Read an Excerpt
Blessings of Rational Theology
christian faith in progress
theology and science
China Greece Islam
the rise of individualism
the abolition of medieval slavery
Theology is in disrepute among most Western intellectuals. The word is taken to mean a passé form of religious thinking that embraces irrationality and dogmatism. So too, Scholasticism. According to any edition of Webster’s, “scholastic” means “pedantic and dogmatic,” denoting the sterility of medieval church scholarship. John Locke, the eighteenth-century British philosopher, dismissed the Scholastics as “the great mintmasters” of useless terms meant “to cover their ignorance.”1 Not so! The Scholastics were fine scholars who founded Europe’s great universities and launched the rise of Western science. As for theology, it has little in common with most religious thinking, being a sophisticated, highly rational discipline that is fully developed only in Christianity.
Sometimes described as “the science of faith,”2 theology consists of formal reasoning about God. The emphasis is on discovering God’s nature, intentions, and demands, and on understanding how these define the relationship between human beings and God. The gods of polytheism cannot sustain theology because they are far too inconsequential. Theology necessitates an image of God as a conscious, rational, supernatural being of unlimited power and scope who cares about humans and imposes moral codes and responsibilities upon them, thereby generating serious intellectual questions such as: Why does God allow us to sin? Does the Sixth Commandment prohibit war? When does an infant acquire a soul?
To fully appreciate the nature of theology, it is useful to explore why there are no theologians in the East. Consider Taoism. The Tao is conceived of as a supernatural essence, an underlying mystical force or principle governing life, but one that is impersonal, remote, lacking consciousness, and definitely not a being. It is the “eternal way,” the cosmic force that produces harmony and balance. According to Lao-tzu, the Tao is “always nonexistent” yet “always existent,” “unnamable” and the “name that can be named.” Both “soundless and formless,” it is “always without desires.” One might meditate forever on such an essence, but it offers little to reason about. The same applies to Buddhism and Confucianism. Although it is true that the popular versions of these faiths are polytheistic and involve an immense array of small gods (as is true of popular Taoism as well), the “pure” forms of these faiths, as pursued by the intellectual elite, are godless and postulate only a vague divine essence—Buddha specifically denied the existence of a conscious God.3 The East lacks theologians because those who might otherwise take up such an intellectual pursuit reject its first premise: the existence of a conscious, all-powerful God.
In contrast, Christian theologians have devoted centuries to reasoning about what God may have really meant by various passages in scripture, and over time the interpretations often have evolved in quite dramatic and extensive ways. For example, not only does the Bible not condemn astrology but the story of the Wise Men following the star might seem to suggest that it is valid. However, in the fifth century Saint Augustine reasoned that astrology is false because to believe that one’s fate is predestined in the stars stands in opposition to God’s gift of free will.4 In similar fashion, although many early Christians, including the apostle Paul, accepted that Jesus had brothers,5 born of Mary and fathered by Joseph, this view came increasingly into conflict with developing theological views about Mary. The matter was finally resolved in the thirteenth century, when Saint Thomas Aquinas analyzed the doctrine of Christ’s virgin birth to deduce that Mary did not bear other children: “So we assert without qualification that the mother of God conceived as a virgin, gave birth as a virgin and remained a virgin after the birth. The brothers of the Lord were not natural brothers, born of the same mother, but blood-relations.”6
These were not mere amplifications of scripture; each was an example of careful deductive reasoning leading to new doctrines: the church did prohibit astrology; the perpetual virginity of Mary remains the official Catholic teaching. As these examples demonstrate, great minds could, and often did, greatly alter or even reverse church doctrines on the basis of nothing more than persuasive reasoning. And no one did this better or with greater influence than Augustine and Aquinas. Of course, thousands of other theologians also tried to make their mark on doctrines. Some succeeded, most were ignored, and some of them were rejected as heretics: the point being that an accurate account of any aspect of Christian theology must be based on major, authoritative figures. It would be easy to assemble a set of quotations to demonstrate all manner of strange positions, if one selectively culled through the work of the thousands of minor Christian theologians who have written during the past two millennia. That approach has been all too common; but it is not mine. I will quote minor figures only when they expressed views ratified by the major theologians, keeping in mind that the authoritative church position on many matters often evolved, sometimes to the extent of reversing earlier teachings.
