Archive for the ‘Theology’ Tag

Does Studying Theology Make Us Certain?

Those who are familiar with Thomas Aquinas know that he begins the Summa Theologica (his magnum opus) with the question as to how one can go about studying theology. In article two of that question, he asks whether theology is a science, and to answer, he makes a critical distinction so that he can answer that theology is, in one way at least, a science, thus making the Summa itself a work of science:

Sacred doctrine is a science. We must bear in mind that there are two kinds of sciences. There are some which proceed from a principle known by the natural light of intelligence, such as arithmetic and geometry and the like. There are some which proceed from principles known by the light of a higher science: thus the science of perspective proceeds from principles established by geometry, and music from principles established by arithmetic. So it is that sacred doctrine is a science because it proceeds from principles established by the light of a higher science, namely, the science of God and the blessed. Hence, just as the musician accepts on authority the principles taught him by the mathematician, so sacred science is established on principles revealed by God.

In other words, theology is a science, Aquinas says, if we understand it as a sort of “subalternated” science which derives its first principles from another science. Unlike other subalterated sciences like music or optics, however, theology derives its first principles from a non-demonstrable science. Godfrey of Fontaines explains why this is so:

[I]f theology were truly and properly a science after the model of a subalternated science in relation to a subalternating one, it would be necessary that the principles of theology that are had in this life be certain by the certitude of evidence at least in regard to knowledge that such is the case, and it would be necessary that there would be knowledge of why it is the case in the science the blessed have of these principles . . . So, in order that theology be science and that not only would there be faith regarding the conclusion of theology as there is regarding the principles, then regarding its principles it is necessary that they be not only believed but be known and evident. For, the type of evidence the principles have will determine the parallel type of evidence that the conclusion will have. For although a conclusion may be drawn from principles that are only believed and the consequence or the necessity of the consequence can be scientifically known, still the consequent and its necessity cannot be known scientifically from such principles (Quodlibet, IV, q. 10, 1287).

In other words, we might call music or optics a subalternated science because it derives its first principles from another science (arithmetic or geometry), or is subjected to other more proper sciences. Thus, an optician may proceed to study optics without having proper knowledge of the first principles of his science, which are derived from geometry. However, the optician may study geometry and in doing so, gain a more perfect knowledge of optics. Optics is thus subordinated or subalternated to geometry, but not in such a way that prevents a more perfect knowledge of optics through gaining a more perfect knowledge of its first principles through the study of another science.

Theology, as Godfrey points out, is not like this. Theology is based on first principles which do not come from another human science which may be studied, but rather from the science which exists in the mind of God and is consequently beyond all human understanding. “Science,” Godfrey tells us, is “a sure habit possessing both the certitude of evidence and the certitude of conviction,” which theology can never have because it is based in principles which are not certain but accepted on faith. In contrast to science, faith, Godfrey writes, is “a sure habit having only the certitude of conviction, not the certitude of evidence.” Faith may be stronger than opinion (which lacks both the certitude of evidence and conviction), but for Godfrey, because theology rests on revealed first principles which cannot be proved, it can only be faith and never science.

Is there a difference between Thomas and Godfrey? Maybe, but on the subject of theology as science, perhaps they can be reconciled. Thomas, like Godfrey, knows that the first principles of theology rest on faith. Such principles like the Trinity, Incarnation, and Eschaton cannot be proved, only believed. For Thomas, belief comes as a gift not only of intellectual propositions, but the gift of an actual relationship with God. The object of faith, while not convincing to the non-believer, is actually more certain than sensory knowledge because it is a knowledge based not only on the discursive intellect, but also the affections (as elevated by the gifts of the Holy Spirit). However, from those first principles, rational and logical conclusions can be drawn which enhance the knowledge one has of the first principles, and on this, Thomas and Godfrey are not in such disagreement. Godfrey writes:

