Foundations for Theology: Establishing Perspectives for Understanding the Nature of Theology

Resources »Eapr »East Asian Pastoral Review 1999 »Volume 36 1999 No 4 »Foundations For Theology Establishing Perspectives For Understanding The Nature Of Theology

Loretta Harriman, M.M.
LORETTA HARRIMAN, a Maryknoll sister, has worked in the Philippines for over twenty years. She has taught at the Jesuit School of Theology, Ateneo de Davao and the Regional Major Seminary, Davao, Mindanao. At present she teaches at the Institute of Formation and Religious Studies, Manila. She holds an MA in Theology from Boston College and an STM from the Jesuit School of Theology, Berkeley, CA. Her area of special interest is the Spirituality of Popular Catholicism.

A foundation course is important for any course of study. But other than that, my experience in teaching theology has convinced me that the nature of our times calls for such a course before students can even understand the most basic theological concepts.  One begins by introducing topics which shape the environment out of which theology arises and which influences the orientation and focus of a particular theology. One also offers the perspectives needed to understand how theology “happens” and thus, provides a hermeneutics for understanding and/or critiquing a particular theology.

Before Vatican II the Catholic Church taught with clarity and certitude; our pastors and teachers had an answer for every question. We enjoyed the security and comfort characteristic of a stable and certain environment. If we lived in a  homogenous socio-cultural environment, our certitude was not challenged. Even when we met with contrary views, we had the security that comes from believing “we have the truth.”  Those who did not think like us were in error. “This ediface of certitude came to a crashing end with the Second Vatican Council.”1  Now, not only was change possible in the Church, but it was also possible to interpret time-held doctrines and customs in different ways. Many pastors and theologians in the Church disagreed on what was essential and what was peripheral.2  Until today, this diversity in theological opinions causes much confusion and even annoyance in the minds of people who think, “the bishops said it; it must be true,” or “it is written in a book so it must be true.”3  This confusion and annoyance is especially real at the parish level.

The times call for adult Christians who understand not only the nature of theology (the science of faith seeking understanding) but also who know something about the concepts which serve as the foundation for any particular theology that is preached from the pulpit, written in books and magazines, or taught in the classroom.  Such knowledge gives people the tools to critique what they believe, what they hear and/or read.  “Why does this theology speak of God in this way?” “Why does it give this particular meaning and/or interpretation of life in the sanctuary or in the marketplace?”  “Is this particular theological understanding consistent with the founding God-experience of Christianity as this has been understood in the tradition?”

In 1879 Pope Leo XIII published the encyclical Aeterni Patris. This encyclical taught that Thomistic theology was the most appropriate way of explaining and defending the Catholic Faith.  The universalization of a single, quasi-official theology along with the definition of papal infallibility at Vatican Council I (1869-70), was the intellectual component in a program of Church unification that seemed necessary if the Church was going to maintain its unity in the modern world.4  The consequences of this was that theology was taught from the same textbooks with the same interpretation of the texts of tradition.

In the Church, bishops and priests received the same uniform seminary training. Therefore, the teachings of the Church were taught from the same textbooks and understood in the same way. The teachings of the Church were understood in the same way, they taught from the same catechism and followed a uniform ritual for all the sacraments and devotions. In the family, in society and in the Church, the young and the old, grandparents, parents and children understood the teachings and practices of the Church in the same way.  All followed the same moral code and all participated in the same liturgical and devotional activities. There was very little diversity and so people did not have to make decisions about what is “true” and what is “not true.”

In the past, family, Church, and society taught the same thing. Because there was little communication between and among various groups in society and in the world, we were not exposed to many ways of thinking and/or interpreting the world.  Today, we are exposed to a lot of diversity: different ways of thinking about God; different ideas about religion; different ideas about prayers; different ideas about what is “good” and what is “not good;” different ideas about what is “true” and what is “not true.”  Diversity exists among the different generations in a family; among bishops, among priests, among theologians. Many lay people and religious women are now studying theology and scripture and are no longer dependent on bishops and priests to give the “correct” interpretation of the different aspects of our religion. This reality requires that each Christian be able to take an informed and critical stand regarding the many different understandings of God, etc. Like the apostle in the gospel, we can no longer quote what others say about Jesus. The times call each of us to answer Jesus’ question: “But you, who do you say that I am?”  “Always be ready to make a defense to anyone who asks for a reason for the hope that is in you, and make it with modesty and respect.” (1 Pet 3:15-16).  The times call us to know which of the interpretations is consistent with the Christian tradition found in the bible and the teachings of the Church and which are not consistent and to know why they are not consistent. We are expected to know which interpretation is a matter of taste, of focus, or of culture.

For this, one needs to know the nature of theology and the role that theology plays in doctrine, dogma, the bible, spirituality, catechetics and apostolic ministries. Yet, at the same time, one needs to know how theology differs from each of these other parts of a religion’s structural system.  One also needs to know the intent and purpose of the theological writer; the dialogue partner being used in this particular work: i.e., philosophy, social, physical or human science.  However, such knowledge is beyond the scope of this course! We will focus only on the nature of theology as a science of faith.


