Showing posts with label theology. Show all posts
Showing posts with label theology. Show all posts

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

What Inspires My Theology? Part III: Vocation

When I started reading the works of John Henry Newman, on the road to becoming Catholic, I accidentally stumbled across the University of Queensland's Newman Society, the Catholic society on campus at UQ. I walked into their first meeting, and when the ice-breaker introduction came, I said quite clearly: I am not Catholic, I do not want to be Catholic, but I do need to find out more to know if I should be Catholic. Most of the people were fairly quiet at this, they just tried to continue on to the next person, since I was an atypical person to be in that meeting and in that sense I could make people uncomfortable. There were two exceptions: the president at the time, now a close friend of mine, seemed to be quietly excited about the idea of someone looking into being Catholic, even if it was true that I did not want to. The other person was UQ's chaplain at the time, the priest who would eventually receive me into the Church, and importantly, Fr Morgan Batt was (and continues to be) the Vocations Director for the Archdiocese of Brisbane.

Hence, the idea of vocation has been in my head since before I was Catholic, and it has not left since then. At the beginning, influenced as I was by the office that Fr Batt had, vocation for me was related to what one might call the sacraments of state, that is, Holy Orders and Holy Matrimony. A little later, and influenced now by the Second Vatican Council's clear teaching on the universal call (vocation) to holiness by virtue of baptism, I realised that baptism was a sacrament of state (of sorts). This remains the common usage of the term "vocation": priest, married, religious...? That is an important question to ask oneself, because it is indeed the subject matter of vocation. However, two other people have influenced me and made vocation into a central element of my theology.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer's book The Cost of Discipleship is one of the most important books I have read this year, particularly the initial chapters, leading up to his exposition of the Sermon on the Mount. In it, he attacks cheap grace, replacing it with costly grace, the grace of the cross. Bonhoeffer presents costly grace as grace that demands something of us, namely ourselves, not to repay a debt, but because the debt cannot be repaid.

In reflecting upon this, I realised that the grace of God always implies a calling, a vocation. For instance, the conversion of Saul on the road to Damascus is simultaneously the self-revelation of God acting in Christ, which is an action of grace, the imparting of that grace of conversion and the gift of faith, but at the very same time, and inextricably linked, it is the calling of Saul to be Paul the Apostle. For everyone, in fact, the hearing and believing of the Gospel is at once an act of grace on the part of God and the calling of God to the proclamation of the same Gospel.

Therefore, one's vocation, one's calling, is not just a gift of grace but a necessary element of any gift of grace. First and foremost, every Christian is called to holiness. Secondly, there may be a vocation to married life, to priestly life, to religious life, to consecrated single life... In terms of sacraments, the grace of Baptism is a call to holiness. Then follows the specific path to be taken, for which (if one is to be ordained or married) one receives that grace of office. It is not in vain that the sacrament of ordination is called Holy Orders, because the grace of the sacrament implies by its very nature the orders, the vocation, for the sake of which it is administered. In short, grace and vocation are inseparable.

Bonhoeffer, being a Protestant and not having the same sacramental theology of priesthood or matrimony, also challenges Catholics such as myself to think of vocation in broader terms, though this is not something he had introduced to Christianity. It is at the very least as old as the other influential figure that solidified the centrality of vocation in my thought, the spiritual master and one of the founders of the Society of Jesus, St Ignatius Loyola.

St Ignatius is most remembered for his Spiritual Exercises and as a master of discernment. Discernment is, in one sense, a Catholic version of decision making, but the theology that underpins it sets it aside from its secular analogue. Discernment is not so much about weighing up pros and cons of choices, rather, it is about figuring out (discerning) the will of God. The will of God and his calling are one and the same.

Yet discernment of the calling of God for St Ignatius does not stop when one figures out the state of life one is called to, it is a constant process. I must discern the will of God for me at all moments during my day, during my week, during my life. Discernment is not a matter for big decisions, it is a matter for all decisions. Yet if discernment is for all decisions, then that means that there is a calling of God in all decisions, which means that vocation is a term that encompasses the totality of our lives.

This has influenced me to make the bold claim that Christian ethics can be divided into two categories: general and particular. The general is aptly summarised in the words of Jesus when asked what the greatest commandment was:

‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself,' All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:37-40)

The strength of this formulation is evidently its generality, but it hence is overly ambiguous in terms of choosing how to live out the commandment. Scripture abundantly testifies that not all are called to do all good works, that God wills that some dedicate themselves to one form of ministry, others to another. There is hence another way of formulating Christian ethics, in a way that makes note of the particularity and the uniqueness of the vocation given to each person. One could write it in an expanded form as:

The right thing to do is to employ one's charisms in lovingly living out own's vocation for the common good and the glory of God.

It is rough, somewhat academic, and most likely imprecise. It is not quite my intention to give an absolute statement that I would petition the Pope to define as dogma. Rather, I use this as a sketch-statement to show how vocation forms the basis for Christian ethics, and can be more specifically tailored to each person than a general statement about love.

All this implies that what seems good can be bad. St Ignatius talks about feelings of desolation arising because one has followed inclinations that seemed holy, but actually come from the false angel of light. What seems like a good action can be the wrong action if God calls us to do otherwise - indeed, what would be a good action in another circumstance could be the wrong action in this circumstance, because we are not called to do that action then. I wrote a little about how the converse can be true, what seems like a bad idea turns out to be the right action, when I discussed my own vocation here.

