What is Theology?
"God-talk" permeates Edmond Dunn's introduction to theology. The author colloquially defines theology as "God-talk", and then assumes the same conversational tone to educate the reader in the basics of the study of God. Apparently the fruit of the author's work at St. Ambrose University in Davenport, this book will serve handily as a text or a course which introduces students to theology. But it also will help the general reader seeking some basics in how we talk about God and how we should then act.
The book treats two main branches of theology, foundational and moral. The first part leads the reader down a well organized path, drawing from wisdom, ancient and modern, to show how we move from revelation to faith, from scripture to tradition, and into life as the body of Christ. The second half presents the principal theses of moral theology, and places them in dialogue with contemporary issues. This treatment will explain to many readers why they decide what they decide and help them do it better. Throughout, Dunn honestly acknowledges his Roman Catholic roots and faithfully presents the arguments of our church, while presenting the limits of theological research.
Dunn demonstrates remarkable skill in the art of definition time and again he poses lucid answers to mouth shutting questions: What is theology? What is revelation? What is faith? What is civil disobedience? He navigates these waters with insight and conviction.
Such bravura makes the smaller errors all the more annoying. Canon law was first codified in the twentieth century, not in the middle ages. Catholics do not accept Mormon baptism as he claims. His glib definition for the sacrament of confirmation does not enjoy universal acceptance. The Latin infinitive for "to know" is "scire" not "sciere". But these are small matters.
More troubling is something he could not have foreseen. His presentation of papal infallibility needs considerably more nuance in the light of statements from the Vatican over the last two years. But it may take a few more years until we have the vocabulary and the experience to integrate these teachings into an introductory theological text.
Other aspects of the book consistently deliver. Cases show his familiarity with the dilemmas real people face in everyday life. The length of the book seems just right for the readership. Footnotes are few but helpful. short bibliography appears with each chapter to point the reader toward more information on specific matters of interest. Discussion questions accompanying each chapter will send groups into many hours of practical spiritual conversation. Occasionally he departs from the logical flow of the argument into an excursus on a related theme; at first the habit threatens to derail the text, but in the end it gives the book the feel of a classroom, where a student's question will cause the professor to depart from the matter at hand, only to help the student understand it all the more.
As an overview, the book will disappoint some specialists. Dunn keeps an ecumenical perspective in place, but his attention to Hispanic, feminist, and African-American theology is limited to a few pages near the end; such perspectives do not enrich the foundational theology earlier in the work.
Overall, the book demonstrates the author's understanding of theology, his awareness of its significance in the reader's life, and his ability to enlighten the reader on matters pertaining to God. Maybe heaven really is in Iowa.
This review first appeared in the Catholic Key 10/31 (September 27, 1998).