When Theology Burns

How wise the Protestant Reformers had been, who, in their own time, recognized that no single context, no single institution has the right of the final interpretive judgment of a text.

So here is the dare. An historical text unknown to you in the past lies within reach. You pick it up, begin to read it, plug it into your brain, and jolts from the literary lithium-ion battery begin to do some strange things within your mind and your social world. It is the gift of an electric intellectual arch. You walk beneath it into a different world. You complete your reading, begin again, and more curious possibilities come to your attention. One thing becomes completely clear in the process. Christianity has always been mesmerized by words.

I had bought it several years earlier. Then one day I picked up the volume entitled Showings by the fourteenth century nun, Julian of Norwich. I browsed through it, read it again, read it repeatedly, and then began to pick it apart. Phrase by phrase, word by word.  I looked at the ways in which her words were joined together until I uncovered the subtle clues to the soteriological convictions that are buried in the oddities of her text. And then I asked myself the question, “Just how far was I going to allow this nun to change the ways in which I thought?”

It wasn’t the only time. A person that I had recently met, a book publisher, reached into the display case of the books that he had on exhibit. He selected a volume by the late Russian Orthodox theologian, Vladimir Lossky. It was entitled The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church. “Here, take this book.  I believe that I should give it to you.” Similar words that I came to hear more than once in the years that lay ahead. I gratefully accepted it but allowed it to lie inert, remaining caged in some form of dormant book type hibernation in my own bookcase for several years.

Then one day, for no apparent reason, my attention was drawn to it. “I really ought to take a look into that unusual book,” I thought. I took it in hand, sat down with it, and began reading page after page. In a short period of time, the suggestive theological prose began to arrest my attention. There was no doubt about it.

This book had emerged from a relatively unfamiliar theological and liturgical tradition. I found that it was introducing me to an entirely different way of understanding the theologians of the early church. It provided a remarkable contrast with the university-oriented context in which a person like Harnack had lived and done his research. For some time I kept the book close at hand. It was not easy to enter into that mystically charged world. I wrote in the margins and underlined the sentences that were most intriguing. Then when I had finished I went to the computer and placed an order for everything in English that Lossky had ever written. Deceased for decades, in the lingering flow of his prose, he had become a mentor who had become startlingly different for me from my old literary companions like Paul Tillich and the Niebuhrs.

I seem to have a history of literary entanglements. While it originated in childhood, it began to move into more compelling involvements when I was in college. It could take me into its grip almost anywhere. To put one instance into a particular setting, an aunt who lived with her husband deep in the countryside of south Georgia, had a remarkable personal library. One day while I was there, she apparently caught me gazing pointlessly out the window at some pine trees. She stepped across the room to a bookshelf, looked at the volumes, and drew one out that was by the German/American theologian, Paul Tillich. In the words that would later become somewhat similar to others she said, “Here take this book. I think that you might find it interesting.” Of course I found it to be a lot more than just interesting. Like a spark struck from our literary lithium-ion battery, it set on fire some heretofore slumbering place within my brain. For several years I could not get enough of Tillich’s books. I proceeded to acquire all of his publications in English, waiting with a starved intellectual appetite for each new one that came off of the press. I am quite sure that I quit looking at the pine trees about that time.

There were still more ways of reading the texts that had been lying beneath the icy surface of my intellectual winter, waiting to be engaged. And this was a remarkable discovery. From the very beginning Christianity was bedazzled by the various ways in which the gospel had found expression. From Origin to Ambrose to Bernard, from Augustine to Aquinas words used within theological discourse were quickly becoming multivalent. And one other thing was also becoming clear to me. In theological use, words had more fluidity and less neutrality than I had imagined. This meant, of course, that nothing could interfere with reading the original sources. In fact, the most important step was moving further from the analytic and constructive books of creative theologians, such as the ones by Tillich and Lossky, and directly into the sources which had informed them. It would be more like reading the work of Julian of Norwich herself. 

Primary writings, the basic documents themselves were beckoning. I had already been drawn by the sources that were read by such figures as Luther and Calvin.  Since they had read them, would they not provide the keys to opening the doors of their minds? Could I in good conscience assume that I should somehow simply kidnap historic writers verbally and move them from their own intellectual environment into mine? Would not the concept of justification by faith, for instance, bear different nuances in a secularized twenty-first century culture than it would to a German monk who had been reading Augustine in the sixteenth century? Perhaps by reading their own sources I would understand more deeply what had influenced them and how they had thought.

