The Professor & the Unicorn
Reality, Revelation & the Seductions of Abstract Thought
by S. M. Hutchens
In a recent series of Touchstone articles and editorials Patrick Henry Reardon and I were called upon to respond to arguments, historical and theological, for the accession of women to church offices traditionally held only by men (see Touchstone, Fall 1992, Winter and Spring 1993 issues). For those who are as weary of this topic as we are, let me say at the outset that this article is not about women’s ordination, but the way of thinking that makes this institution and many others conceivable. One might say it concerns the line between reality and imagination, which, translated into the language of theology, has to do with the difference between revelation and speculation. It is a very old problem that needs to be reconsidered by every generation.
It seemed to Fr. Reardon and me that we were tilting with the unicorn—writing against things conceivable but imaginary. He was dealing mostly with imagined history, and I was speaking against a contrived theology, but we were both speaking to minds abstracted from the reality of the Christian faith as described in its apostolic constitution and lived by the Church. Reardon was confronted with a history of Christian priestesses having so little evidential substance that no reasonable person could consider it anything but a creature of imagination—and yet the imagined idea was strong enough to blind an intellectual giant to Church history as it apparently was, and draw a bishopess (surely kin to the unicorness) out of the catacombs. I faced a theological argument that advanced from Christian premises to non-Christian conclusions on the strength of a concept of equality that defeated history, tradition, and St. Paul’s explicit directives for the role of women in the churches.
We are disposed to shape the world to our desire by elevating notions over verity. This is a corruption of the gift that made homo faber in the image of God. Man who was made to imagine and create within the defined infinity of Truth now makes images of what cannot be. The world is full of his idols, weighted to their own destruction by their inability to answer to reality as it comes from the hand of God. The religious feminist, in the spirit of Antiochus and Pompey, invades the sanctuary and there—aided by the homosexual who also profits from the trivialization of gender distinctions—sets up her egalitarian idea. Those who bow before it finally find themselves in a war against God and nature they cannot win. The same elevation of idea over reality happens when the scientist distorts or ignores the book of nature in favor of his theory, or a nation is molested by political idealists and social architects.
My own experience as a student of theology, in conservative and liberal schools, among Protestants and Catholics, has largely been that of studying ideas about God, his word and will for mankind. The basic material in all cases, even among the most vehement modernists, has been extracted from the biblical mine. But very quickly the idea, separated from the revelational milieu that limits and controls it, takes root and grows on its own. One truth hypertrophies, others atrophy in response, and the school or the sect is born, each with its characteristic preoccupation and error. One segment of Christendom becomes controlled by the idea of bringing the kingdom of God to earth. In others, attributes of God, such as his sovereignty or kindness, or some aspect of the person of Jesus or his Mother, become ground-principles that control the vision of those who adopt them. Distended over revelational boundaries, these ideas are eventually used to attack revelation itself. The phenomenon is the same in all instances—an idea, a generality, not in itself wrong, but given undue license, overcomes the particularity of the Given and conforms everything in its path to its own shape, leaving confusion and schism in its wake.
Conditions on the Western Front
Eastern Orthodox friends tell me that Western theology’s proclivity to err comes from this habit of mind. The difference, they say, between Western theology, shared by Protestants and Catholics, and their own is that here we begin our thinking about God in terms of one of these preoccupations of which I have spoken: an ancient, but non-Judeo-Christian concept of God as Pure or Absolute Being, reflected in the filioque of the Western version of the Nicene Creed and enshrined in our theology by Thomas Aquinas and Protestant Scholasticism. In Eastern Christendom, they tell me, God is contemplated in the revealed mystery of his personhood, of the relation of the Persons of the Holy Trinity to each other and to creation. Once this alleged difference didn’t matter very much to me, since I could not regard the Western theological conversation I had been privy to, considered as a whole, consistent enough to be controlled by any axiology, faulty or otherwise. As as result of my controversy with feminism, however, I have been forced to consider the charge more carefully.
