Professor Thomas O’Loughlin, Professor of Historical Theology at the University of Nottingham, UK, and a priest of the Archdiocese of Arundel and Brighton on England’s south coast, continues his six-part series.
New answers to old problems
‘Theology’ is not some body of information one ‘downloads.’ In the past it was often confused with ‘the information needed by a priest’ or some set of codes that could be used to explain everything as if ‘theology’ were the religious equivalent of basic geometry. Theology does involve knowledge about how Christians live, how they worship, how they have presented their faith in doctrine, about how they read the texts they cherish, and what it is that makes them the community of followers of Jesus. But most of this is already known to some degree to most Christians who take their discipleship seriously. So what is special about theology? It is having a developed, trained skill in thinking about the Christian life, reflecting on what we are doing, why we are doing it this way, and asking if the great purposes of God could be better served by acting differently. Let’s see this by looking at some old problems and some fresh answers.
A Situation: Living with other Christians: Can we share a table?
Meet any group of Christians and the likelihood is that there will be individuals from more than one tradition: a few Catholics, a few Anglicans, maybe a Methodist or Baptist, and one or two others. All claim to be followers of Jesus, all pray to the Father, all acknowledge the Spirit within them. All have been baptised and have set out of the Way of Life which makes them fellow disciples. So far, so good – and we rejoice we no longer call each other nasty names (or worse) and appreciate that God, and the divine love and mercy, is unlimited. But then, someone notes the community of disciples never becomes more visible than when we gather in the Christ to share the meal of the Christians blessing and thanking the Father when we break and eat the common loaf and drink from the common cup. This sharing of the loaf and cup, the Eucharist, is the centre and summit of the whole Christian life – and we echo Paul when we say, ‘Because there is one loaf, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf’ (1 Cor 10:17).
But we are also divided: we worship apart, we have different structures and customs, and we have different ways of expressing belief and different ways of explaining what we do believe (and a history of saying that anyone who is ‘not with us’ is both wrong and needs corrective punishment). So many churches have rules, which say that ‘if you are not completely united with us, you cannot share the Christian meal with us.’ This causes bitterness, hurt, rejection, and has caused untold suffering when, for example, two Christians from different churches marry and cannot share that which both may proclaim as most precious to them. Faced with this problem it seems the only answer is to argue that the Eucharist is a manifestation of the union the church in Christ (which it is), so if you are not in visible union with the Church it would be wrong to participate in that visible manifestation. This logic is tight, and has been proclaimed by bishop after bishop, canonist after canonist; and so it would seem it is as much a fact as ‘caution: hot surface’ written on many machines. The rejection of ‘intercommunion’ is hard, even sad, but there is nothing that can be done!
But one amazing difference between theology and engineering is that while the latter uses language factually – the bridge can either bear the weight or not, theology uses language analogically – it is aware language is an approximation and that what appears a clear answer from one string of reasoning, emerges as a faulty answer from a different starting point, and both strings of argument can be true.
In November 2015 Pope Francis met a Lutheran married to a Catholic who expressed sorrow at ‘not being able to partake together in the Lord’s Supper’ and asked: ‘What more can we do to reach communion on this point?’ The pope’s reply is very interesting:
‘Thank you, Ma’am. Regarding the question on sharing the Lord’s Supper…I think the Lord gave us [the answer] when he gave us this command: “Do this in memory of me.” And when we share in, remember and emulate the Lord’s Supper, we do the same thing that the Lord Jesus did. And the Lord’s Supper will be, the final banquet will there be in the New Jerusalem, but this will be the last. Instead on the journey, I wonder – and I don’t know how to answer, but I am making your question my own – I ask myself: “Is sharing the Lord’s Supper the end of a journey or is it the viaticum for walking together?” I leave the question to the theologians, to those who understand. It is true that in a certain sense sharing is saying that there are no differences between us, that we have the same doctrine – I underline the word, a difficult word to understand – but I ask myself: don’t we have the same Baptism? And if we have the same Baptism, we have to walk together. You are a witness to an even more profound journey because it is a conjugal journey, truly a family journey, of human love and of shared faith. We have the same Baptism. When you feel you are a sinner – I too feel I am quite a sinner – when your husband feels he is a sinner, you go before the Lord and ask forgiveness; your husband does the same and goes to the priest and requests absolution. They are ways of keeping Baptism alive. When you pray together, that Baptism grows, it becomes strong; when you teach your children who Jesus is, why Jesus came, what Jesus did, you do the same, whether in Lutheran or Catholic terms, but it is the same. The question: and the Supper? There are questions to which only if one is honest with oneself and with the few theological ‘lights’ that I have, one must respond the same, you see. “This is my Body, this is my Blood”, said the Lord, “do this in memory of me”, and this is a viaticum which helps us to journey. … … … I respond to your question only with a question: how can I participate with my husband, so that the Lord’s Supper may accompany me on my path? It is a problem to which each person must respond. A pastor friend of mine said to me: “We believe that the Lord is present there. He is present. You believe that the Lord is present. So what is the difference?” – “Well, there are explanations, interpretations…”. Life is greater than explanations and interpretations. Always refer to Baptism: “One faith, one baptism, one Lord”, as Paul tells us, and take the outcome from there. I would never dare give permission to do this because I do not have the authority. One Baptism, one Lord, one faith. Speak with the Lord and go forward. I do not dare say more. (papa-francesco_20151115_chiesa-evangelica-luterana.pdf)
Pope Francis sees theology not as a matter of fixed answers: there are always a variety of explanations and interpretations – and it is the task of theology to find those answers which are most conducive to discipleship.
Published in WelCom February 2020