So, when theology is posited as science, it is necessary that its principles become in some way evident and known or understood. In fact, evidence has to be of a kind that respects the excellence of its subject matter and the weakness of the human knower. Thus, to one instructed in theology, it is much more evident than to the simple layman that Christ, God and man, has risen, and how this is possible and not impossible. . . Therefore, even though such things are not as evident as are the principles of other sciences because of their lack of proportion to our intellect, still they are known by a kind of evidence that is sufficient. . . Concerning he kind of knowledge we have in theology, Augustine, in Book XIV of his De Trinitate, says: “Many of the faithful are not strong in this science, even though they are strong in the faith itself. For it is one thing to know what a man must believe in order to gain the blessed life; it is another thing to know how that which is believed may help the pious and be defended against the impious.”

So, both Aquinas and Godfrey show us that by studying theology, we are not making scientific arguments that will be convincing as science to the non-believer. However, by studying theology scientifically, that is, by logically deducing conclusions from revealed first principles, we do get a sort of science which is important, not because it makes our beliefs more convincing to the non-believer, but because we become more convinced, even in light of the opposition of non-believers. Thus, theology does enhance knowledge if conducted scientifically, even if we still might not be able to call theology a proper science.

This seems to me incredibly important today when so many believers, when faced with a materialist and empiricist scientific worldview, feel the need either to doubt or abandon their faith or to withdraw into a sectarian, anti-scientific stance. For this latter group, recovering the Medieval concept of theology as a science can help Christians engage the scientific community in a spirit of dialogue rather than polemics, and by incorporating the sciences into the study of theology, they may actually become better believers.

The Challenge of Naturalism

At an ethics colloquium this week, I heard a professor tell a story (which I hope is okay to repeat here since both the storyteller and the subject of the story are anonymous) of a former theology student who had recently written with proud news of an upcoming publication on the topic of liturgy. She went on to tell him that she was flourishing in her job as the campus minister at a Catholic school. She had recently gotten into spiritual direction, which was going okay, despite the fact that she no longer believed in God, and overall, she was very happy with her life and career.

Wait. . . she no longer believes in God? In America, this is not as rare as you might think. While Europe is becoming increasingly more secularized, and the churches are becoming more and more empty, in the US, something else is happening. Externally, we are a very religious nation with a high percentage of churchgoers (about 47% of Americans attend a weekly religious service as opposed to about 20% in Europe). Nevertheless, there are signs that we are a nation a lot like this professor’s former theology student—involved in the act of religion without the corresponding belief. As Terence Nichols puts it in his very fine book The Sacred Cosmos:

Supernatural realities such as miracles, angels, afterlife, a sacred cosmos, and so on are rarely broached, at least in mainline Protestant denominations (and less and less so in Roman Catholic churches). God has become distant from everyday life. People may still believe in God, got to church, even pray, but without deep conviction. . .(8)

For Nichols, the problem is naturalism, “the belief that nature is all that exists, and that everything can be explained by natural causes and therefore by science. There is no nonmaterial reality, such as God.” The problem, he says, is deep and

. . . originates further back—with the separation of God from nature, a split that began in the late medieval and early modern period. This resulted in the (perceived) separation of god from everyday life that is so characteristic of contemporary secular societies. . .Ancient and medieval Christians lived in a sacred cosmos and saw nature as a window or sacrament that expressed the beauty, majesty, and glory of God. . . Sacraments make God present and invite the believer into a sharing of God’s presence. But for a sacrament to work, there has to be some similarity, some unity. . . If nature is seen sacramentally, rather than as an object to be investigated and used, it also can mediate the presence of God. Seen sacramentally, nature is a sacred cosmos, for whatever mediates God’s presence is sacred (9).

Instead of a sacred cosmos infused with the supernatural, what we have now, according to Nichols, is a universe completely subject to natural laws, where even religion (to quote E.O. Wilson), is subject to the explanations of the natural sciences. This metaphysical naturalism is the greatest challenge Christianity faces in the contemporary world. As Nichols puts it,

For if nature is all that exists, there cannot be any reality that is greater than and independent of nature. Nor can there be any hope of an afterlife, nor any means to really transcend our natural condition. The consoling grace of god, which frees us from sin, addictions, selfishness, hopelessness, and lovelessness, is, for naturalists, a fiction.