Applying the language of vocation to our decision making is important in making decisions about what we will do with our time. This is specially the case because of how many opportunities there are to do good: should we give our time and energy to homeless people, the elderly, the socially marginalised, the mentally ill? Sometimes these categories overlap, but not always, and we need to make decisions about who we are going to minister to. Should I commit to this ministry, or that other one? I know God calls me to do what is required of me in service of him, so how do I divide my time between my work duties, my study duties, and my ministry duties? How much time should I rest? How much time should I dedicate to fellowship with Catholic friends compared to non-Catholic friends?

All these questions are ultimately questions we must discern the answer to, because God has a calling for us that will answer these questions. As you can see, the language of ethics, of should and ought is the language of vocation and calling.

What Inspires My Theology? Part II: Incarnation

If I had to write an blog post on how the Incarnation affects my theology, my thought, and my life, I would rather have to write a book. All my theology is centred around Jesus Christ, who is incarnate - my prayer is incarnational (a point I made tangentially here), when I think of mission or ministry, it is incarnational. My perspective on a theology of creation is incarnational. My thoughts on grace, and how grace and nature intersect, are incarnational.

In short, most of my theology is Incarnational. But what does that mean? For me, the Incarnation is about three things: first, that God does not remain distant from our problems, but through Mary is incarnate and shares in our humanity. This was my point with incarnational intercessory prayer: that when we pray for others, we must take on their poverty as our own, and intercede before God on their behalf. Together with God reaching down to us in human flesh, however, is the elevation of our humanity that comes with it. As St Athanasius writes in his treatise on the Incarnation: "For the Son of God became man so that we might become God." The Incarnation is the concrete illustration of Jesus saying "I have become what you are so that you can become what I am."

Secondly, the Incarnation does not remove the divinity of Christ. It is the supreme example of the both/and approach to theology, where (as we confess in the Nicene creed) Jesus is true God and true man. Not half and half. Not a mix of divinity and humanity. Jesus is both fully God and fully human. The Incarnation is hardly the only instance of paradoxical unions: Catholic Social Teaching has that combination of solidarity and subsidiarity, soteriology has numerous paradoxical combinations, such as free will and predestination, or faith and works. Trinitarian has three persons in one God. Still, the Incarnation is such a special instance of this both/and principle that it is, after some thought, easy to see why so long was spent arguing about Christology, why so many councils were convened to discuss Christological dogmas. Christ is the self-revelation of God, so this very precise theological investigation of Jesus is fundamental to all theology. This unique combination of divinity and humanity means that Jesus Christ is the only mediator between God and humans. It implies with the full force of theological fact that "nobody comes to the Father except through [him]." 

Third, the Incarnation elevates the visible. Before the Incarnation, people were right to be sceptical about the divine being presented in any sort of image, and hence the Decalogue has its injunction against graven images. Yet with the Incarnation, what was invisible and spiritual became visible in Christ Jesus. He is the "image of the invisible God", and therefore we can no longer scorn the created order as bearing the mark of God, not only as Creator, but even to the point of representing God. This is exceedingly important for all sacramental theology, though obviously it is most obvious in that most blessed of Sacraments, the Eucharist, where the fullness of the Godhead dwells under the species of bread and wine. In short, there is a divinisation of all of creation, not only humanity. What is this, however, if not a general statement of the fact that grace builds on nature?

These are just three of the underlying principles of the Incarnation that make this doctrine so crucial to Christianity, so crucial to theology, and so crucial to me in particular. I began to understand this in the context of social outreach ministry, when reflecting on intentional community and the vow of poverty that I hope to be making in a few years time. Why do we become poor to help the poor? It is the way of Jesus Christ, as St Paul writes to the Philippians in one of my favourite canticles:
In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

Who, being in very nature God,
    did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; 

rather, he made himself nothing
    by taking the very nature of a servant,
    being made in human likeness. 

And being found in appearance as a man,
    he humbled himself
    by becoming obedient to death—
        even death on a cross!

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
    and gave him the name that is above every name, 
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father.
(Phil. 2:5-11)

As I said, if I could come up with enough material to write a book on anything, it would be on the Incarnation. This, however, is only the briefest collection of points, to which I will add another small one that should merit much lengthier treatment: the Incarnation, in addition to highlighting both/and's in theology, endowing with special importance the visible created order as the means by which the self-communication of God took place, as well as being both and inheritance of our poverty and the exchange of it for riches, it becomes our own model not only insofar as Christ is our model in general, but also insofar as our ecclesiology centres around the Church qua the Body of Christ. One crucial mistake of those who "love Jesus but hate the Church" is that not only did Jesus start the Church, die for the Church, is the Bridegroom of the Church...the Church is also the mystical continuation of the Incarnation, which (though mystical) is still visible. 

Thursday, 29 May 2014

What Inspires My Theology? Part I: Grace

See Introduction here.