The English word “theology” is a composite of two Greek words: theos which translates as divinity or God; it refers to the universal idea of God as the Absolute Reality or Absolute Other, or Absolute Transcendent Being and not to any particular God. Logos means word; logy has the meaning of saying words about something. So, “theology” means to say words about God and all things in light of God.  If one will speak about something, that is, “say words” about it, this implies that there has been some thinking, reflecting, understanding that is orderly, rational and logical within a culture’s understanding of rational and logical talk.  Therefore, the word “theology” carries the deeper meaning of “reasoned-talk about God.”

But, before we can speak about a topic, we need to come to some knowledge about the topic and about subjects related to it.  We then use this knowledge about the related subjects to explain what we understand about the main topic being studied. If we have experiential knowledge of the subject(s) being studied we can speak our words with conviction. We can say that theology is:

  • a product: the end result of relating and integrating a number of other topics.
  • a process: we come to theology through a step-by-step progression of thought and reasoning.
  • a project: a work and/or a task.5

The challenge to theology teachers, is “Where do we begin?”  JosŽ de Mesa says that theology is the product of a critical dialogue between two poles: the pole of the Judeo Christian tradition and the pole of present-day experiences.6 The Immaculate Heart of Mary sister, Mary Ellen Sheehan writes that theology is the dynamic correlation of context, tradition and spirituality.7  I will use these two definitions as the structure for the presentation of the topics relevant for this course.

Judeo-Christian Tradition

The word “tradition” comes from the Latin word traditio that means “the action of handing over” or “the action of handing down information, beliefs, customs, by word of mouth, example, or signs (words, artifacts, gestures, rituals).”  “Tradition” in the theological context means handing over or handing on to others what our ancestors have said about God and all things in the light of this God.  For us, our ancestors in faith are those who belonged to the Jewish and Christian religions, or who believed and lived the Judeo-Christian understanding of God.

We attain our “religious” identity only in and through a tradition.  And, we express our relationships with God in the context of a religious tradition. 18  A study of theology calls us to know, understand, and be able to critique the tradition of our ancestors in religion so as to have a clearer understanding of our religious identity in the present day. But the contents of our tradition were written in other times and by other peoples. So, before we can know and understand the meaning of the content of the tradition, we need to examine the particular historical, social, and cultural context within which it was written.  For example, if we would want to describe an Asian interpretation of Jesus, we would need to know what our ancestors have said about Jesus: in the New Testament, in the early theologies of the Church (the Doctors of the Church), in the official teaching of the Church through the centuries, and in the writings of contemporary theologians.  Once we have an adequate understanding of what the tradition says about Jesus Christ, then we would have to do a careful study of Asian culture and see where the two sets of information intersect with each other.

If we push this subject a little further, we are led to ask: “Where did our ancestors get their knowledge of God; where did they get this tradition that they hand on to us?”  The answer to this question is: a founding God-experience which is re-interpreted and re-interpreted through the ages as the religion spreads in time and place.  The context of the God-experience determines the method used to interpret the God-experienced and this method of interpretation is used to shape the way the religion understands itself and the way it arrives at its understanding of God (theology).  Therefore, as Christians we need to understand the nature of our founding God-experience, in order to understand how our religion arrives at its understanding of God.

Present-Day Experiences

The other dialogue partner in the theological process is the knowledge gained from critical reflection on present-day experiences. This knowledge is called “experiential knowledge” to distinguish it from knowledge we get from learning what others have said about a subject. This raises two basic questions: What is experiential knowledge? How do we get this kind of knowledge?


Theology didn’t start with a catechism or with theologians. It began when ordinary human persons looked at the world in wonder and asked how they and everything got there.  It began when close observation of the flower made it clear that the seed is not the only explanation for the flower; the source and cause of the flower had to be more than the seed.  Thus, theology began with a person’s or a people’s quest for answers to ultimate realities: the source of life, the why of life, the how of life, and the whither of life. This quest for ultimate meanings in life, led eventually to a God-experience and the knowledge that there is an Ultimate Reality in a Sacred Cosmos which is integrally related with the human cosmos and which is somehow the source and cause of all that is and all that happens in the human cosmos.  Whether this Ultimate Reality is to be found within creation or outside of creation, it is experienced as the power behind the fragile structures of everyday life and understood to be the ground and source of all life.  As such, this Ultimate Reality is understood to be perfect, unlimited and all-powerful.9

Together with this experience of God is the awareness that human well-being requires that one establish a relationship with the God-experienced; “one may seek to dominate [it], or to serve it, or love it, or fear it, or seek unity with it.”10  Since God is the ground and source of all life, and the power behind all that happens in the world, any relationship with God includes a relationship with the world that belongs to God.

Every experience of God comes to a particular people in a particular time and place.  Using the power of imagination, and what is known in their own cultural worldview, namely, values, attitudes, images, language and artifacts, they create an ordered system or framework of symbols (words, institutions, artifacts, actions) that express what the community understands about God and the proper way to relate with God, and with the world that belongs to God.11  This symbol system can be said to re-present a religion’s ideological system.12  In time this system of symbols is thematized and encoded in rituals, codes of behavior and intellectual representations such as scriptures, creeds, and doctrines.13  These religious texts are then institutionalized; that is, officially established as the orthodox (straight, right, true) expression of a people’s religious ideology. As the religion moves forward in time and geography, its scholars and pastors will continually reflect on ways to explain the meaning of the original God-experience to the present generation of believers. This becomes a religion’s theology, which is handed on in the tradition.