Must we then, as Christians, be anti-science in order to avoid the dangers poised by naturalism? Not at all. Christians have long held (rooted especially in the Thomistic tradition) that scientific naturalism is perfectly appropriate for the natural sciences. Science can tell us much of the world—how it originated, how it fits together, where it is headed. The laws of nature that scientists study are laws created by God and hence are very, very good.

But just because a scientist is committed to scientific naturalism, she need not commit herself also to metaphysical naturalism, i.e., the belief that these natural laws are all that exist. More specifically, a Christian evolutionary biologist very committed to the principles of natural selection need not conclude that simply because evolution exist, God does not. As Nichols points out, some of the greatest scientists were also Christian (Galileo, Newton, Descartes, Pascal, Max Plank). The problem is not evolution (or any other natural “law”), but rather, when evolution becomes an all-encompassing philosophy. Science and theology are meant to be complementary, not antagonistic.

No, the solution for Christians, what Christians need to do if they are to survive the naturalist challenge, is not reject science (and hence the “natural”), but rather, they need to recover the supernatural. In a Christianity Today article, Hwa Yung writes on this,

A careful reading of the Bible and the sheer weight of empirical evidence eventually brought me back to a supernatural Christianity. In this, I found myself out of sync with much of Western theology. Here liberals were at least consistent, but not evangelicals. Most liberals denied the supernatural both in the Bible and in the present; evangelicals fought tooth and nail to defend the miraculous in the Bible, but rarely could cope with it in real life.

Now, Yung is writing about the recovery of a more charismatic Pentecostal form of Christianity, which I am not arguing for here, but his basic point is sound. Christians need to recover the idea of the miraculous, the realm beyond science, the invisible, the graced. To describe how this might take place liturgically or in other Christian practices is beyond the scope of one blog post (though I would love to hear your thoughts), but at the very least, Christians can recover the supernatural in conversation. We can admit that knowledge of God is beyond the capacity of reason. The natural world can lead us towards God, but true knowledge is a supernatural gift, elevating the intellect beyond what it is naturally capable of.

We can also admit that simply because knowledge of God is a gift, and one which we do not experience fully in this life (see 1 John 3:2 and 1 Corinthians 13:12 for when we can expect full knowledge), we can still do theology. In other words, we can still speculate about God, and even do so “scientifically.” Thomas Aquinas tells us

Sacred doctrine is a science. We must bear in mind that there are two kinds of sciences. There are some which proceed from a principle known by the natural light of intelligence, such as arithmetic and geometry and the like. There are some which proceed from principles known by the light of a higher science: thus the science of perspective proceeds from principles established by geometry, and music from principles established by arithmetic. So it is that sacred doctrine is a science because it proceeds from principles established by the light of a higher science, namely, the science of God and the blessed. Hence, just as the musician accepts on authority the principles taught him by the mathematician, so sacred science is established on principles revealed by God (I, Q. 1, art. 2).

For Aquinas, the object of this science is God, and its principles are the articles of faith (things like the Incarnation and the Trinity). Sacred Scripture is important, but is of itself neither the object nor the principle of theology:

Such are the Trinity of Persons in Almighty God [The Leonine Edition reads: The Three Persons, the omnipotence of God, etc.], the mystery of Christ’s Incarnation, and the like: and these are distinct articles of faith. On the other hand certain things in Holy Writ are proposed to our belief, not chiefly on their own account, but for the manifestation of those mentioned above: for instance, that Abraham had two sons, that a dead man rose again at the touch of Eliseus’ bones, and the like, which are related in Holy Writ for the purpose of manifesting the Divine mystery or the Incarnation of Christ: and such things should not form distinct articles (II-II, Q. 1, art. 6).