In the process of going further into it, however, I found that books in other fields had their own way of reinforcing my surmise. This was even true when it came to general literature in music. Such works could provide historical narrative and illuminating biographical information but they seemed to be more suggestive than compelling. Understandably, they would only point me to the real thing.  I could not take anyone’s interpretive words as substitute for listening to the music itself. I had been given a copy of Aaron Copeland’s What to Listen for in Music. Perhaps it would help me to know what I was hearing. So I launched out. I was not far into this volume, however, before I began to feel that, as informative as it might be, it was certainly not music. It explained it, but one thing was certain, it did not sing. The same thing happened when I purchased a book on Bach. It offered clarity, but the joy of Bach was not to be found there. I set them both aside and turned back to the music itself.

Frankly, while I could listen to the music of Bach for itself or pick up the ancient tomes and read the original sources for themselves, I was conscious that I was not actually coming to terms with them as well as I might. In a similar way, one could say that while theology mattered the question was did it actually matter to me personally all that much? Would I become one among the many, for instance, who had written their papers, passed their exams, finished their courses, and asserted that theology mattered but who had rarely picked up a work by Bernard or by Martin Luther again? Could I really get away with just slipping on someone else’s intellectual and homiletical armor? I was becoming increasingly aware that the challenge of the gospel is to the transformation of our minds as well as our hearts.

When a stimulus arrived, it was not in the way that I expected. Somehow I obtained a volume by the comparative ethnologist who taught at the University of Chicago, Mircea Eliade, a Romanian by birth. Let the symbolic thought of the ancient myths and stories speak for themselves, he urged. The mystery, the meaning, lies hidden within them, waiting for the reader who is truly attentive. One must learn how to listen to the ancient words. And listen I did. Especially to Eliade himself. As was usual in my case, I read it all. He led me away from Bultmann’s assumptions into a new recognition that words themselves carry an irreducible historic weight. When I happened to be in Chicago I looked him up. And in due time wrote an article on his thought.

Actually, far earlier than I had realized, the most influential theologians had already begun to listen very closely to the primary sources. In the sixteenth century, late in this process, Teresa of Avila left us an example.  Her uncle, Don Pedro had been grieving over the death of his wife. So he withdrew from his business affairs to a quiet retreat. And then, drawing from his own library, he began to read the devotional theologians and to seek solace from them. In time Teresa came by to visit him.  She had endured her own discouragements. In due course, he handed her a volume and more or less said to her, “Here, read this, you might find it interesting.” His words would have certainly had a familiar ring to me. And then he gave her Francisco de Osuna’s Third Spiritual Alphabet.[1] Teresa apparently read it carefully and listened to the words in a contemplative mood. As she described it in her autobiography, reading this volume had eventually contributed to her leadership of the sixteenth century Spanish spiritual renewal.

Francisco himself was a deeply read and devout Spanish monk. I had bought a copy of The Third Spiritual Alphabet years before and had promptly red shirted it and placed it on the reserve team. When I finished reading about Teresa and her uncle, however, I, as it were, called it up and read it as closely as I could for myself.  The links were incredible.  Francisco had read, among many others, the works of John Ruusbroec, a mystical writer who had died in 1381. He had––so had I been told by a Ruusbroec researcher––written such works as The Sparkling Stone, in something called Middle Flemish. I had, naturally, been trying to read his work in English.

I was coming to the place in which I believed that the only time in which theology really mattered was when people provided a hospitable place within the warp and woof of their lives for the books themselves. And by taking them into one’s life a communion of the saints can sometimes be found, transcending time and place and suggesting a more metaphysical presence than might be commonly known. Looked at in a different way, the very words could become passports into the writers’ souls. By just lingering, even over the way in which a gerund had been used, one was listening to the voices of real people. I was feeling my way into the authors’ lives. The whole business was becoming extraordinarily personal. And that was beginning to suggest that theology mattered when I walked through the door into the very private reasons for another’s faith. Theology matters because it has such intensely personal roots and intensely communal depths. Here was the hint about one of the distinctive mysteries of Christian theology. It is unapologetically relational.

While it might seem to be academic or even abstract, it is redolent with the most personal and communal echoes. Even the creeds are something like treasure chests containing the strangest of personal things.    When one combines the solitary dimension of the meditative life with that which is communal and historic, across the slender arch of God’s grace, sparks begin to leap up. In the heart of its rhetoric, theology can be personal and incandescent.   

Richard Rolle had his own particular way of entering into this mystery. After several years of study, he dropped out of Oxford University. And soon after, in approximately 1302, he became a hermit of a somewhat familiar type. He wrote, he taught, he became an unofficial spiritual director to a community of nuns.  And in his work entitled The Fire of Love he wrote this: “I cannot tell you how surprised I was the first time I felt my heart begin to warm.  It was real warmth too . . . as some might well remind us, there are people on fire with love for Christ.”[2] There remained a sense of community, even for a hermit. Among many others who lived both in the early and middle years of the Christian church, Rolle’s life does remind us that theology can grow deeper to the degree that it has a discipline of asceticism some place within it.

