Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Diving Deeper 3

Studying Theology

I have never regretted studying theology as I was taught by many good and even great theologians, and indeed all of them were good human beings.  Theology is as much a serious academic study as is any other, and the scholars of that discipline are many indeed and they stretch way back in history to St Paul and early Christian scholars like the Ante-Nicene Fathers from the first century till 325, then the Great Fathers of the fourth century and half the fifth (325-451) and the Later Fathers shortly after that.  Obviously the brilliant major theologian St Augustine of Hippo (354-430) belongs to the Great Fathers grouping.  Augustine was both a philosopher and a theologian   When I was studying the history of the Church and of theology we read excepts from a lot of these great scholars, and much of their speculation was done by marrying Greek philosophy,  especially that of Plato, with their more obviously Christian beliefs.  Later the great medieval theologians would marry Aristotelian philosophy with Christian theology.  We may put this another way by saying that the early Christian thinkers used Greek philosophy - especially that of Plato and Aristotle to explicate the Christian mysteries and to help them reflect on their beliefs in a consistent fashion.  In other words, here we had the development of doctrine at work in its early stages. (In still different words, when one studies theology and its history one comes to realise that doctrines did not appear from nowhere - they were the fruit of many years of reflection - albeit in a Christian community or Church context.  God or Jesus did not hand over a book of doctrine to humankind ready-made - believers' mature reflection on their beliefs made them.  After all, sociologically we can argue that religion/faith is a creation of culture essentially.  I am, of course, all too aware of the theological argument that faith is a response to the prior revelation or communication from God and that theology would be in that context a reflection by the community of faith on their central beliefs.  Arguing sociologically is more scientific we may argue, and indeed equally if not more valid.  However, the Christian humanist in me is content to allow both arguments to have their place.

Then there were the theologians of The Middle Ages (adjectival form: medieval, mediaeval or mediæval) which for my purposes here I'm defining as that period of European history that spans the time between the 5th century and the 15th century. The Middle Ages follows the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476 and precedes the Early Modern Era. It is the middle period of a three-period division of Western history: Classical, Medieval and Modern. The term "Middle Ages" first appears in Latin in the 15th century and reflects the view that this period was a deviation from the path of classical learning, a path that was later reconnected by Renaissance scholarship.  The theologians whom we studied from this period were Albertus Magnus, O.P. (1193/1206 –  1280), also known as Albert the Great and Albert of Cologne.  This great scholar was the teacher of another great Dominican scholar St Thomas Aquinas (1225 – 1274), whom we also studied.  He is famous for his famous Five Ways or Five Proofs for the existence of God.  They are worth perusing to be aware of his arguments, but such is beyond the scope of this short post here. I may return to the arguments contained therein at a later time.  What concerns me here is outlining the history of my own religious/spiritual opinions and beliefs as I journey through life.  Other theologians whom we studied were John (Johannes) Duns Scotus, O.F.M. (c. 1265 – 1308) who was one of the more important theologians and philosophers of the High Middle Ages. He was nicknamed Doctor Subtilis for his penetrating and subtle manner of thought.

Over the years I also read much from the pen of other theologians and spiritual writers like St Ignatius of Loyola  ( Ignacio de Loyola) (1491 – 1556) and St Francis of Assisi (born Giovanni Francesco di Bernardone; 1181/1182 – 1226).  I was always greatly interested in the history of mystical theology which began with the great sixth-century theologian Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite (We don't know his precise dates but he lived and wrote between the fifth and sixth centuries) whose  discussion of the via negativa was especially influential and which I learnt to appreciate from the beginnings of my study in theology.  (It is interesting to note that Johannes Scotus Eriugena (c. 815 – c. 877) who was an Irish theologian, Neoplatonist philosopher, and poet translated and made commentaries upon the work of Pseudo-Dionysius.)  

Now mystics were always suspect in the Roman Catholic Church as they had, or at least had acquired, what we might call "a privileged access to the truth."  These mystical theologians spoke about communion or union with God and really cut out the intercession of the Church as it were.  Now the Church always valued its power over people.  Hence orthodoxy was very suspect of mystics from the off.  I was more interested in The Late Middle Ages which saw the growth of groups of mystics centered around geographic regions such as: the Beguines, which comprised Mechthild of Magdeburg and Hadewijch and others; the most famous Rhineland mystics Meister Eckhart, Johannes Tauler and Henry Suso; and the English mystics Richard Rolle and Julian of Norwich. Other favourites were John of the Cross (San Juan de la Cruz) (1542 –1591), born Juan de Yepes Álvarez, who became a major figure of the Counter-Reformation, a Spanish mystic, Catholic saint, Carmelite friar and priest, as well as his famous contemporary mystic and fellow Carmelite Teresa of Avila (1515 -  1582).

