A Contrario: Aquinas and Faith-Orientation

I mean here to treat briefly, if haphazardly, of some gleanings from Aquinas’ considerations of faith; especially faith as propositional.  John Bishop, via the Stanford Encyclopedia (http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/faith/), informs that interpreting the famous Dominican is difficult as ‘faith’ is primarily used to describe a mental state (I agree with…) while St. Thomas uses the term to mean the way a believer is related to God.  Taken in this sense, belief is not primarily propositional.  Perhaps, as Bishop suggests, belief in does not perfectly align with belief that

This is not to suggest that Aquinas is unconcerned with propositional aspect of faith.  Rather, there is room to consider the will and ration in a Thomistic model.  He then describes faith, in the Second Article, Part II from Summa, as ‘a mean between science and opinion’, both of which concern propositions, but the act of believing them concerns less their propositional value than their origination in God and their leading towards Him (as Terence Penulham via Bishop).  Faith is then based not primarily on content, but rather on divine testimony (akin in my mind to the role of prophecy for Ghazali – perhaps worth scaring up as Aquinas ought at least to have been familiar with an Avicennan model of prophecy). 

Further, as noted in Objection 2, faith is explained by way of symbol.  This is exceptionally strange if the content of the faith-object is purely propositional but unsurprising when we note that the action of the believer ends in a thing, not a proposition.  I.e. I think, my faith act is incomplete if it stops at agreement; Christ called followers to actively align their footsteps (and far more) with His.  Faith is not purely rational; and neither is truth.  Aye, it is propositionally understood, but it is also understood symbolically – both by analogy and combining of similar thoughts.  There is space for metaphor so long as our object is right action.  “For as in science we do not form propositions, except in order to have knowledge about things through their means, except in order to have knowledge about things through their means, so is it in faith. (Reply Obj. 2)”

So then, faith can be understood propositionally — but not solely.  The primary expression of faith is submitting the will.  Which then is better, faith as typically understood or faithfulness?  One certainly costs more of the seeker — perhaps everything.

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Notes to Explore: Pascal and al-Ghazali

Apologies, this is not a complete thought yet:

There are three sources of belief: reason, custom, inspiration.  The Christian religion, which alone has reason, does not acknowledge as her true children those who believe without inspiration.  It is not that she excludes reason and custom.  On the contrary, the mind must be opened to proofs, must be confirmed by custom, and offer itself in humbleness to inspirations, which alone can produce a true and saving effect.  Ne evacuetur crux Christi.

~Pascal in Pensees, translated in 1904 by W.F. Trotter and offered, abridged, in The European Philosophers from Descartes to Nietzsche (2002) by the Modern Library, NY: p. 121

I make mention of this because, it sounds distinctly Ghazalian (I should know better, I ‘ve just been reading Foucault’s Archaeology).  Particularly, this division of the sources of belief mirrors, I think so please correct me, al-Ghazali’s al-Munqidh min al-Dalal or Deliverance/Deliverer from Error.  Regardless, primacy is given to that knowledge which is revealed – inspiration.  It’s a thought I would wish to see borrowed more by those religious philosophies which claim that God has revealed Himself in the world.

Oh, and the other, which is perhaps more removed, is when Pascal comments that offering arguments to unbelievers is most likely to lead to contempt rather than belief, for they are likely to scorn your arguments as indicative of the weak strands holding your belief together.  Such an utterance would n’t sound out of place for al-Ghazali either, I should think, especially given the manner by which he defines theology – as first an internal defense and then an external one against unbelief.  Theology is not, in the function it serves, equipped to be particularly constructive.

Again, apologies for the incomplete nature of this piece, but I ‘m trying to catalogue major dialogue points with al-Ghazali and not only has this one interested me on prior occasion, but it jumps off the page when I hear Pascal echoing sentiments so near in tone.  I ‘m happy to be corrected in these matters.

Mis-Directed: Addressing Uses of Polemic in Religious Discourse

At one time I endeavoured, with some regularity, to engage in debates over God’s existence (at least, that ‘s what the facebook group was called). I was an eager young theology student who thought he had something to offer (oh the danger a little knowledge can cause), but found myself, at best, trying to clean up messes left by others’ methods.