As God is experienced as the Wholly Other and religion is about a peoples’ relationship with God, symbols which name and express how one relates to a significant ‘other’ in the culture are used to name God and the proper way to relate with God.14  Thus, religious symbols, though not outside the worldview of the culture, usually come from a liminal space within the culture.  Because religious symbols are taken from a liminal space in the culture, religion and its forms often have the dimension of ‘otherness’ about them.  For this reason, the forms of religion appears to be more of God than they are of the ordinary life of the community. It is this dimension of ‘otherness’ which also gives religion its prophetic dimension and its corresponding ability to transform society.

It would be a mistake to think that the Christian religion is a single symbol system. The history of the Christian religion shows that there has been a body of symbols which have been handed down to each generation of Christians. But the individual symbols - like words - get their meaning in any actual instance from the relationships they bear to one another when organized into a complex whole, just as words get their actual meaning from their place in a sentence and a sentence gets it meaning from their place in the whole composition.15  It is the work of theology to determine what the religious symbols meant at any one point in the tradition and throughout the tradition.  Then, it must be determined if a particular symbol, which is common in the tradition, can still carry the meaning intended by our ancestors when they created it or must a new symbol be found to carry the same meaning? Or, should the meaning of God carried in a particular symbol system be changed because it is not consistent with the founding experience of God?  If this is the case, then the whole symbol system must be discarded.  Or, is the meaning of God consistent with the founding experience of God but not particularly meaningful for the present time?  Therefore, a new symbol system will have to be created.


At the heart of religion is a people’s experience of and response to someone or something perceived to be the Ultimate Reality who/which is Wholly Other than human reality.16  This Ultimate Reality has been called by an infinite number of names. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, the Ultimate Reality is called “Yahweh, God” in the Old Testament; “Abba, Father” in the New Testament; Tri-une God in Christianity.

The social, cultural and political context within which God is experienced will determine the way the experience is interpreted.  This, in turn, determines the structures of the religion and the way theology is done within the religion. Therefore, to understand how theology is done within the Catholic Church, we start with our founding God-experience and show how this shapes the nature of the Catholic Church and the way our Church understands and does theology today.

Christianity’s founding God-experience is the whole life of the human and historical person, Jesus of Nazareth: his ministry, passion, death and resurrection.  In other words, it is in and through the whole of Jesus that we experience God, know God, know about God, know how to live in relation with the whole world because of our relation with God.

When the early disciples reflected on their experiences with Jesus, they realized that with him and because of him, they received the life-giving power of Yahweh.  This power of life was available for all, but especially for those who were the outcasts in Jewish society; for those who had been cut off from the religious life of the Jewish people because they had some kind of “unforgivable” sin.  Jesus reached out to these people, forgave their sins, and created a community of disciples commissioned to do as he had done: forgive one another, love those who hate you, wash each other’s feet.  In such a life was life.  Living his words and following his example, within a community of disciples, they were more alive. This knowledge was then interpreted primarily, but not only, from the perspective of the Old Testament understanding of God.

Yahweh is a God who creates; a God who has the will and capacity to call forth and sustain life.  “God created the world and all that is in it and God continues by word and act to create a life-world of order, vitality, and fruitfulness that makes life possible and that, in the end, is judged by God to be ‘very good’.”17  God’s creating activity is most dramatically visible in his creation of a people, the people of Israel.  “I am the Lord, your Holy One, the Creator of Israel, your King.” (Isa. 43:15). Yahweh intends not only to create a world, but to create a certain kind of world, a world characterized by justice, righteousness and steadfast love, that is aimed at giving life to the needy: the stranger, the widow and the orphan.18  Yahweh’s power of life is a power of generous life for all no matter their position in society.  But, Yahweh’s power of life is especially generous to the needy. Yahweh’s power of life overthrows the power of chaos: a society whose sociopolitical structures rob the weak of a chance for life. Thus, God’s gift of the power of life has a strong ethical dimension. The vocation of Israel is to be the community that testifies, by life and word, that the generosity of God is more powerful than the ideology of greed, which diminishes creation and makes human life yet more desperate.19

The life-giving activities of Jesus were the same as the life-giving activities of Yahweh in the history of Israel. The ethical teachings of Jesus were the same as those given by Yahweh to Israel.  And, when followed, the results were the same.  Since God alone is the source of this life, the life-energy (spirit) at work in Jesus and which flowed from Jesus to others, must be from God. Therefore, God must be present and actively at work in and through the person of Jesus of Nazareth. At the death of Jesus, people would say “Truly this man was God’s Son” (Mt. 27:54; Mk 15:39).

At Pentecost, the small community of disciples experienced themselves receiving the Spirit (Life-energy) of Jesus and now knew themselves able to preach in word and action, the same life-giving “good news” that Jesus preached. The resurrection was a sign that God had forgiven them of their sin of crucifying His Son20 and now they were to preach a life-giving message of forgiveness and reconciliation.