And in the end, although theology is a matter of disputation (I, Q. 1, art. 8), it ultimately does not get us knowledge of God, but only a certain knowledge of God’s effects, and how those effect pertain to our salvation:

Although we cannot know in what consists the essence of God, nevertheless in this science we make use of His effects, either of nature or of grace, in place of a definition, in regard to whatever is treated of in this science concerning God; even as in some philosophical sciences we demonstrate something about a cause from its effect, by taking the effect in place of a definition of the cause.

Ultimately, the point of theology is not to render God understandable or to possess God, but rather, to seek a mysterious God in love. And when we talk of God (or do theology), it should be this gifted love that we communicate, especially to our friends in the natural sciences. We do not have to make Christianity “natural” in order to speak to scientists. We need rather to speak confidently, humbly, and reverently about the supernatural, and listen to what the sciences have to say about the natural. Maybe, with a little grace, we can actually get a conversation going in which the scientist learns a little about grace and eternal life, and the Christian learns a little about the world.

And this brings us back to naturalism. In terms of religion, naturalism pushes us to make all matters of faith matters of natural science. The Bible becomes an anthropological and sociological document, sacraments become merely rituals, God becomes an idea, and the afterlife becomes a naiveté. Christianity becomes a voluntary association that anybody can “do,” like the girl in the opening story of this post, rather than a graced invitation into a relationship with God. Terence Nichols expresses well the appropriate Christian response:

The greatest gifts of grace are faith, hope, and the love of God (1 Cor. 13) which, Paul tells us, is poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit that is given to us (Rom. 5:5). It is this love that allows us to love others, even enemies, and that characterizes the converted Christian life. Such a love is beyond our natural abilities. . . Christianity is not about rules and laws, guilt and fear of punishment, or extrinsic rewards. It is about grace: the experience of God’s transforming love and power in our lives that elevates and perfects our natural abilities and allows us to do more that we thought possible. In this sense, the life of every fully converted Christian moves beyond naturalism. It is god’s grace that makes the Christian practice of everyday life possible. And it is this same power of grace that one day will bring us to the resurrection, the ultimate transformation of nature, and to eternal life with God (226-27).

Beatitude

Aquinas’ ethics begins with and is founded on the end.  He introduces the Secunda Pars of the Summa Theologica with a treatise on man’s last end which he describes as “last in the order of execution but first in the agent’s intention.”  What he means is that the end of an action is the last thing achieved in acting but the reason for acting is nevertheless the end.  Think of spending several hours baking and decorating cookies, which I recently did for Christmas.  The time mixing the dough, rolling it, cutting it into shapes, baking the cookies, and finally, painstakingly decorating them was all motivated by the last thing “in the order of execution of baking cookies,” which is the eating and enjoying of them.  In the same way, Aquinas says that the ultimate end of all actions, which he will define as beatitude ,is the first in the order of intention for all human action.  In other words, all human action is motivated by the desire to be happy.  The reason I baked the cookies at all is because in some way, I thought that baking cookies, and watching my family enjoy eating them, would make me happy.

Another way of stating this is that the final cause is the first in the chain of causes.  We think of what we want to achieve by acting before we act.

Aquinas says that there are two ways to think of the end.  The first is the thing itself in which the end exists (beatitude) and the second is the use or acquisition of that thing.  A glutton’s end is food, and the use of that end consists in the pleasure that comes from eating.  According to Aquinas, the ultimate end of human existence in the first sense is God “who alone by His infinite goodness can perfectly satisfy man’s will.”  In the second sense, the last end for human beings is the enjoyment of this last end which Aquinas calls “beatitude.”

The word beatitude is a difficult word to understand in English.  Sometimes it is translated as “happiness,” but beatitude is a long-lasting happiness, not something that can be easily lost.  “Happiness” does not connote the steadfastness of beatitude.  Sometimes beatitude is translated as “flourishing” which again does not fully convey the full meaning of what Aquinas means by the word (mainly because we don‘t really use the word flourishing in our everyday speech and nobody really knows what it means).  What we can do is identify what beatitude is not.  Aquinas says it is not wealth, honor, fame and glory, power, good of the body, or pleasure.  It is not something external, not something that can be easily lost, not something arbitrary like luck, and not any created good.  Beatitude, according to Aquinas, is not even a good of the soul because if it were, the object of happiness would be human beings, which would mean that human beings could be loved for their own sake, which is contrary to what Christians hold to be true.