That makes me sound pretty good – but while I ‘m less sure of the overall effect my de-muddling attempts had, I know these arguments or discussions or whatever they averaged out to proved a source of frustration for me.  Much of it, in fact, was the good sort of frustration; I would n’t have had any idea how my notions sounded to an unbeliever until, well, I saw someone try them out on an unbeliever.

This is what I ‘m reminded of as I ‘m perusing Pascal’s Thoughts or Pensées.  At first I heard of him, farther back in my almost-an-engineer days, in connection with one more set of measurements I had to memorize (and have since thoroughly forgotten), but was reintroduced to him in what is best known as Pascal’s Wager.  In essence, it says something like:

I would have far more fear of being mistaken, and of finding that the Christian religion was true, than of not being mistaken in believing it true.

~Pascal, Thoughts (abridged version as translated by W.F. Trotter in 1904 and offered in The European Philosophers from Descartes to Nietzsche (2002)) #241. Order as found on p. 119 of European Philosophers

The ‘wager’ is that should one bet against Christianity and be wrong, nothing was lost in the hereafter because there ‘s no hereafter so there is n’t a point.  But, if Christianity were true and you were wrong in choosing against it, the consequences are particularly awful (i.e. eternal damnation and suffering).  So, if reason is not enough of an aid to guide you to recognize the Creator’s hand, at least move away from the potential suffering that might just be true.

It was one of the few arguments expressly excluded from the ‘debate’.  It was dismissed as a false dichotomy, and to be honest, I did n’t like hearing it employed.  I do n’t like it because I do n’t like seeing anyone motivated by fear.  If Jesus had simply asked for converts, then fear should suffice, but instead he invited disciples to come and join him in his sufferings.  He even seems to have put up with some serious doubts amongst his core followers, so I ‘m thinking rational assent is n’t really the purpose (although I do n’t think religion or Christianity exists in direct opposition to the rational).

So, what ‘s interesting is that further on in the notes comprising Pascal’s Thoughts he points out the problems with those who address their pro-God arguments to infidels.  To present such proofs as are convincing to those already believing for the perusal of those who cannot find reason or willingness to believe is ultimately counterproductive.

[T]o tell them that they have only to look at the smallest things which surround them, and they will see God openly, to give them, as a complete proof of this great and important matter, the course of the moon and planets, and to claim to have colluded the proof with such an argument, is to give them ground for believing that the proofs of our religion are very weak.  And I see by reason and experience that nothing is more calculated to arouse their contempt.

~#242 on p. 120 of European Philosophers

My experience tells me the same.  It is so funny then that one who so readily invokes God’s hiddenness as a key aspect of Christian faith should also offer such an argument as found in the ‘wager’.  I would add that while my experience has taught me that such efforts often do lead to contempt for those most loudly clamoring for answers, those who truly seek are not asking for a rational explanation which removes all doubt.  Rather, they are seeking the One who will lead them and the community that will struggle with them.

An argument which can be disseminated over a few short lines on facebook or wherever is at best a tool for the faithful to employ amongst their own.  It is most likely to prove immensely counterproductive, even if the goal is simply to establish thoughts which might lead to conversion.  I do n’t mean to disparage those who have used such methods or those who have found faith through them, but I would ask such persons to examine what is at the core of their faith – and find that it is closer to faithfulness in being discipled rather than rational assent to a neat and tidy argument.

In clinging to the mis-placed use of such arguments we suggest that our religion is weak (for look at how porous its core proofs are) where that which keeps us in communion should neither look nor smell like fear of the hereafter nor agreement to some arbitrary terms leading to a desired conclusion.  Instead, efforts should be multiplied to increase the faith and practice of those truly seeking to follow better.  But then, that ‘s too artificial sounding and it ‘s easier to have a nice rant on social media – or at least it feels more self-satisfying.

