Lesslie Newbigin on not knowing everything
“There is indeed a proper place for agnosticism in the Christian life. There is a true sense in which we are — with others — seekers after the truth. The apophatic tradition in theology has always insisted on the fact that no human image or concept can grasp the full reality of God. Christians are — or should be — learners to the end of their days. But it is equally important to insist that this learning is, like all genuine learning, an exercise which is guided and disciplined by a tradition — the tradition which stems from God’s decisive acts in Jesus Christ. No learning takes place except within a tradition whose authority is accepted as guidance for exploration. No seeking can be called serious which is without any clue. Wandering about in a twilight where all cats are grey is not seeking truth. When Christians affirm, as they do, that Jesus is the way, the true and living way by whom we come to the Father (John 16:4), they are not claiming to know everything. They are claiming to be on the way, and inviting others to join them as they press forward toward the fulness of the truth, toward the day when we shall know as we have been known.”
— from Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society and the Common Good (Eerdmans, 1989)
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Peter Leithart on the relationship between ecclesial unity and religious liberty
Why should the call for ecclesial unity demand just as much, if not more, of our efforts and attention than current battles over religious liberty? How could getting Catholics, Presbyterians, and Lutherans together to worship and discuss their similarities (not just their differences) be equally pressing and even more significant than fighting for the rights of Christian lawyers, Christian business owners, and Christian professors? Pastor-theologian, Peter Leithart, argues in his recent blog post entitled “Referees, Players, and Religious Liberty,” that the disunity among Protestants and between Protestants and Catholics enables our current social pathologies just as much as [Christian] religious liberties become threatened by them.
How can this be? Taking his cue from an essay written by philosopher D.C. Schindler entitled “Liberalism, Religious Freedom, and the Common Good: The Totalitarian Logic of Self-Limitation,” Leithart notes that current infringements upon religious liberty are mere (albeit painful) symptoms of a much more pernicious assumption embedded within the liberal order itself: that while claiming to be a neutral adjudicator, liberalism covertly reserves the right to draw boundaries around that about which it claims to have no competency, namely, religion.
“As a result,” concludes Leithart, “the liberal state institutionalizes and establishes its own theology,” which is to say that religion is irrelevant to the common good. When the common good can only be discussed in terms defined by the secular realm, the traditional understanding of the Church as a “catholic, universal community, an alternative public” is severely marginalized in favor of voluntary churches viewed as one communal option among many.
Given that Schindler’s article was published in an edition of Communio dedicated to the Second Vatican Council’s declaration on religious freedom (Dignitatis Humanae), it isn't surprising that Leithart’s comments echo those of David L. Schindler’s and Nicholas J. Healy’s on the same topic, recently issued on Volume 131 of the MARS HILL AUDIO Journal. Like Schindler and Healy, Leithart puts forward the unavoidable fact that “liberalism has an anthropology and we can ask a simple question: Is this a Christian anthropology?” If the answer is no, some effort to challenge those anthropological assumptions must take priority.
Josef Pieper on why philosophy needs theology
“[T]he philosopher who also has faith — who regards the world as a creation which issued from the divine Logos and which, although it is fundamentally luminous, lucid, clear and bright, at the same time reflects a design which by its very nature is inaccessible to human understanding — only a philosopher like this is in a position to divine how the knowability of the world and its incomprehensibility (both of which attributes are more or less demonstrable by empirical methods) could derive from the same root. This insight, which is clearly philosophical in nature in that it derives from the encounter with empirical reality, can nevertheless be imparted only to a person who is prepared to learn from theology something which he could never come to know on his own. Of course, the greatest enrichment which the philosopher can derive from the collaboration with theology lies in the fact that it can prevent him from falling prey to those dangers inherent in philosophy itself, the chief among which is the natural desire to create a clear, transparent and unified image of the world. For example, the idea of the Incarnation of God, in which the ultimate work of the creation was linked with the origin of that creation to form a circle, might appeal to a ‘Gnostic’ philosopher who saw in it the unlocked-for confirmation of a world view based on a single all-embracing principle. But the facts that, within the framework, mankind hated and killed the God-made-man ‘without a cause’ (Jn 15:25) and that yet the same death effected the salvation of man, who had committed the murder: these theological truths explode any tidy formula which anyone might conceive about the world. . . . Thus the person who engages in the philosophical act appears to derive a certain handicap from his collaboration with theology, but simultaneously he derives an enrichment which can be summed up in the term: higher truth. For the essential thing in philosophy is neither the avoidance of knotty problems nor the bewitchment of the intellect with plausible or conclusive proofs. Instead the essential thing is that not one single element of reality be suppressed or concealed — not one element of that unfathomable reality the vision of which is synonymous with the concept of ‘truth.’”
— from Josef Pieper, “The Possible Future of Philosophy,” in Josef Pieper: An Anthology (Ignatius Press, 1981)
(Click here to read another excerpt from this anthology, in which Pieper discusses how the refusal to regognize the spiritual center of human existence leads to a “roaming restlessness of the spirit”)
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From T. S. Eliot, W. H. Auden, and Reinhold Niebuhr to Richard John Neuhaus, Cornell West, and Marilynne Robinson, Jacobs narrates the short-lived tale of the Christian public intellectual.