My conclusion is that the Orthodox cannot be blamed too much for generalizing as they do about our understanding of God in the West, but there is something about the inner life of the Catholic and Protestant churches I would like them to appreciate more. It is not true that Christians in the West have devoted themselves to a divine abstraction, that our conception of God is ultimately that of numinous being—and hence a malleable idea—instead of a revealed person. This, rather, has been a driving tendency of our scholastic tradition to which many countercurrents have answered. The history of theology in the West is that of a battleground between the abstract and particular God, the God of Judeo-Christian revelation and the God of speculative reconceptualization. It can be analyzed in terms of ideas of God, set forth in academies that arose as the churches divided—which have always been religious, especially when they claim to be secular—answered by personalistic antitheses that find most of their support beyond their walls.
If we use an analogy derived from C. S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man, a book with a voice far older than that of its author, we could say we are speaking here of the invidious tendency of the head, abetted by the pride and prejudice of the schools it has created, to rebel against the heart—which has reasons, as Pascal said, of which the head knows nothing. If the heart (Lewis here juxtaposes the Platonic sophia and the Hebrew lev) is where reason and affection are combined by the superior and ultimately mysterious agency of the person himself, we are speaking of a case where the Western head has a history of identifying the heart as mere belly to discredit it and assert control. Visceral faith is present here in force, but not every reaction against the sin of the intellect is a descent into enthusiasm. Sometimes it is the healthy soul’s insistence, which is also found here in the West, that the abstractive, ratiocinative faculty is not qualified to rule the man and must itself be brought under a higher authority in the service of truth.
Those whose studies concentrate on theological literature rather than the actual life of the churches are apt to see the history of Western theology through the eyes of academic theologians, historians of dogma, and the church offices they influence, an ascendancy from which there has been a continuous and powerful revolt. This revolt is against the tendency of an abstractive and formalizing school theology to make clerics by training them in religious philosophy and to make God the property of this clerical caste, with the theological faculty firmly on top. Perhaps the place this is most evident these days is the attempt of Catholic academics to define Catholic faith in defiance of the bishop of Rome, who above all the popes of recent history combines devotion and intellectual power in a heart that has control of both. The pope’s struggle is an old one, fought by many others on a variety of fronts.
The correspondence of Karl Barth and Adolf von Harnack is a fascinating example of this phenomenon. Barth tweaks the nose of the German theological academy on behalf of the Church’s faith. Harnack loftily accuses him of enthusiasm and anti-intellectualism, and in the end doesn’t see how they can carry on an intelligent conversation. The reason Harnack hadn’t the slightest feeling for the Church as a theological authority to which he as a professing Christian is bound is because he was a professor, and therefore not in the slightest measure subject to it. This illustrates the strange end of a long process. What is called theology here in the West has been the province of specialists who have insisted on the privilege of defining the Christian faith with an ever-higher measure of independence from the spiritual life of the churches. What began as special privilege for discussion of doctrine within the universities has grown by our times into almost complete spiritual alienation of imperial theological faculties from the living Church. (My opinion as to why the churches seem nevertheless to welcome, or at least tolerate, the tyranny of the schools, and thus drink their own death, is that the school theologians buy their church salaries and endowments by telling people what they want to hear rather than what the historical faith teaches. Resistance to this morbid cycle rarely comes from the faculties. Often it is spearheaded by a conspicuous traitor from these ranks, like Wycliffe, Barth, or John Paul II, who makes his appeal to the people directly or through pastors who have the courage to swim against the stream.)
I do not blame the Orthodox for reading Western theology and identifying tendencies, but one should distinguish sharply between Church and academy and understand that the life of the Church in the West to a large degree has been preserved by people who are willing to oppose its schools, and so be identified as enthusiasts and anti-intellectuals, no matter how sober and learned they might actually be.
Where Orthodoxy and the Western resistance meet and agree most intensely is at seeing the heart of the Faith in the sacraments, conversion to Christ, the reading of Scripture, prayer, devotional exercise, mystical or pentecostal experience, a mysterium relationis in which our primary and controlling understanding of who God is (as in the relationship of child and parent) comes from the ineffable mystery of communion with a Person, not from reflection on an abstract religious concept. Here popular Christianity and an occasional deserter from the religious intelligentsia place themselves on the side of Eastern Orthodoxy, and yes, even of the pagans who had the notion that the gods were “personal.” They could be propitiated, influenced, even bribed, but not reconceptualized. The latter, they realized, required the invention of another god.
