Against the idea of a method that anyone may, in principle, use to attain truth, Newman points to something less easy to define, something learnt by example, something rather like a skill or a developed insight or sensitivity working through sympathy, something whose archetype is not the clever arguing of a debater, but the humble understanding of the saint, whose faith is tested and proven in a life.


Andrew Louth, Discerning the Mystery. An Essay on the Nature of Theology, (Oxford: Clarendon, 1983) 141.


This quote comes from the final chapter of Discerning the Mystery and pretty much sums up what this remarkable book is all about. I have recently finished an initial reading of this book, although I am planning to reread it more thoroughly and will probably post bits and pieces as I do so. I am inclined to think that it is one of the most important books I have ever read, and I am puzzled that I had not heard of it before. I did know of some of Louth’s patristic works and had read parts of his The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition (Oxford: Clarendon, 1981 – for a wonderful quote from the after word of the new edition, see here; it was partly Kevin’s posting quotes from both of these books that stimulated me to get down to reading it!) but had never heard of this book. This is all the more surprising as it is directly concerned with topics that I worked on in my doctorate, and which have tended to pursue me since then, albeit with some shifts of emphasis!

As the subtitle states, the book (which is only 147 pages) is an essay on the nature of theology. Louth is particularly concerned with the division and fragmentation within theology, within the life of the Church, and, beyond that, in Western culture as a whole. This is a division that can be immediately traced to the impact of the Enlightenment (although it also has earlier roots) and to the expectations regarding scientific method. It is also a division that cuts us off from the past and from that which we are not able to quantify and verify according to the methodology of the natural sciences. And such a division leads, quite naturally, to a crisis of confidence for theology.

In seeking to overcome this division, or perhaps rather to reach behind it to the original unity that the word “theology” originally implied as the path to union with God, Louth examines the legacy of the Enlightenment and the relationship between science and mystery. He discusses the vital role of tradition and what he calls the tacit knowledge that always accompanies it. His chapter on allegory seeks to rehabilitate the allegorical reading of Scripture so that it can lead us to union with God. And the final chapter shows that theology is rooted in the life of the believer, and ultimately of the saint. In this he draws on a wide range of authors – including, among others, Gadamer, Congar, Lossky and Newman – to fashion a synthesis that offers a life-giving alternative to our present division.

But this is too brief a summary and I will – hopefully – post more.