Many of the seminal spiritual works were written by those who knew some sense of a dialectic between solitude and community. These works occasionally originated in preparation for homilies in a monastery, as did Brevard’s meditations on “The Song of Songs,” but they frequently included also a very sensitive invitation to join in contemplative union with either Christ or the Trinity. A sense of union with the Trinity that can be experienced and imagined, even revered in a distant way, is a little daunting. Yet historical theology does bring with it witnesses that the doctrine of the Trinity is rooted in contemplative prayer, Biblical study, and liturgy. This can become very experiential and personal. Thus, contrary to what some have thought about it, theology matters when it is found to be full of personal surprises. There is more intellectual adventure here than some critics might think at first. And the recognition that it can deliver its own conceptual clarity can be sometimes more than a little surprising. 

If theology has these ambient dimensions, should we sometimes attempt to read it within a context that is similar to the one in which it was written? Do we try to drink from the same silver cup into which it has been poured? The question becomes particularly acute when we read theology that has a dimension of the mystical about it. And if it were written within a context of solitary contemplation as well as within worship, how could such a setting be readily found? To put it in more familiar terms what might happen if we read it primarily as we prayed? It might be helpful at this point to remember that the horizon for theology is not merely historical but eternal. In the largest sense of the word, it moves beyond the origin of the cosmos itself.

It occurred to me one day, like a cool breeze blowing across my brow, that there are subtle differences in the ways in which I have read works in theology. When I was in the pastorate, I had read both Scripture and theology one way. When I was involved in teaching undergraduates I had read them another way. When I was the director of a publishing house I had read them in a different way. And when I was engaged in theological education, I had read them in a still different way. And now I was reading them, when family time permitted, more often in solitude, glad for the deep companionship that comes out of the texts. Do the social contexts in which we read theology have an effect on the way in which we read it?

How wise the Protestant Reformers had been, who, in their own time, recognized that no single context, no single institution has the right of the final interpretive judgment of a text. Not a single one. Not the magisterial authority of the Pope, not the councils, and not the universities. It was, in retrospect, a remarkably fluid insight. And it might still offer food for thought for those of us who look to accepted authorities for our views. For Calvin, who cited Augustine hundreds of times in The Institutes, it might have been with a slight sense of tension, that he adopted the formula of the inner witness of the Holy Spirit to the Word, allowing for a subtle ambivalence for the “Word” which could move toward both Christ and the text itself. It did not appear natural for him to separate them. And thus they held that the exposition of a Biblical text was an absolutely essential component of Christian worship. With no hesitation, the Reformers held that the Fathers had served as the most inspired interpreters for the church. Even so, they were also assured by their own experience and conviction that no one institution held an interpretative hegemony. The study of Scripture and theology is far too dynamic for that. And as it stands, like it or not, we find ourselves to be left with the inescapable terror of the bare text.

And here is where the final question leads us. All of our observations have been gathering momentum, leading us to wonder about the ways in which, at its core, theology is rooted in and inflamed by the highly personal and communal character of its life.  Although it sometimes seems to disguise this in its weighty volumes, theology can mean the most to us when it invokes the spirit of the living and the memories of the dead.  In a sense, it awakens us, as we begin to listen more deeply, to our own reliance on the communion of the saints.

The whole thing is so kinetic that it points us toward a willingness to enter theological reflection as into a dare, even to find new friends among the departed who will be truly gifted to us in love one day. And in this sense, it could be said that reading theology is always uniquely eschatological. And here is that remaining question: could I, in the final analysis, find the smoldering embers in this text for myself? Am I invited, in a time and place, to, with assistance from my own heritage of faith, walk alone into that journey where that lithium-ion battery of an unexpected text sets my heart on fire? And if it seemed to take too long, could I just wait in patience before the words that I have never understood? Could I go to the golden cage of the bookshelves where the books sit like song birds waiting for me, open the doors, turn them loose and let them begin to sing?  The answer is yes.

We might conclude with one more mysterious fire, not actually a battery, too volatile for that, type of story.   It holds, however, merely a simple observation. As the familiar text tells us, Moses went away from the crowd into the wilderness. And there he came to a bush that burned incessantly like no other. He stood alone before the burning bush. And then, both parties begin to speak. That is precisely when theology begins to burn.


The Reverend Richard A. Ray, Ph.D. (St. Andrews University), has been a pastor, professor, publisher, college president and is now chairman of the Board of the Presbyterian Heritage Center, Montreat, North Carolina.


[1] Richard Rolle, The Fire of Love, trans. Clifton Wolters (London, Penguin Books, 1972), 45.

[2] Francisco de Osuna’s Third Spiritual Alphabet, trans. Mary E. Giles (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1981).

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Richard A. Ray
The Reverend Richard A. Ray, Ph.D. (St. Andrews University), has been a pastor, professor, publisher, college president and is now chairman of the Board of the Presbyterian Heritage Center, Montreat, North Carolina

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