THEOLOGY FOR EVERYBODY
by Rev. Fr. Theodore Ziton
At some period in the Church’s history the idea took root that theology is only for priests. Frank Sheed, an author and publisher who has done much to promote a greater knowledge of theology among laymen, recalls that when he was a boy he remarked to a priest how sad it was that a layman could not get a course in theology. The priest looked at him in mild astonishment and answered: “But why should you study theology? You are not obliged to.
That, of course, was where the priest was wrong. The fact of the matter is quite plainly that we are obliged to study theology. For theology is the study of God. It is the explanation of our faith, telling us not only what we believe but why we believe it. It is light for our minds and food for our souls. Many Orthodox Christians have come to believe that theology is some kind of secret society, quite alright for priests and those who like to go in for that sort of thing. And perhaps this mentality more than any other accounts for the shocking indifferentism and lukewarmness in the Church. When people are cut off from theology, they are cut off from life. When they lose interest in increasing their knowledge about God, they automatically decrease their knowledge about everything else. It is as though they more or less deliberately threw away the key to life’s meaning and closed their ears to the voice of hope in the Pandora box of the world.
Studying theology is, in a broad sense, a maturing process. Most Orthodox Christians are biased towards taking their faith for granted because they were born of parents who were Orthodox Christians. We were baptized, received our first Holy Communion and received the Sacrament of Confirmation all at one time, long before we reached adulthood. As children we memorized our prayers, were hustled off to Church on Sunday and studied our catechism. We weren’t ever too sure why we did these things: but we were children and in our innocence this obedience was sufficient. If the little Protestant kid next door asked us why we went to Confession and Communion, we hastily avoided an answer because we really didn’t have an answer to give. Sometimes being an Orthodox Christian chafed a bit. But we got used to it. We accepted the pattern and tried desperately to be like everyone else at the same time. As we grew up we became occupied with many things: our interests broadened and life opened its arms to us: gradually our religion stiffened into a formal routine, rather lifeless practice.
Fortunately this is not true of all of us; but it is true of far too many of us. “When I was a child,” said St. Paul, “I did the things of a child; but now that I have become a man I have put away the things of childhood.” Too many Orthodox Christians never get far beyond the cradle stage of their faith. That is why the Church’s great work in the modern world is the work of convincing us to grow up: to become spiritually mature. As children our faith was blind: as adults it should be intelligent. There is no virtue that is not enlightened virtue and all ignorance is vice. We should not only accept, for example, the fact of the Trinity but make some effort to understand it. It is a great practical error to assume that the truths of our faith are mysteries and therefore cannot be understood. They are indeed mysteries but they are intelligible mysteries. We must always remember that theology is God’s revelation: it is God telling us about Himself. Now God does not speak to confuse us, but to instruct us. His manner of speaking isn’t always immediately clear but the fact that He has spoken at one time should be enough to arouse our interest. Theology only tells us what He said.
It is sometimes said that theology is too deep for the average person. That is another practical error. Many of us may be ignorant, but very few of us are stupid. Our Blessed Lord did not hesitate to expound the deep truths of the Eucharist and Grace and the Mystical Body to the simple country folk of His time. Precisely in the degree of their ignorance, He taught. Precisely in the degree of our ignorance, we should learn.
It is quite pointless to illustrate further why laymen should study theology. The ultimate reason why we should do so is that God has invited us. “Not by bread alone does man live, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God,” We cannot live any kind of full life on broken bits from the penny catechism or scattered memories of our childhood days. The impact of life demands that we know more than just answers; it demands understanding and deep appreciation of the whole Orthodox Christian vision, the total body of truth. Experience has proven that anything less than everything in this respect is worse than nothing. Partial ideas usually turn out to be crackpot ideas. We must insist upon fullness, the whole picture. And we must not be afraid.
Once a great bishop wrote and often stated this ideal:
“I want a laity, he said, that is not arrogant, not disputatious: but men who know their religion, who enter into it: who know just where they stand: who know what they hold and what they do not; who know their creed so well that they can give an account of it and who know enough of history to defend it. I want an intelligent, well-instructed laity.” What that Bishop wanted, The Church wants. We will not have fulfilled our mission as Orthodox Christians until we can say of our faith, in the words of the blind man in the Gospel: “I was once blind, but now I see.
From Word Magazine
Publication of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America