Sunday, June 03, 2007


Sitting in St. Peter's Square on a beautiful sunny day listening to the Holy Father give a catechesis on Tertullian and then his papal blessing - is there a better way to spend a birthday? I think not.
This was my first (and hopefully not the only) visit to Rome and the Vatican and it was fantastic. Instead of describing it in detail I wanted to share a few pictures and some thoughts from the trip as well as a quote from Benedict himself, another one which was very important in my journey to Roman Catholicism. I was there with a few close friends for only a few days but being around buildings that are from the first century (and before) made even England's heritage seem young. The Colosseum and Pantheon were exceptional, as were all the old Roman ruins where Western civilization was being cemented and fully developed.

Another great moment w
as going through the Vatican Museum with some of the most impressive art work in the world. The Sistine Chapel was incredible; seeing it is the only way of experiencing the genius of Michaelangelo. But along the way to the Sistine Chapel there were numerous works which were brilliant in their own right. Two of them stood in juxtaposition for me in describing Catholicism's approach to reason.

First is Raphael's
School of Athens:

This painting shows the two philosophical masters, Plato and Aristotle, in the center. Note Plato pointing to the heavens (world of Ideas) whereas Aristotle points to the earth (world of Forms). These two philosophers (as well as others in the painting) would provide the bedrock for St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas and the Church Fathers to develop the Christian Tradition in tune with the divine reason as well as divine revelation.

The second painting that struck me alongside this was one I don't know the name of (any help?) which signaled the supremacy of the Cross and Christ against idols of this world:

This reminded me of how Catholicism seeks to develop the best in natural and supernatural reason given to man but also fights and overcomes mere traditions and idols of this world. The dual focus and tension (as opposed to reason only of liberal Christianity and revelation only of evangelical Christianity) reminds me of the truth and power of Catholicism: affirming what is good in man and rejecting what is false for the sake of Christ.

One of the most moving moments was the experience of being meters from St. Peter's
remains under the altar in St. Peter's.

I can't describe the feelings that were running through me as I looked on the remains of that great disciple, leader of the Twelve. We read and think so much about him in Scriptures and theological writings, but to be near his body was incredible; a reminder of the rootedness of Catholicism in the physical as well as spiritual realities of this world.

Finally, it goes without saying that the high point of the trip was the general audience with Pope Benedict XVI. We were able to get great seats and so ended up ten feet from him while he drove around greeting the people in St. Peter's Square. The experience of being so close to him was amazing and I will always remember it, especially since I got an incredible picture!

To end, I thought I would include the final words of Benedict's homily for his Inauguration of his Pontificate on April 24th, 2005. Whenever I am afraid or worried that Christ's calling is a negation of life this message reminds me of great Yes (or should I say Ja!) which overcomes any No (Nein!) of this world. I hope it brings you the same peace and courage as it does me.

'At this point, my mind goes back to 22 October 1978, when Pope John Paul II began his ministry here in Saint Peter’s Square. His words on that occasion constantly echo in my ears: “Do not be afraid! Open wide the doors for Christ!” The Pope was addressing the mighty, the powerful of this world, who feared that Christ might take away something of their power if they were to let him in, if they were to allow the faith to be free. Yes, he would certainly have taken something away from them: the dominion of corruption, the manipulation of law and the freedom to do as they pleased. But he would not have taken away anything that pertains to human freedom or dignity, or to the building of a just society. The Pope was also speaking to everyone, especially the young. Are we not perhaps all afraid in some way? If we let Christ enter fully into our lives, if we open ourselves totally to him, are we not afraid that He might take something away from us? Are we not perhaps afraid to give up something significant, something unique, something that makes life so beautiful? Do we not then risk ending up diminished and deprived of our freedom? And once again the Pope said: No! If we let Christ into our lives, we lose nothing, nothing, absolutely nothing of what makes life free, beautiful and great. No! Only in this friendship are the doors of life opened wide. Only in this friendship is the great potential of human existence truly revealed. Only in this friendship do we experience beauty and liberation. And so, today, with great strength and great conviction, on the basis of long personal experience of life, I say to you, dear young people: Do not be afraid of Christ! He takes nothing away, and he gives you everything. When we give ourselves to him, we receive a hundredfold in return. Yes, open, open wide the doors to Christ – and you will find true life. Amen.'

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Bernard Lonergan SJ and Christianity: "Proof"


The existence of God is based on the intelligibility of the world. To follow this out we will examine the philosophy of the twentieth century Jesuit theologian Bernard Lonergan. This involves a discussion, however quickly of how we come to know something and then what that will mean. So first knowing, then God. After that we may have time for the problem of evil [basic sin] and then the solution to basic sin found in Christianity, philosophically. But let’s not set the bar too high!

I. Knowing and Lonergan’s cognitional dynamics

Lonergan asserts that knowing is a three part dynamic of cognition: knowing involves experience, understanding, and verification. To examine this theory we will take a simple example of knowledge and explore it: the law of gravity.

