Saturday, April 5, 2008

Faith Seeking Understanding - Humility and Theology

A few months ago I wrote about how Catholic theology is not like Protestant theology. I said that Catholic theology is best characterized as an attempt to understand the faith that has already been given.
Catholic theology is an attempt to make sense out of the truth: to explain it in comprehensible terms. This is one reason, it seems to me, why modern Catholic theology can differ so dramatically from (for example) the Scholastic attempts, and yet still be entirely orthodox.
While reading Gambero's book Mary in the Middle Ages (a great book, by the way, which I heartily commend to you), I came across this in the chapter devoted to St. Anselm:
He had the ability to see that human reason plays a fundamental role in developing theological doctrine, which he understood as the quest to understand the facts of the faith (Gambero, 109).
There is nothing new under the sun. Ta-da! Apparently St. Anselm's ideas here managed to work on my thinking here. I was aware of his "motto" of "faith seeking understanding," but I hadn't consciously made the application of this to what I said then about Catholic theology.

While looking for the source of this idea in St. Anselm's writings, I came across an interesting passage in De Incarnatione Verbi Dei (On the Incarnation of the Word) that - if not the original source of the idea for him, is at least clearly related to it.
And before I discuss the question, I shall make a prefatory comment. I do so to curb 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 of Canterbury: The Major Works, p. 234).
The truth of the Catholic Faith is not dependent upon my ability to understand it. If I do understand it, or parts of it, then so much the better for me, and I ought to thank God for enabling me to do so; but my ability to comprehend is not the measure of its truth in any way. What this means, as St. Anselm says, is that I must humbly bow before the majesty of that which I cannot understand. I should pray for the insight to be able to grasp it, but whether I ever do or not, I have to stand on that which I know for a fact to be true. We do this by means of the theological virtue of faith. And this is a gift of God to us (Eph. 2:8), so it is not something that I can gin up for myself.

Going back to things that I said in my earlier post on this subject: as I wrote then, I couldn't understand St. Thomas' explanation of the doctrine of transubstantiation. And I was tempted, in my weakness, to wonder whether this meant that the doctrine was actually false. Thanks be to God, I didn't continue down that path. Because - repeating myself and St. Anselm again - my ability to comprehend something is no measure of its truth. St. Thomas' ability to explain it in terms that I can grasp is no measure of its truth. The thing is true, and I must accept it (and I do). After that, all that's left is for me to pray that I might understand it. But in view of the measure of the gifts that I have received from God, it's much more sensible for me to accept the fact that I might never understand it. I might not have a sufficient measure of wits - indeed, for some things like transubstantiation, this is surely the case. I might not have sufficient education. Whatever the case, the dogmas remain true, and it's up to me to understand them where possible and to believe them no matter what.

Now it seems to me that this view of Anselm's (and it's held by St. Thomas as well; see especially here for one example) is either not held by Protestants, or is held only very inconsistently - and whether it is held inconsistently or not probably depends more upon the individual than anything else. Almost all Protestants accept the doctrine of the Trinity, for example, even though they do not understand it. This is good. But in other ways they behave contrary to the principle which informs that profession of faith in the Trinity. It is very common for Protestants to deny that some teaching or other is false just because they don't understand it. I'm not talking here about Protestant denials of some Catholic beliefs, although it would certainly apply in that case. I'm talking about the internecine quarrels of Protestants amongst themselves. And I observe that this state of affairs is an inevitable consequence of the idea of sola scriptura.

By setting the Bible as the final authority without having at the same time any means for adjudicating disputes about its meaning, Protestants are left to nothing else than (at best) reason and persuasion for settling their arguments about the content of the faith that they profess. In other words, the model in which they seem to be trapped is one of reason seeking faith: the exact opposite of that advanced by St. Anselm. For they are compelled to question which of them has properly understood the Scripture, so that this proper understanding may then be held as the truth of the faith that is to be believed. Well, it goes without saying that they have had precious little success in coming to any agreement about what the proper understanding of the Bible is. That's not to say that they have become utterly atomized: there are obviously broad strands of common belief held by various different denominational groups. But they don't agree about everything, and as I have opined in the past, they don't even agree about everything that is arguably of critical importance. But the important thing to see here, it seems to me, is that by reversing St. Anselm's motto, and by leaving faith as something that is to be sought rather than putting understanding as that which is to be sought, they have inevitably embraced a rationalist, humanist principle: man as the measure of all things; man's ability to understand as the measure of a thing's truth. But this is exactly wrong.

And we Catholics must beware of stumbling over the same rock in a rationalist, humanistic age. We must be careful not to make our own comprehension a measure of the Faith that the Church proclaims. We become functional Protestants - whether we leave the Church or not - when we submit the Faith to the measure of our comprehension. We have to be humble. We have to acknowledge our own limitations, pray that we might understand if possible, but by all means and every means remain true to the truth that we have received by the grace of God.

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