Aristotle, no great friend to crass popular religion, attempted to cleanse Hellenic theology with philosophy, resiling from pagan personalism by treating God at the level of pure being. Given the disreputabilty of the pantheon, it was a noble undertaking, and doubtless well meant. He and his Christian intellectual heirs honor God by speaking of him in terms of the highest and purest possible conceptualization to which the human mind can attain. In doing so, however, they frequently indulge a strong natural disposition to purge theology at its highest level of anthropomorphic associations. This is to avoid one temptation, that of confusing God with creation, while succumbing to another, that of setting him apart from creation in ways that he in fact is not. As Christians we believe that the unsurpassably perfect revelation of God is an Anthropomorph whose actual members we must be to be saved, and that the farther one is removed from this particular vision and relation, the farther one is removed from the one true God. When one speaks of God in terms of being, he must first speak of the particular being of this particular Revelation. Our address of God, in prayer, in thought, in every sacramental act, is “in Jesus’ name,” not to God as the highest being conceivable.
I came to this understanding by meditating on religious feminism, which has a strong natural interest in two paths of theological conceptualization—along that of Western theology’s tendency to regard God in abstract, non-personal terms, apart therefore also from the infection of gender, and in terms of the mystical (apophatic) theology common to both East and West that teaches that God negates every human category. Feminism will not get very far with the second, since logically speaking apophaticism is infinitely regressive, teaching that God as negation also is the negation of negation, so that the way of negation is also the way of hyper-affirmation. Ultimately one cannot de-Christify, de-Paternalize, or de-hierarchialize Christianity with apophaticism—and that, of course, is what feminism must have. One can do much better with a concept of Absolute Being by which it can be said that God is beyond gender categories, something quite different than apophaticism, but easily confused with it. That way Christ can be, in fact must be, as a mere man, regarded as an inferior revelation of God, since he is no longer in fact consubstantial with Absolute Being, but adulterated by the addition of the human and, beyond that, the particularity of gender. He is removed from anything that can be called God by being (1) material creation, (2) human, and (3) male. This is a recrudescence of Gnosticism and deeply anti-Christian.
While theological feminism might wish to regard itself as one of those personalistic revolts from an abstractive school theology, in fact it cannot be. That is because so far as it personalizes God, it does so in full retreat from Christian personalization—God as the Father of our Lord, the Man Jesus Christ—and invariably ends in neo-paganism, with goddesses, divine hermaphroditism (following its penchant for confusion of the sexes), and the like. To the degree that feminism’s god is personal, it is also pagan. Its only plausible argument from within what passes for Christian theology comes from elevation of God beyond gender, a depersonalization in accordance with the abstracting tendencies of the schools and the doctrine of God as fundamental Being.
St. Thomas & the Antichrist
At this point I can almost see my Orthodox friends rubbing their hands and saying, “This is what we have been trying to tell you Western believers all along. The abstractive disease that makes God Absolute Being instead of Himself is deep in your bones. ‘Christian’ feminism is the legitimate heir of Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, and the whole scholastic tradition, Catholic and Protestant. Beza with his supralapsarian God, radically un-free against the determining force of his own decrees, Hegel with his Geist, Whitehead with his process deity, Tillich with his Ultimate Concern, the revivalists and superstitious Catholics who think God can be manipulated with slogans, formulas, and sacred magic—all from the same addled family, just with different tastes in idolatry.”
I painfully admit the point is well taken, but other observations need to be made here with some force, for the question of speaking of God in terms of his Being continues to reassert itself as legitimate. It cannot be, as the “early Barth” is accused of teaching by those who don’t understand him, that God is so Wholly Other it is impossible to connect him in being or thought to what is not God, since if that were true we could have no relation to him and no valid thoughts of him at all. (The early Barth was not stupid.) There must be some relation, some connection, some way of speaking about him and being related to him. If there is, then what could be wrong with saying that the reason for this is that we share the quality of “being”? For surely God “is” and we “are”—we are connected by “being-ness” at the most fundamental level.