First, imagine you are walking through the park and notice a leaf which gets detached from a tree branch. You notice that it floats gently to the ground. This is an example of the experience component of knowledge. One experience is random and probably won’t spark your attention too much, but imagine that another leaf does the exact same thing, then another and another, etc. You might become suspicious that something is going on here. You might also notice that a cat has climbed up the tree and also becomes dislodged, falling to the ground. Inquisitive, you might also climb the tree yourself and hang on a branch, releasing your grip after a bit of debate and notice that you too, fall to the ground. All of these events are the experiential component of knowing reality; in and of themselves they are nothing but a collection of random events (seeing any one of them by itself may not spark anything in particular), but to an intelligent person the knowing process will start to hit the second stage: insight.

While in the hospital recovering from your own event you might try to ‘understand’ what was going on in all those events. You have a keen sense that the world is intelligible, that things make sense and so try to understand what could possibly connect these different, yet similar, events. Then you get an insight, a Eureka moment! What is it? You might say that whenever something detaches itself from a (or that) tree, a strong wind blows downward, forcing the object to the ground! This would be a systematic insight into understanding what was going on in those events. This is the second step of knowing, but it is important to realize that the process does not stop here. Right now all you have is a concept; the question which brings about knowledge is “Is this concept correct?” Clearly in this case the concept is not correct, but how do you know this? By the third step: judgment.

The final step in knowing is judgment, answering the simple question: ‘Is it true?’ Do answer this you must investigate your insight (in science we call this a hypothesis) by checking out reality. In the case of our insight, we might want to bring some device that measures the wind so we can see if our insight is indeed correct. Of course we will find that the wind is not blowing downward, but rather that we need a better insight (one which is true) in order to make sense of the situation. In this case of course the insight is that there is a law of gravity at work, whatever might be meant by that can be worked out by physicists. With this insight of the law of gravity we can now test it out and confirm that our grasp of reality is indeed true of the world: there is such a thing as gravity by which all objects are naturally directed towards the earth while falling.

The most important part is to realize that all three steps are necessary in coming to true knowledge. To be specific, we have come to what Lonergan calls the virtually unconditioned. This means that after reflection on our insight into experience we have answered all the questions we can ask adequately and so the fact is unconditioned. For finite minds however, it is virtually unconditioned because we must be open to the possibility of revision, as in science theories, without eliminating the truths which we have discovered.

As an example of this we can think of Newtonian physics and Einsteinian physics; it is not that Newton was wrong so much as he was not completely right. His laws still explain reality but we have moved to a deeper understanding through Einstein’s general relativity which helps deepen our explanation of gravity; things still fall towards the earth according to Newton’s law of gravitation but this is seen as only a part of a wider geometrical system called general relativity.

Why is this three step process important, even essential? Because it is the grounding of all reality, and it is personal. First it is the grounding of all reality because knowing is correspondent to the known; we can only speak of the known world in so much as we can know the world. To speak of something means to know it, even if our known is what Lonergan would call a ‘known unknown’: we know there is something which we do not yet know. This is what spurs on a particular insight. In a sense the primary insight into the world is that there are known unknowns for this drives us to know them and allows us to believe that they (and the world itself) are knowable. We are confirmed in these ‘known unknowns’ because they quickly (usually) become ‘known knowns’ through the process of knowledge and cognition just discussed.

The second reason why this is important is that it makes all knowledge dependent on rational self-consciousness. To be known, to be true, there must be more than a concept floating in mid-air (the second step of the process, insight) but there must be a reflection made by a rational agent. For something to be true it must be known to be true, otherwise it just is as a collection of occurrences. The law of gravity is true because it has passed the reflection stage in verification; the law of downward blowing wind is not true because it hasn’t. Until there is rational judgment neither one nor the other can be called true. This may seem startling but it is a necessary fact given our cognitional dynamic.

So this lengthy excursus on epistemology (the study of knowing) is important because knowing is intimately and crucially linked to the known; reality is known by experience, understanding and reflection. In this sense, the notion of being, the definition of reality is that which is known by the questions asked and affirmed through the third stage of knowledge, rational reflection.

II. Existence of God

Okay, time to get to the real deal, the ‘proof of God.’ What I want to do here is discuss two preliminaries, two premises, and then one syllogism which the proof will consist of. So two preliminaries:

1. What kind of proof?

What kind of proof will this be? Well, it can be either a priori or a posteriori. The first is from causes to effects, the second is from effects to causes. The first would be the ontological argument (The necessary being exists necessarily), but this is an only a concept and does not move to existence in the three part process of knowing. So this must be an a posteriori proof. We have already seen how this works in our insight into the law of gravity. No one can find an existent thing which is gravity, but we know it exists from its effects, i.e. falling leaves, cats, and people. The insight and knowledge of God will consist in the same sort of argument, moving from some effects to a cause, moving from accidents to substance, in a sense.

2. Extrinsic Causality

The second preliminary which is important is the existence of something called ‘extrinsic causality’. This means a cause which is either efficient or final in the traditional set; or for our terms, a cause which is connected with the object but not intrinsic to it. Science (say physics) is concerned with internal causes as such, but metaphysics (or higher science) is concerned with higher causes, extrinsic causes.

This need not be abstract. For example, in building a bridge extrinsic causality is involved in the form of efficient and final causality. The final cause is the use of the bridge (what it is being built for) and the efficient causality is the men building it, external agents cause the bridge to be formed. Physics and chemistry (maybe biology) can deal with the material causality of the bridge (tensile strength, chemical composition) but there are certainly other extrinsic causes which make the bridge a bridge; examining the physical composition won’t tell you why this bridge exists in this place now.

