Everyday Grace: The Grace of Seeking

By Lawrence S. Cunningham | Fall 2012

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Christians live out their vocation according to where they find themselves.

Centuries ago, St. Francis de Sales wrote that devout Christians are faithful to the place and time where they actually are. What has been my vocation? Where have I found myself in life? I am a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame. Having just retired from more than 40 years in the classroom, I find it worthwhile to reflect a bit on what I learned over those four decades. Geoffrey Chaucer said of the scholar who went on pilgrimage to Canterbury, “gladly would he learn and gladly teach.” Chaucer admired the scholar—as do I—for the precise reason just quoted. To be a scholar is to take on the life of learning, while transmitting that learning to others.

A theologian, unlike practitioners in other academic disciplines, cannot hope to revise the field by revolutionary steps as, say, Einstein made Newton passé. We are the heirs of a revelation. Our main task is to reflect on that revelation, with the parallel duty of attempting to comprehend its meaning and, as necessary, restate it so that it makes sense to our contemporaries. To be a theologian is to enter into a long conversation that has continued since the apostles first put writing instruments to scrolls. How did the great “A” team of Augustine, Anselm and Aquinas, for example, grasp the sense of what the apostles were about and what can we learn from them today?

As Aquinas rightly said, the first and fundamental object of this theological conversation is God—the God revealed by Jesus Christ. The contemporary theologian must speak compellingly of God in the context of the new atheists and the tide of secularization, to say nothing of the often inane religious chatter cluttering up our social and political life. The theologian lives in a paradox: He or she speaks out from the perspective of an ancient conversation in order to say something to a contemporary audience who may (at best) only be hearing snatches of that conversation.

How have I fared in taking part in that conversation? Looking back over the decades, one thing is very clear: When I was young, I thought I had most of the answers. But now that I am older, I think I am seeing more clearly what the real questions are.

To say this in somewhat different words: To be a theologian is to be a seeker. That is what St. Anselm pointed out in his famous definition of theology as “faith seeking understanding.” It is worthwhile to note that Anselm did not say “faith seeking proof,” but faith seeking “understanding.” Understanding does not mean that we come to total clarity, but that everything we can say or know about God is limited by the very fact of our finitude and weakness. Every one of the classic Catholic thinkers has stipulated that with respect to God, there are things we can say and things we cannot say.

What is true of God is equally true of Jesus. Our faith says that Jesus is true man and true God. There is a profound mystery at the heart of that statement of faith. To affirm only the human Jesus is to run the risk of seeing him as merely a “great man,” like Socrates or the Buddha. To underscore only his divinity at the expense of his humanity is to negate that astonishing affirmation at the beginning of the gospel of John that “The Word was made flesh.” To lose the balance of humanity and divinity is to run the risk of mere humanism or ethereal Gnosticism.

Perhaps the best way to think of the theological vocation is to think of a metaphor that also applies to the Christian life in general—that of the pilgrim. Like all Christians, the theologian is one who has embarked on a journey that has an end point. The pilgrim does not wander around; pilgrims have a destination. So, the one who professes to be a theologian seeks understanding of that which has been given: the Gospel.

Some years ago, the brilliant biblical theologian priest, Father Raymond Brown, finished a massive commentary on the passion narratives in the gospels. He was asked if he was going to do another commentary on the resurrection. No, he said, he was simply going to experience it. Raymond Brown understood perfectly that in terms of understanding, we are not yet there.

In the final analysis, I like to describe myself as a retired teacher, but still a novice student. It is a singular grace to have spent one’s life doing exactly what one loves which is, in my case, a participant in that long conversation mulling over the question once posed by Jesus himself: “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” (Matthew 16:13).

Generations of the faithful have attempted to answer that question in art, music, literature, religious practice, scholarly reflection, prayer and in polemics. Perhaps the clearer answers have come in the performance of the great saints. I do not mean those plaster statues found in every church, but in the ways in which people have answered the question in their lives through their charity, their self-giving, their fidelity and their prayerfulness.

It is for that reason alone that as a theologian, it has been crucial for me to look not only at books, but at people. They are the “cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1) through which I have discovered the God revealed by Jesus Christ. I am delighted and honored to be in their company.