The problem here, of course, is that according to the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures God is radically different from his creation. What he made did not emanate from his essence, but was called out of nothing at his Word. Our ability to think abstractly about God ends at the infinite chasm between the Creator and the creation that calls any analogia entis—a relation of God and man on the basis of a common being—into question. Yet we are related, and on the level of being, too. St. Paul cites Aratus approvingly: “We are his offspring.” Surely a relationship of this kind, in fact a relationship of any kind, is inconceivable apart from the idea of a community of being.
Thomas Aquinas dealt with this problem in a way that makes sense. He began by making the observation that if a certain property is rightly attributed to two different things, then those two things can be considered together in a single field of knowledge. If “being” is attributed to two entities, then there must be a science of being that treats them both to the extent they have being in common. Since faith finds it unthinkable to consider either God or the creature apart from their existence, which Scripture also attributes to them both, the predicate of being is properly applied to both. The distance between them cannot stand in the way of either a science of being that speaks of God and creation, or of some kind of community of being between them.
St. Thomas is careful to say that this does not mean when we speak of God’s being and the being of his creation we are using the word in the same way. God’s being is peculiar to him as ours is to us. But still, this doesn’t mean there is no likeness of being between God and the creature, for if there were not, not only would the creature be unable to know God, but also God would not be able to know the creature, which is again unthinkable. Rather we speak of the being of God and of the creature in terms of their analogy, or their likeness in dissimilarity, in terms of an analogia entis—an analogy of being.
In the preface to Church Dogmatics Karl Barth calls the analogia entis the invention of Antichrist. It is important to understand that he did not make this accusation because he denied the relation between God and creation, but because he was convinced this concept connected them in an illegitimate way. That relationship, he later made clear, is through Christ alone, and must therefore always be seen through Christological lenses. To connect us through a general doctrine of being is diabolical because it bypasses the Incarnation—the place where the being of God and that of his creation are perfectly and comprehensively related, which contains all other such relations, and by which they are to be defined.
Let me say here, however, that it is unadvisable to try to understand Barth’s meaning in terms of what St. Thomas says at the foundations of his metaphysics, for it is not at all plain that there St. Thomas is doing anything wrong. He is wrestling as a Christian with a difficult problem using conceptual tools borrowed from Aristotle, and comes to a conclusion that preserves, as it must to remain orthodox, both the radical difference and radical similarity between God and man, laying the foundations of a Christology in which Jesus Christ, the perfect and complete revelation of God, is both very God of very God and very Man of very Man. If there are problems with the analogy of being as St. Thomas uses it, that is, if it offends orthodox Christology, they would not become evident until one goes further into his thought. Here I only see him translating a Christian doctrine into the language of philosophy. As long as this is done accurately, and can be translated back when necessary, there is nothing erroneous or deceptive about it.
The difficulty Barth had with the analogy of being was more practical than theoretical. He recognized it has a spotted history that includes a strong, almost irresistible, tendency to draw in its train a general ontology that treats both God, where it is interested in him, and creation in terms of equivalent conceptualizations (which, it appears, St. Thomas would not have approved as consistent with his understanding of analogy). General sciences of being, even general sciences of being with something called God at the top of the essential heap, have nothing distinctively Christian about them. They have a long pre- and post-Christian history, a very abundant and independent philosophical life of their own which is in no obvious way beholden to the first and final revelation of the Truth of God in Christ Jesus, by whom Christians insist that all other putative truth is to be measured, and to whom all being and thought are to be made subject. I would argue, and here I think von Balthasar would agree, that Barth disapproved of the analogy of being less because of what it said when you isolated it in the sphere of Christian doctrine than because of the bad company it keeps when it gets out on its own.