So extrinsic causality is valid in specific cases, but since we are concerned with all reality, all being, which is what we are asking questions about, this extrinsic causality must also be valid for general or universal cases. This is obviously apparent since the bridge is a specific example of our general observation of extrinsic causality.

Note: We shouldn’t run to fast ahead here, we haven’t proved anything yet, far from it! If we want to have knowledge of God’s existence it must be done rigorously; right now were are just preparing the ground as it were and getting some definitions straight. In themselves they tell us nothing, they are rather the empirical residue as it were of a later insight and judgment which will end up with the affirmation of the statement ‘God exists’. But let’s not move too quickly!

Now that the two preliminaries are finished, let’s move to our two premises, which follow naturally from everything else we have been saying.

1. Being is intelligible

Lonergan says: “Because being is intelligible: it is what is to be known by correct understanding; by definition, it is the intelligible. Being has to be the intelligible to be what is to be known by correct understanding, because the intelligible is all that correct understanding knows.”

What this means is that being (all that is the objective of the pure desire to know, the correct answers to all our questions) must be the intelligible, the order. This means that nothing is ultimately random in being; it may appear random on some levels (subatomic processes) but when moving to a higher viewpoint (statistical laws; chemistry) then it has a reason. This reason is essential because to be known is to be understood and judged correct (steps two and three of knowledge) but randomness can ultimately not be judged correct because it can not be understood. So being (all that is) must be intelligible, able to be known through correct understanding.

2. Defects in intelligibility

But we know that we don’t know everything. We know a lot, but we can’t answer all questions when we move to higher viewpoints. Lonergan says: “You can explain it provisionally by saying this is because that is. But why is that?”

This is relevant to the pure and unrestricted desire to know in all of us: there are always more questions to ask than answers. In other words, each answer only leads to more questions.

We have just affirmed that being is intelligible, but “why should reality be intelligible? What is the ultimate ground of its being intelligible? Our minds are not that ultimate ground.”

Our minds (the three step process of knowing) tell us that the known (being) is intelligible, but they are not the cause of its intelligibility. For example, we know the moon is spherical because of the phases we see in the sky throughout the month, but the phases of the moon are not the ontological ground of the moon’s spherical shape. “Similarly, the structure of our minds is the ground of our knowledge that the real must be being and intelligible. But there is a further question: What accounts for the fact that the real is intelligible and being?”

If being is intelligible, which we have determined it to be by our cognitive structure (the basic position) then we cannot stop asking questions at some point. “Being has to be intelligible. But the intelligible is not something with respect to which I answer a certain group of questions and, for no reason whatever, refuse to answer further questions… There is no point where you can arbitrarily say, ‘No more questions – supply exhausted!’ To answer all of the questions that do arise de facto, you have to go beyond this world, and that means that some principle of extrinsic causality is universally valid [as discussed earlier].”

3. Finally, to complete the argument we meet the syllogism:

If the real is being (the intelligible) then God exists. (Major Premise)
The real is intelligible (being).
(Minor Premise)
Therefore, God exists.

Minor Premise: The real is intelligible (being).

That the real is intelligible is nothing other than the basic position, what we know by the structure of our minds in knowing. If this is not true than being is unintelligible and therefore any questions cannot receive answers (how does one unintelligently distinguish which questions are intelligent and which are not?). So for anything to be intelligible the whole must be intelligible (at various levels, of course), otherwise there could be no knowledge. If being was not intelligible then you could not know it was not intelligible, therefore it must be intelligible.

Major Premise: If the real is being (the intelligible) then God exists.

Lonergan says: “Only if there is, at the root of all reality, an unrestricted act of understanding [all is known and intelligible] that freely creates everything else that is [being is existent through judgment, not just conceptual], and in doing so acts intelligently and reasonably – only if the whole of reality depends upon God, and God is absolute understanding – can it be true that the real is being, that the real is intelligible [by extrinsic causality].”

Only by having God [a Being who is absolute understanding in act – creation] is it possible that all further questions can have answers. “Only insofar as you posit the formally unconditioned, as not only intelligible [definition of being and reality] but also intelligent [act of correct understanding in extrinsic causality] – and all the other properties that can be deduced from that [simplicity, one, omniscient, a temporal, etc.] – can it be true that the real is being, that the real is intelligible.”

Thus since the major and minor premises are true, the conclusion must follow: Therefore, God exists.

Phew! We have come a long way and I assume by now your minds are pretty tired and worn out, maybe excited or just confused. That is fine; I don’t expect anyone to get the argument on the first try, like all things it must be slowly appropriated over time so don’t fell like it needs to jump out at you. But hopefully you will have the basic structure of it and can rehearse it for yourselves in your own time; remember knowledge only comes through personal understanding and rational reflection. Ultimately this means the hard work begins with you!

But all we have done so far is determine that there is a God, a transcendent Being with certain characteristics (intelligent, simple, one, omniscient, a temporal, etc.), we haven’t said anything about who this God is, which is what Christianity is all about. So in quick brushstrokes (since I know you are tired!) let’s have a crack at two questions which further arise (of course!) following the argument: the question of evil and the question of a solution.

III. Problem of Evil – Basic Sin

The Problem of Evil can be separated into three types of evils: physical evils, moral evils, and basic sin.

