Friday, February 25, 2011

The teologian: an almost impossible being

Leonardo Boff's weekly columns are available in Spanish from Servicios Koinonia and in Portuguese on his blog. Some of his older columns are available in English at

by Leonardo Boff (English translation by Rebel Girl)

Many people are surprised that, being a theologian and philosopher by training, I get into matters unrelated to these disciplines such as ecology, politics, global warming, and others.

I always answer: I do pure theology, but I also cover other topics, precisely because I'm a theologian. The task of the theologian -- the greatest of all, Thomas Aquinas, taught in the first question of the Summa Theologica -- is to study God and His revelation, then all other things "in the light of God" (sub ratione Dei), as He is the beginning and end of everything.

Therefore, theology is for addressing other things than God, but doing it "in the light of God." Speaking of God and also of things is an almost impossible task. First, how does one talk about God if He doesn't fit in any dictionary? Second, how does one reflect on all the other things, if the knowledge about them is so vast that no individual can master them? Logically, it's not about speaking of economics like an economist or of politics like a politician, but speaking of such matters from the perspective of God, which presupposes prior knowledge of those realities in a critical and not naive way, respecting their autonomy and accepting their more reliable results. Only after this hard work may the theologian ask himself: How are these realities when confronted with God? How do they fit into a more transcendental vision of life and history?

Doing theology is not a task like any other, like going to the movies or the theater. It's something very serious because one is working with the category "God", that is not a tangible object like all the rest. So there is no point in searching for the particle "God" within the confines of matter or inside the "Higgs Field". That would mean that God would be part of the world. I'm an atheist with respect to that God. It would be a piece of the world and not God. I make my own the words of a subtle Franciscan theologian John Duns Scotus (d. 1308) who wrote: "If God exists as things exist, then God does not exist."

That is, God is not of the order of things that can be found and described. He is the precondition and the support for these things to exist. Without Him, things would have remained in nothingness or gone back to nothingness. This is the nature of God, not being a thing, but the origin of things.

I apply to God as Origin what Easterners apply to the force that allows them to think: "the force by which the mind thinks, can not be thought about". The Origin of things can not be a thing.

As is apparent, it's very difficult to do theology. Henri Lacordaire (d. 1861), the great French orator, rightly said: "The Catholic doctor is an almost impossible man because he has to know the whole deposit of faith and the facts of the papacy and also what St. Paul calls 'the Elements of world', ie, everything and all." Remember what René Descartes (d. 1650) said in Discourse on Method, the basis of modern knowledge: "If I wanted to do theology, I would have to be more than a man." And Erasmus of Rotterdam (d. 1536), the great scholar of the Reformation, observed: "There is something superhuman in the profession of theologian." It's no surprise that Martin Heidegger said that a philosophy that has not been confronted with questions of theology, has not fully come into itself. I say this not as self-magnification of theology but as a confession that its task is almost impracticable, something I feel every day.

Logically, there is a theology that does not deserve this name because it's lazy and gives up thinking about God. It just thinks about what others have thought or what the popes have said.

My feeling about the world tells me that today theology as theology must proclaim loudly that we must conserve nature and come into harmony with the universe, because they are the great book that God has given us. That is where we find what God wants to say to us. Because we stopped reading this book, He gave us another, the Scriptures -- the Christian ones and those of other peoples -- so that we would relearn to read the book of nature. Today it is being devastated. And with it, we are destroying our access to God's revelation. Therefore, we need to talk about nature and the world in the light of God and reason. Without preserving nature and the world, the sacred books would lose their meaning, which is to re-teach us to read nature and the world. Thus, theological discourse has its place alongside other discourses.

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