The Sovereignty of the Infinite Particular
Still, fundamental to the main stream of Western philosophy is a doctrine of being that is separable from and independent of a theology based on revelation—God’s self-disclosure—to which Jews and Christians point as the starting place for all reflection on God and his creation. It is no coincidence that Martin Buber was a Jew. The understanding that all true theology begins not in ratiocination but in grace, in personal communion, and in doxology is an essential part of our common heritage. This also means that the theology of Christians and Jews is bound with a short chain (but which is also infinitely long) within the precincts of revelation. Its understanding of being—its conception of what is—has a particularity to it that a general doctrine of being cannot have, and this particularity is frequently in conflict with ideas of God generated in and through doctrines of being founded on concepts of God and driven thereafter not by information from God, but by a logic that rises from within the concepts themselves.
In the Christian faith we begin and end our thinking about who God is with revelation—with a specially vouchsafed disclosure of his reality, not simply an intelligent theory—with “the tether and pang of the particular” (C. S. Lewis). Eve became the first philosopher-theologian as well as the first human idolater when she allowed herself to step outside the bounds of the revealed by adopting the serpent’s conceptual God: an idea of God was made available to her with which to defeat the Particular with whom she was coming into controversy. The serpent provided her with a re-formed God who was different from the Person she actually knew. The known reality became abstracted to a concept subject to free ratiocination. The personal, particular God who had spoken to her could now be bypassed by theologizing, that is, by philosophizing about “God.” The first step in the process of temptation always is that of offering to the mind an abstracted essence—what God must be in accordance with a supervenient Idea apart from his actual and known Self. A doctrine of God’s being—mere being, that is, shorn of the particularity of his revelation—thus becomes clay of idolatry, for it can be shaped by the vermiculate will where the self-revealed God cannot be.
This tendency to reach beyond what may be known on the impulse of an idea of God is at the base of much religion. It is very natural for the high-minded to move from the idea of an incomparable Creator-God, to that of his absolute Purity of Being. While it is true that he may be accurately spoken of in that way, the concepts of the being and purity of God must be able to bear the weight of an immanence in which God becomes flesh and bears human sin. Aristotle would have had trouble with Christianity. The next logical step from attribution of Pure Being in a theology uninformed by Judeo-Christian revelation is to his separation from all that is inferior to that Being. This idea of separation is also, in a sense true, but now more heavily weighted toward falsity, since those who believe it are going to have even greater difficulty with the Incarnation, as we have seen among Gnostics and Muslims. Reality, as Pascal and Kierkegaard so forcibly reminded us, and the revelation that tells us its nature and history, is full of surprises that mere logic cannot predict, even when it begins from formally correct premises.
Revelation & the Logic of Ideas
Revelation conveys in accurate symbolic depiction the reality that mere conceptualization cannot predicate with confidence or authority. It gives us the shape of things as they truly are, and to which therefore our logic must conform. An illustration of ideation apart from revelation would be the study of human anatomy pursued apart from thorough examination of the body—the very sort of trap into which medieval science, with its lack of empiricism and dependence upon classical authorities, typically fell. The body is, to external view, bilaterally symmetrical. A logic of mere conceptualization would assume, and not without reason, that its interior reflected its exterior: two eyes, two ears, two arms, one side of the forehead the mirror image of the other, therefore, two lungs, two brain lobes, two hearts, and each side of the liver the image of the other. In this case the original idea, which conceptualizing reason followed out, did not bring it to complete untruth with regard to the invisible world of the body’s interior. There are, after all, two lungs, two kidneys, and a symmetrical bladder. But to know the actual truth of the body, one must rely on the anatomical equivalent of revelation. A surgeon whose understanding of anatomy was based on mere logic and not on the way the body actually is would kill, not all, but many, of his patients. The decisiveness of empirical discovery over speculation in the natural sciences is analogous to the ultimacy of a theology of revelation over that based on a general doctrine of being.
