Tag Archives: theological method

Heaven and Earth Reconciled: God and the Modern Self #16

This installment completes this series. So, perhaps now would be a good time to let you in on a theological assumption I have made throughout this series: We can arrive at a Christian understanding of God only by viewing everything in the Bible and everything reason may tell us about God through the prism of Jesus Christ. For Christianity, God is the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is eternally Father, Son and Holy Spirit, everlasting self-giving love. There is no other God. Every divine attribute and action, every biblical narrative and assertion, before it can be legitimately incorporated into the Christian doctrine of God, must be harmonized with the vision of God that has come to light in Jesus Christ. The event of Jesus Christ is not merely a revelation of God; it is the revelation of God. In Ephesians 1:10, Paul tells us that it was always God’s secret plan “to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ.” And this text also sets the agenda for theology. All ideas about God must be brought to unity under Christ.

Operating on this theological assumption, I examined the ideas of divine omnipotence, omniscience and omnipresence in view of the vision of God that was brought into view by event of Jesus Christ. What seemed so menacing when contemplated in isolation appears as such good news when seen light of Jesus. God’s power can no longer be understood as the arbitrary will for domination. Now we know that it is the life-giving Life that appeared in Christ. The true character of God’s omnipresence is revealed in the incarnation of the Son of God. God can be with us, in us and united to us without displacing us. We no longer fear God’s absolute knowledge of us because now we understand this knowledge as the wisdom of his love. God knows how to love us, care for us and save us.

I also applied this theological assumption in our quest to understand who we are in relation to God. We cannot see ourselves as God sees us by studying history or reflecting on our feelings, thoughts and experiences. Nor can we understand ourselves by collecting biblical texts about human nature, sinfulness or destiny, unless those texts are brought to unity “under Christ.” For Christian theology, Jesus Christ is the revelation human nature and destiny. The event of Jesus Christ is the event of God uniting humanity to himself and bring it to its definitive perfection and its final destiny. In Christ we find no conflict between God and the full flowering of human perfection and happiness. Jesus Christ is God and humanity united in perfect harmony. To do the will of God and to seek our greatest good are one and the same endeavor. For God to work his sovereign will and to love the world in Christ through the Spirit are one and the same project. Just as we learn from Christ that God is self-giving love, we also learn that the perfection of human nature is self-giving love. And “self-giving love cannot compete with self-giving love” (p. 213).

To close this series I will quote the last paragraph of the book God, Freedom & Human Dignity:

“At the beginning of this book I expressed concern that we may hold back part of ourselves from God because we fear that God is in some way our competitor, that we might lose something if we give ourselves to God and that God may not be wholly for us. I hope by now we can see that there is not the slightest ground for such fears. The very opposite is true. God is so much for us and we are made so much for God that only by returning ourselves to God utterly may we become truly ourselves and live life to the full. In loving God for God’s sake alone we will find genuine freedom and in allowing ourselves to be loved by God we will discover our true dignity” (p. 217).

Next week I will begin a series that deals with the creeping moral crisis that is engulfing modern western culture and the challenge the culture’s moral nihilism poses to the Christian vision of human life. In my experience, contemporary discussions of morality consist of incoherent assertions of prejudice and outbursts of emotional anguish, mixed with rude protests and not so veiled threats of violence. Hence my approach will be to search for what went wrong and to clarify the alternatives that reveal themselves in that search. I think we will discover that the loss of robust Christian doctrines God, creation, sin and salvation preceded and facilitated the loss of a coherent moral vision. And only by regaining a deep understanding and belief in these Christian teachings can we successfully weather the storm about to break on the gates of the church.

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Thinking and Thoughtfulness (Part 1)

Since a major theme of my blog is “thoughtfulness in religion,” I owe it to you to explain what I mean by thoughtfulness and why I believe it is so important. Today I begin a short series on thinking and thoughtfulness. So, think with me for a while about thinking.

