This paper will consider the relationship between prayer and theology. It will argue that these two activities belong to the whole Christian community and that they are closely related to one-another. The first part of this essay will examine the nature of theology whilst the second part will concentrate on prayer. The third and concluding part will argue in favour of the strong connection present between theology and prayer and how the two of them can influence each-other and Church.
What is theology?
In the opening paragraph of Faith Seeking Understanding, Daniel Migliore affirms that 'theology arises from the freedom and responsibility of the Christian community to enquire about its faith in God.' [Daniel Migliore, (Grand Rapids, MI 2004) 1] This statement highlights two main factors: (a) doing theology belongs to the Christian community, namely the Church. In fact it 'arises' from her; and (b) it is part of her divine vocation: a combination of 'freedom and responsibility.' Other theologians, such as Friedrich Schleiermacher [cf.Colin Gunton, Stephen Holmes and Murray Rae, (London 2001) 336], put more emphasis on Church hierarchy and see theology as of extraordinary importance for anyone charged with leadership. However, most theologians would agree that the Church is called to dive in the nature of God whilst continuing her search for the fullness of God's truth [cf. Daniel Migliore, op. cit. 1]. Therefore, Migliore is able to define theology as 'fides quaerens intellectum' – faith seeking understanding – as others did before him [ibid. 2].
If theology is indeed faith seeking understanding, then it should be markedly differentiated from religious studies, for which faith is not necessary. Religious studies as well as philosophy of religion aim to analyse religious phenomenon 'from the outside' employing common intellectual skills. It is not the case with theology where faith plays an important role. For instance, Gregory of Nazianzus, writing in the patristic period, warned against the dangers incurred by those who do theology but disregard faith [cf. Gregory of Nazianzus in Colin Gunton, Stephen Holmes and Murray Rae, op. cit. 323]. Likewise, later Christian writers stressed the importance of faith. God can only marginally be experienced and known by those who approach theology without seeking also union with Him. Calvin was of this view and he argued that piety and union with God are essential requirements when seeking to unravel God's truth [cf. Colin Gunton, Stephen Holmes and Murray Rae, op. cit. 333]. Similarly Anselm of Canterbury wrote: 'I believe in order to understand.' [Anselm in Colin Gunton, Stephen Holmes and Murray Rae, op. cit. 320]. Nevertheless, it is important to note that Christian theology does not advocate the blind trust which some atheists would accuse the Church of, but it should be as far removed from fideism as possible. Rather, this type of God-depending and God-orientated theology should humbly acknowledge the limitations of human intelligence in conceiving the nature of God. It should also seek a profound union with Him who does not reveal himself to the proud (cf. Luke 10:21).
Theology therefore, can be understood as a dialogue between God – in revelation – and the faithful –in exploring its meaning. This is a particular kind of dialogue in which the believers are actively engaged by God through the Holy Spirit and the grace of the sacraments and where God himself is in control of the process [cf. David Ford (Oxford 1999) 168]. David Ford writes about the 'radical passivity, receptivity and dependence' [ibid.] which come from doing theology; namely from experiencing God, from knowing Him and from accepting the fact of being already known by Him. Schleiermacher also speaks of an 'absolute dependence' [Colin Gunton, Stephen Holmes and Murray Rae, op. cit. 201ss] on God when exploring revelation although perhaps with lightly different nuances from Ford. Because of these reasons, theology cannot simply be understood as a mass of theories about something inert and distant like any other –logia [cf. Dorothee Sölle, (London 1990) 1]. Through the concepts of dialogue and union with God it is easy to understand how Ford is drawn to say that God is ultimately doing theology [cf. David Ford (Oxford 1999) 187] by revealing Himself to the faithful.
There are three main ways of doing academic theology and Ford explains how they basically differ between one-another on hermeneutics. The firsts two highlighted by Ford [cf. ibid. 26ss] in Theology seem to come to terms with ideologies foreign to the Christian revelation to various degrees with the underlining risk of compromising the whole theological enterprise. For example, Ford cites the academic work of Rudolph Bultmann and his use of existentialism to interpret the Gospel message [cf. ibid. 27].
The third way of doing theology can be exemplified by the neo-orthodoxy of Karl Barth. According to this view, faith has precedence over any other world-view and an overly confident use of human experience. God Himself and his self-revelation should be the starting points of theological work. Similar emphases on faith have been proposed also by Eberhard Jüngel [cf. Colin Gunton, Stephen Holmes and Murray Rae, op. cit. 290]. These arguments represent very important steps in affirming the role of faith in theology both as an academic discipline and as an inherent prerogative of the Church. Therefore, academic theology should never be too distant or dissociated from the life of the people of God. When it is, theology becomes questionable and barren [cf. Daniel Migliore, op. cit. 9].
What is prayer?
