Monday, June 25, 2012

A Little Tent in the Agora

"Who is wise and understanding among you?" (James 3:13, RSV)
The first set of crossroads I suggested that theologians face is the decision whether theology (and faith) has to do with knowledge that is publically available to the faithful or whether it is a secret wisdom accessible to a select minority of spiritually gifted individuals --  and who, perhaps, might attain this gnosis through certain ascetical or mystical practices.  I made a clear choice for the first option.
But that claim raises a related question:  If the faith content of theology is publically available in the church's proclamation and teaching, why limit this knowledge to the faithful, to the committed, to believers? Shouldn't it be possible, in principle, for a pagan, a Buddhist or an atheist to understand the claims of the faith, even if she should choose to reject them as false?
One might frame the decision like this:  (1) Does Christian theology make any sense, conceptually and existentially, to those outside the Christian fold?  Or (2) must one already have to have Christian faith, in some form, for theological claims to have any real meaning?
This is a tough set of questions, indeed.  Christian thinkers often want to connect their work, somehow, with other arenas of human inquiry.  "Scientific" inquiry (and I'm including the humanities here, not just the natural sciences) purports to conform to public criteria for truth and to advance claims that can be verified or falsified.  And that seems reasonable enough, but the matter turns out to be not so simple.
Do you remember that show on PBS with the British guy who would walk around English fields and graveyards chatting about all these disparate things and how they connect?  He might start out with a patch of clover or dandelions and proceed to discuss Copernicus and then move on to the invention of movable type and, by the end of it, he'd be talking about space stations and how they could create artificial gravity by rotating on their axes.  (Copernicus and the space station idea have always fascinated me, but the part about flora, not so much).  Wouldn't it be cool if theology were something like that?
A number of theologians, and not just "liberals", stress that Christian truth claims should be open to broad public scrutiny; theology, as it were, should obey some sort of metaphysical sunshine law.  Some of these thinkers style themselves as apologists, laying out "evidence that demands a verdict," and some of them are smarter than Josh McDowell.
Others purport to go about this business in a more systematic and academic manner, proffering arguments and conclusions that, in principle, any well informed reader should be able to assess.  Such a commitment is evident, for example, in the way N.T. Wright makes historical claims and  draws theological conclusions from them.  (Thus, Wright reasons: Jesus' resurrection is historically factual, and dead people don't typically come back to life, so the God of Israel must be up to something new and interesting).
Academic theologians, understandably, are often at some pains to set Christian knowledge within the broadest possible context of human inquiry.  Representatives of this effort include, for example, the Harvard theologian Gordon Kaufmann and, to some extent, one of my own former teachers, Prof. David Tracy.  (Tracy's take on this is actually fairly subtle, and you can learn more about it in his books The Analogical Imagination and Plurality and Ambiguity. He argues that theologians have three distinct audiences: the church, the academy and the general public).
At the other end of the spectrum are those who say no to the first question and yes to the second:  In other words, theology is an inside-out deal intellectually.  A living faith is the condition for the possibility for theological thought.  Those who are the most consistent are often called "fideists" -- most typically used as a negative label (just like "tailgater" has become, in our language, a term of opprobrium.  I grew up near Auburn University in Alabama, where tailgating is an honored tradition on Saturday afternoons in the fall.) 
Fideism might be paraphrased: "faith-only-ism."  A quintessential writer associated with this approach was the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, who argued that faith resides in an intense, inner self awareness and apprehension of the truth rather than in vain and speculative philosophical systems.  The basic claim here is that apprehending Christian truth is a matter of life and death.  This business is intrinsically self involving.  It's impossible for anyone to have a neutral stance toward the faith, to stand apart from its radical claims as a mere observer (like the Greek philosophers in Acts 17 who told Paul, basically, "Resurrection, eh? We'll get back to you on that one after we've finished our Sunday Athens Times crossword puzzle and taken our naps).
The very term "fideism" -- and especially the opprobrium heaped upon "fideists" -- is problematic in my view.  It raises the question whether "objective" and disinterested knowledge is possible in any human sphere.  This gets into a really tired old debate.  I'm not a philosopher and don't have the chops to really engage this question, and I don't plan to waste any more cyberspace on it here.
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Better just to start over, I think.  Instead of trying to settle once for all where faith and theology belong on the map of human understanding, maybe we can discuss faith claims in a more modest way.  We can look at theology phenomenologically -- that is to say, trying to clarify how this mode of inquiry presents itself to us in real life.
A simple yet evocative definition of faith with a long historical pedigree is this: "faith seeking understanding."  The basic insight here is generally attributed to Augustine of Hippo (d. 430 AD), who wrote in a sermon, "Believe in order that you may understand" (quoted here:
Still, the phrase itself, in the Latin original, is attributed to Anselm of Canterbury (d. 1109 AD).  (Anselm, incidentally, is one of the few Christian theologians whom contemporary philosophers continue to find interesting.  For more, see
This definition, I would argue, is a considerable improvement over the more abstract "reasoned discourse about God," because it advances a significant normative claim while remaining open to a broad variety of interpretations within specific contexts.  It is a conception of theology that is both rooted in basic Christian confession and also makes room for questioning and exploration.  You can read an excellent contemporary articulation of this tradition posted by our friends at Die Evangelischen Theologen (
The notion of theology as "Faith seeking understanding," though, does introduce two more problems  -- namely, just what do we mean by the terms "faith" and "understanding"?
Well, perhaps a preliminary definition of a "theology of freedom" would include the freedom not to obsess too much about these questions.