Beatitude, is, however, uncreated.  It is not something we have, it is something we do.  Aquinas speaks of beatitudes in two senses–its cause or object and its use.  Beatitude in the first sense (the thing in which beatitude consists) can only be God, and in the second sense, beatitude can only be the enjoyment of God:

“Final and perfect happiness can consist in nothing else than the vision of the Divine Essence.”

How does Aquinas back this up?  First, he says that nobody can be perfectly happy as long as there is something left for him to desire.  Nothing on earth leaves us without some other desire to be fulfilled.  It is almost a truism to say that just because a person has everything doesn’t mean that person is happy.

Aquinas’ second observation about happiness is that human beings are constituted to seek out the cause of things.  If we see mold growing on a piece of fruit, we seek out the chain of causes behind this occurrence until we arrive at the ultimate cause.  Our human nature is constituted to seek out the ultimate cause of our happiness.  However, simply knowing that God is behind our happiness is not enough for our intellect; we want to know the essence of God and this is beyond what the human intellect on its own can accomplish.  We need something else, some power outside of ourselves which Aquinas calls grace to elevate our intellect to know God in this way and to open our eyes to see God in this way.

In light of all this, Aquinas thinks that we can never achieve perfect happiness in this life.  We can, however, achieve “imperfect beatitude.”  This imperfect happiness is analogous to perfect happiness.  It is stable and lasting, it doesn’t exist in external goods like money, fame, or power.  Both types of happiness are “operations” or acts, not things.  The major distinction between perfect happiness and imperfect happiness is that perfect happiness consists in contemplating the Divine Essence, which we can’t do on our own, and imperfect happiness consists in the exercise of virtue, which we can do without any external supernatural aid.

Happiness in this life is often unstable and subject to the vicissitudes of fortune.  I knew somebody who had found great happiness–this person this person (we will call him Job) had friends, career success, a comfortable and even  luxurious existence.  People commented on how happy Job seemed going into the holiday season.  About two weeks or so before Christmas, Job suffered a great disaster resulting in the loss of his home and possessions.  Even if Job was a virtuous person and had all the right values and gave thanks to God that he still had his life, Job is still less happy in his homeless, possession-less existence.  Aquinas’ treatment of happiness echoes Jesus saying to “store up treasures in heaven” because only in heaven can we ever find true happiness.  In fact, this is the definition of heaven in Aquinas’ book–total happiness.

Some people say that Aquinas has an otherworldly understanding of happiness that does not allow for any sort of happiness in this life.  I do not believe this is the case.  Aquinas thinks that we can flourish in this life in different ways but he wants to keep us from thinking that this life is it.  No matter what we do, no matter how hard we work and how good we become, there will always be something else that we desire in order to be happy.  Augustine expressed this sentiment in his Confessions when he said, “My heart is restless until it rests in you.”  We always hunger for God as the ultimate Giver of all good things, and until we get him, we stay a little bit hungry.

What is Metaphysics and What Use is it for Christians?

The word “metaphysics” has its origins in Aristotle’s corpus, meaning literally “after the physics.” In his treatise On Physics, Aristotle studied the natural world; his concern in On Metaphysics is the world beyond the natural, that is, the immaterial world. Aristotle considered metaphysics the first philosophy (prôtê philosophia) because it had as its object the first causes of things, and he considered it a theological science (theologikê) because it culminated in considerations of God’s existence and nature.

Metaphysics, however, is distinct from theology as a discipline, and the main difference is in their starting points. Theology starts with the authority of God revealed in Scripture and made manifest in the articles of faith. It is a revealed science, meaning that we cannot empirically prove theology’s starting principles such as the incarnation, the resurrection, or the ascension. We take these matters on faith.