Let us call basic sin the fact that human beings (with free-will) often do not choose what is rationally obligatory but do choose what is repugnant in their courses of action. So basic sin is the fact that all of us at various times choose what is not reasonable [being nasty to a friend] and ignore what is reasonable [helping someone in need]. This basic sin leads to moral evils in that evils are committed by moral beings (us), but these are really secondary to the basic fact that these can be committed. Physical evils are the breakdowns in the natural process of world order, an order governed by probabilities as well as deterministic structures (quantum mechanics as well as classical mechanics). These are to be expected in such a nature, but moral evils cannot be explain in such a way because they involve intelligent (and hence moral – since to be moral is nothing other than to choose the Good which is also the True) brings.

Basic sin therefore is a fact which is in need to a solution; this is clear because being cannot be unintelligent (for we could not know it was unintelligent if it were so, see above), therefore there must ultimately be a solution to the issue of basic sin if everything above is correct, which we have been convinced of.

IV. Solution to the Problem – Christianity

It is in the solution to the problem where the world religions come in. Obviously any religion which does not see the problem of basic sin existing cannot be a true account of the world and God. This rules out any religion like Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, etc., for which there is no basic sin or problem of evil. Easy enough!

Now there are three religions which meet the above two criteria (Existence of God and Problem of Evil), obviously there are Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. It is from these three (or some unknown religion?) which we must ultimately find the intelligibility of nature. So a short examination from back to front (by no means exhaustive!).

1. Islam – from my understanding of Islam (which is limited, I will admit) the concept of ‘free-will’ and therefore moral agents is not permissible. Islam’s doctrine of providence seems to allow only a form of either fatalistic determinism, or a form of theological compatibilism (free yet not free) which would have to be judged on its own merits (this is an intense area of philosophic dispute which I am not sure how to solve by itself!). Assuming that traditional Islamic doctrine does profess some form of theological determinism this would remove the reality of moral evils and therefore question basic sin in a serious way. A solution to this might be brought about, but I have yet to see or hear of it. So for me, Islam is not an option philosophically because of its commitment to some form of theological determinism (very different to say, Thomas Aquinas’ work).

2. Judaism – obviously I am not inclined to consider Judaism apart from Christianity since Christianity (and Jesus Christ) claims to be the fulfillment of Judaism; but just for fun let’s assume that Judaism can stand alone historically and theologically from Christianity. Does Judaism provide a solution to the Problem of Evil? It seems to me that it does not. Although it has some form of solution in the sacrificial system of the Mosaic covenant (remember, the solution must be physical because we live in a physical world; Gnosticism will not do!), it appears that this is non-existent today and deemed faulty in Jewish theology. Even in the Psalms of the Hebrew Scriptures we find passages discussing how sacrifices of burnt offerings is not what God desires, but rather a clean heart. But I don’t see anything in Judaism answering this demand; which is why ultimately I see Christianity as the necessary fulfillment of it.

3. Christianity – so out of all the world religions which have a shot at answering the Existence of God and the Problem of Evil, it appears to me (and hopefully to you) that only Christianity is capable of making sense of the world. This is not to say that there are no mysteries, mystery is an essential part of being, but these are known unknowns which will ultimately be known by God, of course. Since the solution must conform to the problem, Lonergan gives the basic structure of the solution: it must be one, universally accessible and permanent, harmonious continuation of the actual order of the universe, not add new genus or species [a new animal!], consist of a higher understanding [extrinsic causality] – a ‘supernatural’ form, must be dynamic, must respect free will and consent of men, accord with probabilities, willingness to conform will be charity, must effect the social order.

Remember at this point Lonergan has done nothing strictly ‘theological’, he has worked this all out from philosophy and his structure of being as determined by the structure of mind. But, as Hugo Meynell comments: “Where the shape of the hat is as closely specified as this, the identity of the rabbit which is concealed under it scarcely needs to be added. The actual ‘emergent trend and full realization of the solution’ are to be found, when the facts of history are scrutinised, in the history of the ancient Israelite nation and its culmination in the words and deeds of Jesus Christ [mainly cross and resurrection!].”

So Christianity is the only solution to the Problem of Evil (basic sin) which is philosophically capable, let alone historically verifiable, according to these principles, which we have built up from nothing other than the process we all know so well in coming to know something in the world.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Pope Benedict XVI on the Church's Faith

Earlier today I was reading Ratzinger's Principles of Catholic Theology when a fellow student commented on the book. I said I thought he was great and she responded "Well, if you join the one True Church you can blame it on Ratzinger." I said: "Yes, I can."

That interesting interchange reminded me of how much I appreciate Pope Benedict XVI/Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger as I have been devouring his works in the last few months. He is truly a theologian's theologian. More than his theological sharpness though is his pastoral sense and heart. His writing, even in his more technical work, is always geared to the Catholic family, his two Papal works are incredibly readable and his homilies are inspiring. Don't take my work for it, check out some for yourself.