Of course, over the years I studied many great modern and contemporary theologians like John Henry Cardinal Newman (19th century), Karl Rahner, SJ, Hans Kung, Avery Dulles, SJ, Hans Urs von Balthasar (1905–1988), Yves Congar (1904–1995), Gustavo Gutiérrez (1928– )Bernard Lonergan (1904–1984).  We also studied  Protestant theologians like Karl Barth (1886–1968), Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906–1945), Rudolf Karl Bultmann (1884–1976),  Oscar Cullmann (1902 - 1999) and others.

What did all this study of theology do for me?  Well, all of the above are marvellously erudite scholars.  One cannot do theology properly unless one has first studied philosophical thinking and argumentation.  In fact theology is as logical and as closely reasoned as philosophy.  However, their axioms are very different indeed.  Theology assumes the existence of God from the outset whereas philosophy makes no assumptions at all - in fact philosophy is more a method of thinking things out and of teasing out different intellectual conundrums  The automatic presupposition or even axiomatic proposition that God exists for theology/theologians is nothing short of a blatant assumption or foolish presupposition for anyone to make according to the philosophers of some persuasions.  They argue that the content of this statement can never ever be verified one way or another.  Atheists would argue that such axiomatic assumptions as the theologians are making here are patently false.  Bertrand Russell says somewhere that the assumption that there is a God is as logical as the assumption that a teapot is circling the moon. Most of these arguments between theologians and philosophers or theologians and scientists are indeed good stuff to keep the mind ticking over, good grist as it were for the intellectual mill.

I am arguing here that my study of Theology, among the many other subjects I later studied, were intellectually rigorous and stimulating and often indeed spiritually uplifting and rewarding.  Luckily enough, I studied Philosophy concurrently with Theology and found them fundamentally complementary.  Theology opens the mind and forces it to deal with highly abstract concepts as one way among many which we humans have used to make sense of the world in which we find ourselves and to make sense of ourselves whom we find, in the words of Heidegger, literally thrown into that world. Whether one believes in God or not; whether one has a deep faith in some religious proposition or other is neither here nor there in a certain sense.  By this I mean that fundamentally we are all meaning-making creatures, we humans.  We seek to make sense of ourselves and of the world in which we dwell.  Religion, backed up by theology, is one way among many of making sense of that world.  I believe it is as equally valid a way of making sense of the world as all the scientific theories.  At this moment in time or at this stage of my spiritual journey through life it is not now my way of making sense of life.  However, I acknowledge its validity and respect people, all people indeed, for whom it is the only way they see of making sense of their lives in the here and now.  For me there is a plurality of ways of making sense of life.  Learn to live with plurality is what I say.  Unfortunately fundamentalists of Religion (for example, Jehovah Witnesses and many other sects who proclaim that only the elect are saved and the rest are condemned to eternal damnation!) on the one hand and fundamentalists of Science on the other (for example trenchant atheists like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens who are evangelists from the left, namely "God does not exist and you must believe that.  If not you are deluded or simply stupid!") are narrow minded and often arrogant people who can only hold one theory and one theory of life alone in their minds at any one time.  (Here I genuflect to the memory of the wonderful John Keats who said that the artist, or indeed any good strong human being, must be capable of holding contradictions together in his mind at any one time.  He called this wonderful ability "Negative Capability.")

I still read Theology, though not as much as I read of Philosophy.  I also read General Science and literature in several languages.  In other words, what I am arguing for here is a view of life that respects that there are many, many ways of making sense of it.  Life is hard enough without me or you or X or Y or Z trying to force our opinions, no matter what they are, down another person's throat.  It is a proud or indeed arrogant person who thinks they alone know the truth.  Life for me, or rather the spiritual journey of life may be likened to climbing a good big hill.  For argument sake, let's say that Truth is at the top of that Hill.  Now, in this metaphor there are many paths up to the top of that Hill - some straighter than others.  Each religion may like to believe and even say their way is the best way up (hopefully not the only way up if they are truly ecumenical and not fundamentalist) but I'd like to believe (or even dream) that they might accept that there are many other paths up to the Top as well, be that path any religion or even none; be that path theism, atheism or agnosticism.  In my spirituality only one main thing counts and that is AUTHENTICITY which leads essentially to right action and justice. 

I wish all fellow travellers on the road to self-knowledge, authenticity and justice bonne voyage!


Billy Joe said...

Ah, so we are to assume there is truth at the top of the hill, one truth, as everyone is going to the same top of the hill, just by different paths?

Tim said...

Yes, that is the Metaphor I am using for Authenticity = Total Congruence with the Essence of Self = Being. Another Metaphor for this would be say the Floor of the Ocean, where one can go no deeper. In other words one has plumbed the depths of SELF in this Metaphor or scales the heights of SELF in the former. There are many other mataphors for the Goal/End of Life. Pick anyone you want. However, maybe a question we could ask ourselves in a truly philosophical sense is: "Perhaps there is no Mountain Top, no Sea Floor, and that the JOurney alone is the only reality. In this case the Metaphor is paradoxically self-referential. And if it is so does it cease to be metaphor? All good questions. Try coming up with your own metaphors. The thrill is in the pursuit of meaning!