Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Rebuilding From the Ground Up (1) - The Irrationality of the Theology of the Cross

What is the basis of philosophical justification? Is it reason? Is it practicality? Is it authority?

This is the first problem when trying to rebuild the faith. Some will say Reason is our starting point - heck, I used to say that.

But let's think about that idea in a historical-genealogical way. The ancient Greeks stated that reason was the mark of the gods in man, and that if we shared anything it was reason. Aquinas and other scholastics say that reason is the image of God in man, and that man is essentially a rational animal. But what if we disagree? Is there a reason to attribute reason a special place? or is this just arbitrary.

Using reason we can argue for the necessary being, God. But then what. Can we say that we really understand God? Wouldn't we be saying that we - finite beings - could comprehend an infinite being? (and thus make him finite).

The truth of the matter - I think - is that while we can say 'some necessary being' was required to start this whole thing, you can't say much more than that.

To say that a being would need to give us revelation is irrational. The deists quite easily argued that for God to love or be involved with humanity is not logical, it is gracious, love has no reason, and yet "love alone is credible" (Hans Urs Von Balthasar).

Thomas Aquinas in good patristic tradition said that the only thing we could actually say about God was - what Pelikan called 'the metaphysics of Exodus' - that God is who he is (Ex. 3:14). God is, and so we are. So then the smartest question would then be to ask: what does God say about humanity, reason, revelation, etc. And how can we judge between revelations?

Why should I trust the Bible and not the Qu'ran? In the end, really, there is no argument for why the Christian revelation really is true, except the conviction of the Holy Spirit. This is where I find Rome to be no better than Wittenberg. The Protestant says "God's revelation is true because God said so, and there is no authority higher than God", the other says "God's revelation is true because we say so, and there is no authority higher than us (the Church)".

So what is the Christian supposed to do. By the common grace of reason, he knows some kind of Being must exist. Then we have the Revelation to Israel in the Old Testament, and from that community Jesus of Nazareth, and the apostles of the church. The problem is that reason is uncapable of giving me an answer to tons of issues. Why did God have to become a man? Ockham argued that God could've become a Donkey and saved us. How can we say our finite human reason is capable of comprehending an infinite being. Likewise, even if we just accept the Old Testament, God does some crazily irrational things. He orders Moses to kill his son against the natural law (unreasonable) as old Soren reminds us (Fear and Trembling), and he orders the slaughter of every man, woman, and child of foreign tribes purely by his will, he says he "will have compassion on whom he will have compassion", and when Moses asked to see God's glory, God showed him his backside (Luther implies Butt). None of these are rational things.

I can explain after the fact that Jesus had to be a God-man, as Anselm did, and that makes sense, how God saved us seems rational. Why he saved us, is entirely another matter.

So the Christian is left with reason which has already been shown an inadequate tool at arriving at an understanding of this irrational God. Hans Urs Von Balthasar (I believe paraphrasing Karl Barth) said that God's revelation is like an unfinished symphony of Mozart's. There is no way to 'reason out' an ending to it, it is purely gracious and benevolent, it has no reason to exist, but it does, and yet people's hearts are moved by it.

The grace of God is like music, it is a gift, and gifts are not rational, or rather, they are not for our fallen minds. Scripture and Augustine teach us that humanity is fallen and that their minds have been corrupted by sin. "What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?" asks Tertullian (with an implied answer of Nothing). And the Scriptures warn against vain philosophy, and Paul writes that the foolishness of God is wiser than the wisdom of man (1 Cor 1:25).

Thus no such analogia entis, Analogy of Being, is possible for the Christian. Catholic Thomism proposed such an understanding, but really -as Barth claims- only an Analogy of Faith is possible, because if God is the ultimate truth of the universe, and he has given us his eternal word, and the deposit of faith once and for all (Jude 3), and reason is uncapable of 'explaining' him, then we can only use the faith. The Theology of the Cross is foolishness to the world of rationalism, which makes it's own Theology of Glory. But God is known by the Theology of the Cross, he gives life and takes life, his gratuitous and arbitrary grace and blessings flow where they will, and he descends to a stable to be born, dies on a cross between two criminals, and raises from the dead. There is nothing in Plato or Aristotle that will tell you that is logical, it is a theology of foolishness, a theology of the cross, not a theology of glory.

So for the Christian, we have our only epistemological foundation being God and what he reveals and enlightens via the Holy Spirit, who is "the light which enlightens everyone" (Jn 1:9).