Continuing my conversion process I thought I would share a part of an essay on "Tradition and Successio Apostolica found in the above mentioned text. Just as a sample of why the Catholic Church is so wonderful:

"I venture to close these reflections with a personal comment...Today, many Christians, myself included, experience a quiet uneasiness about attending divine services in a strange church; they are appalled at the thought of the half-understood theories, the amazing and tasteless personal opinions of this or that priest that they will have to endure during the homily - to say nothing of the personal liturgical inventions to which they will be subjected. No one goes to church to hear someone else's personal opinions. I am simply not interested in what fantasies this or that individual priest may have spun for himself regarding questions of Christian faith. They may be appropriate for an evening's conversation but not for that obligation that brings me to church Sunday after Sunday. Anyone who preaches himself in this way overrates himself and attributes to himself an importance he does not have. When I go to church, it is not to find there my own or anyone else's innovations but what we have all received as the faith of the Church - the faith that spans the centuries and can support us all (283)."

I used to think that it would be great to be in the central pulpit of a Presbyterian church where FINALLY the true message and theology of Christianity could be preached! What arrogance! My journey to Rome has been in a large part due to the FACT of Rome, that it is the Church which has kept the faith (with some historical bumps along the way, of course) and is still keeping the faith today. No individual innovations without grinding through the machine that is the Roman curia. Roman Catholicism does not do innovation (on the whole, crazy priests and bishops exist, but then again, the Church is full of sinners, right?).

"To express that faith gives the words of even the poorest preacher the weight of centuries; to celebrate it in the liturgy of the Church makes it worthwhile to attend even the externally most unlikely liturgical service. Hence the substitution of one's own invention for the faith of the Church will always prove to be superficial, however intellectually or technically (seldom aesthetically) impressive this substitution may be (283)."

The beauty of the Roman Catholic Church is the fact that it is the Church, always has been the Church and always will be the Church. It requires no justification (unlike my entire Protestant life) and is bigger than anyone's imagination.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

John Henry Cardinal Newman on Conversion to Catholicism

“What thanks ought we to render to Almighty God, my dear brethren, that He has made us what we are! It is a matter of grace. There are, to be sure, many cogent arguments to lead one to join the Catholic Church, but they do not force the will. We may know them, and not be moved to act upon them. We may be convinced without being persuaded. The two things are quite distinct from each other, seeing you ought to believe, and believing; reason, if left to itself, will bring you to the conclusion that you have sufficient grounds for believing, but belief is the gift of grace. You are then what you are, not from any excellence or merit of your own, but by the grace of God who has chosen you to believe. You might have {212} been as the barbarian of Africa, or the freethinker of Europe, with grace sufficient to condemn you, because it had not furthered your salvation. You might have had strong inspirations of grace and have resisted them, and then additional grace might not have been given to overcome your resistance. God gives not the same measure of grace to all. Has He not visited you with over-abundant grace? and was it not necessary for your hard hearts to receive more than other people? Praise and bless Him continually for the benefit; do not forget, as time goes on, that it is of grace; do not pride yourselves upon it; pray ever not to lose it; and do your best to make others partakers of it.
And you, my brethren, also, if such be present, who are not as yet Catholics, but who by your coming hither seem to show your interest in our teaching, and you wish to know more about it, you too remember, that though you may not yet have faith in the Church, still God has brought you into the way of obtaining it. You are under the influence of His grace; He has brought you a step on your journey; He wishes to bring you further, He wishes to bestow on you the fulness of His blessings, and to make you Catholics. You are still in your sins; probably you are laden with the guilt of many years, the accumulated guilt of many a deep, mortal offence, which no contrition has washed away, and to which no Sacrament has been applied. You at present are troubled with an uneasy conscience, a dissatisfied reason, an unclean heart, and a divided will; you need to be converted. Yet now the first suggestions of grace are working in your souls, {213} and are to issue in pardon for the past and sanctity for the future. God is moving you to acts of faith, hope, love, hatred of sin, repentance; do not disappoint Him, do not thwart Him, concur with Him, obey Him. You look up, and you see, as it were, a great mountain to be scaled; you say, "How can I possibly find a path over these giant obstacles, which I find in the way of my becoming Catholic? I do not comprehend this doctrine, and I am pained at that; a third seems impossible; I never can be familiar with one practice, I am afraid of another; it is one maze and discomfort to me, and I am led to sink down in despair." Say not so, my dear brethren, look up in hope, trust in Him who calls you forward. "Who art thou, O great mountain, before Zorobabel? but a plain." He will lead you forward step by step, as He has led forward many a one before you. He will make the crooked straight and the rough plain. He will turn the streams, and dry up the rivers, which lie in your path. "He shall strengthen your feet like harts' feet, and set you up on high places. He shall widen your steps under you, and your tread shall not be weakened." "There is no God like the God of the righteous; He that mounts the heaven is thy Helper; by His mighty working the clouds disperse. His dwelling is above, and underneath are the everlasting arms; He shall cast out the enemy from before thee, and shall say, Crumble away." "The young shall faint, and youths shall fall; but they that hope in the Lord shall be new-fledged in strength, they shall take feathers like eagles, they shall run and not labour, they shall walk and not faint."

Monday, December 04, 2006

Scripture, Interpretation, and Joshua Hochschild

Note: This is in a sense an internal discussion in seminary, but I think everyone can gain something from it and please feel free to comment on my view!

There is always an inclination in evangelicalism (broadly defined, please) to bandy around the charge "That's not what the Bible says!" or to set up a opposition to "what the Church (Anglican, Roman, fill in the blank) teaches" and "what Scripture says." I think this perspective usualy betrays itself when someone frustratedly asks "Why can't we just get back to Scripture!?!"