Many writers and mystics have tried to define the natures of prayer throughout the ages. According to Sacramentum Mundi 'prayer is the great religious act' [Josef Sudbrack, 'Prayer' in Karl Rahner (ed.) (London 1970) 78] and it would be very difficult to imagine faith or religious experiences completely detached from prayer. Similarly to theology, prayer has to be connected to the faith community [cf. John Macquarrie, (London 1977) 497] in order not to be enslaved by individualism. It can also be understood as a dialogue with God. It is a profound, moving conversation which should reach the depths of human spirit and the endless abyss of God's being. At its best, prayer is never curved on itself in an attempt of isolating a special relationship between the individual and God. Although prayer can be mainly personal it should always be linked and mindful of the wider community.
Prayer can be divided in two correlated types: contemplative and intercessory. The former should take the faithful to share in 'the mind of Christ.' [John Macquarrie, op. cit. 497] Through contemplation the Christian is able to form intercessory prayer in a way that is conform to that 'mind'; he is able to 'ask aright' [ibid.] and he comes to know God more fully. Prayer therefore, draws the faithful in an ever deeper relationship with Jesus and the Father through the intervention of the Holy Spirit. The call to be still and to wait in the presence of God is an intrinsic part of the Christian vocation [Daniel Migliore, op. cit. 9] (cf. Mark 6:31) which can act in three ways: (a) by reorienting the believer towards the true focus of human worship and source of life; (b) by engaging the faithful in a deeper divine revelation and (c) by reviving the strength for the road ahead. The union with the Triune God is consumed through prayer where the silent dialogue between creature and Creator offers to the faithful knowledge both of God and self under divine light. Many theologians have been able to express their experience of the divine through prayer – e.g. Augustine of Hippo's Confessions and Anselm's Proslogion.
Are theology and prayer compatible?
John Macquarrie defines theology as the 'study which, through participation in and reflection upon a religious faith, seeks to express the content of this faith' [John Macquarrie, op. cit. 1]. The twin elements of participation and reflection are seen as fundamental in doing theology. The former requires the believer to be engaged from within the Christian community and to access grace through the Holy Spirit. The latter moves the Church to reason, enquire and meditate about her beliefs. It is a duty of the Ecclesia to judge doctrine and shape the faith [Dorothee Sölle, op. cit. 3]. However, the reality the situation within the Church and the academia can appear markedly different. Quite often prayer is perceived as an obstacle to academic theology; as something that should be confined to churches rather than theologians' studies. Indeed there is an important role to be played by academic theology in the life of the Church. The analysis of texts - both from Scriptures and tradition – and their historical context can be commendably developed employing generic intellectual skills; nevertheless the Church reserves to enquire about the meanings of revelation for the world. Scripture and tradition ought to dialogue with context and together these three elements should relate to the people of God in their situations.
Theological work and prayer share many common characters. They both are:
- truly achieved through 'absolute dependence' [Colin Gunton, Stephen Holmes and Murray Rae, op. cit. 201ss] from God
- God-orientated and free from anthropocentrism
- should assume the form of dialogue
- part of the Christian vocation
- connected to and mindful of the 'outside world'
Faith compels the believers to do theology. The Church therefore, should explore the 'mind of Christ' in order to achieve the balanced judgment on faith as it was envisaged by Gregory of Nazianzus, Calvin, Schleiermacher and others. It can be argued that Schleiermacher regarded prayerfulness as a necessarily 'built-in' quality of theologians simply because doing theology rests mainly in the hands of Church leaders. Both the Christian community and prayerfulness can ensure a wholesome development of theology. Without the Church theology can become anthropocentric or individualistic whilst without prayer theology can become unproductive and pointless.
The examples of theological thought considered here point towards an understanding of theology which is not just at work with prayer but it is rooted in it; a dialogue between creature and Creator, between the Church and her Lord, that seeks to lift human thought to comprehend the otherwise unapproachable majesty of God. Very much in the likeness of the dialogue between St Augustine and his mother Monica [cf. Augustine of Hippo, Confessions.], the conversation between God and his people is developed both through contemplation and theory. Prayer and theology are dependent on God but – although prayer could lead individuals to be confirmed in their faith – sola theologia can seldom lead to faith [Dorothee Sölle, op. cit. 3]. However, faith should lead into contemplation; this divine experience should then lend itself to theological examination and theology should – in turn – enquire and deepen the experience of the Christian, thus forming a catena aurea of faith, prayer, theology; ever deeper faith, ever deeper prayer etc... until the Christian soul is 'changed from glory into glory [...] lost in wonder, love and praise'[Charles Wesley 'Love divine all love excelling', English Hymnal n. 437].
David Ford, Theology, Oxford University Press (Oxford 1999)
———— (ed.), The Modern Theologians, Blackwell Publishing (Oxford 2005)
Colin Gunton, Stephen Holmes and Murray Rae, The Theological Practice, SCM Press (London 2001)
John Macquarrie, Principles of Christian Theology, SCM Press (London 1977)
Daniel Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding, Eedermans Publishing Company (Grand Rapids, MI 2004)
Karl Rahner (ed.) Sacramentum Mundi, Burns and Oates (London 1970)Dorothee Sölle, God, An Introduction to Theology, SCM Press (London 1990)