A careful study of the New Testament makes it clear that the early Church’s understanding of Jesus was definitely theo-logical. The events in the history of the people of Israel told the Jewish people what God was “like.”  Now the events in the life of Jesus told the same story about God.  Thus, from their knowledge of God in the Old Testament, they concluded that it was one and the same God who was acting in and through Jesus.  Yahweh, God is the “Abba, Father” of Jesus. And, Jesus is the “anointed” of Yahweh, the Christ of Yahweh.  John’s Gospel, for instance, recognizes this by having Jesus say “The Son can do nothing by himself; he does only what he sees the Father doing; what the Father does the Son does” (5:19).  More general is the insight shared by all the traditions that the empowerment of Jesus to function as prophet and healer comes from God’s own healing and life-giving Spirit.21

The mystery of God’s creative Spirit pervades the whole history of God’s loving self-gift.  Jesus’ ministry takes its meaning from this broader context of Gods activity in the whole of creation and history.  While there was a unique and normative enspiriting of Jesus, the mission of God’s Spirit is not limited to Jesus alone.  Jesus’ own existing and identity as the risen Christ involves a relatedness to all other humans; he is the first-born of the “new creation.”  In and through his risen life, he is related to all human persons and he shares with them that Spirit by which he lives.  While the manifestation of God’s creative Spirit working in Jesus was very limited during Jesus’ earthly lifetime by the bounds of space and time, that limitation no longer held after Jesus’ death.22

After long and deep reflection on this original experience and its meaning in their lives, disciples in a later century decided that the technical word-sign,Incarnation, best expressed what they believed about Jesus Christ as a result of the experiences narrated in the New Testament and because of their own experiences with him in the Church.  If Jesus is truly homoousios with the Father, then Jesus belongs to the eternal essence of God, belongs to the very definition of God. If Jesus is truly homoousios with humanity, then Jesus belongs to the very definition of “human.”  Thus, the Church Council held in Chalcedon in C.E. 451 taught de fide that the Son of God, the second person of the Trinity, took on thehuman nature (incarnated in) of the historical person, Jesus of Nazareth by the power of the Holy Spirit.  Jesus the Christ is one person with two natures: fully human and fully divine.  While these two natures are distinct, they are so integrally related with each other that they cannot be separated from each other.

For the Christian, Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ of God, is the way and the means to God because God “speaks” in and through Jesus and by sharing in the Spirit of Jesus, we are able to “speak” to God.  Jesus is the “word” God speaks to us and Jesus is the “word” we speak to God.

“Officially” Christianity believes and teaches that God is revealed to us in and through the humanity of Jesus of Nazareth. The particular concrete shape of the whole history (ministry, passion, death, resurrection) of Jesus reveals what God is “like.” Christianity does not regard the appearance of Jesus, the Christ, as the onlyrevelation of God, but it does regard the person of Jesus as the final and definitive revelation of God.  Thus, Jesus of Nazareth, as given to us in the New Testament, is the norm by which we judge all other revelatory events.  But, this was not always so.

In the 2nd and 3rd centuries, Christian theologians began to use the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle to demonstrate the reasonableness of the Christian religion.  The God of Greek philosophy was a completely transcendent Being; an incomprehensible, impersonal Divine Essence who was beyond the world and who was not involved in the world.  The material aspects of human nature were thought to be an obstacle to human fulfillment and a relation with God.  True humanity was found by returning to life with God.  For this to happen, one needed to transcend the material aspects of the world.  A result of this attempt at “inculturation” was that we lost sight of the importance of the reality of the humanity of Jesus as the definitive and normative revelation of God. One of the characteristics of contemporary theology is the rediscovery of the Church’s affirmation of the reality of the humanity of Jesus as the medium through which God reveals God’s self.

Reflection on the meaning of the Incarnation has led Catholic Christianity to understand that “God is co-experienced and co-known through the different experiences and knowledge of the human subject.”23  With Thomas Aquinas we hold that God is known implicitly in everything known.24

Also, God has chosen human nature as the medium that best reveals God’s nature and through which we can best respond to God in Faith.  This being so, we can come to know God and respond to God only within the normal human powers of coming to knowledge and entering into relationships.  We can only “hear” God as human persons and relate with God as human persons. If God were to act otherwise, if God were to act outside of the sphere of the normal powers of human nature would be to deny the very humanity that God has chosen as the definitive mode for self-revelation.  Therefore, all theological explanations of how we know God, understand God, and relate with God, must be consistent with the processes by which human persons come to any knowledge and enter into any relationships with others.  This means that human nature, including the human body and other material realities are essential for our coming to know God and entering into a relationship with God.  A consequence of this is that theology must use information from other fields of knowledge to understand, explain, illustrate how we come to knowledge of God; to show that our knowledge of God is consistent with human nature and also consistent with what we know of God from the tradition. The traditional dialogue partner of theology has been philosophy. Philosophy’s principles of “right thinking” can assure that the words of theology are rational and logical.  Our belief in the Incarnation convinces us that human nature is the medium that God has chosen to reveal Godself to us.  Therefore, in the recent past, the social and human sciences have been important dialogue partners for theology because information from these sciences can help us explain how the human person comes to knowledge of God and is able to enter into relationship with God.  Contemporary theology is now in dialogue with the physical sciences so we can understand how God is revealed in and through the whole of the cosmos.