The history of philosophy, which is the story of ideas about being and the logic contained in those ideas that flesh them out into metaphysical systems or anti-systems, is likewise not a story of complete error when it comes to thinking about God any more than a science of anatomy based upon mere logic would be. It appears to me, for example, that Hegel’s Science of Logic contains a great many “hits” when placed up against Christian revelation, and therefore can be useful, at the places where the philosopher’s insight is deep, for understanding what Christians believe. Its power, as Kierkegaard told us, is in its ability to reflect the reality in which we believe, its error in the pretense of a relation to that reality that no merely abstract system can have. Hegel made the mistake of falling in love with a photograph, in forgetting that the story of Pygmalion and Galatea is a myth, or rather, is true only in a particular case that he does not recognize. Similar things can be said of the work of many thinkers who are not Christians, whose writings are often rich conceptual mines for the believer who knows what he believes and can understand it better with the aid of those who make pictures of it, even if the artists don’t understand the subject of their art. Some truths, as a matter of fact, stand out with the starkest clarity in people who are, or believe themselves to be, hostile to Christianity.
But always, revelation, being the representation of reality given by God himself—and which in its origin and perfection is Christ—rules our conceptualizations of God and his creation. This is so that the simplest Christian believer with the most rudimentary insight into this revelation has the necessary experience to be more thoroughly right about God than the most sophisticated theological systematician, whose work may consist largely of conceptualization imperfectly related to revelation, all too often flawed by faulty methods and prolegomena, and correct only where inconsistent with its first principles. This is why I, even though trained in school theology, do not hesitate to cite St. Paul’s restrictions on the activities of women in the Church against contrary opinions based upon a theory of God determined not by what the Church has traditionally believed to be revelation on these matters, but by an egalitarian idea that construes the reality of Christian doctrine in the same way as our concept-driven anatomist conceives the human body. This is not to say that revelation is illogical, only that where it is given it tells us what something we might call the prime logic is. To this prime logic we must submit, even when we have otherwise reasonable arguments to place against it.
The great problem for Christian thinkers (I first encountered this in force among Calvinists) is in telling where revelation leaves off and speculation—that is, the pursuit of logic into revelation—begins. I do not believe it is always wrong to speculate, but it is always risky—like assuming the correspondence of the external logic of the human body to the internal. If it is done, those who do it are responsible to the rest of us to identify their sorties as just that—speculation. One may, according to his skill, find himself in the right a great many times, but for definitive knowledge of many hidden things, one simply must be shown what cannot otherwise be seen. And of course, while one always bases speculation on doctrine, it must never be done the other way around.
Karl Barth’s observation on this subject (described well by Hans Frei in Types of Christian Theology, pp. 38–46) is that a great many theologians, liberal and conservative, go at their work by first engaging a general philosophical scheme, into which the language of revelation must be made to fit, and to which therefore revelation itself must ultimately be subject. But this, Barth insists, is putting the cart before the horse, since theology has been given the controlling paradigms of thought and language by revelation, and we are responsible before God to learn what they mean and to bring what is apparently external and at points conceptually parallel to that revelation under the descriptive control of revelation itself. In other words, when the philosophical science of being and theology as the discourse of the Church consequent to revelation are brought together, one or the other must control the field.
Barth insists that when theology is what it ought to be, it has the privilege and responsibility to exercise this dominion. This means that while philosophy can, at least in theory, be respected outside theology and used within it, it cannot be allowed to dictate to it—not even at the fundamental level of imposing a rule of noncontradiction—since philosophy does not know enough, nor does it have the ability within itself, to make ultimate determinations about what is contradictory and what is not. It can only guess. Barth makes it plain that philosophy, driven by general doctrines of being and the logic that accompanies them, has frequently attempted to impose its bad guesses on a theology built upon a revelation that calls it wrong.
A Family Discussion in the Occidental House
Let us return to St. Thomas here. I am still not approaching him as a critic, since the answer I am looking for can only be given in light of a firm grasp of his thought as a whole, which I do not have. Still, the question that must be posed to him and to all other philosophers of being is whether God as Ineffable Being (even when “being” is predicated analogically) is identical with the God of revelation, since nothing in a mere philosophy or theology of being dictates the necessity past the legitimate boundaries of what has been called natural revelation.