Good question. We can't. But before you scream "relativist!" let me make it clear that we were never intended to "go back to Scripture" in the way this phrase claims. We aren't Muslims, we don't have some kind of original static divine speak in the Bible. If that were true we would all be learning Greek and Hebrew and even then we would never be sure about if we were right since our understanding of these ancient languages is not perfect. Check out a Greek concordance next time if you don't believe me. We as Christians believe that the Word of God is the inspired words of Scripture AS INTERPRETED BY HIS CHURCH. I think this bold part is essential and is the key to stearing clear of a lot of troubles. Let's look at this intepretation bit, then two examples of why it is important, and then get to the name in the title that you are all wondering about.

First, we shouldn't be scared of interpretation; we all do it all the time. There is nothing else in life, really. Just walking down the street today I was looking at cars - but I wasn't looking at cars as some detached object scientifically. I was looking at them AS moving things to be avoided. Looking out my window now I can look at a car AS something which collects rain, or AS something made of metal, or AS something I should key later. The important thing to notice is that I never look at "a car", I always look at a car AS something. My situtation, background, context, spiritual condition (yes!) all play a part in the Interpretive Framework in which I live and move. This is perfectly reasonable - we are embodied beings that are involved with the world around us. Dasein as being-in-the-world if you like Heidegger.

If you accept this (I can't imagine not accepting it once you think about it, really) then this should also apply to how we read Scripture. We always read it AS something: a source of doctrinal truth, a rule book on how to live life, a song to be sung, a poem to be awed by, etc. The possibilities are endless and that's what makes being a finite human so muke fun! We always move "further up and further in" as we meet God in Scripture, to quote C.S. Lewis (anyone know the reference?). But the important part here is that we are always interpreting Scripture within a framework. Let's make that clear: we never know Scripture as "plain Scripture", we only know and understand it inasmuch as we understand anything - within a certain framework which guides our understanding. Gadamer calls this "prejudice" in positive terms, Heidegger calls it "fore-understanding", I call it true.

What does this mean then? Well, it means that the claim "Scripture says" always has to be read as "Scripture, as I interpret it with _______ framework, says." Now this does not mean that Scripture can say anything you want it too truthfully; some frameworks have more claim to truth then others; but the essential point is we need to compare frameworks before we get to Scripture in heated debate. Roman Catholics are not "less" Scriptural than Protestants, they just interpret Scripture through a different hermeneutical key: the Magesterium. Protestants have their own hermeneutical key (well the best do, others are slaves to the newest wind of doctrine and misunderstanding) whether it is Westminster Confession, Luther's Works, 39 Articles and Prayer Book, whatever. Basically none of us comes to Scripture in a vacuum or free of an interpreted framework within which to read it; interpretative frameworks are essential to understanding itself! If you don't think you have an interpretive framework within which you read and understand Scripture there are only two possibilities: 1. You have a really shady and unexamined one (most likely), or 2. You are God.

Let's see how this works out in practice for a moment since theory gets boring (to some!). First an example from Church history, then a more recent version.

1. Arians! Okay, I imagine that everyone has a basic idea what these fellows said. Arius was a fourth century Bishop (!) who taught that Jesus was not of the same substance as God the Father, basically that God was the Uncreate, Jesus was first among creatures, still divine, but "unlike" the Father. Athanasius (a young deacon - who said they weren't important!) established the orthodox position at the Council of Nicea in 325. More than the historical struggle what interests me is why Arius was wrong. One of the things that he had going for him was that he took Scripture more "literally" than Athanasius did. He was fine with affirming Jesus as divine Son of God, more than humans and before the world existed; but he also took the Son terminology seriously and insisted that "there was a time when the Son was not." Athanasius and orthodoxy defended the co-eternality of Son and Father, but they did so with philosophical arguments rather than "Scripture alone." In fact, I don't think Scripture has a whole lot to say in any direct fashion about the eternal generation of the Son which orthodox Christians believe. So why did Athanasius triumph? Because the Church decided that his view was the best way to interpret the Scripture, even though it was not as "literal" as Arius and led to serious mysteries which Arius did not have. The Greek framework of Athanasius (and Gregory of Nyssa) beat out the Gnostic framework of Arius, even though his "made more Scriptural sense." So if you affirm the Athanasian position (and to be orthodox, you must) you have to realize that interpretive frameworks are essential in understanding Scripture; we can not do without them and would be in bad shape if we tried.

2. Jesus as Lord. To give a more modern interpretive example, take the statement: "Jesus is Lord (Romans 10.9)." What does that mean? Well, it depends on what framework you are using. The standard answer (?) is that Jesus is LORD in the Jewish God sense, or at least there is some claim to divinity and supremacy in this claim. Tom Wright however seem to think Paul was using it as a political polemic, as in "Jesus is Lord means Caesar is not!" My first inclination is to see it saying Jesus is Cosmic Lord as in providential control of the universe. Other people would see it as saying Jesus is Lord as ruler of my life choices. Which one is correct? Well, they all are! All of them are perfectly in line with Scriptural witness to Jesus and can fill out the meaning when Paul uses it. Did he have them all in his mind (or any of them?) when he wrote? Doubtful. Does that mean that I need to figure out what Paul thought in order to say I understand what "Jesus is Lord" means? Of course not! But I do need to realize that I understand it from within a particular framework, not in a vacuum. But we are doing this everytime we read and understand Scripture, so there is no problem.

