Friday, October 17, 2008

Chapter Nine: Hypothesizing the Cross as Supreme Answer

Walter Kaufmann wrote in his Critique of Philosophy and Religion, “If a man accepts a religious proposition as true, it is hardly ever after having first considered it as a hypothesis…[for which he] found compelling evidence through an impartial inquiry.”1 Kaufmann had the following point in mind:

Few religious people have studied comparative religion, and hardly any have attained their beliefs as a result of such study: yet this would be de rigeur if the religious person’s attitude toward the religious propositions he believes were at all similar to the historian’s or the scientist’s…”2

Surely Kaufmann was correct in asserting that few religious persons study comparative religion in order to discover which (if any) religious claims are most compelling. Nevertheless, it does not follow that that course of action should “be de rigeur” for religious persons. The problem with the statement is that it is intended as a criticism of religion that religious persons’ attitudes toward their beliefs are, usually, very different from scholars’ attitudes towards their beliefs. But if the point of view produced by the examination of our text to this point is at all accurate, we see that it is essential to Christian belief—and I do not attempt to speak for other religions—to provoke a change in the way a person understands wisdom. Accordingly, it is a crucial misunderstanding to cite the difference in how scholars and (most) religious persons attain their beliefs as a criticism of, at least, Christian belief. For any criticism of how Christians ideally attain their belief must begin by taking into account the goal of “the message of the cross,” not to proceed with scholarly inquiry as though beliefs about Julius Caesar and Jesus Christ are of the same species and so can be approached with similar kinds of analysis. Soren Kierkegaard gave a name to that mistake: “counterfeit earnestness.”3 By it he meant appearing to consider faith when in reality the question of faith has been set aside in favor of doing historical or philosophical research.

The point is especially critical with our focal text, since the implied reference of “the truth,” given the full context of The Gospel According to John, is the truth “about God.” For God is neither an object in the world in any ordinary sense of the terms, nor is God an object of impartial inquiry, if known through faith. In fact, when Christian Scripture is understood from within its most basic thematic perspective, its goal is to convert a person to a Christian point of view, the very power of which is lost, the Apostle Paul tells us, if it is approached as an element of “worldly wisdom.” In that light, holding up impartial inquiry as the means by which belief in the message of the cross is to be approached is to completely miss the intended impact of the Christian message.

Yet in saying that, the same questions that have been preoccupying us emerge once again, and with renewed force: “What does that mean?!” and consequently, “What is truth?” if this is so? Bluntly, to insist that Christian faith transforms a person’s worldview does not excuse Christians from producing a coherent account of what truth means from their perspective. To that we turn.

If Jesus’ silence before Pilate following his famous question is Christianity’s most famous silence, second in line would be the silence of St. Thomas following mass on the day of the feast of St. Nicholas in 1273. In Josef Pieper’s book titled The Silence of St. Thomas, he wrote, “…as Thomas turned back to his work after Holy Mass, he was strangely altered. He remained steadily silent; he did not write; he dictated nothing. He laid aside the Summa Theologica…”4 Thomas’ great Summa was not only his magnum opus, it was and may still be the most ambitious work ever attempted in Christian philosophical theology. And so we confront a remarkable fact. One of the greatest minds in the history of Western thought abruptly gave up the culmination of his life’s work when he was given a perspective from which to compare its value against that of revelation.

Quoting from the acts of Thomas’ canonization report, Pieper cites the words of Thomas himself. (Thomas’ words here were recalled by his friend and secretary, Reginald.) “All that I have written seems to me [to be] nothing but straw…compared to what I have seen, and what has been revealed to me.”5 Recall Christopher Hitchens’ view that the role of the public intellectual is to take us beyond the anti-intellectualism of religious “babble.” In contrast to Hitchens’ view, St. Thomas indicated that his greatest intellectual achievement, arguably the greatest intellectual achievement of the Medieval Period, was “as straw” compared to the revelation of God that he had experienced.

