Wednesday, September 12, 2012

It's been too long...

Well, look at that, it's been over a month since I've posted anything new.  That's just not right.  I do have good excuses though -- I was teaching this summer, and then immediately began working on a paper (as previously mentioned) which I presented at the International Kierkegaard Conference in Copenhagen.  Returned from the conference to immediately pack up my things and move into my new accommodations at Wycliffe Hall, where I am now a Junior Dean for SCIO (Scholarship and Christianity In Oxford), a Scholar's Semester in Oxford programme that brings undergraduate students from North America to study at the university.  So far it's been great -- but also understandably busy, as I've been helping the students get settled in their new environment.  In any case, this blog has been somewhat neglected.  So, to get things rolling again, here is a provocative bit from a book by Mark Vernon (Religion, Science, and the Meaning of Life) which, although written by a professed agnostic, offers some valuable insight for Christian believers:

"It was not as if 6 December 1273 was a particularly good date upon which to put down his pen.  His magnum opus, the Summa Theologiae, was far from complete in its Third Part.  Modern biographers have put the abrupt halt down to a stroke or a breakdown caused by exhaustion.  Others have said he had a mystical experience at the altar.  But perhaps the truth of the matter is found in the response he gave to the colleague who begged him to continue: ‘Reginald, I cannot, because all I have written seems like straw to me,’ Thomas said.

The comment has been taken as a rejection of his oeuvre, from the master’s own mouth, as if for ‘straw’ one should read ‘rubbish’.  But that would be to misunderstand what was said.  Straw was, in fact, a conventional metaphor for a literal reading of the Bible.  It expressed the conviction that a straightforward treatment of scripture might provide the believer with comfort, or some basic material upon which to build their faith, but that such a use of the Bible was only a first step.

The implication of Thomas calling his work straw is therefore positive, not negative.  His goal had been to understand God.  He had made many attempts at the summit.  But whilst they had produced wonderful insights – such as the reflections around the so-called proofs – he had reached the point at which he was able to appreciate the most profound truth of all.  The peak lies beyond the clouds.  God is unknown.  Not in spite of, but because of, all his efforts – with its theological sophistication, subtlety and seriousness – the best interpretation of what happened to Thomas on St Nicholas’s Day, 1273, was that he had reached as profound an appreciation of this mystery as was possible.  Even his enquiries into how God is not would now stop.  His new silence was not a rejection but the culmination of his life’s work...

Thomas Aquinas, of course, was nothing if not rational: much of his work reads like logical puzzles and another of his titles could easily have been the Father of Scholasticism.  However, he had the good fortune, theologically speaking, to live before the scientific worldview took hold.  He understood that words, reason and argument must at some point give way before God, lest the divinity it discussed ceased to be God.  His theology was a means to an end that it could not itself express.  He could enter into a positive silence having exhausted all possibilities and sit with the impossible without shame or retribution.

For many modern-day theologians, though, such a move is unspeakable – in the negative sense.  Along with the atheists, the attempt to use words to throw the individual onto the unknowability of God is dismissed: different conservative religious parties would variously declare it ‘continental’, ‘relativist’, ‘liberal’ or ‘heretical’ (the atheist’s preferred putdowns are ‘incommensurate’ or ‘incoherent’)."

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