Christianity is an incarnational and a historical religion. Therefore, all theological processes and products must be consistent with this foundational characteristic of Christianity.

Incarnational: Because of our belief in the Incarnation, we hold that God is revealed to us in and through material realities. And, God’s revelation is known to us in and trough the human process of interpreting the meaning of these materials realities that God uses for revelation.

Historical: When human persons reflect on new experiences, they must use knowledge already stored in their memories to interpret, express and name the meaning of new experiences.  Thus, in the process of understanding new experiences, the human mind uses knowledge gleaned from past experiences.  This knowledge has been shaped and is limited by the assumptions or lenses of a particular social, spiritual and intellectual atmosphere or environment (cosmology or worldview). In other words, the knowledge we use to interpret new situations is conditioned and limited by what is known in the present historical situation.  The words and images that we use to express what we understand imply some concrete imaginative construction whose shape is determined by a particular historical worldview.25  This same process holds true in our attempts to interpret, express and name our experiences of God.  Human reason is not a purely objective power. It is the human subject who interprets and the human subject is shaped in a particular historical context.  Therefore, human efforts to understand God and to give expression to this understanding will necessarily be conditioned and shaped by the particular people who look within their own social, historical, and cultural worldviews for ways to explain and illustrate their understanding of God.

Jesus lived in Palestine at the turn of the first millennium of the Common Era, in a period of history that Scripture scholars call the Inter-testamental Period. From a close study of Judaism and the socio-historical environment at this time, Scripture scholars know that Jesus used religious and social images and categories (theology) from this environment to interpret and express his own experiences with God.

As the Church moved out of Jerusalem, it realized that Jewish theology and Jewish practices could not be used to express the deep meaning of the Incarnation. Non-Jewish people could not be held to Jewish spiritual practices because they did not “speak” to non-Jewish people.  Slowly, and sometimes painfully, changes were made.  The Christian community, using the practice of St. Paul as its guide and inspiration, made changes in theology, spirituality, liturgical practices and ethics.  As the Church began to evangelize among the intellectual classes of Greece, northern Africa and Rome, theologians and bishops used thought ideas and images from Greek philosophy (especially the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle) to explain the meaning and significance (theology) of the presence of God in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.  Later, as Roman missionaries preached in northern Europe, they used the religious and socio-cultural ideas of the Germanic peoples to explain (theology) the Incarnation.  Over the centuries the Church has consistently used historically conditioned images and categories to understand and explain its experience of God and to give expression to the meaning of this God-experience.  As history changed, as we gained more knowledge of ourselves and our world, so the images and concepts (theology) that were to express the Christian understanding of God changed. “As our ever-changing minds engage with the ever-changing context of human history we create ever-changing patterns of theological understanding... which are coherent in themselves and ever beautiful but which are never stationary or final.”26

The foundational revelatory experience of God (Incarnation) did not change. But the ideas, and images used to interpret and understand, explain the meaning and significance of God’s revelation in Jesus of Nazareth had to change because ideas, images, etc. from one socio-cultural environment would not have the same meaning in another socio-cultural environment.  Therefore, if the theological categories did not change, the meaning of God’s revelation in Jesus of Nazareth would be lost or incorrect. However, often times the changes were so subtle and incremental that they could be known only from hindsight.  This gave rise to the thinking, especially in the 19th and early 20th century, that the Church never changed in its expressions of its understanding of the Incarnation and in the way it responded to this revelation of God.


Catholicism interprets the dogma of the Incarnation to mean that God’s self--revelation is known implicitly in and through material realities. Likewise, it is in our response to material realities that we are able to respond to God in faith.  Thus, the role that material realities have in our relationship with God is a very important category in Catholic theology and spirituality.  For this reason, Catholicism is distinguished from other Christian churches and traditions by its understanding of, and practical commitment to, the principles of sacramentality, mediation, and communion.

The Principle of Sacramentality

In its classical Augustinian meaning, a sacrament is a visible sign of an invisible grace (namely, the divine presence). In his opening address before the second session of the Second Vatican Council in 1963, Pope Paul VI provided a more contemporary definition: “A sacrament is a reality imbued with the hidden presence of God.”  A sacramental perspective is one that ‘sees’28 the divine in the human, the infinite in the finite, the spiritual in the material, the transcendent in the immanent, the eternal in the historical.  For Catholicism, therefore, all reality is sacred because it has the potential to be revelatory of God, the Creator. Indeed, we believe that it is only in and through these material realities that we can encounter the invisible God.  A very important and significant sacrament in the Catholic Church is the spoken and written word. This is so because, in theory, when we enter into the meaning of the word, the reality which it points to becomes uppermost in our consciousness and we enter into a conscious relationship with the meaning of the word.  In Genesis, God created by the power of His word... God spoke and it was made. Jesus is the Word of God; the Word which gives life when one enters into a relationship with the meaning of the Word. Yet, words spoken without understanding or meaning have no power in and of themselves. - “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. (Mt 7:21)

A sacrament (sign or symbol) is a material reality that points to other realities and thereby causes us to re-member the realities pointed to. The sacrament points to a reality.  The reality pointed to is not present in the sign, symbol, etc.  Rather, when we are consciously aware of the sacrament and its meaning, we re-member the reality pointed to and this reality is now present in our spirit/minds. Thus, a sacrament causes us to remember and when we do, the reality re-membered is present spirit-ually; that is present in our minds which is the spirit part of human nature. And we relate to this reality with our spirit.  However, because human knowledge needs sense data in order to know anything in our spirit, we need signs, etc. to help us remember realities that are not immediately present to us or which have no particular sense data of their own (transcendental realities).