Whilst I think I came closer than most, it is hard to become Christian for purely intellectual reasons. This is because Christianity is not primarily about conveying a cognitive content; its message can only with approximations be put into propositions. Christianity has as its cognitive content Jesus Christ, and as any biographer knows, converting a person into words is not just difficult, it is impossible. For me, that non-intellectual reason was the central Christian concept of grace. I quoted the full transcript of the testimony I gave when I was baptised in a previous blog post, and a section of it I can transcribe here:

"There have been many times these past few months when the significance of grace has hit me – a power that reduced me to gasps and wowing. The universe is a rather large place, and I am rather small. So to have the same person who made all that existence has to offer care about me, was a laughable proposition. That the almighty God who powers the stars, upholds the world by His Word and keeps ever atom in place would care to know me? How silly!

Unless it’s true. I have a very hard time grappling with what it means to be forgiven by God sometimes. God actually knows me, and I thought that would be enough to put any sane person off! But instead of removing me, instead of deleting me from existence, that He would care so much for us that He would confine Himself to flesh, give us the everlasting truth and humble Himself further to hang helplessly and painfully on a cross? There are no words for that.

Well, that’s peachy. I think I’m great, and God thinks highly of me, too, right? By no means! Until I grasped that grace was required I am not worthy, I was not God’s own. And it has made all the difference. Grace sets the tone for everything I do. Grace properly understood, lights my day with the Lord, frees me from my transgressions, uncovers my wrongdoings and alleviates my worries. God’s gift in the death of Christ affects my life like no other event in history, because the death of God’s Son is not trivial.

And that would be enough. That would be more than enough. But it’s not all. Forgiveness bestowed upon me despite the blackness of my heart frees me from resentment against others too, for how could I hold their sin accountable if God does not consider mine? Brothers and sisters, if we would punish for a penny, why should God not punish us for the whole pound? I am forgiven, so I cannot help but forgive. I am loved, so I am to love. That is the Gospel in me."

That was quite an eloquent way of putting it, but I did not explain on that day the particular path that had led me to have, to this day, such a grace-centred approach to theology. At its heart, of course, it is because I experienced grace and found it to be a good of inestimable wealth. It is because I recognised a dual problem in myself: I did not do what I thought the right thing was, and so I needed forgiveness, and I did not think I was capable of doing the right thing - not because of physical incapacity (because "should" implies "[physically] can") but because I was weak of will.

My parents know I am fairly rotten in a moral sense because they have to live with me. Others, however, thought I was a decent enough person. This was no-where near enough, because I was not a decent-arian, I was a utilitarian. This is crucial to understand: utilitarians are often pressed with what is known as the demandingness objection, which goes that utilitarianism cannot be correct because it demands too much of people. As Famine, Affluence and Morality (a famous essay in applied ethics) argues, one cannot justify spending an amount of money on oneself unless one is improving one's well-being comparably to how much somebody else could benefit from it.

Let me illustrate this. I carry round in my wallet a card, a cut-out from the back of one of Caritas' Project Compassion donation boxes which tells me what money can do if donated to Caritas: $5 could buy a chicken for a children's centre in Mozambique to raise and sell for food, medical supplies and school uniforms. $10 could provide a family with a water filter to access clean, safe water and reduce waterborne diseases in Cambodia. And so forth, up until $250. Since the benefit someone else can get from $5 is more than I would get from, say, buying one of those ridiculously priced coffees with a macaroon on the side, it would be wrong for me to spend the money on myself, rather than donating it to the work done in Mozambique. Of course, there comes some point where spending it on myself really is better, but chances are that comes when I am spending the money on my survival, rather than my pleasure.

Yet, whilst I do not buy ridiculously priced coffees for simple lack of money in general, I would indulge other whims where I could. My conscience, informed as it was by utilitarian precepts, was aghast at this. Probably not as much as I should have been, because I had not realised quite how much utilitarianism demanded of me, but I was nonetheless horrified at my actions. The problem was that I felt powerless to change it. Not powerless in the sense that someone forced at gun point is powerless, but rather incapable because of something within. I have never found anyone else explain it better than my dear St Paul:

I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. So then it is no longer I that do it, but sin which dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do." (Romans 7:15-19)

In becoming a Christian, then, I found the grace of God in twofold way: not only the forgiveness of wrongdoings past, but also the promise of transformation. The former is important, yet the latter is perhaps even more so, since without transformation the forgiveness would need to be replicated ad infinitum and ad nauseum.

It was equally important, and I think this is the major thrust of my thinking on grace, that it be entirely and wholly a free gift. Of course, if it is earned, it is no longer grace, but desert. Which is why St Paul also says: "But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace." (Rom. 11:6) This, I think, is crucial. The Christian idea of grace requires a radical rethinking of what can and cannot be considered desert. Certainly, when Catholics talk about their own theological version of desert, that is, merit, they mean it in the way St Augustine used it, and the Council of Trent elaborated dogmatically on: "The merits of our good works are gifts of the divine goodness." Or as the Missal puts it: "in crowning their merits you are crowning your own gifts." We see clearly how the Christian perspective on desert is that, in a way, it involves some doublethink. God must bestow grace in order that there be any good, and yet, God freely associates humans with the works arising from that grace, counting it as deserved.

Grace forgives, justifies, sanctifies, and all this completely freely. In a shortened form, I had already discussed this in Time in the Evangelical Church. Perhaps some would think that such a high view of sin and grace, with such a strong sense of culpability, would lead me to affirm with Martin Luther the doctrine of sola fide, with its essentially cognitive sense of faith. However, I was convicted of the fact that grace required something of me, not so much in return so as to repay a debt, for I knew that such a feat was not even possible to contemplate, but merely as a response to grace and of grace.