Final Point: what I am saying here has almost nothing to to with the Roman Catholic discussion of Scripture vs. Tradition. The Protestant understanding of that is so muddled it would take a bunch of posts to get it clear! Everything I have been saying has kept only to the Scriptural principle echoed in the Reformation: sola Scriptura! There is no Scripture outside of interpretation, although some claim there is Tradition outside of Scripture (I am not so convinced, but enough for now). This has been a recent news event when Wheaton released their Medieval philosophy professor, Josh Hochschild, for converting to Roman Catholicism. Wheaton requires every faculty member to sign a statement of belief that includes sola Scriptura but when Dr. Hochschild signed it openly affirming the principle the college said he was not allowed to continue on. Wheaton is right in being able to release professors, but in this case the reason for release was his Roman Catholicism, not his inability to sign the statement! He could openly affirm sola Scriptura in the sense above because we all must if we understand what we do when we read Scripture.

So to sum up, this does not mean that God's word is falliable and that anything goes; it means that as Christians we trust God to enable his Church through the Holy Spirit to interpret Scripture faithfully.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Martin Heidegger: Helping Old Ladies Worship Jesus since 1927 AD

Mark 10:17 And as he was setting out on his journey, a man ran up and knelt before him (Jesus!) and asked him, "Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?"

And Jesus said: "You must make a cognitive assent to something called substitutionary atonement so that you can sit and listen to 45 minute sermons about what is in the Greek and slowly gain more knowledge of Christian stuff."
And the man went away sad because it didn't make any sense to him.

Okay, so I am playing a little hard and fast here, but a question came to me earlier: "What it means to be a Chritian?" Take a moment and answer that for yourself. I have a certain answer but I am concerned that many evangelicals display or give off an entirely inappropriate one. For instance, does being a Christian ultimately mean gaining more theological knowledge or more exegetical skill in determing what the Bible says? Obviously not, for if this were so then the majority of the "Christians" in the world would be barely that. Then you have the problem of Christianity before the printing press, did God just let them off the hook? I don't think so.

The deeper issue though seems to be our attitude towards a certain type of knoweldge: that is knowledge of facts and assertions. Somehow or other the knoweldge of facts seems to have become the hallmark of certain parts of Christianity; you can't be a "good" Christian unless you know that you have imputed righteousness from the atonement applied by the Holy Spirit through various means except by your baptism. Confessionalism, which once was a way to mark boundries in churches, has become the hallmark of your relation to Christ; the more theological facts you know the better. But like the man in the story, to most of us this way of seeing the world doesn't make sense of how we live. Living is not about knowing facts, it is about being-in-the-world. And here is where Heidegger comes to the rescue of old ladies who go to church ever week without "knowing" what is going on in the Eucharist.

Heidegger sees a serious mistake in ontology which has been carried down through the history of philosohpy since Plato (!). I don't want to go in depth on this, if you are interested I encourage you to give Being and Time a go, it is well worth the effort! But back to Heidegger's thesis. He sees our metaphysics as something detached from life; we see objects and think about objects, and make theories about objects, all as subjects. Heidegger wants to scream Nein! to this whole notion of subject/object distinction because he says we are not beings seperate from the world, be are beings-in-the-world, or Dasein. He says that the way we normally see "knowledge" in this old framework is through objects being "present-at-hand", which to him is a derivative form of knowledge and existence. The more fundamental way of being in the world is involvement with the world as "ready-to-hand". When we are being fundamentally we are involved in the world, not speculating about it. This is the "everydayness" which Heidegger sees as most fundamental in ontology, whereas traditional ontology stepped past this mode of being to a detached and less "real" mode.

Okay, let's have an example or two just to get the feel of this. Take the case of writing a letter. There is a world of involvement in this little operation, but we will focus on the paper, the pen and the person (sounds like a Protestant sermon, eh?). Traditional metaphysics would want to break the whole situation down into its constituent parts, i.e. what the pen is doing, what the paper is doing, what the person is doing. We could then go deeper, say the person and look into their muscle interactions, then their neuro interactions, and then...well you get the picture. The problem is that in doing this "deconstruction" we have actually missed what is going on in the involvement whole of the activity. Heidegger says you can't break Dasein up like that becauce you can't seperate being from the world, hence the hypens in being-in-the-world. For instance, while you are writing it is absolutely imperitive that you have no "object" oriented knowledge of the pen at the moment. If you did recognize the pen as an object in this detached fashion you would not be able to write! The same goes for the paper and even the person. When something is happening (anything, even thinking?) there is a total involvement of the world which can not be seperated. It is in this case that Heidegger says object reflection is a second order form of knowledge.

Knowledge to Heidegger is more "knowing how" than "knowing what" about something. The second is derivative from the first, present-at-hand comes after a break down in ready-to-hand knowledge. Here is another example. I was practicing squash today, as I am wont to do sometimes, and I was trying to reflect on what I was doing. But when I tried to think about each shot and each motion, I was no longer able to play the game. In order to play squash I needed to be involved in the whole, not thinking in part. This goes for any sporting activity really, you can't think of every motion otherwise you won't be able to move! It is much like the story of the centipede being asked how it coordinates all its legs. When it tried to think about it it got all tangled up, but before being asked and having to reflect on it the centipede was happily able to walk along. In traditonal metaphysics this "non-reflective) stance has been called "unconsciousness", but not the negative attitude to it. It is not-conscious, and in that sense has the feeling of not being the right mode of being. Heidegger wants to turn this on its head by saying the involvement in the world pre-reflectively is the normal and primary mode of existence, reflection is always a secondary and detached way of existing.