As to which books fall within the Canon, which councils are correct, and which fathers orthodox, I'll give you all of them. The next post will be on Authority for the Christian.

I will be defending the Book of Concord's formulation that doctrine must be:

"supported by firm testimonies of Scripture, and to be approved by the ancient and accepted symbols... [which] ... have... [been] ... constantly judged to be the only and perpetual consensus of the truly believing Church, which was formerly defended against manifold heresies and errors, and is now repeated."

And defend Scripture first, read within the ancient creeds, and in accordance with the first councils, and with the insights of the Fathers, Tradition, and a very careful and limitted use of reason.


  1. "What is the basis of philosophical justification?"

    There isn't any. Why do you think these things are philosophical questions? More specifically, why do you think they are epistemological questions?

  2. Hi Andrew - what's most important for you now is the experience you had during your pilgrimage. The Gospel tells us that when John and Andrew met Jesus, their dominant thought was "We have found the Messiah."

    If experience is to become a way of knowledge for me, then I must compare what happens with the totality of my human needs (not just reason, not just emotion). So, I think you're right to focus on the problem of faith as an epistemological question: is faith a way of knowledge, and if so, how? Julián Carrón claims that "The only method which allows us to know Christ is through a witness that makes him present now." ("Is It Possible to Live this Way? [Faith]"

  3. Why I think they are philosophical and epistemological issues is because they are asked of my by Philosophy: How do you know what you know?

    When I converted to Catholicism it was because I could not answer them without appealing to an Infallible Church, and now I have found a way out.

    To be honest, I don't really know what you want from me Jules, it just seems like you're angry at me (with good reason I'm sure).

    Fred, thank you for not hating me too much. I really hope my pilgrimage to God is not properly referred to in the Perfect tense, but if such is the case, then I guess, there I stand condemned.

    I am really praying for God's guidance (but of course in terms of Catholic Christianity, I am out of God's grace, and so the Spirit could not dwell within or guide me). Sorry for letting you down.

    I read the article, and I will post some thoughts on it.

  4. Andrew - I'll be glad to see your comments on the article.

    When I used the term, pilgrimage, I meant your literal pilgrimage to the shrine). It was interesting to see you report both your revulsion to the staircase and the notion of the heart of Andre as well as the context in time and space of your three words from Jesus. So re-read my first paragraph with this in mind!

    Like you, I am on a figurative pilgrimage as well. It's a tough road, so I am interested when I meet someone who's interest in the truth whatever the cost, and whose desire is so strong that he risks difficult questions.

  5. Do trust me, I am not angry at you. I do think, however, you are contradicting yourself. You talk about epistemology a lot but so many of your choices, e.g. your response to the visit to the Oratory, are driven by purely emotional responses. And while I'm sure William Webster is a good man eager to serve God, it would be an act of considerable generosity to call his arguments philosophically profound or original.

    As a suggestion, I think you would be better ponder the far deeper epistemological question from Luther you briefly posted and then withdrew:

    "But what should you do if you are not aware of this need and have no hunger and thirst for the Sacrament?
    "To such a person no better advice can be given than this: first, he should touch his body to see if he still has flesh and blood. Then he should believe what the Scriptures say of it in Galatians 5 and Romans 7. Second, he should look around to see whether he is still in the world, and remember that there will be no lack of sin and trouble, as the Scriptures say in John 15-16 and in 1 John 2 and 5. Third, he will certainly have the devil also around him, who with his lying and murdering day and night will let him have no peace, within or without, as the Scriptures picture him in John 8 and 16; 1 Peter 5; Ephesians 6; and 2 Timothy 2."

    See where that takes you. And don't worry about what I want of you. What matters is what God wants of you. What is his purpose for you?

  6. And while I'm sure William Webster is a good man eager to serve God, it would be an act of considerable generosity to call his arguments philosophically profound or original.

    Why would a Roman Catholic apologist appeal to originality as an ideal? That seems a bit contradictory to me! :-)

  7. It doesn't seem contradictory to me.

    Aquinas, Newman, Theresa of Avila, Therese de Lisieux and Henri Nouwen were all deeply original thinkers, to name just a few. It is possible to be innovative within a tradition.

    That is, for example, what Mozart did. Mozart's respect for Papa Haydn was not in contradiction to his originality but a condition of it.

  8. It is possible to be innovative within a tradition.

    True. But not when we are talking about the essentials of the tradition. And that is what Webster's study is addressing, which is why I find your critique re: originality contradictory.