Metaphysics takes as its starting point the sensible world, which is the same starting point as physics. The metaphysician studies things which can be empirically validated in the natural world and finds in this intelligible traces of that which is not natural and which cannot be empirically validated—God. It is on the study of God that theology and metaphysics converge while still remaining distinct as disciplines.

One may ask why metaphysics would be necessary at all for those who have faith. The idea behind this objection to the use of metaphysics is that we have the truth concerning God revealed to us in Scripture, and thus we need only study that to know God. This is not a new objection. Thomas Aquinas and his teacher Albert dealt with “some who in their complete ignorance want to oppose the use of philosophy. This is especially true among the Dominicans, where no one stands up to contradict them. Like brute animals they blaspheme against things they do not understand.”

Instead, Albert and Thomas shared a robust confidence in the use of reason to illuminate and deepen knowledge and understanding regarding matters of faith. They thought this possible because they saw faith and reason as two different approaches to the truth. So long as both kept the eternal and immutable truth as their subject, faith and reason could never be contradictory. Moreover, Thomas adamantly advanced the position that metaphysics could greatly supplement theology, and that those who “by bringing [philosophical arguments] into the service of faith, do not mix water with wine, but rather change water into wine.”

In a Quodlibet written near the end of his life, Aquinas distinguishes between two types of theological disputes. The first uses only revealed authority to make its arguments, a type of disputation that can only take place among those who accept the given source of authority. For example, Catholics and Protestants can debate about issues like the Incarnation and the Resurrection because both accept Scripture as an authority. However, Christians cannot debate on the same terms with atheists, because atheists do not accept Scripture as an authority. Instead, Christians must resort to the second type of disputation which uses rational philosophical arguments to lead the hearer to truth. As Aquinas says in the opening question of the Summa Theologica, “God is constantly at work in the mind, endowing it with its natural light and giving it direction.”

Although the mind is capable of coming to knowledge of the truth without faith, this knowledge is limited and partial. Metaphysics can tell us something about God—for example, that God is one, that God is eternal, or that God sets creation in motion—but it is the supernatural illumination of faith which strengthens and elevates the intellect so that it is capable to contemplate God face to face. As Aquinas says in the Summa Theologica I, Question 3, art. 1, human intellect may fail and be deceived, “but the light of faith, which is, as it were, a faint stamp of the First Truth in our mind, cannot fail, any more than God can be deceived or lie.”

For Christians in dialogue with Christians, metaphysical language provides a means of deepening our understanding of the tenants of our faith such as the relationship between the three Persons of the one God or the relationship between the two natures in the one Jesus Christ. The very first Christian Counsels relied on metaphysics to develop the creed that Roman Catholics and some branches of Protestants recite in church every week. Metaphysical reasoning can also illumine Scripture. When YHWH tells Moses “I AM who AM,” he is using metaphysical language. The Gospel of John is replete with metaphysics, and without metaphysics, the creation narrative in Genesis is just a myth.

But metaphysics is also indispensable if Christians have any desire at all to converse with their non-believing neighbors. The ability to talk of God as the Unmoved Mover, the first efficient cause, or the only necessary being among contingents (I will explain what these mean in a future blog) will ultimately yield more fruit in bringing the atheist or agnostic to at least acknowledging God as logical conclusion than will citing Scripture. Most importantly, the use of metaphysics will show non-believers and believers alike that theology is not an irrational science.

The Virtue of Humility in Theological Inquiry

Yesterday, my boyfriend and I were in the kitchen talking about theology when the subject of Hell came up. I mentioned that I was bothered by people who stopped going to church or believing in God completely because they found the idea of Hell so repulsive. My boyfriend replied that there were different conceptions of Hell but that he found the idea of eternal torture somewhat difficult to swallow because it does not seem that God’s justice would include eternal punishment for anything we could do on earth. I responded that God’s love makes eternal life with Him possible; why should not His justice include eternal punishment?

