Omaha, Nebraska
Fall 1997
Volume 9, Number 1

Creighton Establishes Endowed Chair in Theology

Its founders intended Creighton to be a Catholic University, and the first Bishop of Omaha invited the Jesuits to run it. Since theology plays a vital role in a Catholic University, providing the spirit for all its activities, it is fitting that a Catholic University should have an Endowed Chair in theology. Creighton now has one. The Amelia B. and Emil G. Graff Faculty Chair in Catholic Theological Studies was inaugurated on May 8, 1997, and Michael G. Lawler, Ph.D. was installed as the first chairholder. What follows is a brief synopsis of Dr. Lawler's address on the occasion of his installation.

Since it came into its ascendancy, theological reflection in the West has been rooted in a principle of authority, itself rooted in the belief that God has been revealed to humankind in the history of Israel and of Jesus the Christ. In that climate, theological truth was not something for men and women to discover but something handed on to them in the Christian traditions, especially in that written tradition called the Bible, believed to be the very word of God. But times and givens have changed. The rise of critical thinking in the modern West and the modern university made the assumptions inherent in earlier beliefs subject to radical doubt and critical questioning. That questioning demoted theology from its medieval position as Queen of the Sciences to its present precarious position as Doormat of the Humanities. My intention is not to restore theology as Queen of the University but only to invite it to take its rightful place among the critical disciplines that make up the modern university.

My argument is easily stated: the university needs theology and theology needs the university. When I say university, I intend that third level of higher learning where students and teachers are mutually engaged, not in learning things by rote, but in critical thinking about the ideas, institutions, theories, and meanings that have abounded and continue to abound in space-time. Those realities are, of necessity, philosophical, scientific, artistic, political, and economic. If a university is to lay claim to universitas sapientiae, the university of wisdom, it must include also the universal phenomenon of religion and theology. That is part of what I intend when I claim that the university needs theology.

Where theology is excluded, history demonstrates, some other discipline usurps the theological task, with ludicrous and frequently tragic results. Where good, critical theology is excluded, bad, uncritical theology flourishes, for humans cannot be forbidden to raise the ultimate questions which provide the data of religion, faith and theology. In asserting that the university needs theology, I am asserting only that the academic discipline of theology is the one best suited to organize that data in a critical and informed way.

But what is this theology of which I speak? There has been no substantive change in the definition of theology in the Western tradition since eleventh-century Anselm. Theology is fides quaerens intellectum, faith seeking understanding, the intellectual effort of the Christian to listen to the revelation of God, to acquire a knowledge of it by the methods of critical scholarship and to reflect on its implications. Theology is not open-ended, no more than biology or economics or literature is open-ended, so that whatever anyone claims to be theology or biology or literature is admitted. Theology is faith seeking an understanding that is achieved at the end, not at the beginning, of a process of critical and systematic questioning of the data of faith and revelation. It is precisely because it is a critical questioning that theology needs the university.

Theologians are not in the business of handing on traditional words, they are in the business of creating contemporarily meaningful theological words. They must, therefore, also be in the business of critically examining the tools of their trade, and that is another reason why theology needs the university. In the university the standard tools of theology, language, experience, images, concepts, rituals, stories, are critically examined by philosophers, historians, anthropologists, scientists, and a host of others whose conclusions can be of help to theologians seeking critical understanding. This is especially true in the Catholic university dominated by the Catholic assumption that all truth is one. The Vatican Instruction on the Vocation of the Theologian argued that theologians must consult philosophy and the "human sciences" to understand better revealed truth (n.10). I add only that the best place to do this is the university.

John Wain, not the swashbuckling Duke of Hollywood but an obscure English critic who achieved his fifteen minutes of fame in the 1960s, wrote the following.

    To write well means far more than choosing the apt word or the telling arrangement of syllables . . . it is a matter of feeling and living at the required depth, fending off the continual temptation to be glib and shallow, to appeal to the easily aroused response, to be evasive and shirk the hard issues. . . . An author, if he is big enough, can do much for his fellow humans. He can put words into their mouths and reasons into their heads; he can fill their sleep with dreams so potent that when they awake they will go on living them. . . . There, at the center, are the artists who really form the consciousness of their time; they respond deeply, intuitively, to what is happening, what has happened and what will happen and their response is expressed in metaphor and symbol, in image and in fable. ("Sprightly Running: Part of an Autobiography," London, 1962).

Mr. Wain was speaking of artists; I am thinking of other denizens of the university. There is a creative center in every culture; and it is only from that center that women and men can be influenced. At that center thinkers drink deeply of the fact that reality is always, and of necessity, present reality. However much tradition may be handed on to them from the past, thinkers can never be content with that past tradition, for their duty is not only to pass on tradition but also to pass it on interpreted and inculturated. At that center too, in Hopkins' vivid metaphors, is "the dearest freshness deep down things" where "the Holy Ghost over the bent world broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings." By seeking to illuminate theologically "the deep down things," the Amelia B. and Emil G. Graff Chair will seek diligently to keep that sacramental center in the forefront of both ecclesial and university consciousness. Only when theologians fulfill this task can theology fulfill its task in the university and only when they fulfill it critically can the university lay claim to universitas sapientiae, the whole university of wisdom.