Discourse about God in terms of his being cannot be disallowed, since it is in fact assumed by Scripture and the science of theology itself, as St. Thomas understood. But the science must accurately reflect quasi per speculum the reality about which it speaks in order to be true. Philosophy, which at its base is discourse about being in general, must be ancillary to theology when theology is the particularization of that discourse in terms of the self-revelation of God. Since (we Christians believe) this revelation reveals a manifest community of likeness between God and man, one might therefore speak quite innocently of an analogy of being, but this speech must ultimately be referred to and responsible to the Christology in which it is concretized.
One may say, with St. Thomas, that being is predicated of God per analogiam, but in the mouth of a Christian this is usually less philosophy than apologetics: preaching doctrine to philosophy in terms that it can understand as a way of connecting its ideational forms with the symbolics of the apostolic faith. The formal test of St. Thomas’s Christian philosophy, or of any other that claims to be such, is whether it (1) accurately reflects, in its own peculiar language, the faith revealed to the Church, and (2) acknowledges the final authority of revelation—describing as it does, reality, not simply theories about it—over general doctrines of being.
To the degree a philosophy and its doctrine of being accurately describe the truth of God in its own language, the theology of revelation recognizes it as symbolically true. If this were not so, homoousias could not be used in the Nicene Creed. This single-word explanation of Christ’s relation to the Father is legitimized by revelation itself, since the reality it symbolizes is taught by revelation. To the degree philosophy or philosophical theology goes beyond revelation it is speculative—perhaps not wrong, but speculative, and should be treated as such. The recapitulation of the theology of revelation in philosophical (or other) terms is true only where the recapitulation is accurate, and always subject to revelation itself. And where philosophy and its attendant doctrines of being deny revelation—which has often been the case historically—theology, still the queen of the sciences, must correct it. Barth’s many criticisms of school theology, Catholic and Protestant, probably center here. In light of the revelation given to the Church it is often wrong. Even when it is not demonstrably erroneous it tends toward speculation that it fails to identify as such, and so generates more confusion than light.
As a Protestant looking at Roman Catholicism, I believe that our most significant confessional differences occur not simply at places where we have different readings of the Tradition, but where the Catholic philosophical mind extends doctrine with logic while the Protestant holds back. For example, the Scriptures speak of a time of purification for believers: Purgatory as an extrapolation on this is eminently logical. But does Revelation speak of Purgatory, and are all Christians required to believe that it exists according to its Roman Catholic description? These questions would also apply where Marian doctrine or the matter of papal infallibility seem to go beyond Scripture. In each of these places a strong deductive logic appears to be at work, an “if this”—a beginning premise upon which Catholics and Protestants might agree—followed by a “then this” conclusion that Protestants, and frequently the Orthodox also, question because it appears to go beyond what has been revealed to what we understand as the Church.
The Protestant protest on these matters cannot be final and dogmatic. We do not know whether the pope can speak infallibly, our Lady had no children of her body other than our Lord, or that we may ask for the intercession of departed saints. When reason and desire outstrip revelation, as we suspect they have done in these places, they need not be wrong (there are two nostrils—there might really be two lungs also!). But we hold judgment in abeyance, and so resile from Catholicism’s insistence that its distinctive dogmas must be right, even when they are—as they always are—systematically grounded and supported by a driving logic. Conservative Protestants tend to have the same mindset as the Orthodox in such things and so have difficulty with what we think we see in Catholicism and know we see among religious progressivists. Something may be by all appearances consistent with apostolic teaching, but untrue. It is this, not necessarily an imperfect understanding of the character of Scripture, blindness to the authority of Tradition, or hostility toward our estranged Roman bishop, that keeps some of the most thoughtful Protestants protesting.
The sola scriptura of Protestantism, formally incorrect as it may be as a principle of authority, is best understood as a conservative response to what was perceived as theology’s transgression of revelation within Roman Catholicism. Apropos St. Thomas’s metaphysics, our observations of Catholicism incline us to approach cautiously, remembering what St. Paul said about philosophy, what Pascal said about the philosophers’ god, and what Karl Barth said about the danger of a logicizing theology beginning in a general doctrine of being. Once again, this is not to say that such a theology is invariably wrong, but to note with appropriate emphasis its proclivity to wander from its allegiance to revelation back to its natal fields in which it again takes up an independent and only selectively Christian life of its own. It is these very fields in which we see so many Catholic theologians and philosophers, joining the liberal Protestants, at play since Vatican II. What has put them there seems less a Protestantizing aberration than a perennial aspect of the Catholic theological mind.