 

To understand a concept thoroughly it is not enough merely to define it. We must grasp its relationships to other concepts in the neighborhood. Only by bringing to light how it differs and resembles to those nearby ideas can we locate it on a conceptual map. The larger the scope of our vision, the more precise will be our sense of its location. Hence I plan to consider thoughtfulness in relation to such concepts as intelligence, reason, observation, common sense, critical thought, introspection and thoughtlessness.

 

A few years ago I read Bernard Lonergan’s huge book Insight: A Study of Human Understanding (1957). This book stands in the long tradition of books with similar titles: John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690) and David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748). Lonergan surveys the map of concepts and activities that orient us to the human act of insight, which is the act of understanding. I will not attempt to summarize his study here. But I want to acknowledge that my thinking about thinking and thoughtfulness has been influenced by this profound book. Specifically, the distinction I make below between common sense and critical (or scientific) thought comes directly from Lonergan (p. 181).

 

Intelligence and Reason

Intelligence is a more encompassing concept than reason. Intelligence is the power of a living being to perceive and respond appropriately to the information it receives from its environment. Billiard balls and hydrogen atoms do not possess intelligence even though they respond to physical contact by other things. Intelligence involves interpretation or processing of information by internal systems capable of such activity. Many intriguing questions arise at this point. What is information? Is information always the product of intelligence? Is it possible to construct an intelligent machine? But I won’t pursue them here. Human beings are not the only living creatures to possess intelligence. Horses, rabbits, mice and even one-cell creatures are marked by intelligent behavior.

But human beings possess a higher form of intelligence we call reason. Reason is not simply more intelligence; it is a qualitatively different kind of intelligence. In brief, reason is intelligence combined with freedom. Human beings not only respond intelligently to information in the automatic ways animals and plants do, they are conscious of their intelligence and partly in control of its application. We can initiate the processes of thinking and imagining apart from external contact with information bearing systems. We can resist being determined by the information pressing in on our senses, and we can anticipate several steps ahead to future states of our world. Reason is the power to see, understand or comprehend relationships— spatial, temporal, mathematical but especially causal and logical relationships. Information is always encoded in a system of relationships, and reason can see the relationships and read the information written therein. Only reasoning beings can attain insight or understanding.

Observation

All intelligent beings can receive information from their environment but only reasoning creatures observe the world. Observation is an intentional act designed to raise mere perception to a higher level by giving the object the kind of attention that will allow it to show itself in its fullness. In ordinary life it usually suffices to see things as images in their wholeness. To avoid hitting the car in front of us, it is enough to see the image as a car. We need not observe it in detail. In that situation, observing would be a foolish thing to do. Observation is the skill of focusing intently on the appearance of something. It is taking note of the details of its parts and shades and activities. If you don’t notice something you can’t think about it or take into account how it might affect you. So, observation precedes serious thought and analysis. To become a good observer you have to train your mind to notice things that we ordinarily overlook. Description is the way we communicate the results of observation.

Common Sense

As I said above, reason is the power to see all sorts of relationships. Common sense is reason’s power to grasp relationships between things and us; that is, common sense enables us to anticipate how things will affect us in practical ways. It learns from personal experience and the experience of other people how things work, how to adjust to them and use them for our benefit. It also works to avoid danger, to make a living or to achieve success in our activities.

It reasons like this: when you do this, that happens; or when that happens, it affects us like this. It is the form of reason used in learning a skill: auto mechanics, bricklaying, getting along with difficult people, or playing basketball. It is not directly interested in theoretical explanations. It gets impatient with any line of thought where the practical relevance is not evident.

Clearly, common sense is very important for daily life. We are related to everything in our environment, and to act wisely we need to anticipate how our actions will affect other things and how those things may affect us. Common sense conforms to the general pattern of reason; it sees connections, analogies and relationships of all kinds. It is especially sensitive to causal relationships. It can use this knowledge very creatively to solve problems. To be continued…

Next: critical thought, introspection and thoughtfulness