Faith is an encounter. The best definition of theology remains St. Anselm of Canterbury's "faith seeking understanding". Faith, by its very nature, is a bit slippery, which makes it difficult to get a firm grasp on. It is slippery because it is a deeply personal "event born of an encounter". Nonetheless, it remains the correct starting point. Every effort we make to better understand our faith must remain true to our encounter with God, who "transcends all creatures" (CCC 42). Hence, we acknowledge that we have to "continually purify our language of everything in it that is limited, imagebound or imperfect, if we are not to confuse our image of God --'the inexpressible, the incomprehensible, the invisible, the ungraspable' [Anaphora of the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom]-- with our human representations. Our human words always fall short of the mystery of God" (CCC 42).
In seeking to make sense of our encounter, to deepen the experience, to enter into relationship, we run the risk of trying to frame our experience exclusively in terms of pre-existing explanations that may not be true to our encounter. To actually quote from what I previously wrote in another venue: "Sooner or later this false faith will collapse. While devastating, such a collapse is the best thing that can happen. In fact, as people of faith, we all need a shift from time-to-time, a correction. This comes through examination and ultimately out of love and desire for what is true, [for] what is really real.
"Faith seeking understanding makes [us] humble due to [lingering] uncertainty and incompleteness. The very last thing that faith is is smug certainty; true faith takes account of human limitation, frailty, proneness to pretense, etc."
The definition of theology as "faith seeking understanding", which is the most widely accepted definition of theology, is but a way of saying faith and reason must work together as we seek that which is ultimate. Upon having an encounter we automatically seek to make sense of it, to verify it in some way. In doing so we soon discover that other people have had like encounters. This is the beginning of community, the beginning of our pilgrim journey together. It was Chesterton who wrote that tradition is democracy across time.
As a Catholic with a very robust ecclesiology, I am well aware that we're often too willing to let the event born of our encounter be mediated through others, through priests, deacons, religious, etc. To allow this is to attenuate the encounter and threaten to terminate the unfolding event to which it gave birth. This is one of those tensions about which I am beginning to sound like a broken record. On the one hand, God wants an immediate, personal relationship with us and, at the same time, we must acknowledge the necessarily communal nature of faith, or the fact that the unfolding event is precisely relationships with others.
As Christians we believe there is "one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all", but there are different theologies, different ways of explaining and understanding this one faith, many of which are complementary, not contradictory, though there are many of those, too (Eph. 4,5-6).
In all this it is important to note that anybody who studies the history of dogma and the development of doctrine will see objectively that it is the story of faith seeking understanding, not one of obscene power grabs and imperial or ecclesial machinations, that it is a history of the unfolding event of God's encounter with humanity in Jesus Christ, or of applying reason to faith because faith has to make sense in order to be meaningful.
Writing about faith as an event born of an encounter, I just found a beautiful ending to this most recent in a long line of ponderous posts. It is the Prayer of Dom Helder Camara posted by Sr. Edith over on Monastic Musings, which I linked to from Deep Furrows. Dom Helder Camara is the late archbishop of Recife, Brazil, who died in 1999 at the age of 90.
Do not smile and say
you are already with us.
Millions do not know you
and to us who do,
what is the difference?
What is the point of your presence
if our lives do not alter?
Change our lives, shatter
Make your word
flesh of our flesh,
blood of our blood
and our life's purpose.
Take away the quietness
of a clear conscience.
Press us uncomfortably.
For only thus
that other peace is made,
If all this is still too abstract, check out Scott Simon's Kaddish for a Cardinal on today's Weekend Edition about "the inconceivable expressed, the impossible existent," (Aaron) Jean-Marie Cardinal Lustiger, the Jewish Cardinal who once said, echoing the Jewish Apostle, (Saul) Paul of Tarsus (Rom. 12,21): “The strength of evil can only be answered with an even greater strength of love.”