  1. My apologies: The "links" in the post aren't proper links. You'll have to copy those addresses into your address bar. I'm still learning.

  2. Hi, Scott, I think in the 5th to last para you meant to say evocative definition of theology not of faith.

    I am with Kierkegaard in the life-and-death business.

    In considering the public vs. esoteric question have you inquired into Jesus' always teaching in parables, so that his message could be hidden from the wise? How do you respond to his praying, "Father, I thank you that you have revealed to children," etc.

    What does theology do with theologians like Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross and their stages, or as Teresa puts it, rooms?

    Lastly, consider the silver apple of rabbinic teaching. You have to look at it long and hard before finally you notice the silver is actually a fine mesh covering up a gold apple.

    Thanks for starting this blog! I love the name.

    Love, Pat

  3. Hi Pat -- yes, of course, "theology" not faith. Faith = Faith seeking understanding doesn't make any sense.

    Good questions. My two cents:

    1) As I read the gospels, when the evangelists recount the parables, they assume that the reader/auditor (who, presumably, has been catechized and baptized)has the "key" to interpreting the parables. That key is the gospel itself. So, to be brief, the messianic mystery in Mark focuses on Jesus' identity as the crucified king. An influential modern tendency among NT scholars is to distinguish Jesus' original meaning in the parables in their original context from the way the evangelists are using the material. I think it is an appropriate question to ask, but from what I've read along these lines, the results are pretty inconclusive. Crossan, I believe, was a pioneer of this method and scholars like Brandon Scott - and many others - have run with it.

    2) The other thing to stress is that I'm not trying to preclude growth in wisdom within the life of faith. Obviously, God's truth, if it were revealed to us, would be the sort of thing that would require us to grow into, that would require continuous conversion (in the sense of "metanoia").

    Take Origen of Alexandria. He pioneered the 4-fold model of interpretation of scripture that dominated interpretation until the Reformation (and is still very influential beyond the Protestant churches). One of the senses of scripture, for him, was geared to growing deeper and deeper in wisdom, something in which some folks have progressed further than others. Still, Origen opposed the Gnostics in their esoteric tendency. In his wake, Christian exegetes throughout the middle ages did reaffirm that the "literal" sense of scripture is the baseline for interpretation.

    3) Of course there is a tension here, which your question about the mystics points up. I'm not very qualified to talk about them, but I doubt that they would say that the kinds of experiences they're sharing are necessary for salvation, nor that genuine knowledge of God is impossible without such experiences. Some mystics, I think, do go pretty far in the direction of upholding a kind of gnosis that takes one far affield from the public meaning of the faith -- I wonder if, e.g., Eckhart doesn't go too far sometimes. But I'd have to be instructed by someone who knows this material a lot better than I.


  4. Perhaps obsession with the search could be a dangerous and dead-end path. However, there is a "Magnificent Obession" (Lloyd C Douglas, 1929) which leads from a search for faith to action because of faith ("I will show you my fiath by what I do" James 2:18). One promise of Jesus keeps me going in my continuing search - the "Spirit of Truth" (John 14:17) "will teach you all things" (John 14:26).