I was a wee young seminarian was the time I first heard the story of St. Thomas Aquinas; after many years working on his Summa Theologia, a compendium of all theological knowledge, he gave it all up, unfinished, and spent the few remaining years of his life in quiet contemplation. All those who came to ask him "why" were turned away with a single comment: "It is all straw."
I was horrified. "Straw"? "STRAW"? Anyone who has ever picked up and read even small portions of this masterwork of Christian thought - and for all its daunting reputation, it is one of the few pieces of deep theological writing that is eminently readable - would hardly describe it as straw. Yet, its author did.
Thomas was educated at the University of Paris. His teacher, Albert the Great, Albertus Magnus to give him his Latinate honorific, was perhaps the most subtle thinker of his generation; he divined a relationship between light and water as the source of the phenomenon we call a rainbow, being the first westerner to seek a natural explanation for what had been understood to be, until that time, a Divine act. Under Albert, Thomas soon found himself teaching where he once studied. Medieval theological education consisted of studying the Questiones, and writing a commentary on them. Yet, Thomas went much further. He wrote Biblical commentary, philosophical treatises, including a sustained metaphysical argument for the primacy of being over essence. His Christian apologia, Summa Contra Gentiles sought to answer any and all arguments against the Christian faith from doubters and heretics.
His final project would be nothing more and nothing less than the final word on the Christian faith. Yet, it remains unfinished to this day, a monument not only to his intellect and ambition, but also to the moment he cast it aside for reasons he never revealed in detail.
For years, I rebelled against the idea that it was folly to seek this kind of knowledge. I read voluminously, counting each finished work as another notch in my belt, another check mark against the notion that it was all straw. Barth, Brunner, Bonheoffer, Tillich, Gutierrez, Cone, Gilkey, Moltmann, Augustine, Thomas himself, Luther, Calvin, von Balthasar, Wesley, the Niebuhrs, Schleiermacher, Boulaga - my library is a testament to my insistent belief that it was far from straw, but the solid foundation for an edifice of faith.
Except, the idea nagged. Surely, at some point, all these different ideas, written at different times by men usually long dead, sometimes in languages just as dead, or at least incomprehensible to me, had to cease their hold and some little mark of my own was necessary, right? Yet, as the wordiest of them all, Karl Barth, said, all theology is prolegomena, only the initial clearing away of brush and debris in order to make a clear path through the bramble. If Barth, whose Church Dogmatics exceeds Thomas in length and depth, but resembles the original Summa in one regard at least - it is unfinished - could insist that all his work was nothing more than the initial tentative steps necessary for much greater work to come, what possible contribution could another make? Indeed, at what point does prolegomena stop and the real stuff, the tough, almost impossible work, begin?
The intellectual pursuit of understanding the Christian faith is a valid calling, a noble task, and most certainly a humbling one. Joining a conversation with some of the most gifted and brightest minds of the past two millennia is a privilege. Yet, at some point I discovered that I was not conversing. I was only listening. Furthermore, much of my listening was guided by a lack of any grasp of my own place in this line. I discovered that the "straw" could be blown away at the merest touch of a breeze of doubt, or the challenge of those whose perspective might have the virtue of being more deeply rooted in their own lives than my own.
I no longer hold that reading theology, and thinking the faith, are worthy pursuits for me. I can do it, and enjoy a good theological read for its own sake. The disputes between Bonaventure and Aquinas, the writings of William Ockham, the philosophical theology of Paul Tillich and Langdon Gilkey (especially his Reaping the Whirlwind) still inspire awe in me. I find myself enjoying the simple fact that I sat across the table from a man, John Godsey, who took his doctorate from Karl Barth. Indeed, John Godsey did me the honor and privilege of coming to my wedding. But, and there is always a "but" somewhere, what good is all this study and reading if it doesn't bear fruit in living?
I realize that, like Kierkegaard, I may just be setting up a false dichotomy. Indeed, it most likely is a false dichotomy. One can pursue theological knowledge not only for its own sake, but as a guide to faithful living.
At some point, for this Christian, the debate and discussion, the disagreements and diatribes all had to cease. While I do not hold that it is straw for each and all, for me, right now at this point in time - it is straw. There comes a time when one realizes that all one is doing is reading words. Anyone can read words.
How many people can live their own lives as fully and freely as possible?
That is the real challenge. That is the real question.