The conversation was a long one. My boyfriend and I brought out Scripture, the Church Fathers (and specifically Justin Martyr for this particular conversation), metaphysical speculation, and of course, Thomas Aquinas. We batted around different conceptions of God’s justice and tried to figure out which seemed most true in light of the different resources at our disposal. We never got to the point that we could say definitively that we fully understood how God in his justice could condemn people to a Hell of eternal suffering but we also didn’t conclude that because we could not fully understand, we were going to either (a) give up our faith or (b) dismiss the concept of Hell as false.

I am sure that all of us know people who say that they refuse to worship Yahweh because the Hebrew Scriptures reveal Him to be a wrathful, angry God who is arbitrary in His punishments and guilty of horrible atrocities like genocide. How many people have you talked to who have rejected the New Testament in response to things like Paul saying that women should keep silent, cover their heads, and stay obedient to their husbands? Christopher Hitchens has built his career on arguing that every religion, but especially Christianity, prove in their sacred texts that God is not great, and therefore not something we should worship.

The Christian faith is a complicated one, and it is perfectly reasonable that even the most pious Christian will have questions and doubts. There is, however, a way to pursue these questions within a faith tradition, without rejecting the faith outright. The conversation my boyfriend and I had illustrates how such conversations can proceed, even regarding topics we may have trouble fully consenting to intellectually.

St. Anselm of Canterbury famously defined theology as “faith seeking understanding.” But he too ran into people who, failing to reach understanding, gave up faith. In a text called “The Incarnation of the Word,” he describes

the presumption of those who, since they are unable to understand intellectually things the Christian faith professes, and with foolish pride think that there cannot in any way be things that they cannot understand, with unspeakable rashness dare to argue against such things rather than with humble wisdom admit their possibility. Indeed, no Christian ought to argue how things that the Catholic Church sincerely believes and verbally professes are not so, but by always adhering to the same faith without hesitation, by loving it, and by humbly living according to it, a Christian ought to argue how they are, inasmuch as one can look for reasons. If one can understand, one should thank God; if one cannot, one should bow one’s head in veneration rather than sound off trumpets.

Anselm is not saying here that we should refrain from asking difficult questions about our faith or even dare to disagree about how a particular doctrinal issue like Hell should be understood. But he is saying that the failure to come to some sort of understanding gives one license to reject the doctrine in question.

Thomas Aquinas identifies a particular virtue necessary for theological inquiry. The virtue of humility lies between the two extremes of pride and despair (see Summa Theologica II-II, Q. 161). The object of humility is the “difficult good,” such as knowledge that is hard to achieve, and this virtue serves to protect the mind from the pursuit of things which are against right reason. It is the virtue of humility that allows a person to remember her place in reference to God, and to subject herself to God, and to others for the sake of God, when appropriate.

Regarding theological inquiry specifically, Aquinas says that humility restrains a person from confiding in her own powers regarding great things (e.g. knowledge of God’s essence), but encourages her to aim at greater things “through confidence in God’s help . . . especially since the more one subjects oneself to God the more is one exalted in God’s sight. Hence Augustine says: ‘It is one thing to raise oneself to God and another to raise oneself up against God. He that abases himself before Him, him He raiseth up he that raises himself up against Him, him He casteth down” (II-II, Q. 161, art. 2, ad. 2).

Modern sentiments are wont to follow Machiavelli, Hume, and Spinoza, among others, in rejecting humility as a virtue only for the overly-pious or the feint-hearted. Aquinas’ understanding of humility is not one that encourages inactivity or self-deprecation, but rather pushes people to achieve great things and reach great intellectual feats in relation to others, and to God. Aquinas himself was a paradigm of such intellectual humility. He was not afraid to take on difficult points of doctrine, and to disagree with even his most illustrious predecessors like Augustine. But he was also not afraid to admit that some things were a mystery that our human minds could never exhaust. With the aid of humility, one can approach these mysteries as opportunities to grow in faith, rather than abandon it.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.