Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Treasure under the house: the intellectual riches of Christology

If you asked me what my favorite class was, in all those great years during my formal studies for the priesthood...I'd say probably Christology. The study of Christ. Sounds funny, but until I arrived at the hallowed halls of my two seminaries (in Denver and Chicago, respectively), I honestly had no idea such a thing even existed.

At first hearing, I thought "Christology" was a joke. Literally. Or, at best, I thought maybe it was a topic some professor had made up on a whim, with tongue slightly in cheek. The study of Christ? Who ever heard of such a thing? The "logy" of bio-logy...socio-logy...anthropo-logy...that seemed to make sense given the relative pin-downability of those areas of study (life, peoples, man, etc.). But taking class on the Lord Jesus? What do we think he is, a dead butterfly? It was like taking a class on my Mom, or my Dad. How would you possibly catch and study someone so mysterious and, well, huge? I assumed: "I know Jesus... I don't need a class on him."

Turns out, Christology was, and is, pretty darn real. In fact, I discovered that the first six or seven centuries of Church history resembled a long intellectual wrestling match of the greatest human minds with answering this basic question: Who the heck is Jesus Christ? How can we possibly make sense out of Him?

I realized that, despite my Catholic upbringing (no, I didn't go to Catholic schools growing up.)  how little intellectual content I possessed regarding some somewhat simple questions: How was Jesus God and man? Did he have a soul? Did he know everything? How did he pray? Did he fear death? Did Jesus know he was God? Did he have two minds? Did he know he would rise from the dead? Was Jesus Jewish or Catholic or both or neither? Did Jesus think about me while he was on the cross?

I took the class--it was January, 2004--and my Christology class blew me away--not because it was the best-taught class necessarily, or because class interaction was the best, but because the intellectual content which provided logically coherent and rich answers to these questions was like discovering a massive cave of treasure under my house. I had no idea, but it was there all along, and my mind started coming alive as a Catholic in a new way.

The treasure I discovered was made up of intellectual heroes, giants, speaking to me from across the centuries: Sts. Paul, Iranaeus, Athanasius, Cyril of Alexandria, Gregory of Nazianzen, Basil and Leo the Great, Augustine, Ambrose, and a host of others, unfolding the Mystery of Christ in ways I intellectually thirsted for, thought I hardly dared to ask the questions.  I had never experienced my heart and my mind being so united and exhilarated by anything quite like that ever before. These men helped to transfer me, whole and entire, from adolescence to adulthood in terms of my Catholicism; they certainly also helped me entertain the feasibility spending all my twenties studying Christ full-time, which I ended up doing.

Now, as a priest at the largest university in the United States of America, I'll be sharing some of these riches in a weekly Christology course for any interested students. It'll be my first crack at teaching a university level course on campus--thought not-for-credit--but I'm very interested to see what kind of discussion and interest it generates. In an environment that often scoffs at the intellectual rigor of Christianity, I hope it will be helpful. If the material has half the effect on others that it had on me in my twenties, it'll be well worth the effort.

See www.asucatholic.org for details on the free class.