Memories of past excesses in the sacramental vision have led Protestants to fear that Catholics will take the sacramental principle to the point of idolatry.  This idolatry is seen in the thinking that holds that God is literally or physically present in the material reality.  This has led many Protestant religions to believe that because God is so utterly spiritual, the divine reality can never be identified with the human, the transcendent with the immanent, the eternal with the historical, and so forth.

Principle of Mediation

The second principle is that of mediation. A sacrament not only signifies (points to and names), it also reflects, or embodies the presence of God.  It make that presence spiritually effective for those who avail themselves of these sacred realities. God is ‘present’ in the beauty and wonder of creation in the same way that an artist in present in a work of her art.  God is more fully present in an act of love because it is by the power of the Spirit of God that the loving action is done.  Holy people mediate God’s presence in our world, because it is by the power of God present within them that they are holy. Therefore, an encounter with God is not a purely ‘spiritual’ event that happens only in the inwardness of conscience or in the inner recesses of consciousness.  Catholicism holds, on the contrary, that the encounter with God is a mediated experience which begins in an historical experience with created reality and which is then affirmed as a real experience of God by the use of informed and critical reflection.  This reality is possible because of the power of God at work here. Since the power of God is essential the power of compassionate, forgiving, inclusive love, any human act of such love performed by a human person is believed to be a sign that God is present  and  active  here. 

However, because the power of God is a spiritual power and a spiritual presence, only a believer would interpret such an act of love as mediating God actually present in this person.

A medium is a material reality that mediates the presence of another reality; that is, it causes us to be aware of a reality dynamically present within the medium.  The mediated reality is actually present within the medium and causes the medium to be as it is, to act as it does. The mediated reality could not be known except through a medium and the material aspects of the medium say something about the nature of that which is mediated. Also, the medium could not be and act as it does unless the mediated reality were present within it.

Because God is the cause and source of all life, every being that exists has life/being from God. It is the very being/life of God that holds the created being in existence. Should God withhold His life, the creature would cease to exist. Therefore, every part of creation mediates some degree of God’s life according to its own natural degree of life. There is a hierarchy of being/life in creation: plants have more life than stones, animals have more life than plants and some animals have more life than others. The human creation has the highest level of being.

We believe that the essential being/life of God is love: that is, the power to know (intelligence) love and to freely choose (free will) to give love to the other. It is in this act of giving love to the other that God gives life. Therefore, that part of creation that has life to the degree that it is able to know love as love and freely choose to accept and give love is the best medium to mediate the presence of God.  This is because its own degree of life is closest to the fullness of life present in God. And, of all creation, only the human creature is able to do this. Therefore, the human person is potentially the best medium to mediate the presence of God.  This is why we say that the human creature is “made in the presence of God.” Only the human creature can know love and will to love.

When we see love in action we know God is actively present within the person doing the loving, because the cause and source of the being of love is God. Without the presence of God within this person, he or she would not be able to know love as love and to freely chose to give love to the other.  Thus, the criterion for holiness is “heroic charity.”29

Again, the Protestant raises a word of caution because the principle of mediation moves one along the path toward magic. Just as there has been evidence of idolatry in some Catholic piety, so there has been evidence of a magical view of devotional life. For example, Catholics have assumed that a certain practice, performed a given number of times (like the nine First Fridays), or a particular spiritual practice (like saying the rosary or certain novena prayers), or a blessed article (like wearing a medal or scapulars) will mediate the power of God. In other words, do the religious practice correctly and God’s power is present and effective. The practice causes the power of God to be present. The theological questions that are relevant here are: What do we understand by the power of God? Can human persons “cause” God to become present and/or to do something for us? This magical view is not only a Catholic problem, but it is an inherent risk in Catholicism’s constant stress on the principle of mediation.

In considering the principle of mediation, a distinction must be made between the way mediation/mediator is used in Catholic theology and the way these terms are used in popular Catholicism.  In popular Catholicism, a mediator is one who acts as the agent who ‘goes between’ two parties, representing one party before the other party.  We pray to the Blessed Mother and ask her to go to Jesus or to God and ask God to give us the favor we ask.

In Catholic theology, the principle of mediation means that we see or hear or do something that could only happen by the power of God. Therefore, in and through what is happening in the material reality (ourselves or outside ourselves) we know God is actively present; the material reality mediates the presence of God and when God is present, God’s power is necessarily actively present. However, this knowing is very much conditioned by one’s understanding of God.

When sensitive Jews reflected seriously on what they experienced in their relation with Jesus, they realized that God had to be with this person because only God could do what Jesus did: Jesus gave life and only God is the creator and giver of life. The life of God30 that animated Jesus is the same life of God that Jesus gave to his disciples at  Pentecost and that the disciples were able to mediate to other disciples. Therefore, in Catholicism, we believe there is only ONE ‘go-between’ (mediator) between us and God and this is Jesus Christ: Jesus is the one who makes it possible for us to receive the life of God.

