[Editor’s Note: Elizabeth Klein is an Assistant Professor of Theology at the Augustine Institute in Denver, Colorado. She received her doctorate from the University of Notre Dame in 2016 and is also the author of Augustine’s Theology of Angels (Cambridge University Press, 2018). She is originally from Ontario, Canada. She spoke to Charles Camosy about her new book, God: What Every Catholic Should Know.]
Camosy: So why write a book on “What Every Catholic Should Know” about God? I immediately thought of the radical gaps in the average Catholic’s theological background and education. Is that the kind of thing you have in mind?
Klein: When I was asked to write for the series, I was definitely intimidated by the concept of writing what every Catholic should know about God! But the task was explained to me in this helpful way: That I was not writing what every Catholic could know about God, rather I was writing what every Catholic really should know. So this series is geared at introducing people to fundamental theological (and liturgical and cultural) topics in a coherent and accessible way. But it really is for every Catholic, meaning that I aimed to write the book in a way that would help anyone, no matter where they are in their spiritual and intellectual journey, to navigate our wonderfully rich tradition.
And you are right, of course, that we as Catholics might know a lot of things about God, but perhaps we have never taken a holistic approach to the topic and so our knowledge remains a little spotty, with gaps to be filled in. Starting from square one, as I do in this book, hopefully helps people to glimpse the bigger picture, while at the same time enabling them to see how laying down firm theological foundations can bear much fruit in their spiritual lives.
Your book can help fill the gaps here, but its considerable potential to do so would be dramatically improved if Catholic institutions used it. What do you think that the Church can do better institutionally to help Catholics think more and better about God?
I think that not only in the Church but in society at large we have become resistant to silence, to spending time thinking about the big questions. We might even wonder if there is any use in thinking about such things and it is very easy to fill up our time with so many distractions. Perhaps a way of combating that, or a starting point, would be to teach the value of setting aside time to pray, and to read — and of course modeling this behavior ourselves. I also think that we have the tendency to underestimate what the average person is capable of, but my experience teaching and writing is that there is a real hunger for deeper knowledge of God and his Church — if people take the time to reflect and to recognize that hunger, that is. Institutionally this shift in attitude can happen at all levels – in small groups, in religious education classes, in Catholic schools, from the pulpit and so on.
I think the book would be an excellent read during Advent. With that in mind, could you say something in particular about the chapter on “Why God Was Born”?
The book is divided into three parts – God (i.e. the nature of God), the Trinity and the Incarnation. So the chapter “Why God was Born” is found in that third section. I would say that as reading for advent, the book will help you see with new eyes just how amazing the event of Christmas day truly was. We are used to saying, in the creed, that God came down from heaven “for us men and for our salvation.” The book will make clear how bold a claim it is to say that God (who is eternal, infinite, etc.) can come down, but it also shows why God becoming man was the perfect and most fitting answer to our human brokenness. The incarnation gives us hope both in ourselves and in God, and that is why Christmas is a season of hope and wonder.
I want to ask about another book of yours titled Augustine’s Theology of Angels. I love thinking about theology and the non-human, and this particular topic has been really neglected in recent decades by our disenchanted culture. So, first, thank you for writing such a counter-cultural book. Second, can you say a bit about what motivated you to write it?
You’re welcome, it was a fun and rewarding topic!
I am a disciple of St. Augustine – or strive to be – and so the book was prompted by reading Augustine’s City of God and coming to see how central his understanding of angels (both good and evil) was to his view of the Church and the history of the world.
The early Christian understanding of angels is something that has not been discussed very much even among scholars, so it proved a worthy topic to sink my teeth into. I start the book by saying that, for Augustine, the angels are just as real as you and I, and that they appear frequently in the Bible, and so to ignore them or treat them as a kind of sentimental feeling is to miss something important in the biblical story. The book is written primarily for an academic audience, but I also wrote a short article in which I summarize the theological insights I gained from Augustine in a much shorter format.
That being said, I do think the book is digestible for the curious amateur theologian. Someone at my parish has been reading it, much to my delight!
Do you think our lack of knowledge when it comes to angels is tied at all to our lack of knowledge when it comes to God?
I think they are related in so far as we are often reticent to do any hard thinking about topics that sound too philosophical, when words like “nature” or “being” or “metaphysics” come up we might have the tendency to panic and to retreat to that picture of the angels as adorable little cherubs who strum on harps. But what I try to show both in the book on God and in the book on angels is that what we are dealing with are biblical mysteries and the theological and philosophical language of the Church helps us to explore, understand and receive those mysteries. The tradition, then, does not send us away from the Scriptures, but back to them with renewed ardor.
It is also true that if we don’t have some kind of concept of God and what it means to be made in the image of God; something I also cover in the God book, then we cannot have a clear concept of what it means to be a rational creature – an angel or a human being – who is capable of knowing and loving God.
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