Greater Communion


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Who is Richard of St. Victor?

Richard of St. Victor was a 12th century theologian living in Paris just before the creation of the very first university there. He, like many of his contemporaries, was deeply influenced by the writings of Augustine. Much of his time was spent participating in the liturgical life of his community: the Victorines. This was a group of canons regular founded by William of Champeaux and Hugh of St. Victor who lived in accordance with The Rule of St. Augustine. Without going into too much detail, the Victorines not only sang hymns and prayed prayers together, they also brought an intensity and ingenuity to the composition of their hymns and prayers, as well as to their theological works. Richard is most known for bringing this ingenuity to his work on the Trinity, where he sought to prove—through the contemplation of Divine love—that the Divine, though one, must also be a plurality of persons; for the highest, most integral, and fullest love requires at least, and no more than, a Trinity of persons. Richard wrote many other works as well, most of which focus on the moral and spiritual formation of his community.
The reason you’ve never heard of Richard of St. Victor is likely because of a few factors. One, he gets overshadowed by other theologians who are more well-known. St. Thomas Aquinas, for example, lived a generation after Richard, and he knew of and read some of Richard’s works. A second factor is that theologians like Aquinas either didn’t know of Richard’s work on the Trinity or did know of it but didn’t make it the basis for their own articulations of the Trinity; St. Bonaventure, by contrast, seems to have been more influenced by Richard’s trinitarian theology than Aquinas. Both Aquinas and Bonaventure are more well-known than Richard, in part because of the rise of the schools and the theological controversies that ensued there; also, each has deservedly earned a prominent place in the canon of great theologians. A third factor is a more practical one: much of Richard’s work has not been translated from the Latin. Grover Zinn’s English translation of Richard’s three main works was published with Paulist Press for the Classics of Western Spirituality series in 1979. As people become more familiar with Richard, more and more are studying his theology and explicating his written work.

Would you make a distinction between a pastor or priest and a theologian?

There used to be a time when simply being a pastor or a priest meant you were also a theologian. There is no doubt that many contemporary pastors and priests study their Bibles and seek to know and teach others about God. In that sense, they are doing “theology.” What primarily accounts for the distinction between theologian and pastor / priest today has everything to do with the breadth and depth of study. The sad truth is that many contemporary pastors spend more time reading modern-day self-help, leadership books, and biblical commentaries than they do the Church Fathers. If Augustine, Aquinas, or Bonaventure happens to be quoted in a sermon, usually it’s because they read it in a commentary on the book they’re studying rather than from actually reading Augustine or Aquinas themselves. I realize there are exceptions to this; but the trend—at least as it appears to me—is that many contemporary pastors and priests have made themselves more dependent on biblical commentaries for their homilies than they have on some of the greatest theological minds of all time. It would behoove them to give up on the Top Christian Bestsellers lists and read a book or two from one of these theological giants. Their soul would be the better for it. Their sermons would be the better for it. Their congregations would be the better for it. And their wallets would be the better for it: most of these works are available for free.

I should also mention that it’s important for pastors and priests to not only get in the habit of reading some theological classics, but to stop speaking in ways that belittle those who do this more often than they do. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat in on a sermon and listened to subtle gibes at those with PhDs in theology or philosophy. I don’t know if it’s because of some deep-seated insecurity they have around those who pursued a more academically rigorous degree than they did or some need to be perceived as the sole dispenser of wisdom for God’s sheep; but for whatever reason, there is a tendency to elevate the practical ministry over the theoretical one. The consequence is young people who grow up thinking it’s more important to learn how to become a charismatic leader than it is to study and contemplate the deep things of God and share with others from this rich storehouse of contemplation and study.

Where are the theologians today?

This really has more to do with the location and time period in which you live. In the middle east, for example, theologians—in the form of imams and clerics—are heard about and from all the time. They are the authoritative voices in their cities and culture. There was a time when the same could be said of the Western world, and especially America. But this is no longer true. The authoritative voices in our society have become the scientists and parasitic pundits on our major news outlets and TV shows. If a theologian is ever consulted, it is either in honor of some major holiday, the discovery of some “artifact” relevant to the Bible or the Church, or because of some local controversy over a pastor or priest behaving badly. Today, science is the latest heavy-weight champion of the Western world; and as long as Western democracies are more concerned with tummy tucks, face lifts, and turning back the hands of time, they will continue to look to science for their shallow form of happiness. History moves in cycles. There comes a day when people will realize the bankruptcy of their bodies, minds, and souls. That’s when they turn from those who study the hows and the whats to those who study the whys and the oughts.

