Why Theology?

The Doors to “The Far Side”

By Br. Joseph Trout, O.P.

I am not sure which way the doors open for the Fenwick library. If I pause and envision myself entering the library right now, I am fairly certain they open outwards. I think I might even be willing to bet money on that. However, I also remember many instances of pushing instead of pulling (or is that pulling instead of pushing?) and watching others make the same mistake. On three different occasions in the last year, I have been standing outside the door as a faculty member tried to open it incorrectly and one of us referenced the Far Side comic where a child attempts to enter the school for the gifted by pushing a door marked pull. Everyone chuckled.

1986 humor from Gary Larson.

When I was growing up, I admit I found that particular Far Side comic funny out of condescension – I was laughing at the fool. Perhaps that is a normal reaction for people on the near side of life experience. We can laugh at mistakes we never imagine ourselves making. Yet when we enter the complexity of life, the joke rapidly loses its humor (at least when you are the idiot at the door). It is indeed hard to laugh while you are gaining perspective in life and your ego is being checked. On the other side of experience, however, the joke actually becomes even funnier. Who hasn’t been the fool? Who of us doesn’t do inexplicably stupid things at times? Unexpectedly, the simple joke turns rich and deep.

What on earth does any of this have to do with theology classes at Fenwick? Permit me one last piece and then I hope it will be clear. For a few months I have been pondering a quote attributed to Oliver Wendell Holmes, “I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.” This movement from simplicity through complexity to a new simplicity is what so much of life is about – jokes are funnier once you have lived enough to get them; skills are useful when you can do them without thinking; love purified by trials is the only type that truly inspires. These are all simple yet mature. Nor is the difference in simplicity hard to see. For example, both a kindergartner and Pope Francis can tell you “God is love,” but the similarity is deceptive. One who has seen the evils and pains of this world but holds fast to the fundamental claim that “God is love” says much, much more. Truth, authentic and simple, stirs the heart to laugh, love, or cry.

This movement through complexity grounds theology at Fenwick. Of course, no one will ever accomplish it during high school, but the road through ambiguity to truth is the one we strive to walk. For many it is an uncomfortable road as they are used to the simplicity of religion. They are not wrong – Christianity does give simple answers, whether that is the command to love like Christ or the content of the Apostle’s Creed. Too often, though, simplicity is misunderstood or seen in childish ways. Believing it can appear as stupid as pushing a door marked pull. So our goal is to wander into the complex to refine it. To ponder anything in hopes of finding the source of everything — that is what we do.

To me, this is what sets a Catholic education apart. Here you can openly wrestle with the biggest questions: what is the meaning of life? Is there anything after death? Does God exist? What is God like? How do I interact with God? Who is Jesus Christ? What does it really mean to love another person? What does it mean to be me? It is a daunting task for teachers and students alike. However, it is a more fruitful task when you aren’t left to do it alone. Together, as Fenwick Friars and members of the Body of Christ, we do have hope of seeing reality clearly even if we must do so through cloudy glass.

Life, study and teaching have confirmed this for me: no one really wants to remain lost in the questions forever. We really do want to know which way the door opens and not spend all day debating the existence of the door. According to Aristotle, all people desire to know. He placed contemplation of transcendent truth at the heart of life. Centuries later, a man named Jesus claimed to be “the way, the truth, and the life.” That is a deceptively simple answer if there ever was one. But for the person who has wrestled with theology, it can also be a comfort and a joy far deeper than the humor of watching your colleagues push a door marked pull.

About the Author

Brother Joe Trout, O.P. (“BroTro”) is Chair of the Theology Department at Fenwick and an assistant coach for Boys’ Track and Girls’ Cross Country. He grew up in Fort Wayne, IN, and graduated from Purdue University in 2009 where he studied Math Education. For a year Br. Trout taught middle school math in Crawfordsville, IN, before entering the Dominican Order in 2010. He completed a Masters in Theology from Aquinas Institute in 2015, focusing his research on the relationship between morality and psychology based on the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas , O.P. As a Dominican, he also worked at Holy Rosary/Santo Rosario Parish in Minneapolis doing bilingual youth ministry, religious education and adult faith formation.

Notably, he is a Dominican Cooperator Brother — not a priest. Dominican Friars are mostly priests, but the Order also has had non-ordained brothers from the beginning. Br. Trout says he enjoys being part of a global effort to promote the brother vocation, presenting on it to Dominicans internationally.

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