"The central doctrine of Christianity, then, is not that God is a bastard. It is, in the words of the late Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe, that if you don’t love you’re dead, and if you do, they’ll kill you."--Terry Eagleton

"It is impossible for me to say in my book one word about all that music has meant in my life. How then can I hope to be understood?--Ludwig Wittgenstein

“The opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice."--Bryan Stevenson

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Hospitality, Powerlessness, and the Being of God

I don't base my life on mathematics.

Although I understand and acknowledge the importance of mathematics in the world, and even to understanding the nature of the world, I'm not mathematician nor Platonist enough to think that mathematics defines all that is worth knowing in the world, such as my friendships, my family, my wife, my daughter; or myself.

I understand that mathematics is an intellectually rigorous enterprise which requires capabilities I don't have and a mental discipline I have never been able to acquire.  I understand mathematics is capable of explaining many important things and that it is enormously useful, and that what little use I can make of it with arithmetic (I have something of a calculator in my brain; mostly a lot of memorized facts about simple arithmetical equations) is as far as my abilities will ever go.  What I don't do, is make those limitations the basis for a critique of mathematics as a study, except insofar as some mathematician tries to go the Platonic route with me, and argue that mathematics is the true language of reality, or even a reflection of the eternal forms.  Because that's crossing over into philosophy, and there I yield easily to no one.

Which is not the same thing as saying I am a philosopher, or wise in the ways of philosophy.  It's not the same thing as saying I"m a theologian, either, although I'm more of one than I'll ever be a mathematician.

What prompts this reflection is this post at Wounded Bird; and the underlying assumption that, in matters religious, we must all be theologians, or at least acknowledge the superiority of theology, or we must simply be believers, and fall back on our Romantic emotional sense of what is true, because it is grounded in our experience or our childhood or just our "self."  And even to adopt such language is, again, to adopt the language of philosophy; yet how else are we to express our thoughts, and how else are we to explain our understanding, limited though it may ever be, of God?

Negative theology is one such recognition of the limitation.  Negative theology begins with that God is not, because vast though that is, it is more easily understood by human reason than the true nature of God (which is the true subject of theology).  And there's the rub already:  what is the true subject of theology? Julian of Norwich wrote theology, even though it was not recognized as such in the 13th century (nor much today; my categorization is my own, thank you very much).  Kathleen Norris wrote three books of theology, though she famously eschewed the field and all associated with it.  Until the Enlightenment, theology as the mother of the sciences and the foundation of reason in Europe.  It was theology that inspired the preservation of Plato, and the recovery of Aristotle, truly a gift of the Muslims to the Christians.  It was, argued Thomas Cahill, theology (and the Irish) which saved civilization.  Perhaps we should stop here and first define our terms.

Theology is, first, not an Hebraic legacy, but a Greek one.  It arose, not from the teachings of Christ, nor even from the letters of Paul, but from the early church leaders steeped in Greek forms of reason (there are many valid forms of reason; the Greek, though foundational to Western culture, is only one among many).  It arose almost purely, as the later phrase would have it, as "faith seeking understanding."  But it is important to note that "understanding" was sought within the Greek terms of reference, according to fundamentally Greek ideas of reason.  There are, we must understand, other frames of reference available to humankind.

Even the Romans, as influenced by the Greeks as they were, did not wholly fall in line with Greek reasoning.  They had their own views of reality and validity.  The Greek forms are as natural to us as breathing, and even when they don't take the most rigorous forms, like formal logic (which is so akin to modern mathematics), we all, in Western culture,  fundamentally reason as the Greeks taught us to.  Does this mean we are all Greeks, or even all logicians?  Of course not; but we function from reasoning that can easily lead us to Greek logic, if we chose to follow it that far and that studiously.

And the result would be no more certainty than we enjoy without pursuing logic to its formal conclusions.  One of the first rules of formal logic, in fact, is that it doesn't establish truth.  It establishes valid conclusions drawn from the proper application of a formal system of reasoning, but the truth of the conclusion is dependent upon the information brought to the formal system.  Garbage in, garbage out, and the formal system of logic has no function which guarantees garbage is not fed in.  The classic syllogism "All humans are mortal, Socrates is human, therefore Socrates is mortal," is a valid logical conclusion.  But it doesn't establish the existence of Socrates, or the truth that all humans are mortal.

Systems will not do the work for you.  To put it bluntly:  systems will not save you.

Martin Luther's great theological insight was that he was saved by grace, not by faith.  But this insight was not the result of rigorous theological effort; it was much more a cri de coeur, a desperate rejection of the damnation that his studies of Augustine had lead him to fear.  Scholars will tell you Melancthon was Luther's theologian; but outside of scholars, who remembers Melanchthon today?  Luther not only gave us his fundamental idea, one almost universally accepted now; but he also gave us the concept of negative theology.  He understood, in other words, the limits of theology; and he even took advantage of them.

There are, you see, different types of "theology," and some of the most important ideas of theology don't come from expert theologians.  Luther needed Melanchthon, but Melanchthon needed Luther, too.   Any discussion of the nature of God is theology, whether the discussion is coming from Dom Crossan or from Pat Robertson.  The importance of theology has always been as a support to faith; never as a replacement for it.  The idea that theology should, indeed must, replace faith is actually an artifact of the Enlightenment and, like the myth of medieval church men obsessed with angels and pinheads, actually a product of the critique of faith, not of its faithful examination.