The contrast provides a good example of how Christian faith forces a basic choice about how human beliefs are oriented. Whereas Hitchens sees expressions of faith in revealed religion as “rubbish” that should be discarded in favor of scientific understanding, St. Thomas saw the height of human intellectual achievement—philosophical theology was the highest form of “science” in his day—as “straw” when compared to revelation. Thus, the Christian faith’s second most famous silence stands as a direct counterclaim to the positivistic view that human intellectual achievement eclipses revelation. And yet, again, “What does that mean?!”

If religious faith based on revelation is to be meaningful and compelling, it must have a meaningful and compelling source, and that presents an interesting challenge to anyone who has not experienced a revelation on the order of the one that Thomas claimed to have had. The problem can be succinctly stated. If religion proposes a transcendent truth for one’s belief, how can that proposition be meaningful for someone whose experience lies entirely this side of the transcendent? In fact, how can transcendent truth even be written or spoken about? On its face, the very idea of uttering a meaningful transcendent truth seems incoherent. With that in mind, Thomas’ despair that his life work was but “straw” in comparison to what was revealed to him seems to provide a compelling example of the futility of trying to grasp transcendent truth. This, however, is not a view that a Christian can accept. It seemingly supports Richard Dawkins’ view that no meaningful response can be given to how revelation answers questions beyond the realm of science.

But what if Christian belief does not and cannot have an intellectual preamble, when that is understood as a cogent rationale for why a person should believe? And what if Christian unbelief does not and cannot have an intellectual preamble, if that is understood as a cogent explanation of why a person should not believe? What if, instead, the message of the cross confronts humanity with one claim on how a person ought to live, and human nature itself incorporates an exclusive alternative claim? If so, one can meaningfully engage Christian belief by faith, and one can meaningfully reject faith, but no alternative apart from engaging faith or not is available. We would have, in facing the question of engaging faith or not, a true dilemma in the form of a supreme question, a question the answer to which determines what it means to be a human being, in the most basic sense. That, I shall argue, is the correct point of view for understanding Christian belief. It is a point of view that sees faith as one of only two possible core expressions of human nature.

We must examine that claim in the following chapters. But in closing this chapter two further observations should be made. First, the theory of Christian faith as the supreme question would explain why Christians—and again, I write as a Christian and cannot speak for persons who hold faiths deriving from other traditions—do not typically examine their faith the way scholars examine proposed beliefs in their disciplines. In fact, the hypothesis of the supreme question makes the question of Christian faith into a pure existential question, not a scholarly one. That answers Kaufmann’s criticism with which we began this chapter, and so explains the enigma that Christians assert the highest importance to their belief and yet typically forego rigorous research into its truth or falsity. The meaning of Christian faith would be found in its proposing that the central question and concern of human life is to be found in the message of the cross.

Thus, a further clarification must be made on the basis of our hypothesis. No intellectual preamble can be used to make the Supreme Answer less than an expression of faith; yet for it to be an “authentic” expression of faith, it must be a response to a true existential predicament. Consequently, it must be the case that Christian faith stands upon a fissure at the core of human nature, and one that cannot be repaired, except by faith. And that, it turns out is something that we can, and will, check for veracity.

And yet, if Christian faith demonstrably addresses such an exclusive existential dilemma, the theory of the supreme question provides an explanation of Christian faith as it is actually believed and experienced by Christians. Whether that in turn provides a meta-rationale for faith is itself a question of faith, and thus does not contradict the view that there can be no intellectual preamble to faith. However, faith in the meaning delivered to humanity through the message of the cross must present a coherent resolution to the proposed existential predicament inherent in human nature. In effect, to engage faith in the message of the cross is to see it as the Supreme Answer.

To draw out the lineaments of this “theory of the supreme question,” five ways of approaching it, taken from philosophical theology literature, widely construed, follow. Each perspective contributes to the theory, when understood by means of it, despite the fact that, on the surface, each poses a challenge to it.

1. Walter Kaufmann, Critique of Religion and Philosophy, (Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1990) p. 105-6.
2. Ibid, p. 106.
3. Soren Kierkegaard, Philosophical Fragments. Tr. David Swenson, (Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1936) p. 87.
4. Josef Pieper, The Silence of St. Thomas (St. Augustine’s Press, South Bend, 1999) p. 39.
5. Ibid, p.40.

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