In other words, I was convinced that grace came as a package deal, and that if I was not transformed, nor was I forgiven. Bonhoeffer, in a book I discovered later (and wrote about here) writes of the fake sort of grace, "cheap grace":

"Cheap grace is that grace we bestow upon ourselves...It means forgiveness of sins as a general truth; it means God’s love as merely a Christian idea of God. Those who affirm it have already had their sins forgiven. The church that indulges in this doctrine of grace hereby confers such grace upon itself."

It is entirely true that in a more complete sense, it was the challenge of John Henry Newman that led me to become Catholic. Still, in a smaller sense, it was that I was only really being fed cheap grace as a Protestant, yet affirming costly grace in my innermost, that led to my openness for me to explore what I then thought of as the most distasteful form of Christianity, if it could be called that.

This doctrine of grace has, I think, powerful implications. It means I can write posts like "Loving the Lovely and Unlovely", which certainly sounds nice, but is really based on the premise that when one is loving another person, one must reject all notions of desert, ignore whether the person could be said to "deserve" love or not. This is simply based on the conviction that God loved me, and I did not deserve it, so I cannot count desert as relevant for someone else. It affects my political philosophy, where again I consider grace to be a central and guiding principle, and why I can write with general approval about the philosophy of John Rawls, or at least his second principle of justice, and link this directly to grace in the aptly titled essay "John Rawls and Grace." It has many other implications, and in fact, I think that because "God is love", grace lies at the very heart of who God is, not just what God does.

Saturday, 24 May 2014

What Inspires My Theology? Introduction

In the past couple of days, I have learned a little about two theologians I regard highly, the Catholic 20th century theological giant Hans Urs von Balthasar and the Protestant theologian Miroslav Volf, and in particular their influences. von Balthasar trained as a musician, then also pursued studies in German literature and culture, and this influenced him into taking an aesthetic approach to theology. He was furthermore close friends with Karl Barth, probably one of the greatest Protestant theologians ever.

Volf, on the other hand, has quite a different set of influences. A lot of his work, particularly to do with forgiveness (though he is also notable in other areas, for instance, he presents the most robust defence of Free Church ecclesiology I have ever come across) had its genesis in reflecting upon his experience being tortured mentally and interrogated in former Yugoslavia for being a theologian with an American wife. A lot of his theology links back to that formative experience of his, his meditations on it, and extrapolations from it.

At bottom, the fundamentals of theology are all things that can be experienced. This is why the epistle to the Hebrews opens:

"In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets; but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He reflects the glory of God and bears the very stamp of his nature, upholding the universe by his word of power." (Hebrews 1:1-3)

Or, in other words, God has revealed himself in Jesus Christ, who is incarnate, and can be experienced. Experience is generally a lousy way of making any concrete claim about God, which is why dogmatic theology never bases itself entirely on experiences - but I think it is quite clear that some of our best theologians have experiences which influence their approach to theology. If not those remembered for their monumental theology, at least consider the mystics.

So I began to wonder what inspires my approach to theology. Obviously it fluctuates somewhat, and evidently I cannot answer in an absolute way for all times, past, present and future, but there is a number of things that form the core of my theological perspectives, and in fact, my perspective on what might be called "exegetical" and "liturgical" theologies: particular perspectives on what lens I use when reading the Bible, and how I approach the matter of the role of the liturgy in the life of the Church and of the individual Christian, as well as what its characteristics are.

There are six of these. Each is important to the life of each Christian, but I take these six particularly to heart as essentially a hermeneutic for all theology because of experiences I have had and the things that have formed me. Hence, as an exercise both in self-reflection and self-explanation, as well as a recording of the state of my opinions at this "tender" age of 19, I decided to write a series with a short post on each one. These will provide anyone reading my blog who does not know me, and those who do know me but do not discuss theology enough with me to know my views, an insight into how I approach theological matters.

Thursday, 1 May 2014

Can Everything be Translated out of Christianese?

One of the things that developed in the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council was a move to modernise the language used to describe matters of the Christian faith in a way that was more accessible to the world. This is, I think, an important element of the New Evangelisation, and I heartily agree with Scotty McDonald when he calls for Christians to talk “like real people,” and I support him when he describes himself as someone whose goal it is “to tell the greatest story ever told in a language that speaks to the hearts of young people.” Quite simply, the proclamation of the Gospel in the language of the other is what St Paul would call “becoming all things for all people.” (1 Corinthians 9).

We cannot remain static in our language and still be evangelical, so we must translate the essential content of the Gospel out of Christianese, that niche language of Christians, and into the language of today. This is not necessarily “average English”, it may still use copious jargon if one is appealing to, for instance, a philosophical crowd, or a scientific one, as I noted in “Theology in the Language of Today.” In any case, one must adapt to the requirements of the one being ministered to.

There are two reasons why we must show some restraint. One is fairly obvious, and that is that translation almost invariably produces imprecision, and this can certainly be a problem with some of the areas of theology more prone to paradoxical statements, like Christology, theology of the Trinity, and perhaps areas like soteriology (study of salvation) when engaging in ecumenical endeavours between Catholics and Protestants. With due care, however, and noting that the Gospel is a fairly simple and “well-understood” message, I do not think that this issue is insurmountable.