So you are probably wondering how this all fits in with old ladies at church on Sunday? Well, the traditional evangelical understanding of the faith of these old ladies is that they are not as "good" at being Christian since they lack the requisite doctrinal or reflective knowledge of the faith. Most people will deny this implication, but I think they are just making excuses. You can find this out by asking if anything needs to be done for these old ladies as compared to me, the theological student. Evangelical answer: time for Alpha or Christianity Explored! But you can hopefully see that this understanding can be turned around by Heidegger's metaphysics since these old ladies do not have a deficient life in the faith; in fact they may be "more" Christian than many reflective evangelicals who do not attend church like the ladies. As a case in point, these old ladies do know a lot about the Christian faith; it is just a involvement and ready-to-hand form of the knowledge, which Heidegger says is the primordial form of being. When asked about Eucharist they will respond by saying "I go every week" or "I communicate every week." This is not a meaningless action. In it they are affirming in the strongest terms that they believe the Lord Jesus is here and alive today, and working in his people to those who recieve him. The liturgy itself is part of this Christian faith, it inculcates Christianity in not primarily reflection but in active involvement; which is the most important form of living, whether playing squash or worshipping Jesus.

So old ladies dutifully following the liturgy are not "less" Christian because they can't tell you how Justification by Faith works, they are more sure about Jesus and their relationship because they are involved in it. It is only on reflection that doubt can arise; while playing squash I never doubt my existence, but if I sit around long enough I can try and convince myself. In this sense it is the liturgy in its "pre-reflective" splendour which constitutes the Church; for the Christian faith is not about thinking, it is about living.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Incarnational? What do you mean by that?

A certain term has been showing up more recently in conversation in certain classes here: incarnational. I am sure most people think they know what this means, but to be honest I am not sure they do understand the term. As far as I can tell this word is brandished as a weapon against people of a more hierarchical bent in applied theology. So when I ask what role a priest or theologian has in theological leadership and formation of the laity the classic response is they need to be "incarnational." This appears to settle the debate since if I disagree about this it is taken to mean that I don't like Jesus. Hmmm.... Can we take a moment to investigate how this word is used?

The Incarnation is the classic dogma of the Christian faith that discusses the union between the divine nature and the human nature of Jesus Christ. Two natures held together in a hypostatic union. If you want a quick summary, read here. So what is essential about the incarnation is that God has taken up human flesh, Divine Word has become man. Jesus has become "incarnate."

Now, if this divine and human hypostatic union is the definition of the incarnation, I think it is at least theologically and intellectually naive (and borderline blasphemous!) to appropriate this word in terms of a minister's role. How could a Christian minister possibly be "incarnational" in the truest sense of the term? Are all Christian ministers God incarnate or a hypostatic union of Divine and Human nature? Really?

The obvious answers to these questions is no, of course not! A much better term or phrase for what evangelicals mean would be "dwell among the people" or "tabernacle" or "be amongst them like Jesus." Minister's are supposed to be among the people like Jesus spent his time with the outsiders. But it is absolutely incorrect in my mind to view this action and role of Jesus as "incarnate" ministry. Jesus' incarnate ministry was becoming man, his "humble" ministry was to divest himself of any human royalties here on earth and be amongst the poor and lowly.

So why is it that evanglicals so often use this term "incarnational" when it appears to be blatantly mistaken? Well, I think it is not only a lack of theological awareness in most, but also a desire to have a trump card with a big name on it. Obviously since minstry is suppose to be just like Jesus and nothing like any development in the Church (like robes! or priests!) then everything that Jesus was needs to be imitated by the minister. That is authentic ministry!

But of course this only shows a lack of respect for Jesus' uniqueness and role in salvation history (interesting comparison with how evangelicals view the "cult of the saints". At least Catholic aren't claiming that saints are incarnate!). Only Jesus is incarnate because only Jesus is God. In one sense, only a Catholic can have an incarnational ministry, for the Sacrament of the Eucharist is exactly that: union of divine nature and human nature present on earth.

Now this immediately sounds alarms because then the bread and wine are seen as divine; but the fact is that there is no more incarnation, it is the incarnate Lord who is present again in the sacrament (no need to discuss how this is at this time, only to affirm that since the second century the Christian Church has taught "real presence"). There are no more incarnations, only the continual presence of the one incarnation, Jesus Christ the only divine and human being held together in hypostatic union. If evangelicals really want to have an "incarnational" ministry then they need to go to the incarnation, not to their desire to hang around with people "where they are."

So my main frustration is the way the Incarnation is thrown around today as if it is always available anytime you want it. It is not and could not be so; there is only one incarnation and Our Lord is pleased to make himself known in his incarnation if we so seek him. But this does not mean we are to label a "power to the people" ministry as incarnation, unless you want to baptise anything you think is important with the label of God. That sounds like idolatry to me, not ministry. So let's be careful about how we use that blessed word; words are important, especially the Word who became flesh to save us from our sin.