This Spirit of God (grace), won for us by Jesus, has been given to the Church and all members of the Church have the capacity to mediate God’s grace; that is, by our lifestyle to witness to the presence of God actively present (at work) within us. So, when “I” see “you” acting in a particular way, I know God is present in you and I am in-spired to act, in cooperation with God, as one who is in a loving, free and committed relationship with God. You and your actions have mediated God’s presence to me. This is why community is an essential aspect of Catholicism. It is only in and through loving relationships with others that the God of Jesus is made known to us: a God who is compassionate, forgiving, inclusive love. When we see this reality actively present, we know God is present.

This principle of mediation explains catholicism’s understanding of the communion of saints. Mary and the saints mediate God because their lives of heroic charity witness to the power/presence of God’s life actively present within them.  It is the life of God [the Holy Spirit] present and active in Mary and in the saints that is honored when we honor the saints. God is faithful to the promise to be with us all days: God is present and active among us in and through the lives, we ask them to help us, show us, how to respond faithfully to God.

Principle of Communion

Thirdly, Catholicism affirms the principle of communion: Our way to God and God’s way to us is not only sacramental and mediated, but it is also a communal way. Even when the divine-human encounter is most personal and individual, it is still communal, in that the encounter is made possible by the mediation of a community of faith. Thus, there is not simply an individual personal relationship with God or with Jesus Christ established and sustained by the meditative reflection on Scripture, for the Bible is the Church’s book and the testimony of the Church’s original faith.  For Catholicism there is no relationship with God, however profound or intense, that dispenses entirely with the communal context of every relationship with God.

This is why, for Catholicism, the mystery of the Church has always had such a significant place in its theology, doctrine, pastoral practice, moral vision, and devotional life. Catholicism emphasizes the place of the Church as the sacrament of Christ, mediating salvation through sacraments, ministries and other institutional elements, and as the communion of saints and the people of God. It is here, at the point of Catholicism’s understanding of itself as Church, that we come to the heart of the distinctively Catholic understanding and practice of Christian faith. For it is here, in Catholic ecclesiology, that we find the most vivid convergence of the three principles of sacramentality, mediation, and communion.

The Protestant again raises a word of caution. If we emphasize too much the principle of communion, we can endanger the freedom of the individual believer.  If sacramentality can lead to idolatry, and mediation to magic, the principle of communion can lead to a collectivism that supresses individuality, and an authoritarianism that supresses freedom of thought and of action. One can find many instances in history where this Protestant concern has been justified. Church members have been burned at the stake, literally and figuratively, for articulating opinions at variance with those of the Church’s ruling authorities.


Theology is Sacramental

Christianity’s founding revelatory event happened in and through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.  By the power of the Spirit of God, the disciples of Jesus were able to know God present and active in Jesus.  Because of the nature of this revelatory event, the Catholic Church has understood, almost from the beginning, that its members need to use human realities (words, artifacts, actions, people)  (a) to interpret and express the meaning of God’s revelation in Jesus of Nazareth and (b) to respond to this revelation in faith.  Catholicism also understands that all relations with God happen in the area of signs and therefore, we need to look beyond the surface of human and material realities, to see and know God present and active.

Theology is Communal.

The Spirit of God was/is given to the disciples as a community. It is the disciples bonded together in a community of love which is the Body of Christ. Therefore, it is in and through the community that the Spirit of God speaks.  It is to the community that the Spirit gives the grace, insight and wisdom to speak adequately of the God of Jesus and the significance of the Incarnation for all peoples.  And, it is the community which mediates this both to itself and to “the world.”  Therefore, all Catholic theology must reflect the community’s understanding (sensus fidelium) of its experience of God in Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ.

Theology Must Dialogue with the Secular Sciences

God is always co-experienced and co-known in and through the human experience of material realities.  While these material realities are not God, the content of revelation is influenced and determined by the realities that mediate the experiences of God’s presence.31 The more deeply we understand the material realities that point to or speak of God’s presence, the better we understand the depth of what God is saying to us. Therefore, dialogue with the human, social and physical sciences and with the arts is very important in the process of coming to know, love and beat with the heart of God who is intimately related in love with the human community.  Knowledge that is truly human can never be inconsistent with knowledge of God.  Theology and spirituality that are contrary to truths from the secular sciences cannot be said to be truly Catholic Christian theology or spirituality.

Theology Must be Contextual

Ideally, Catholicism has also understood that it must use human and historically conditioned ideas and images to interpret, understand, explain and express the meaning of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ of Yahweh.  This means that theology in the Catholic Church is an on-going human process, done under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, whereby its members must seek for new ways to interpret, understand, explain and express the significance of the Incarnation so that it is meaningful for these people, in this place, at this time in history.  As environment changes, as human secular knowledge expands and changes, so must the theology we use change so that it may adequately articulate our understanding of the Incarnation.