The second reason is, in my opinion, a thornier matter. I do not think that everything can be translated out of Christianese because it may be impossible to translate the Gospel accounts out of their historical context. Jesus said that he is the Good Shepherd, but that might mean close to nothing if one has never set foot on a farm. Peter writes that Christ, our Passover Lamb, has been sacrificed, but nobody I have ever met has seen a Passover sacrifice with a lamb. These statements, as well as countless others in the Scriptures, are foreign to us, and yet it is unclear that we can actually translate them.

The central issue here is this: that whilst the Word is eternal, it was made flesh in a particular man, Jesus of Nazareth, who lived, preached, died and was resurrected in a particular time, and all the accounts we have of him are of that time. Whilst we know that the temporally-bound, the particular, and the eternal can in principle be separated, we attempt to do so at our own peril. Hence, we still have our Archbishop with his crosier, which is shepherding instrument, at least symbolically. At least we use the language of “pastor” commonly in English now, there are other symbols which now are fairly arcane.

Therefore, we cannot simply translate Christianese into English with all matters, we are going to have to put in the effort of teaching the People of God the conceptual-linguistic framework of New Testament times, and earlier Israelite history. The Passover Lamb cannot be understood without the story of the Exodus, and we can find no translation for such a unique and particular practice. I cite this just as one example – in truth, I would go so far as to say that we must have an almost Pharisaic understanding of the Law of Moses to understand not only Leviticus, Deuteronomy and parts of Exodus, but also the epistles to the Romans and the Galatians, and even the one to the Philippians. Christianity is not a religion “of the book”, but it is a religion with a book. That book is old, but if we are right in saying it is inspired, we cannot change it.

This is not to say that analogues to things like the paschal lamb do not exist. It means that we must always be weary that any analogy we use, any translation we make of the language and of the culture, must be thought of as an imperfect copy. Anybody who has heard a biblical scholars speak will have heard lines like “most translations say … but the Greek/Hebrew says ...” It is part and parcel of translation that we get an imperfect copy, something that hopefully conveys the basics, but it is not the whole thing. Those same biblical scholars will tell us: we need the originals. They really make a difference.

Let me give an instance of where attempts at “dynamical equivalence” have failed. One is in replacing the Trinitarian formula (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) with something else, famously “Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier.” This is a pretty extreme case because there is little sense in which the two are actually equivalent, but it is a good example case because it showcases something I think is important: some complain that “Father, Son and Holy Spirit” is patriarchal because Father and Son are masculine nouns, and God is not really a man. Jesus is, so they might grant “Son”, but not “Father.” That was just their patriarchal culture's way of expressing lordship.

I do not think that this critique is, at bottom, valid. But let me suppose for a moment that it is – so what? If we are to understand what the Trinitarian formula means, we are simply going to have to immerse ourselves in the culture from which we got those words from. We must learn to think like a first century Palestinian Jew to grasp what they mean. If we try and translate it to make it politically correct, trying something like “Parent, Child and Holy Spirit”, we will be losing something. If we try and go for a functional translation, such as “Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier”, then we lose something – probably not the same thing, but something nonetheless.

My point is simple: we are trying to do a noble thing when we take the Gospel, take the fullness of the Christian message and take our theology, into modern language. We have to, really, because mission is what the Church is about. Yet we must be weary about imprecisions that come about, because translations are usually imperfect. Still more weary must we be that we always go back to the original, and ultimately, are capable of relating the original to those we minister to – because it is the original Jesus that we are seeking to bring them, and we are not the ones who get to decide what parts of Jesus Christ of Nazareth belong to him because he is from Nazareth, or which are his because he is the Christ. So we give them the fullness of him, and try and explain as we go along.

Sunday, 16 February 2014

Doctrines qua Data

Whilst I knew that this happened in general, in recent times I have personally been asked and challenged variously to defend the idea of doctrines. Are they not good insofar as they are practical? Are they not vestiges of past authoritarianism, that should now be dispensed with as progress is made? Is it not narrow-minded to see doctrines as true when something new could appear which discounts them? Can you really affirm a doctrine to be true without some other experience of its veracity?

These questions have been timely as I think about what it would mean to have a theology that expresses itself in language and conceptual structures of today (cf. Theology in the Language of Today). I would like to propose tentatively that doctrines could be viewed as the theological analogue of data in the natural sciences. In particular, I will use physics, since it is the sort of data I am most familiar with.

First, what does it mean for something to be data in the natural sciences? Data is the collection of facts that have been observed or measured in a system. In the very simple kinematics problems that are done in high school physics, the data set might be the stopping distance of some cart. The job of the scientist is to take that data, which could be called the "given", and explain why it occurs. A theory in physics is not the concoction of pure thought, but an explanation of empirical data, the starting point of all good science.

Data is hence not opinion. Data is the starting point for science. From the observation that the cart with bigger wheels is going slower when it gets to the bottom of the ramp, one begins to devise a theory that explains it. But the data itself is not science,  even though it is a necessary condition for science. This is why data or evidence is sometimes called the "given", precisely because it must be given to do science.