Leading Christian theologians such as Augustine and Aquinas were not what today might be called strict constructionists. Rather, they celebrated reason as the means to gain greater insight into divine intentions. As Quintus Tertullian instructed in the second century: “Reason is a thing of God, inasmuch as there is nothing which God the Maker of all has not provided, disposed, ordained by reason—nothing which He has not willed should be handled and understood by reason.”7 In the same spirit, Clement of Alexandria warned in the third century: “Do not think that we say that these things are only to be received by faith, but also that they are to be asserted by reason. For indeed it is not safe to commit these things to bare faith without reason, since assuredly truth cannot be without reason.”8
Hence, Augustine merely expressed the prevailing wisdom when he held that reason was indispensable to faith: “Heaven forbid that God should hate in us that by which he made us superior to the animals! Heaven forbid that we should believe in such a way as not to accept or seek reasons, since we could not even believe if we did not possess rational souls.” Augustine acknowledged that “faith must precede reason and purify the heart and make it fit to receive and endure the great light of reason.” Then he added that although it is necessary “for faith to precede reason in certain matters of great moment that cannot yet be grasped, surely the very small portion of reason that persuades us of this must precede faith.”9 Scholastic theologians placed far greater faith in reason than most philosophers are willing to do today.10
Of course, some influential churchmen opposed the primacy given to reason and argued that faith was best served by mysticism and spiritual experiences.11 Ironically, the most inspiring advocate of this position expressed his views in elegantly reasoned theology.12 Dissent from the priority of reason was, of course, very popular in some of the religious orders, especially the Franciscans and the Cistercians. But these views did not prevail—if for no other reason than because official church theology enjoyed a secure base in the many and growing universities, where reason ruled.13
christian faith in progress
Judaism and Islam also embrace an image of God sufficient to sustain theology, but their scholars have tended not to pursue such matters. Rather, traditional Jews14 and Muslims incline toward strict constructionism and approach scripture as law to be understood and applied, not as the basis for inquiry about questions of ultimate meaning. For this reason scholars often refer to Judaism and Islam as “orthoprax” religions, concerned with correct (ortho) practice (praxis) and therefore placing their “fundamental emphasis on law and regulation of community life.” In contrast, scholars describe Christianity as an “orthodox” religion because it stresses correct (ortho) opinion (doxa), placing “greater emphasis on belief and its intellectual structuring of creeds, catechisms, and theologies.”15 Typical intellectual controversies among Jewish and Muslim religious thinkers involve whether some activity or innovation (such as reproducing holy scripture on a printing press) is consistent with established law. Christian controversies typically are doctrinal, over matters such as the Holy Trinity or the perpetual virginity of Mary.
Of course, some leading Christian thinkers have concentrated on law and some Jewish and Muslim scholars have devoted themselves to theological issues. But the primary thrust of the three faiths has differed in this respect and with very significant consequences. Legal interpretation rests on precedent and therefore is anchored in the past, while efforts to better understand the nature of God assume the possibility of progress. And it is the assumption of progress that may be the most critical difference between Christianity and all other religions. With the exception of Judaism, the other great faiths have conceived of history as either an endlessly repeated cycle or inevitable decline—Muhammad is reported to have said, “The best generation is my generation, then the one that follows it, and then the ones that follow that.”16 In contrast, Judaism and Christianity have sustained a directional conception of history, culminating in the Millennium. However, the Jewish idea of history stresses not progress but only procession, while the idea of progress is profoundly manifest in Christianity. As John Macmurray put it, “That we think of progress at all shows the extent of the influence of Christianity upon us.”17
Things might have been different had Jesus left a written scripture. But unlike Muhammad or Moses, whose texts were accepted as divine transmissions and therefore have encouraged literalism, Jesus wrote nothing, and from the very start the church fathers were forced to reason as to the implications of a collection of his remembered sayings—the New Testament is not a unified scripture but an anthology.18 Consequently, the precedent for a theology of deduction and inference and for the idea of theological progress began with Paul: “For our knowledge is imperfect and our prophesy is imperfect.”19 Contrast this with the second verse of the Qur’an, which proclaims itself to be “the Scripture whereof there is no doubt.”20