In the case of the ordination of women to the pastoral offices, upon which I began this train of thought, I spoke in my Touchstone article of a compelling scriptural logic upon which the institution could be based. It is essentially Marian—and could become Roman Catholic, if a theological idea, following popular sentiment, overcomes revelation—something we Protestants think we have seen happen in Catholicism before. If Mary, a woman, can be reckoned the minister of Christ par excellence, then counterarguments concerning iconic representation and divinely established male hierarchies can claim no inherent superiority over Marian arguments for priestesses. The decision as to whether to make women ministers of pulpit and altar could, with equal logic—logic with an apparent basis in scriptural revelation—go either way. There have been parallel cases, such as whether Gentiles should be evangelized and admitted to the Church, and if so, on what terms.
What is needed in these cases is not a series of deductions based on general principles, even if the principles are drawn from Scripture (which indeed is what it seems we must sometimes settle for, but with which we should not be satisfied), but a word from God to settle the mind of the Church, a revelation to decide between contending arguments. In the case of Gentile accession, the required particulars were given to Peter at Joppa and to the apostles and elders at Jerusalem. With regard to the place of women in the Church, much has been given through Paul, and attempts to change the Church’s understanding of what he meant or what it means for the rest of us, have shown themselves deeply suspect by being unable to alter traditional interpretations apart from bizarre exegesis or the practical denial of St. Paul’s apostolicity.
In the End, a Matter of Submission
A distinctively revelational theology will always be, like the centurion of Luke 7, “a man under authority,” defining its own science and its ancillary philosophies by what it perceives as revealed and refusing to grant canonical authority to speculation. Comprehensive thought systems, whether those of philosophy or philosophical theology, invariably have at their bases an idea, and by this we mean not merely a thought, but a thought pregnant with its logical consequences. (The Reformed philosopher Herman Dooyeweerd is particularly illuminating on how this happens.) Some of these ideas are better than others. The systematic fruit they bear when worked out will complement, recapitulate, and even explain something of what has been given in revelation. The closer the idea comes to what is Given, the more tempting it will be for the Christian thinker to adopt it as the key to knowledge—the more useful and dangerous it becomes.
The analogy of being is one of these. It can be used, on one hand, to explain to us the nature of the similarities and differences between us and our Creator, and can serve the Church as long as it is referred ultimately to, and controlled by, the doctrine of being implicit in orthodox Christology, described authoritatively in personalistic terms in Scripture and in apologetic terms in the Christological decrees of the ecumenical councils. It, however, like any philosophical ground-idea, is wild and unstable when not controlled by revelation. It can very soon seize the prerogatives of its divine mistress, leading us off into thinking that God and creation are related in ways they are not, allowing for the construction of systems of thought at variance with the revelation that mediates reality to us.
The point of revelation, which so frequently appears illogical or oppressive to those who stand outside it, is not to make the world narrow, but to show us the door to life by defining creation in terms of the Door itself, making all things lead us to God in Christ. Creatures who acknowledge themselves confined in both finitude and sin must think that the way into the life of God is something like a gate or a door, something relating to this confinement not in general but particular terms, terms that answer to the condition we are in both personally and as a race, with the power and authority to conform what is to itself. Christ is God occurring in the scandal of the particular, who could be prophesied confidently (since prophecy is revelation), but predicted only with the greatest caution and reserve. The story of the Magus at Bethlehem is that of the natural philosopher, the empirical scientist of being, of the abstract thinker concerned with truth, seeking the revelation before which he knows his science must bow, the uncanny place where general truth joyfully submits to the Particular from which it came.
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“The Professor & the Unicorn” first appeared in the Spring 1995 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue. Click here for a printer-friendly version.
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