Data does not only start science, it constrains science. Does a particular scientific theory explain the observable phenomena? If yes, then it might be correct. If not, then it is to be rejected. Furthermore, data modifies or even re-invents theories: the hugely successful theory behind classical mechanics, for instance, was shown to be the limit of the more general theory of quantum mechanics when phenomena started to be observed that did not fit the classical picture. In all of this, however, the data is only added to. Nothing that was genuine data before is now considered non-data.

One moment where data looks like it is rejected is in the case of outliers or systematic error (for instance, faulty apparatus). Outliers are rejected because they are seen as not truly being part of the genuine data set. Similarly, when systematic error is found in an experimental method, setup or execution, the data collected is rejected because it is not real data. Here, by data I mean the actual evidence, what is really empirical, and I will set aside the issue of faulty data.[1]

My proposal is that doctrines are the analogues of data for theology. Let me set aside the epistemic barrier that separates empirical data from theological data (or doctrines), a very important issue. Suppose, also, we do have a clear idea of what doctrines are and are not infallibly defined. If we can assume to have a set of doctrines that have been infallibly taught (an instance might be the doctrine of the Trinity), then the parallel with data is relatively clear: we can talk about a doctrine set (viz a viz data set), about doctrines as the starting point for theology, or doctrines as constraining, modifying and reinventing theology.

For the Catholic, notwithstanding some rough edges, there is a doctrine set which has been infallibly taught. Some doctrines are papal, others conciliar, still others are known to be true without being explicitly defined, but however they are arrived at, the Catholic theologian should consider them to be true. The doctrines of the Church are the starting point, constraints and modifiers of Catholic theology. This view helps explain exactly what the job of the theologian is: just like the scientist with empirical data, the theologian is to start from doctrines and bring them together in a unified way. This could be done in just one field (say, moral theology or Christology) or in a more comprehensive way (like the brilliant work of St Thomas Aquinas).

This view also explains two other phenomena of Catholic life, ones which produce considerable tension: namely, the role of the Magisterium (and in particular, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) as well as the so-called "development of doctrine."

The "Thuggish" Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith

If doctrines are essentially theological data, as empirical data is for the natural sciences, then for a Catholic theologian to go against the truth of doctrines, that is, to be heretical, is essentially the same as for a scientist to produce a theory in contradiction of data. Pseudo-science and pseudo-theology are related by their denial of what the relevant data (empirical or theological) is.  It is no use to deny genuine doctrines in theology in the same way it is pointless to deny genuine data in physics. In this manner, the actions of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, which every so often issues a "Notification" relating to the erroneous propositions asserted by someone alleging to be presenting true Catholic thought, is just as reasonable as the scientific community condemning pseudo-science, like one of the science associations (for example, the American Physical Society) denying that young earth creationism can be thought of as science (not that I know of any time the APS has actually done this).

It is not "thuggish" to do so, as people have at times described the CDFs Notifications; the CDF is simply saying "no, whilst you may have taught this in good will, that particular stance is at variance with the facts; it cannot be taken as actually true." The stakes are much higher in theology than in science, however, as theology is at the heart of the lives of billions of people, and assuming that the Church is right for a moment, her theology has an impact on every human person. If scientific truths were of the significance of theological ones, it would be a moral obligation for the scientific community to issue every so often a condemnation of a particular stance as contrary to the facts of reality. If, as some people have claimed, teaching anti-evolutionism is child abuse, then it must be condemned as erroneous and actively opposed. To do anything less would be to cooperate with evil.

The problem some people have with the CDF is that they think doctrines are about "that which would be nice if true", whereas in fact, doctrines are more like "that which happens to be true." I do not regard all of the Church's doctrines are pleasant, but I do not believe them because they are pleasing to me, but because I consider them to be true. In this way, when some reformer tries, perhaps with the best of intentions, to change the Church by changing her doctrines, the reformer exclaims the scientific equivalent of "oh, but would it not be far better if classical mechanics were true, and not this complicated quantum mechanics!" Perhaps, perhaps not. But we must make do with the world we live in. Indeed, the further argument that claims to know better the mind of God is directly analogous to Einstein's famous statement relating to quantum mechanics that "God does not play dice." The facts of nature and God are both of the sort that regard our whims are largely irrelevant.

The Development of Doctrine

It also explains something else which has begun to be a topic of great interest in the last hundred and fifty years, particularly since Bl. John Henry Newman's An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine: theology seems to change. No Christian theologian actually seems to believe exactly what the Christians in the first and second centuries believed. For instance, whilst I do not deny that the very earliest Christian communities believed in the divinity of Christ, it was not until a few hundred years later that the idea really took force. The Trinity is an even clearer example of development of theology.

It is true that, on the view I have just proposed of doctrines qua data, it makes no sense to talk about doctrines developing, but this seems to be a semantic difference. What Newman meant by the development of doctrine was that doctrines become more detailed and explicit over time - if you like, this is analogous to data being of improved quality as technology advances. In this sense, data allows itself to be "developed", but the underlying idea in Newman's thought is that theology develops.

