A post from the archives, written by Kim Fabricius
When he was just a bog-standard bishop in Wales, Rowan Williams once addressed a meeting of Swansea church leaders. The host introduced the future Archbishop of Canterbury by outlining his CV, including his impressive academic achievements. He then concluded: “Although Dr. Williams is a great theologian, nevertheless he loves the Lord.”
Priceless! “Although . . . nevertheless”! As if intelligence were inimical to faith! Hence Bertrand Russell’s quip that “Christians would rather die than think – and most of them do.” Ouch!
We are a long way here from the Great Commandment, which includes loving the Lord not only with your heart and soul, but also with your mind (Mark 12:30). A long way too from that egghead from Tarsus named Paul, who valued discerning intelligence over emotional indulgence, and rebuked the Corinthians for their childish thinking. “Be infants in evil,” he told them, “but in thinking be adults” (I Corinthians 14:20 NRSV).
St. Augustine (354-430) was a worthy heir of Paul in his insistence that faith and thought are complementary, not contradictory. “Everyone who believes, thinks,” he wrote, “for by believing one thinks, and by thinking one believes.” Indeed the Bishop of Hippo spoke of his own conversion as a search for “true philosophy”.
St. Anselm (c. 1033-1109), who preferred to defend Christianity by reasoned argument rather than by appeal to scripture, summarised the Augustinian tradition with the phrase fides quaerens intellectum, “faith seeking understanding”. Faith itself summons us to use our minds to know God.
It certainly summoned St. Thomas Aquinas (c. 1225-74). The Angelic Doctor’s masterpiece the Summa Theologica, over two million words of systematic thinking, is based on two premises: reason needs faith, and faith needs reason.. You could say that reason without faith is empty, but faith without reason is blind.
The Reformers agreed. True, Martin Luther (1483-1546) once called reason a whore – but only when it divorces itself from revelation and sets out its own stall. Thinking rationally in the wake of revelation, however, is what the voyage of faith is all about.
During the United Reformed Church’s discussion on human sexuality, a traditionalist wrote to our national magazine Reform declaring that “we are in danger of promoting scholarship above faith and Scripture,” and he appealed to the Reformers as men who “would reckoned to have ‘died theologically’ with the apostles.” “Which Reformers are these?” I replied. Luther, a professor of Biblical Studies, whose “tower experience” of re-birth turned on the recovery of the Greek New Testament by learned north European humanists? Or John Calvin (1509-64), master of both classical rhetoric and the new learning, whose Institutes of the Christian Religion, continually re-thought and re-written, combined rigorous grammatical and historical analysis with penetrating spiritual insight?
The fact is that the Reformers, the seventeenth Puritan divines and their successors were the intellectual giants of their day. They promoted habits of the heart, but as Jonathan Edwards said, “Holy affections are not heat without light.” Nor did they write for specialists but for ordinary church members who were proud that their churches were cultures of learning. These pious folk would certainly have repudiated any attempt to dissociate faith from scholarship as a recipe for obscurantism and ignorance.
Alas the brain-dead will always be with us, reprimanding ministers who challenge people to use their loaf, to think critically about their beliefs as they interface with the challenges of the day. It might, they allege, upset folk’s “simple faith”. But folk with a “simple faith” have a way of growing up. They begin to ask hard questions. They want to answer the challenges of science, not turn a deaf ear. They want to make sense of the problem of suffering, not live in denial. And, faithful to the gospel itself, they want to be able “to answer anyone who asks you to explain the hope you have in you” (I Peter 3:15 GNB). If we never doubt our beliefs, we may well end up believing our doubts.
The great Reformed theologian of revelation Karl Barth (1886-1968) was once asked what place reason had in his theology. Barth replied: “I use it.” So should we. We should use our God-given minds precisely in the service of God’s self-disclosure in Christ – which is ultimately in the service of truth. And if the two seem mutually contradictory? I’m with Simone Weil, who said provocatively: “Christ likes us to prefer truth to him, because before being Christ, he is truth. If one turns aside from him to go towards the truth, one will not go far before falling into his arms.”
#reason #theology #scholarship #faith
Leave a Reply