  1. Thomas J. Reese, S.J. “Of Many Things,” America 180/17 (May 15, 1999):1.
  2. Ibid.
  3. These are the most common explanations I have heard from students in theology classes both in the Ateneo de Davao and in the Institute of Formation and Religious Studies, Philippines.
  4. Sandra M. Schneider, IHM: “Theology Today: What Ever Happened to the One Right Answer?” Talk given at Monroe, Michigan, March 1995.
  5. Ibid.
  6. JosŽ de Mesa and Lode Wostyn, Doing Theology (Quezon City: Claretian Publication, 1990), 17.
  7. Mary Ellen Sheehan, IHM, “Social Sciences and Theology: Mutually Necessary Conversation Partners.” Talk given at Monroe, Michigan, August 10, 1995.
  8. Charles Davis, What is Living, What is Dead in Christianity Today? (San Francisco: Harper & Row Publishers, 1996), 1.
  9. Roger Schmit, Exploring Religion (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Co., 1988), 63-64.
  10. Richard J. Platinga, “An Ambivalent Relationship to the Holy: Gerardus van der Leeuw on Religion” in Religion in History - The Word, the Idea, the Reality, ed. Michael Despland (Canada: Wilfred Laurier University Press, 1992), 96.
  11. Carole E. Hill, ed. Symbols and Society, Essays on Belief Systems in Action (Athens, GA: Southern Anthropological Society, 1975), 2.
  12. Patricia Wittberg, The Rise and Fall of Catholic Religious Orders (New York: State University of New York, 1994), 13. Although the focus of Wittberg’s book is not related to the subject matter being studied here her insights on the sociology of religion are informative.  In this section she claims that her reference is Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures. (New York: Harper Collins, 1973), 196-202. As I understand Geertz, he defines ideology as an ordered system of cultural symbols which institutionalizes a culture’s set of ideas and beliefs about reality. Used in the context of religion, it is understood that an ideology (its ideas about God, about the world and how one lives in relation with/to God) is based on the flows from faith in the God-experienced.
  13. Robert C. Neville, The Truth of Broken Symbols (New York: State University of New York Press, 1966), 9, 10.
  14. Stephen Happel, “The Social Context of Personal Prayer in Seminaries,” Review for Religious 39 (1980): 846.
  15. Davis, 7.
  16. Stephen J. Casey, “Religion: A Matter of Taste?” Horizon 11 (Spring 1984): 92; Mircea Eliade, ed. Encyclopedia of Religion (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1987), s.v. “Religion,” by Winston L. King; Plantinga, 94; Schmidt, 11, 64; David Tracy, Dialogue With the Order, Louvain Theological and Pastoral Monographs 1 (Grand Rapids, MI, 1990), 53,57,59.
  17. Walter Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament (Minneapolis, PA: Fortress, 1997), 153.
  18. Ibid., 158.
  19. Ibid., 165
  20. James Alison, The Joy of Being Wrong (New York: Crossroad Publishing, 1998), 117.
  21. Bernard Cooke, “Jesus of Nazareth, Norm for the Church.” Catholic Theological Society of America Proceedings 49 (1994): 31-32.
  22. Ibid.
  23. Karl Rahner, “The Experience of God,” Theological Investigations, Vol. 11 (London: DTL, 1974), 150.
  24. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica 1, 85, 3; De Veritatis 22, 2 and 1.
  25. Roger Haight, Dynamics of Theology (New York: Paulist Press, 1980), 218.
  26. Schneiders op. cit.
  27. All the material under this heading is taken from: Richard McBrien, Catholicism New Edition. (New York: HarperCollins Pub., 1994), 8-14.
  28. This ‘seeing’ is not to be understood in a biological sense, such as when the eyes see a material object. Rather, it is to be understood as a ‘seeing’ which is closer to the meaning carried in the word ‘knowing’ or ‘awareness of presence’. This ‘seeing’ or ‘knowing to be present’ is such that the human mind and heart sees beyond the material object and knows - is consciously aware - of the presence of God.  It is a spiritual presence: present in the mind and the heart.  Thus, God is not literally and physically present within the material object. But the material object makes it possible for the believer to know the presence of God.  In this case, it is more correct to understand that because of the material object, the person who uses the object is consciously aware of God present. The user of the sacramental sign ‘sees’ both the object and its deeper meaning. This is why Paul VI defines a sacrament as a “reality that is imbued with the hidden presence of God.”
  29. Some creation-centered theologies do not accept that the human person is the highest level of creation.  Because all aspects of creation are dependent on each other for existence and integrally related, they want to hold that all aspects of creation are equal.
  30. Christians believe in a God who is both one and triune: Trinity. A very simplistic understanding of the Trinity is that the dynamic relationship betweeen the Father and the Son is the Holy Spirit.  Although the Father is distinct from Son and Spirit, the Father “lives” his relationship with the Son by the Life of God that is the Spirit.  The Son is distinct from the Father and the Spirit, yet the Son ‘lives’ a loving obediential relationship with the Father, by the life of God that is the Spirit.  The Son of God was incarnated in Jesus of Nazareth and it was the Son which ‘enabled’ Jesus to respond to the Father’s will perfectly and freely.  But the power by which the Son/Jesus obeyed God’s will was the Spirit of God. It is this same Spirit that Jesus mediated for us so that we could respond to the will of the Father as Jesus did; that is, continue the mission of Jesus by participating in it.
  31. Roger Haight, Dynamics of Theology (New York: Paulist Press, 1990), 75.