Theology can develop as more doctrines are discovered. For instance, the Council of Nicea or the Council of Chalcedon, far from hindering the development of Christology, enhanced it. Doctrines produce creativity, they do not deny it, because creativity is about working with the given. Theology without doctrines would be like painting without colours or poetry without words - it would not be fruitful. I am reminded of a lecture given by the musicologist Jeremy Begbie in which he explained that the structure of music allows for freedom, a point echoed in another talk by Con Campbell, where he showed that the structure of jazz music was exactly what allowed for freedom in jazz bands. In this, they both apply that famous line of Jesus, that "the truth will set you free."

Of course, theology is not entirely about creativity, since in an artistic sense, creativity is about producing whatever is imagined, whereas theology is about discovering things that are true. Still, for development in theology to happen, creativity is to be possible, and for creativity to be possible, doctrines are important. The view of doctrines as data facilitates the connection between what is true and what could be true, by showing that doctrines are not stoppers to theology but the beginning of it.

Concluding Note

The idea of doctrines as (theological) data could be the starting point for a fruitful theology, though I doubt it is incredibly new. I am not aware of anyone else who has proposed it, although Bernard Lonergan may have, since from what I know about his epistemology, this view fits quite nicely. Alister McGrath may also have proposed it in his trilogy A Scientific Theology, but I have not read that yet. It is unlikely to be a very old idea, because "doctrines qua data" seems to be a framework that arises most naturally out of a post-scientific revolution culture. We now live in a culture, at least in the West, where the highest authority is science. For precisely this reason, the more scientific approach of viewing doctrines as analogous to how empirical data functions in the natural sciences may well be a fruitful manner of presenting the teaching of the Church to a scientific culture.


[1] If you are convinced that bad data ruins the parallel, or shows that the idea of doctrine is defective, then I would say this: bad data is like bad doctrine. In the Christian tradition, outliers would correspond to wacky Christian thinkers of ages past, or just their abnormal thought in one area. Origen, for instance, could be thought of as an outlier to be rejected on some issues. Systematic error arises out of getting doctrines in the wrong way - for instance, one might think of some heretical "council" as a good source of doctrine, where in actual fact, that council lacks the proper apostolic authority.

Saturday, 18 January 2014

Theology in the Language of Today

It is imperative for the Church in all times and places to be in dialogue without the culture of the world, and therefore for the Church to be able to couch her theology in the language of the world. Christians have done this to varying degrees of success over the ages. Part of the problem is that each society has a multi-layered culture which incorporates a different lexicon, and so the "vernacular" changes depending on who one is speaking to.

Why is contemporary language important? Many reasons spring to mind: one cannot truly believe what one does not understand, one will not learn what one cannot understand, mental barriers emerge when somebody uses language that is foreign. In this sense, relatable language is evangelical.

Another important reason is that language furnishes our conceptual framework. According to some people (in particular, adherents to linguistic determinism), the grammar and vocabulary of a language structures and could even limit and determine human knowledge and thought. Even if a theory of strong linguistic determinism is false, it remains clearly true that language provides clarity to concepts which would be too vague to communicate otherwise. Since language defines concepts for communication, it follows that understandable language is crucial for communication of the Gospel.

The fact that concepts appear in linguistic form is part of the reason why Christians have been hesitant to translate their conceptual frameworks into the vernacular of an age: precision arises when one uses a particular language, and dead languages have the bonus of remaining static and precise. Ecclesiastical Latin is an instance of a language the Church has declared "sacred", simply for the reason that theology most precise in Latin, in part because much theology was developed in Latin, in part because it is now dead and immutable.

This hesitation is not without due reason, as the East-West schism shows: according to the 1995 document "The Greek and Latin Traditions Regarding the Procession of the Holy Spirit" from the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, the famous filioque clause which separates the Western and Eastern Church doctrinally may not be a doctrinal difference at all, but a linguistic issue. "Procedere" has been used to translate "ἐκπορεύεσθαι" and "προϊέναι", whereas only the latter translation would reflect the doctrine affirmed by the Catholic Church, the former indeed being heretical. Whilst the East-West schism is more complicated historically than one simple doctrinal difference, the filioque controversy does indeed highlight the problems that can result when doctrines readily understood in one language are transferred to another. Less fundamental issues may well lie at the heart of other doctrines, such as papal infallibility, as John Ford points out in a recent article.[1]

Whilst theological orthodoxy is important, it is no substitute for the essence of the Church's apostolate, which is its missionary commission. So the Church must, despite risks, translate her theology into language which can be understood by the receivers of her missionary impulse. Who are these people? The Church's "preferential option for the poor", as well as her Master's anointing "to preach good news to the poor" (Luke 4:17, quoting Isaiah) makes clear that those who live in poverty are the first port of call for the missionary Church. So language appropriate to that context is required, and a rhetoric which is intelligible to the poor necessary.

Without minimizing the important duty towards the poor, the missionary comission is to preach the Gospel to all the nations, which includes those that are not marked distinctly by poverty (understood at least in part in material terms). This means that other groups need the Gospel translated into language fitting for their context - including my own, the analytic tradition in philosophy and the natural sciences. What does it mean to couch Christian theological concepts in the language and vocabulary of these groups?

I will not here embark on such a monumental project, although any Christian who lives in a particular cultural context must address the issue of formulating the core tenets of Christianity at some point, lest they deny their core vocation as Christians as missionaries. What I will do is make a few comments about past re-formulations of Christian theology, and ones underway at present.

