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« Austenland | Main | Fr. Tom Hopko on Philosophy, Reason, and Faith »

Final, I hope, thoughts on abstract theologizing: the Lamp

[July 19, 2013. If you want to follow the conversation in order and read all the comments, here is the original post that Rod put on his blog; and here’s the link if you’d just like to read only what I said (the original post and followup responses).]

There were a flood of comments to the post on Rod’s blog, and the discussion went in all sorts of directions, but I had the feeling my central point wasn’t being understood—probably because my original post (a hasty email to Rod) was ranty and overstated. I hope it’s not unfair to say, but I kept noticing commenters who appeared to be ignoring the point I was actually making, in favor of a point they wished I’m made, because it would be stupid and easy to ridicule. Well, what can you do. (It kind of proves my point about peer pressure, though…see below.)

On the other hand, the point I was actually making may have been so unfamiliar and strange to them that they just couldn’t grasp it. In our culture, it’s just unheard of for anyone to criticize purely intellectual theorizing. It’s an occupation that is regarded as so lofty and admirable.

I’ve tried in various ways to clarify my point and make it more briefly and accurately that I did in the initial hot-headed post. But, well, here’s one more try. What I wanted to defend was the idea that theology must be approached prayerfully, and not as if it were an objective science.

When theology is connected with adoration of God, love of God, expectation of his love, humble seeking of the Holy Spirit’s help (the Spirit “will guide you into all the truth,” John 16:13), it is like plugging a lamp into a socket. The circuit is made, and your mind—your receptive, perceptive mind, not the analytical one—is flooded with illumination. If your insight was authentic, it will bear fruit in your life and the lives of others down the centuries. That’s why we continue to read the Church Fathers and Desert Fathers: the insights they give continue to illuminate us.

But if no connection with God is sought, if it’s just you and your high IQ, you’re left with a lamp that may well be complicated or aesthetically pleasing, but it isn’t doing what it’s supposed to do. And if you get too absorbed in studying the rivets that hold the lamp together, and arguing with other experts about the metal composition of the lamp, it can be actually detrimental to your mind. You can latch onto theological ideas that are, in fact, not accurate, and refuse to let them go. I think we’ve seen this a few times in church history.

The further point I tried to make, and maybe can’t express, is that focusing on philosophy / theology only in the abstract seems also to be detrimental to your heart. People don’t do theology in a vacuum but in a community with other theological thinkers, where there’s jealousy, vanity, hurt pride, all those things. And the climate can easily get ugly. Oddly enough, it can result in people investing great emotion into things that aren’t even logical—though they pride themselves on being practioners of the art of exacting, logical truth. I told the story of how seminarians cheered an elderly professor for “zinging” me, even though his remarks were not coherent or relevant to anything I’d written. People just don’t realize how much peer pressure, the desire for peer acclamation, influences them.

Our ability to reason is as damaged as anything else, after the Fall. I think where people get confused is that you can set up a syllogism and it makes perfect sense within its own universe. The problem is that the terms don’t correspond to reality. They omit many, many subtle factors. This is why great thinkers disagree so vehemently, when the logical sequence of their arguments makes perfect sense within their own biodome world.

The bent toward purely theoretical theology is something that surprises people who come from an Eastern Christian tradition. This never took hold in the East, but theology was always conditioned by communion with God. (As Orthodox theologians participate and write in Western settings, they tend to assume the prevailing terms of culture, though.)

Many believe this change got under way with St. Thomas Aquinas in the 13th c. I heard somebody say that you can notice such a difference btw St Augustine (4th-5th c) and Aquinas. Augustine does theology within a mental setting of prayer and adoration; with Aquinas, it became an objective science, based on the fallacy that you can talk about God while he’s out of the room. And, as I pointe out, at the end of his life, Aquinas had a vision, and afterward abandoned his theological writing. He said that all that intellectual labor now seemed to him like straw. His words should be framed on the wall anytime anyone does theology.

Fr. Tom Hopko addressed the falleness of reason in more direct words than mine; see the accompanying post.


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Reader Comments (3)

Hello Frederica--can you post a link to the original story/blog in question?
July 29, 2013 | Unregistered Commenternina
Not to be dismissive, but those who critique Aquinas for being too scholastic/theoretical often have not read his writings, his works on prayer, his allegorical interpretations of Scripture, his musical settings...I could go on. His Summa's (both of theology and contra gentiles) were supposed to be an apologetics resource and a textbook for the training of theology students. They are not the sum total of his theology. When one considers how often Aquinas appeals to the Church Fathers (especially with Dionysius the Areopagite), I think this claim becomes spurious at best.

You must also, if one is to be fair on this matter, chuck out John of Damascus as well. Very scholastic, very philosophical, very logical. Gregory of Nyssa's conception of infinity had an immense influence on later Christian theology...but it is also based upon philosophical reasoning to clarify theological concepts. The same goes with Basil the Great's On the Holy Spirit, where he argues from Scripture for the full divinity of the Holy Spirit. The great Catechetical School of Alexandria, which many Saints studied at, had a rigorous curriculum in philosophy and the humanities.

All of these thinkers engaged in "theoretical" theology. All were philosophically rigorous. And yet all of them (including Aquinas and the great scholastics) were marked by a deep and intense prayer life combined with ascetical living. I fully believe, with Balthasar, that we sorely need praying theologians. Yet I also believe it is a false dichotomy to contrast that with highly intellectual, theoretical theology.

On another note: I would also kindly point out to Fr. Hopko that the paraphrase "constantly in labor and never give birth." is actually from Gregory of Nyssa in The Life of Moses, not from Gregory the Theologian.
July 30, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterShane
Shane, I appreciate how frustrating that is, especially when you know the author well and can sense the warmth of his faith even in the Summa. Without making him the sole author of the shift, I think we can notice that there *is* a shift in tone that begins around his time, and gets much more pronounced with the Reformation, when arguing about theological points in a theoretical way becomes really the expected stance. It's different in Orthodoxy, as you probably know, where people might be actively killing each other, but assume that they all share the same faith, that only one Christian faith is possible.

While the division between head and heart begins about Aquinas' time, but it is not necessary to present him as the sole author, or as a malevolent person. He was a saint with profound experience of God, I believe; the crowning vision at the end of his life could only come to one who had cultivated the soil well.
July 30, 2013 | Registered CommenterFrederica
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