What is the most pressing spiritual need in our world today?

The most pressing spiritual need in our world today is people who know how to regularly pay attention to the best of all things. Curbing this fundamental spiritual problem thus entails two things: (1) learning how to pay attention, and (2) connecting with / knowing about / experiencing the best of all things. In the case of the first, our society is losing the habits of mind that ensured the kind of mental staying-power needed for contemplation and prayer (e.g., memorization, meditation, lectio divina). This requires uninterrupted blocks of time in which children, teenagers, and adults stay with something. No interruption, no distraction, no diversion. The reason our education system in the United States is in such shambles right now is, in part, due to this “inattention to attention.” We break students’ attention by breaking up their days, moving swiftly from subject to subject, from teacher to teacher, one activity to another, and we certainly never force or encourage them to memorize or meditate on much of anything. How can one pay attention to anything, let alone to the best of all things, if one has not cultivated habits of mind and soul that can keep one focused on something for very long? if one’s mind is so quickly allured by noises, text messages, and emails? It should come as no surprise that distracted children grow up into adults who lack the ability to stay with anything or anyone for very long, with deleterious effects on individuals, cities, and nations.

So what about the second, attending to the best of all things? It all depends upon the range of things one believes there is to behold. If the world is merely physical, the best of all things is the best of all physical things: perhaps the male or female form? sun, moon, and stars? sub-atomic particles? or some other aspect of physical reality? But if there is more beyond the physical, and the best of all things is one of them, then one must search out invisible things in order to connect with / know about / and experience it for themselves. Without this openness and awareness to the invisible things, one cannot know oneself, let alone God.

Because we do not have people who know how to pay attention, we do not have a society of people capable of attending to the best of all things; and because people have limited their attention to the things they can—quite literally—only hold in their hands, they live like the cave-dwellers of Plato’s Republic, content to contemplate their own shadows, insensible to the light that leads to both self-awakening and the knowledge of God.

If God is a Trinity of Persons, and wants us to know this, why make it so impossible to understand?

If God is a Trinity of Persons, and wants us to know this, why make it so impossible to understand? Furthermore, if entrusting oneself to Jesus is all that’s necessary to inherit eternal life, isn’t belief in the Trinity and discussion about it a bit superfluous? Or, isn’t it sufficient to believe that God is a Trinity without having to understand it?
In some ways, this is the equivalent of saying, “If it’s important to know algebra, why does it have to be so impossible to understand? Furthermore, if entrusting oneself to Jesus is all that’s necessary to inherit eternal life, isn’t studying algebra a big waste of time? Or, isn’t it sufficient to believe that algebra is important without having to study it?” Granted, there are some things that are true of the study of mathematics that are disanalogous to the study of God; but nevertheless, the point to emphasize is that knowing God as Trinity requires work and effort. It is a crude sort of student who demands that algebra be reduced to arithmetic in order for him to understand it rather than work hard at raising his knowledge of things to comprehend algebra. The same is true for the Trinity. Just because it challenges the mind beyond its capacities doesn’t mean it cannot be understood nor that there is no benefit in the pursuit. In the truest sense, it requires devotion—devotion in study and devotion in prayer. Without an ardent zeal for a full understanding of things—”unless you seek Me with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength”—neither the pursuit of algebra nor the pursuit of God will deliver much.

If entrusting oneself to Jesus is all that’s necessary to inherit eternal life, then perhaps belief in the Trinity and discussion about it is superfluous, at least with respect to salvation. One could also point to history for examples when Trinitarian debate led to pointless philosophical speculation and even tragic death at the hands of well-intentioned theological factions. But if Divinity is a Trinity of persons, and Jesus is Divine, doesn’t this Trinitarian backdrop become relevant for understanding who Jesus is and what He is all about? The letters of John, for example, state that “God is love.” Does it make a difference whether we understand this love as Trinitarian? as a love between a Holy Father, Holy Son, and Holy Spirit? all of whom exist in a perfect, consummate oneness of life and love? a Divine love that—through Jesus—all of humanity is invited to participate in and enjoy forever and ever? beginning now? a love through which all things—in heaven and earth—will be transformed in accordance with? Contrary to the sentiment above, it is by focusing on the “communion”—the oneness of life and love—that all are invited to participate in through Jesus that the “reunion” that takes place in him discovers its full meaning and place!