From very early days, Christian theologians have assumed that the application of reason can yield an increasingly accurate understanding of God’s will. Augustine noted that although there were “certain matters pertaining to the doctrine of salvation that we cannot yet grasp . . . one day we shall be able to do so.”21 Augustine celebrated not only theological progress, but earthly, material progress as well. Writing early in the fifth century, he exclaimed: “Has not the genius of man invented and applied countless astonishing arts, partly the result of necessity, partly the result of exuberant invention, so that this vigour of mind . . . betokens an inexhaustible wealth in the nature which can invent, learn, or employ such arts. What wonderful—one might say stupefying—advances has human industry made in the arts of weaving and building, of agriculture and navigation!” He went on to admire the “skill [that] has been attained in measures and numbers! With what sagacity have the movements and connections of the stars been discovered!” And all of this was due to the “unspeakable boon” that God conferred upon his creation, a “rational nature.”22
Augustine’s optimism was typical; progress beckoned. As Gilbert de Tournai wrote in the thirteenth century, “Never will we find truth if we content ourselves with what is already known. . . . Those things that have been written before us are not laws but guides. The truth is open to all, for it is not yet totally possessed.”23 Especially typical were the words preached by Fra Giordano in Florence in 1306: “Not all the arts have been found; we shall never see an end to finding them. Every day one could discover a new art.”24 Compare this with the prevailing view in China at this same time, well expressed by Li Yen-chang: “If scholars are made to concentrate their attention solely on the classics and are prevented from slipping into study of the vulgar practices of later generations, then the empire will be fortunate indeed!”25
The Christian commitment to progress through rationality reached its heights in the Summa Theologica of Saint Thomas Aquinas, published in Paris late in the thirteenth century. This monument to the theology of reason consists of logical “proofs” of Christian doctrine and set the standard for all subsequent Christian theologians. Aquinas argued that because humans lack suf- ficient intellect to see directly into the essence of things, it is necessary for them to reason their way to knowledge, step by step. Thus, although Aquinas regarded theology as the highest of the sciences, since it deals directly with divine revelations, he advocated the use of the tools of philosophy, especially the principles of logic, in seeking to construct theology.26 Consequently, Aquinas was able to use his powers of reason to find the most profound humanism in God’s creation.27
Aquinas and his many gifted peers could not have excelled at rational theology had they conceived of Jehovah as an inexplicable essence. They could justify their efforts only because they assumed that God was the absolute epitome of reason.28 Moreover, their commitment to the progressive reasoning out of God’s will required them to accept that the Bible is not only or always to be understood literally. This too was the conventional Christian view, since, as Augustine noted, “divers things may be understood under these words which yet are all true.” In fact, Augustine frankly acknowledged that it is possible for a later reader, with God’s help, to grasp a scriptural meaning even though the person who first wrote down the scripture “understood not this.” Thus, he continued, it is necessary to “enquire . . . what Moses, that excellent minister of Thy faith, would have his reader understand by those words . . . let us approach together unto the words of Thy book, and seek in them Thy meaning, through the meaning of Thy servant, by whose pen Thou hast dispensed them.”29 Moreover, since God is incapable of either error or falsehood, if the Bible seems to contradict knowledge, that is because of a lack of understanding on the part of the “servant” who recorded God’s words.
These views were entirely consistent with the fundamental Christian premise that God’s revelations are always limited to the current capacity of humans to comprehend. In the fourth century, Saint John Chrysostom noted that even the seraphim do not see God as he is. Instead, they see “a condescension accommodated to their nature. What is this condescension? It is when God appears and makes himself known, not as he is, but in the way one incapable of beholding him is able to look upon him. In this way God reveals himself proportionately to the weakness of those who behold him.”30 Given this long tradition, there was nothing even slightly heretical about John Calvin’s assertion that God accommodates his revelations to the limits of human understanding, that the author of Genesis, for example, “was ordained to be a teacher of the unlearned and primitive, as well as the learned; so could not achieve his goal without descending to such crude means of instruction.” That is, God “reveals himself to us according to our rudeness and infirmity.”31
The Christian image of God is that of a rational being who believes in human progress, more fully revealing himself as humans gain the capacity to better understand. Moreover, because God is a rational being and the universe is his personal creation, it necessarily has a rational, lawful, stable structure, awaiting increased human comprehension. This was the key to many intellectual undertakings, among them the rise of science.