August 24, 2007

Of Faith and Theology

It has been said a number of times by a number of people in our current storm that much of the turmoil stems from the failure to articulate a theology concerning same-sex relationships prior to authorizing them, or electing a bishop who happens to live in one.

This seems to me, in addition to reflecting the difference between an idealist and a realist mentality that I sketched out in an earlier post, to place too high a premium on the value of theology — to treat it as primary rather than secondary. (I leave for another time the question of whether this is even properly speaking a theological issue rather than an ethical or moral one. And this is not to deny that I think a good case can be made, and should be made.)

But even in other areas of our life in Christ, I would like to suggest that it is not theology that lies at the heart of the Church, but faith. Faith comes first. Theology then succeeds as an effort to rationalize and understand that which is admittedly beyond our full comprehension. Theology is always asymptotic.

Faith bears a relationship to theology similar to that which exists between π and its enumeration in digital form. To develop the analogy: consider π as standing in for God as God is, and the enumeration in digital form (3.1415...) as the work of theology. π is the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter. That is what it is — or rather, that is a description of what it is. But its value transcends our capacity to enumerate. Nor can it be constructed with a straightedge and compass — it is beyond both geometry and arithmetic. Which does not mean that people have not sought over the centuries various ways of coming to better and better approximations, all the while realizing that the elusive reality can never be exactly expressed by billions of digits, even though simply represented by that modest lower case Greek letter.

Anselm famously said that theology was “faith seeking understanding.” The faith comes first — faith in the God whose existence we cannot prove, Anselm’s own ontological effort notwithstanding. Faith comes first and then the seeking; and the seeking never quite completely finds. We do not give up on the theological quest, however, as Aquinas was said to have done after his transcendent vision of God — for he felt he had accomplished the goal all his theology was straining after but falling short of grasping. What we realize is that it is our faith — our relationship with God (and perhaps it is as well to remember that π itself is also a relationship rather than a thing!) — that our faith is both the basis for our theology, and the place of repose when our theology has reached its limits. It is not in our understanding that we will find God, but in our Love.

Tobias Haller BSG


R said...


I agree, and this cuts very close to the heart of the questions at hand.

The English language in this regard serves us well. We have faith in God, belief in the salvation of Christ -- not faith or belief as mere abstraction. The in not only points to relationship but that our thoughts are forever subsumed by the greatness and mystery of God's being and Life and Love themselves.

In the matter of sexuality, a parallel set of red herrings has materialized. We risk abstraction or reductionism about anatomy, biology, or institution (i.e. marriage) rather than looking at the quality of the relationships right in front of us -- relationships where the Spirit of God is at work.

Thank you for putting the horse, as it were, back before the cart!

bls said...

I agree that the so-called "orthodox" argument about sexuality is at this point sort of an otherworldly abstraction. It's as if there were an abstract ideal of "heterosexuality" floating around someplace that forces compliance from the rest of us somehow. I keep wondering who they're talking about.

It sounds silly because it is, I think; it's grasping at straws, IMO. If it weren't for bad arguments on the "reasserter" side, there'd be no arguments at all.

I just got finished reading a "reasserter"'s blog - a post lamenting that he'll have to be separated from his wife for a few months, and how awful and unsettled that makes him feel. He says this without a hint of irony.

Sometimes I really wonder; I really do.

Anonymous said...

Frequently I hear in the present debate in defining Anglicanism one side relies too heavily on one leg of the stool.
I was wondering if you could comment on the Roman Catholic understanding of faith and reason and Anglican understanding on as perhaps explained by Hooker.
Is the understanding the same or are thereimportant nuanced differences?
Perhaps this address from Pope Benedict (which I'm sure youll recognize) can serve as a point of departure.
"I believe that we can see the profound harmony between what is Greek in the best sense of the word and the biblical understanding of faith in God. Modifying the first verse of the Book of Genesis, the first verse of the whole Bible, John began the prologue of his Gospel with the words: "In the beginning was the λόγος". This is the very word used by the emperor: God acts, σὺν λόγω, with logos. Logos means both reason and word - a reason which is creative and capable of self-communication, precisely as reason. John thus spoke the final word on the biblical concept of God, and in this word all the often toilsome and tortuous threads of biblical faith find their culmination and synthesis. In the beginning was the logos, and the logos is God, says the Evangelist."

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thank you for the comments. Seamus, As I wrote some years ago, anticipating His Holiness, "We believe in a God whose middle name is Reason (logos)." Spurred by you, I will repost an essay I wrote years ago that addresses in summary Hooker's argument -- which is commonly misrepresented as a "three-legged stool) (which appears no where in Hooker. Briefly, Hooker gives primacy in terms of time to Reason, and then the Church (as recorded in Scripture) supplies the supernatural revealed truth that Reason alone could not provide. (He thus rejects a pure "natural religion" as insufficient to get beyond mere theism to such truths as the Incarnation and Atonement. Tradition is not authoritative for Hooker: it represents efforts at reception and is subject to human error. More when I get around to posting the old article...

Anonymous said...

Actually, I tend to want to follow God's chronology:

1. Reason - God's semi-divine gift to humans, making them "like God" or "in God's image" (or, the more interesting Hebrew variation: "a shadow of God").

2. Tradition - which began with the Ascension, the naming of Matthias, Pentecost, and all the rest.

3. Scripture – as produced BY the Traditon, and part of it.

God knew how it ought to go, and this is how God chose to do it!

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Fr J-J,
I appreciate the linkage or encapsulation of Scripture within Tradition, but I prefer, as you will see in my posting above, to see this as "the Church" rather than to use the word "Tradition." There is no doubt that the Scripture was delivered to "a people" and "a church" and not spoken into the void. That's why reception plays, to my mind, such an important role in the heilsgeschichte and it's unfolding.

Rob Penman said...


I read I would like to suggest that it is Not-Theology that lies at the heart of the Church, but faith.

Not-Theology could make it to a movement - The theology that is not a theology - sounds engaging ...