I think it safe to say that at some point around the Enlightenment faith and reason were fully separated, although they had never been as one in Christian theology.  Reason was, until the Enlightenment (broadly speaking) a gift of God.  It was reasoning that Augustine employed in his own cri de coeur, his Confessions.  Reason is again paramount for Aquinas, one of the finest reasoning minds to ever record his thoughts.  Both men are instructive here: Augustine's heart famously led him to faith; it was his reason that puzzled out the explanations his Greek-influenced culture demanded, and much of that reasoning was a response to competing theologies which we now mostly remember, if at all, as heresies.  But Augustine's reasoning (along with others) was aimed at supporting faith, not at supplanting it.  The arguments over the heresies was an argument over how to understand the proper parameters of faithfulness as Christians, arguments no different from those Paul had with his churches in Galatia or Corinth or even the church in Rome.  Paul did not establish those churches on reasons alone, but neither could reason fail to be a part of his discussion of the new faith of Christians.  Aquinas, even more than Augustine, applied rigorous reasoning to bring the then newly-discovered insights of Aristotle into what was an already well established theological framework.  And yet, the end result of all Aquinas' work, work that scholars today spend a lifetime studying and still say they do not fully grasp?  He had a vision, after which, he said, all his work was as straw; and he never wrote another word.

The visions of Julian of Norwich were, arguably, beyond reason.  They certainly weren't the end result of reasoning; yet she spent her anchorite revising and revisiting those visions and making sense of them both through her experience and her faith, and through her reason.  She did not reason as Aquinas did, nor even as Augustine did; but is she any less a theologian for that?  Her vision of Christ as Mother preserve a theological insight that might otherwise be lost to Christian thinking, and we are all the richer for it.  It isn't, of course, a conclusive vision, and it provokes all manner of response, even today.  Some emphasize it, some try to explain it away, none make it a pillar of their theological arguments.  But it is a statement about the nature of God; and in line with Luther's negative theology, that we can only truly say what God is not, we need to be careful to say God cannot be Mother as well as Father; not in our understanding, which will always have to explain God or experience God in the frame of reference we already have.

There are, as I say, various theologies:  there is theology as the umbrella term for Christian reasoning about God, and then there is theology, the specific field concerned with the nature of God, as opposed to Christology, which is concerned with the nature of the Christ; and pneumatology, the study of the nature of the Holy Spirit; not to mention ecclesiology, and soteriology, and systematic theology, and the theology of worship.

You get the idea.

Must we be mathematicians who understand geometry both Euclidean and non-Euclidean, and elementary analysis, and calculus, in order to speak of arithmetic at all, or how we understand the workings of the world in terms of quantum mechanics?  I cannot say I am a physicist, but I can understand some of the ideas of modern physics without being ashamed of my inability to follow the mathematics that underpins them.  Neither do I need to understand Christology as Jan Sorbino does, nor theology as Gustavo Gutierrez does, in order to grasp the idea of the preferential option for the poor, or to consider the virtues of liberation theology.  Perhaps I do if I want to discuss the matter with the Pope Emeritus; but if I want to practice the preferential option for the poor as my Christian duty?  I only need a certain understanding of the teachings of the Gospels.  That understanding will be a theological one; but need it be a formal, even a systematic, theological one?  Only if I wish it to be so.  Will that understanding answer all my questions, clear all doubts, confirm all beliefs?  Of course not; nothing will.  Life is messy.  We reason from life to conclusions; never from conclusions to life.

Theology is what we engage in when we talk about God, whether it is to understand our own thoughts about how to be a Christian, or whether it is trying to explain the function and necessity of "natural law".  Theology originated as an endeavour of people trained in Greek reason to speak of God in terms of that reasoning, usually as a way of distinguishing one set of ideas (acceptable) from another (heresies).  That kind of theological effort is apologetics, although it is more and more, and especially since the Enlightenment, seen as the sole purpose of theology.  There are, of course, other uses; and they can be as esoteric as Tillich's Systematic Theology or as deliberative as Barth's Dogmatics, or as narrow as a text I picked up in seminary about the theology of worship.  But it can also be a hymn, a Celtic prayer, a meditation by a poet, a record of a mystical experience, the reason why you react to a psalm or a sermon.  Theology is perhaps even better defined by what it isn't, than by what it is.

And what it primarily isn't is an academic exercise carried out solely by learned practitioners with knowledge and abilities far beyond those of mortal men and women, with insights too deep for untrained minds to plumb and understandings too vast for common people to follow.

The underlying post behind that post at Wounded Bird laments that theology does not lead to certainty; but that, I would argue, is the proper way of faith.  Theology, or more properly scriptural studies in seminary, taught me that the parables of Christ, far from being visions of heaven in an earthly guise, are disturbing pictures of a world turned inside out by the presence of God, a world in which certainty is the failure, uncertainty the hope of faith.  At some point perhaps that leads me to Luther's negative theology; to the idea that I can only know what God is not, based on the revelation in Scripture and through the teachings of my church (we are long past the days of "The" Church).  It is at least better than the certainty that I know what cannot be known.  Or, more accurately, that I need to know what cannot be known.


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