It is, therefore, not superfluous to believe in the Trinity or discuss it. It is the substance of the Divine story made manifest in Jesus Christ. To ignore it or strip it away is to lose perhaps the most important context for understanding Jesus’ mission and movement in the world. He came that we might have life and have it abundantly. But that life is grounded in his life, a life which itself is grounded in a Trinity of persons. To accept Jesus’ invitation is, therefore, to participate in his life—a Trinitarian life—filled with an abundance that salvages the broken heart of humanity and mends it with its own, life-giving pulse; a pulse centered in a single heart shared by Father, Son, and Spirit. If there is any superfluity here—to play with the Latin etymology for ‘superfluous’ (i.e., “running over”)—it is the Divine superfluity that is so full of loving-kindness it fills up the devoted soul and makes its cup “overflow.”

So you’re a theologian and a computer programmer?

I’ve always had a curiosity and interest in computer programming, ever since my days in the fourth grade when I made little user-interactive knock-knock jokes using a Texas Instruments computer. Those with analytical minds often have an affinity for the technological as well as the scholarly. But the greatest fusion of academics and technology really came together for me when I was working on my dissertation. I simply needed to collect lots of research, define outcomes, manage and navigate a very complex hierarchical relationship of tasks and obligations—both academic and personal. A former professor of mine introduced me to David Allen’s Getting Things Done book and the workflow he has there for collecting, processing, organizing, reviewing, and doing things. I needed a way to apply this to control all of the digital elements of my life; and that’s when I started looking into Applescript—a programming language for the mac. It started with just simple curiosity. I picked up a book on the subject, started tinkering with the programming language a bit, and the next thing you know, I was designing a comprehensive system for implementing David Allen’s workflow on my mac. Once I developed a functional system for myself I then gave it a name—Ready-Set-Do!—and began selling it to others who could benefit from it.

In addition to that, I also began thinking of ways to convert text to speech I could listen to on my iPod. My life was busy in graduate school and I had to read just about every major theologian from the second century to the present day for my comprehensive exams. So I made a little script that would mass convert these public domain texts to audio files I could listen to on my iPod. I was able to 5-star rate the ones most important for my exams and could listen to a computer voice reading Augustine’s treatise On the Trinity while I was walking the dogs each morning. To this day, I have serious doubts as to whether I would have ever successfully made it through my Ph.D. without the extra tinkering I did programming these workflows for myself. Today they continue to help me stay organized and get things done.

What advice do you have for others looking to pursue a degree in Theology, Philosophy, or Bible?

You are choosing to study two of the most important subjects to know. But you should do your homework by reading up on various professors you’d like to study with before applying to a school. These are the mentors who are going to help shape and refine you as a person. The more you know about them, the better you’ll know which professors and which program will be the best fit for you. You may also need to check and make sure that the professors you’d like to study with are taking on more students and don’t plan on retiring at the time you join the program. Both of these fields—like many others in academia—are filled with good and bad professors. So do your homework. Read their works. Find out about the programs. And then do what you need to do to apply for them.

Second, just because you are studying two of the most important subjects to know doesn’t guarantee that others will value the degree as much as you do. The Humanities, as a whole, gets less funding and less attention than the more profitable fields of study (e.g., Business, Medicine, and other fields of Science). Expect to be overlooked. Expect others in academia to look down on you. Expect friends and family members not to understand the ‘utility’ of your decision to pursue an academic discipline that—at least in their minds—shares the same space with starving artists and musicians. Realize that there is a healthy dose of truth in their sentiments. Do not expect to get a job in academia, but don’t give up trying if that’s what you intend to pursue. You will likely have to diversify your skill-set some and do things along the way to earn money and pay the bills. At the end of your journey you may even have to consider using your knowledge in a career you never originally envisioned for yourself. All of this should come as no surprise. The world will never cease to be a place where newcomers have to both produce original work and find creative ways to market it to others. You will have to chart a course for yourself that helps define your niche, aligns with your passions, and connects with others who are interested in hearing what you have to contribute. Just keep at it. For you have the most to give to a world that so frequently loses—but occasionally rediscovers—its lifeblood in the Humanities.