Wednesday, September 25, 2013

A beginning and an ending

     St. Thomas Aquinas is mainly known for the "median" of his life -- his great work Summa Theologica, which took him nine years to write and touches upon almost every area of Christian doctrine, and which, in the end, was never finished. But the beginning of the Summa, (i.e, the introduction, or prologue) and the way both the book and St. Thomas' life ended have much to say not only about who he was, but also about how we should look at the study of theology.
      St. Thomas made his introduction short and sweet and to the point. He intends to "instruct beginners" in the science of theology. We cannot resist a bit of a chuckle at this statement, although I'm not so sure St. Thomas would get the joke. (A thousand pages of simplicity? Seriously?) However, it's not really so much that the Summa is complicated as it is dense. It is packed full of concentrated truth, and in order for us beginners to get it, we need to unpack it. He really does deal in the basics of the Christian faith, but to grasp what he is saying, one must constantly rephrase it in one's own terms and words. The Summa must be made personal so that it may become worthwhile. Yet once we become familiar with this mode of discourse, it becomes fascinating and, dare I say it, hard to put down.
     St. Thomas also says that he wants to eliminate the useless questions and arguments and the repetition found in other theological texts. This seems a little funny as well, since his whole treatise is based on questions (423 of them!) and their accompanying arguments. But we must conclude, no doubt, that St. Thomas thought every single one was essential and practical! True to his word, he rarely repeats a thing, showing the amazing scope of his knowledge of spiritual things, his precise perception of truth, and his unfailing devotion to his task.
       But, I believe, the impact of the Summa is best understood by the story of the end of St. Thomas Aquinas' life. In 1273, while part 3 of the Summa was being written, he is reported to have seen a vision of Christ who spoke to him and said, "You have written well of me, Thomas. What will you have as your reward?" To which he replied (as we all should), "Only thyself, Lord." After this experience, he stopped writing, giving this explanation, "I can write no more; compared with what I have seen, all I have written seem to me as straw." A short time later, he died and left the Summa unfinished. (Kreeft, p.33) He profoundly echoed the sentiments of the Apostle Paul, who wrote, "...I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things." (Phil. 3:8) He articulates for all of us who teach the Gospel the paradox of discussing spiritual truth -- how do you say something for which there are no earthly words? How do you explain the incomprehensible? Somehow it all seems like a heap of straw when set beside "the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ" -- the treasure we hold dear in jars of clay. (2Cor.4:6,7)
     Whenever I consider the story of the end of St. Thomas Aquinas' life, I am reminded of the words of a song by the contemporary Christian singer and songwriter, Michael Card.
          That is the mystery
          More than you can see
          Give up on your pondering
          Fall down on your knees.
Or, as the Apostle Paul said, "Great is the mystery of godliness..."  It is, of course, good and right to study Scripture and to contemplate the order of theology. It is immensely important to know God and to learn about his truth. But, in the end, it is all a great and powerful mystery, something that is certainly not fully known here on earth and which will be, to our eternal delight, explored infinitely in heaven. Seeing the mystery is heart of Christian theology; a vision that will transform our souls and set us on a collision course with the wonder that only the Spirit reveals. Everything else is just so much straw.

Kreeft, Peter. Summa of the Summa. San Francisco, Ignatius Press, 1990.


Thursday, September 19, 2013

Literary apologetics

     I first discovered literary apologetics when I looked up the blog Hieropraxis, written by Dr. Holly Ordway of Huston Baptist University. She defines literary apologetics as "presenting the truths of the Christian faith through literature." She also defines the mission of the blog as providing an "intersection of literature and faith, and of reason and imagination." Literary apologetics is a way for us to explore, think about and evaluate the truths of Christianity though the study of literature. Along the way, we use our minds to discover insights into the Christian life and find connections to Christian doctrine. The characters are our guides to right thinking; the plot lines our constructs for learning.
     The literature itself does not need to be overtly Christian, but it should express truth or discuss it in some way. And it should stand on its own as well-written and meaningful. Unfortunately, a lot of what goes under the name of Christian literature today (novels in particular) does not earn high marks in either regard. Sometimes Christian terms are merely superimposed onto the narrative, making the truth a very shallow part of the whole. The main point of the story is just the plot itself which moves along with Christian labels attached to it. In other words, a great deal of Christian fiction is superficial, "feel good" kind of stuff. I, too, cringe when I see the Christian fiction shelf in the bookstore, or worse, in the CBD catalog.
     Literary apologetics is also not necessarily the study of writings about the Christian faith, although it certainly includes this component. In fact, my husband, Michael and I started our journey into literary apologetics (long before we ever heard the term) by teaching a series on C.S. Lewis' Mere Christianity in our Sunday class. And even before that, Michael taught a series on Pilgrim's Progress, probably the first class ever taught at our church on a work of literature, not a Christian lifestyle book. People were quite intrigued by it. Bear in mind that literary apologetics does not concern the study of the multitude of popular titles (or their ubiquitous cousins, the video series) devoted to the discussion of the Christian life.While these have their place, and may prove somewhat helpful, literary apologetics seeks to involve serious, thoughtful and engaging books which lead us to explore the truths, even the mysteries, of the Christian faith. Here's a list of a few of the books we have discussed in class, and their significance as literary apologetic works.

  •      Pilgrim's Progress: (Bunyan, 1678) This is the classic, definitive work on Christianity as a journey, and probably one of the first to deal with Christian worldview, as Pilgrim encounters situations along the way when he must choose to live out his faith. It is also a wonderful source of encouragement when dealing with the ups and downs of the Christian life.
  •      Paradise Lost: (Milton, 1667) This book contains classic descriptions of the spiritual universe of angels and demons. Though clearly a work of Milton's incredible imagination, it helps us to see the power and significance of that world, to which we most often turn a blind eye. Milton's evaluation of original sin is truly masterful and gives us insight into its pervasive influence. An interesting sidelight in the book is the many references to the scientific thought of his day, teaching us to be well-rounded in our interests. 
  •       Divine Comedy: (Dante,1321) This book is much more that the Inferno section, which is taught today basically as horror genre. (Although I must admit it is fun to rank the frustrating events of the day according to their corresponding circle of hell!) I especially enjoyed the Pugatorio section because I saw in it so many parallels to our earthy journey. I also discovered the wonderful music highlighted by Dante at the end of each section and downloaded several pieces on I-tunes!
  •       Pensees: (Pascal, 1669) Pascal's brilliant and succinct insights into the timeless and universal condition of mankind are unequaled. His "all things considered" approach takes in reason and relationships, wretchedness and diversion, sin and salvation. Throughout, his devotion to Christ stands out as a shining beacon for his life and ours.
        Now that I have discovered it, I find that literary apologetics is a wonderful way for me to combine my librarian's love of literature with my Bible teacher's love of Christian apololgetics. In the future, I would like to do a series on Christian poets (eg. George Herbert and T.S. Eliot), some Hildegard von Bingen and The Robe by Douglass. The more books we study, the more we find that are worthy of attention. These books have become (as they should) not only our friends, but our teachers as well.