"It's about God, stupid." I can still hear Dean Richard Hays addressing Duke Divinity School at its convocation two years ago, reminding a room full of ambitious, intelligent, and talented theologians to keep their priorities in line. "You will all be writing papers, reading books, studying for exams. Some of you will be worrying about getting published and applying for Ph. D programs. But just stop. Just remember: It's about God, stupid."
Meanwhile, I sat there in awe at this powerful message, but also amused at how he just called three hundred graduated students at Duke "stupid."
Yet Dean Hays was right on target. We needed to hear it. Five hundred years before, Thomas à Kempis, the 15th century Catholic monk, gave a similar reminder to women and men of learning: "What good does it do to speak learnedly about the Trinity if, lacking humility, you displease the Trinity? ... I would rather feel contrition than know how to define it. For what would it profit us to know the whole Bible by heart and the principles of all the philosophers if we live without grace and the love of God?"
Yet those who have made a profession out of talking about, writing about, thinking about God seem determined to make our profession an idol. And, no, it isn't just the professional theologians here who are guilty. What about the incessant Facebook posters, Twitter users, bloggers, and so on who just have to be heard and heard and heard … (I'm condemning myself here!)? Verily, verily, I say unto thee, it is far easier to tweet about the poor than to live among the poor. It is far easier to read about Jesus than to follow Jesus. Academics prefer to build for ourselves a mighty religion-industrial complex rather than walk in the way of the mendicant master Jesus. And all professions have their own variation on this theme.
Thomas à Kempis lived roughly two centuries after another Thomas: the most brilliant theologian in the history of Western Christianity, Thomas Aquinas (who, oddly enough, was slow of speech and was called a "dumb ox" by his fellow students; that was before he started writing his tomes that would change theology forever).
Funny thing about Aquinas. It is said that after years and years of writing his life's work, the Summa Theologiae, and pontificating on humankind's most profound questions, Aquinas' almost comically industrious pen simply stopped writing. Just like that. In his last days before death he looked back upon his theological work and said, "Everything I've written seems to me like so much straw compared to what I have seen."
What had he seen? Some glimpse of God? Some mystical taste of the Trinity? We don't know for sure. But we do know that he wrote something very unlike anything else he'd written before — Thomas Aquinas, Doctor Angelicus, wrote a song.
The Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins translated it from the Latin:
Godhead here in hiding, whom I adore
Masked by these bare shadows, shape and nothing more,
See, Lord, at thy service low lies here a heart
Lost, all lost in wonder at the God thou art.
Seeing, touching, tasting are in thee deceived;
How says trusty hearing? that shall be believed;
What God's Son has told me, take for truth I do;
Truth himself speaks truly or there's nothing true.
On the cross thy godhead made no sign to men;
Here thy very manhood steals from human ken:
Both are my confession, both are my belief,
And I pray the prayer of the dying thief ...
Rev. Gregory Coates, an ordained elder in the Free Methodist Church, graduate of Duke Divinity School, and Ph. D student at Garrett-Evangelical Seminary, is a Christian. His wife is a far better writer. His favorite hobby is sharing an absurd number of photos of his adorable daughters with his Facebook friends.