“The lack of prominent, intellectually serious Christian political commentators — familiarly known as the “Where is Our Reinhold Niebuhr?” problem — has frequently been explored since Niebuhr's death in 1971. But the disappearance of the Christian intellectual is a more curious story, because it isn’t a story of forced marginalization or public rejection at all. The Christian intellectuals chose to disappear.”
In the September 2016 issue of Harper’s Magazine, literary critic and frequent guest of the MARS HILL AUDIO Journal, Alan Jacobs, gives an account of the rise and fall of a body of Christian intellectuals that once served as cultural interpreters for a twentieth-century, democratic public. Jacobs laments both the altered social milieu of today and the absense of publically committed Christian intellectuals, who — borrowing from Karl Mannheim’s identification of the intellectual as “watchman” — are committed to and accepted as offering a critique of the social order on moral and religious grounds without somehow forfeiting their “seat at the table.” Of course, the decline of Christian intellectuals as part of a larger decline of Christianity in America is well-noted (Jacobs mentions recent accounts by Ross Douthat, Joseph Bottum, and George Marsden in particular). Jacobs’s overview, however, highlights a soft surrender by Christian intellectuals of their public voice with the dying out of one generation and the rise of a second generation a little too willing to turn a blind eye to some inherent drawbacks of democracy.
Read more in Jacobs’s The Watchmen: What became of the Christian Intellectuals?
Joseph Ratzinger on the partnership of faith and reason in the coherence of love and truth
“If the prophets ridicule man-made idols with mordant acerbicity and set the only real God in contrast to them, in the wisdom books the same spiritual movement is at work as among the pre-Socratics at the time of the early Greek enlightenment. To the extent that the prophets see in the God of Israel the primordial creative ground of all reality, it is quite clear that what is taking place is a religious critique for the sake of a correct understanding of this reality itself. Here the faith of Israel unquestionably steps beyond the limits of a single people’s peculiar worship: it puts forth a universal claim, whose universality has to do with its being rational. Without the prophetic religious critique, the universalism of Christianity would have been unthinkable. It was this critique which, in the very heart of Israel itself, prepared the synthesis of Hellas and the Bible which the Fathers labored to achieve. For this reason, it is incorrect to reduce the concepts logos and alethia, upon which John’s Gospel centers the Christian message, to a strictly Hebraic interpretation, as if logos meant ‘word’ merely in the sense of God’s speech in history, and alethia signified nothing more than ‘trustworthiness’ or ‘fidelity’. For the same reason there is no basis for the opposite accusation that John distorted biblical thought in the direction of Hellenism. On the contrary, he stands in the classical sapiential tradition. It is precisely in John’s writings that one can study, both in its origins and in its outcome, the inner movement of biblical faith in God and biblical Christology toward philosophical inquiry.
“Is the world to be understood as originating from a creative intellect or as arising out of a combination of probabilities in the realm of the absurd? Today as yesterday, this alternative is the decisive question for our contemplation of reality; it cannot be dodged. Whoever, on the other hand, would draw faith back into paradox or into a pure historical symbolism fails to perceive its unique historical position, whose defense engaged both the prophets and the apostles in equal measure. The universality of faith, which is a basic presupposition of the missionary task, is both meaningful and morally defensible only if this faith really is oriented beyond the symbolism of the religious toward an answer meant for all, an answer which also appeals to the common reason of mankind. . . .
“Faith has the right to be missionary only if it truly transcends all traditions and constitutes an appeal to reason and an orientation toward the truth itself. However, if man is made to know reality and has to conduct his life, not merely as tradition dictates, but in conformity to the truth, faith also has the positive duty to be missionary. With its missionary claim, the Christian faith sets itself apart from the other religions which have appeared in history; this claim is implicit in its philosophical critique of the religions and can be justified only on that basis. The fact that today missionary dynamism threatens to trickle away into nothing goes hand-in-hand with the deficit in philosophy which characterizes the contemporary theological scene. . . .
“Faith can wish to understand because it is moved by love for the One upon whom it has bestowed its consent. Love seeks understanding. It wishes to know even better the one whom it loves. It ‘seeks his face,’ as Augustine never tires of repeating. Love is the desire for intimate knowledge, so that the quest for intelligence can even be an inner requirement of love. Put another way, there is a coherence of love and truth which has important consequences for theology and philosophy. Christian faith can say of itself, I have found love. Yet love for Christ and of one’s neighbor for Christ’s sake can enjoy stability and consistency only of its deepest motivation is love for the truth. This adds a new aspect to the missionary element: real love of neighbor also desires to give him the deepest thing man needs, namely, knowledge and truth.”
— from Joseph Ratzinger, “Faith, Philosophy and Theology” in The Nature and Mission of Theology: Essays to Orient Theology in Today’s Debates (Ignatius Press, 1993)
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