Friday, December 4, 2009

Being Wrong about Being Right and the Mystery of Being

Clearly St. Thomas was correct to stress the importance of teaching a subject "according to the order of the subject matter." I have soberly quoted that remark from the Prologue to the Summa Theologica before, and before I go on, let me stress that I have tremendous respect for the Saint's work, even where I think he got it wrong. That said, a funny thought occurred to me this morning. Theology may well be the most disputed "subject" of all time! How then can one be sure that one's own point of view is the right one with respect to God? Now, I'm well aware of how St. Thomas ordered his theology--he began with positions on theology as a science and then went directly to his famous "Five Ways" (of proving God's existence), followed by arguments establishing God's simplicity, infinity, goodness, and so on.

Well, it certainly was not for lack of effort, but neither in his time or any time since has St. Thomas' views on theology caused widespread agreement on the subject. That's a cheap shot, in the sense that his views deserve respect--and I do respect them--but it nevertheless needs to be made: What's the use of teaching theology if it never clears up anything--at least beyond the mind of the person who espouses the view? It would be foolish not to ask that question.

That spurred this further thought. Perhaps it is inherent in the subject of "God" that there cannot be agreement, for this reason: God is a mystery. Certainly St. Thomas would have endorsed that: "...[humanity] is directed to God as to an end that surpasses the grasp of[its] reason." (ST, I,I,I.) His theology--this most reasoned of theologies--is an ordered dance around a subject that cannot ever, really, be known. Real agreement requires a subject that is known and thereby supplies the substance of what is agreed.

Augustine's argument from the Confessions that we looked at, in a couple of versions in past posts, takes this a step further. What is "always before" has never entered into time (for those of you who are not practiced in such abstractions, if it had, it could not be before each and every moment of time, from everlasting to everlasting, if necessary). And what does not enter time does not enter human understanding--for reasons outlined in the argument in previous posts. Because Augustine sets up his understanding of how God's relationship with creation is to be understood in light of this point of view, he essentially makes mystery the starting point of his understanding of theology.

If you like irony or paradox, that's a fine instance of both. It's the same as what we noted for St. Thomas; just arrived at a bit differently. The genius of Augustine, however, is evident in that he shows that our understanding of this world implies a real mystery beyond it as its source. He thereby arrives at what everyone has always called God by arriving at a mystery beyond our understanding. What we know is grounded in what we cannot know. Now that's REAL paradox!

It brings us right back to our opening thoughts, only with a vengeance: How can we be "right" about our musings on "mystery?" It seems incoherent, and I believe it actually is.

If I had to pick the prototype for biblical revelation, the giving of the Ten Commandments would be my choice. And as soon as that is stated, we are confronted with the prohibitions on the making of false gods and of having any gods before God. Surely it is odd to think of making something we can't understand. I think that's the point. The act of making and the fact of being false are inextricably tied with respect to God. Mystery cannot be represented. Beyond that, the Creator cannot be created. At least, the Creator conceived as the mystery that is "always before," and so cannot enter time as a creature cannot be created. These thoughts are not theology as neology; it's as old as the Bible.

Consequently, all true biblical theology is negative theology. Negative theology is the background to Job, chronologically the first book of the Bible. It tells us what we cannot know about God. Smug conceit about God is not just wrong, it's idolatrous. Moreover, avoiding this heresy of biblical heresies--idolatrous conceit about God--ought to be the starting point for any thinking about God.

There, I've said it. We have a starting point now, and I hope you will believe me when I say it's called Christianity--at least when it's properly understood, which is very far from always being the case... I arrive at that claim with a quote from Paul Tillich, which is tied to my understanding of faith in the way the writer of Deuteronomy intended when he wrote that God's commands are to be tied to our hands:

"The criterion of the truth of that it implies an element of self-negation. That symbol is most adequate which expresses not only the ultimate but its own lack of ultimacy. Christianity expresses itself in such a symbol...namely, in the Cross of Christ. Jesus could not have been the Christ without sacrificing himself as Jesus to himself as the Christ. Any acceptance of Jesus as the Christ which is not the acceptance of Jesus the crucified is a form of idolatry." (Dynamics of Faith, 97-8.)

I believe that my analogy between my use of Tillich's words here and the writer of Deuteronomy's words is apt, in that the cross is the ultimate, the final, the core, the overriding revelation from a Christian standpoint, and Tillich makes the right case for understanding the cross as the final revelation: we sacrifice our right to create gods in our image when we understand what it means to have faith in God. And if we do not understand that, we do not understand God as both clear thinking and the biblical witness require us to: God is NOT what we would make God out to be. Again, that is idolatry, the core heresy of the biblical witness.

In a final point, this is tied also to the view that God is love. To think that I am right is to think that I have a standpoint against which others can be known to be wrong. From that point of epistemic privilege I can look down on others, who are not right. What better form of justification for treating others badly than to be right about ultimate truth over against which they are wrong?! There is no mystery about why religion and ideals generally are the source of much that is truly worst in human nature. But if I am looking at this question clearly, Christian faith--and I do not speak for or against the many religions I do not understand well enough to appreciate properly--ought to be the cure for that all too human illness.

To say that God is love is to say that I have no basis in the Great Mystery of being to critique you, only to love you as a fellow traveler in this world--this house for our mortality provided by that source of being that is always before us, but never understood, yet always implied in all our understanding.

I truly think Augustine and Tillich are good guides to helping us think as Christians. I think they point us to the correct starting point. But it is a starting point that ought to make us exceedingly humble about our approach to God. For though that starting point gives us more than enough for faith, we are mistaken if we think it gives us enough to judge others as wrong relative to our point of view. In that case we are wrong about being right, and the mystery of being convicts us of our conceit. There is no conceit in the Cross of Christ.

It might well have become obscured that I have been thinking about how to teach Christian faith to young people over the course of these last half dozen posts. In the comment to the last post I indicated that i would not be posting again for a couple of months. My failure to make the point of this post, about the incompatibility of conceit and Christian faith, made it imperative for me to do so. In fact, as I hope is now clear, the starting point in teaching Christian faith should be precisely that.

This may well be my final post, ever, in that once one has made the most important point, it seems rather pointless to continue. And in terms of the purpose of this little blog, it is to get a few people thinking about this crucial topic, which I will state once more: how do we teach Christian faith to young people. There are few topics more important in the minds of my Christian friends, I would think.

Best wishes for Christmas and the holidays!