It is important to note that this has been done before, in the hands of one of the greatest theological minds in the Western tradition, St Thomas Aquinas. In his day, Greek philosophy was the prevailing intellectual norm, and his Christianizing of Aristsotelian philosophy has profoundly marked the Western Church. St Thomas therefore presents us with the paradigmatic case of theology in dialogue with philosophy, even the philosophy of pagans like the ancient Greeks. It is true that some elements of Aristotelianism had to be condemned, but it equally true that the insights of Aristotle were important for theology, and if nothing else, allowed greater intellectual rigor in Christian theology.

Unfortunately, a large portion of Catholic philosophy has attempted to emulate St Thomas' Aristotelianism in a time in which it is untenable, instead of taking the dialogue insight and Christianizing the new "pagan philosophy." Just like in St Thomas' time, there will be many sceptics that such a venture is possible - a quick look at the Condemnations at the University of Paris will suffice to show that they abounded - and yet he managed to pull of an incredible feat. We must now turn to modern philosophy to see how current language can be used to express Christian truths, and so give renewed intellectual rigor to Christianity. The work of saints like St Edith Stein and St John Paul II are good places to start in the continental tradition's sub-area of phenomenology (I am unaware of any analytic philosophers in phenomenology), and perhaps John Joseph Haldane and Richard Swinburne, not to mention the Protestants Alvin Plantinga and William Lane Craig, can form some sort of beginning of the analytic tradition's side of things.

The natural sciences must also be addressed with the eye's of a theologian, and I can think of no better starting place than the Anglican theologian Alister McGrath's trilogy A Scientific Theology, which I have the treat of delving into his first volume later on this year. Just like Greek philosophy might have been considered out of bounds for theology because it was pagan, so now the naturalism that prevails in scientific circles should not deter Christians from entering into it with the firm convictions of Christ.

I do not know what form a scientific theology would take, and yet it is undoubtedly necessary for a fruitful dialogue between religion and science, which is probably considered the most important intellectual authority in the West today. I do not know what an analytical philosophical theology would look like, and yet for intellectual dialogue between Christianity and what probably should be considered the highest intellectual authority, philosophy, it is crucial.

I find myself in the strange position of being in the middle of the three: a Christian, and therefore a theologian, a philosopher, and a scientist. Whilst this characterization is certainly unfair, some might consider my area of science the very pinnacle - physics - if only because of the reductionism that is virally present in society. Misconceptions notwithstanding, if it is the case that I continue to learn about these fields of study upon which I am embarked, I should in principle be particularly capable of the task at hand. It is not a nice idea; it is a necessary one.

[1] Ford, John, "Infallibility - terminology, textual analysis and theological interpretation - a response to Mark Powell", Theological Studies, 74 (2013).

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

The Truth, The Way, and The Life - a striking claim

As a student of both the natural sciences and philosophy (the latter of which I hope everyone is), I had to figure out what exactly I wanted to find out with my studies. Was it the right arguments to defend my position? Did I want to justify myself? Or did I want to be cool, learn the jargon of physics and philosophy, and impress my friends?

The difficult thing with both of these, is that if done properly, all of these desires are dispelled. One cannot honestly consider issues in science, ethics, epistemology, ontology or indeed theology, and expect to quickly learn how to defend a previously held position. Philosophy, when done right, renews one's mind. Examination of philosophy is the grandest cure for naïvety that the human race has come up with - nothing is left unchallenged. Physics goes even futher. At least it is conceivable that a philosopher remain dogmatic, but the natural world does not care what we think. It simply is. Our notions cannot be left unchallenged.

So what can a truth seeker think when reading the gospel according to St John, the fourteenth chapter? Well, one thing is certain. Such a claim is quite unparalleled in history. Yet it is also rather odd. Scientists vary in exactly how they interpret their work, but one way of thinking of physics is by saying that the equations and concepts developed are our way of understanding what exists.* Here is a man, however, declaring that he himself is the truth. Not something exterior - the fullness of truth in a person. Completely unlike anything I can grasp! The big question of epistemology, "what is true, and what can we, or do we, know?", embodied in a person.

Very well then, if we believe this man (which by now, it should be clear is Jesus of Nazareth), how are we to respond? I can barely grasp what it means for this bloke to be the Truth, but to take a line from the Scottish philosopher David Hume, one cannot deduce an ought from an is. The truth, what exists and is, does not necessarily tell you how things should be, the ought. However, Jesus does not stop there. He claims also to be "the way". The big question of ethics, "how should one live?", answered again by saying that he is the manner one should live. Ridiculous...isn't it?

For some reason, Christians have a tendency to latch on to the last bit - Jesus as a life-giver. This is, of course, crucial, because without this the first two are pointless - but without the first two, the last one is pointless too. Life finds its meaning in truth and the way it ought to be. Jesus says he offers all three.

The Christian response is belief. But everyone has to try and figure out why this man says the things he does. If he is wrong, then who cares? Yet such a striking claim merits consideration. And if he is right, if he speaks the truth, then who could possibly remain unchanged?

* I am an instrumentalist, which essentially means that I think that science discovers the best way of modelling and thinking of phenomena, without necessarily being an objective portrayal of reality as is. Hence, this is not quite my view, but it certainly seems to be the lay-person view and of many of my peers.