are applied to issues of the herd: Should I adopt a human embryo? How can a country defend itself against violence and remain faithful to the Prince of Peace? How dare “the Church” tell me what to do with my money?

In the face of ignorance, doubt and disinterest, theologians here must use beauty to gain an audience. And in this theater, the goodness and integrity of the theologian counts a lot.

Francis de Sales, Doctor of the Church from an era freshly scarred by a massive schism, stood on this stage. He wrote clearly and convincingly. His simplicity and his love for the poor made him a credible witness. Monsignor François de Sales was a real model: not only did he write tracts and manuals for the laity, but he personally visited every year all the parishes for which he was responsible. He did not hide from the daily needs of his brothers.

Saint Francis proposes a metaphor of the bouquet for this theater of theology: the flowers are always of the same species, but the theologian arranges them so that they are always noticed and appreciated.

Pastoral care is a theater filled with interpersonal drama, but it is a place where goodness abounds. Truths tested in controversy and worked out in contemplation reach the masses in preaching, teaching, and counsel. The true works of mercy live here; the other theaters find their fulfillment in the pastoral.

Final Thoughts

•Truth needs alliances with goodness and beauty lest it sound like a clanging cymbal. Goodness needs truth and beauty in order not to fall into a monstrous version of itself, like the demonically intelligent “goodness” of euthanasia and eugenics. Beauty must be firmly anchored in goodness and truth, lest it become vain and empty.

• In addition to Scripture, believers should read the theology of the three theaters throughout the year, always mindful of context and purpose, and always noting what a book or article is not trying to do.

•Finally, let us remember that the Divine Physician is not totally opposed to bloody spectacles on the theater of this world: from the Paschal Lamb to the Lamb of God, the best theology is made by God Himself.

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