Dis-course – The Defender of Peace

Discourse II:

On the Canonic Scriptures, the Commands, Counsels, and Examples of Christ and of the Saints and Approved Doctors Who Expounded the Evangelic Law, Whereby It Is Clearly Demonstrated That the Roman or Any Other Bishop or Priest, or Clergyman, Can by Virtue of the Words of Scripture Claim or Ascribe to Himself No Coercive Rulership or Contentious Jurisdiction, Let Alone the Supreme Jurisdiction over Any Clergyman or Layman; and That, by Christ’s Counsel and Example, They Ought To Refuse Such Rulership, Especially in Communities of the Faithful, if It is Offered to Them or Bestowed on Them by Someone Having the Authority To Do So; and Again, That All Bishops, and Generally All Persons Now Called Clergymen, Must Be Subject to the Coercive Judgment or Rulership of Him Who Governs by the Authority of the Human Legislator, Especially Where this Legislator Is Christian

(Title of Chapter IV, Marsilius of Padua [ca. 1275 – ca. 1342 A.D.], italics mine)

I ‘ll admit it; I can’t resist a provocative title – especially not when it ‘s stood the test of time.  When it comes to 14th century disputes, speaking against the Church’s power has to vault to the top.  Speaking against the power of individual clergy to use coercive authority is plain daring, but what else is to be expected from an Italian who supported the Holy Roman Empire’s independence from Papal jurisdiction.

Having mentioned my own fascinations, this work clearly lends itself to those who debate the proper relation of church and state.  Having shown that the law is only good where it is applicable to the citizenry and enforced by the necessary coercive authority in Discourse I of Defensor pacis (or ‘The Defender of the Peace’) Marsilius proceeds to inquire “what power and authority, to be exercised in this world, Christ wanted to bestow and in fact (de facto) did bestow on them (St. Peter, the apostles and their successors – the bishops or priests)… (Discourse II, Ch. IV, Par. 2)” because Christ was certainly able to bestow to them whatever powers he saw fit.

If Christ had taken up temporal rule, it would have set the precedent for his followers (and therefore the Church) to go and do likewise.  Instead, he “wanted to and did exclude himself, his apostles and disciples, and their successors, the bishops or priests, from all such coercive authority or worldly rule, both by his example and by his words of counsel or command (ibid, Par. 3, italics mine)” and his followers did and taught the same.

The clearest example offered of Christ’s example to his followers is found in John 18 where Christ is questioned by Pontius Pilate, the symbol of Roman rule in Jerusalem.  As Jesus expounds for Pilate, “If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would certainly fight.”  An earthly kingdom needs to be defended, but Jesus submits his person to wrongful conviction.  The most extreme measures available for one wielding coercive authority are executed upon him when he by rights could take up such authority.  But he did n’t.

Further, we see that Christ often illustrated: “‘Like is the kingdom of heaven,’ etc., but very rarely did he speak of the earthly kingdom, and if he did, he taught that it should be spurned. (ibid, Par. 6)”  Where Christ had opportunities to exact judgment, he forgave.  The force of such argument is clear when Christ, in John 6, flees those who would install him as king by force and when, in Luke 12, he refuses to act as an arbiter of between disputants.  Clearly then exerting such carnal power was against his will.  If this is his example, how should it then be followed?

In his teachings to the disciples as well, Christ leads Peter in submitting to the authority of those placed over them in the famous line: “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”  But Christ is the heir of David and is therefore rightful ruler by human bloodlines in addition to his divine lordship.  If any should be exempt from Caesar’s tax or from the temple tax, it should be the Lord.  Origen, in meditating upon Matthew 17, understands it to follow from Christ’s words,

“that while men sometimes appear who through injustice seize our earthly goods, the kings of this earth send men to exact from us what is theirs. And by his example the Lord prohibits the doing of any offense, even to such men, either so that they may no longer sin, or so that they may be saved.  For the son of God, who did no servile work, gave the tribute money, having the guise of a servant which he assumed for the sake of man. (ibid, Par. 10, as quoted)”

Marsilius then avers that the bishops and priests have constructed rights to powers not given them by Christ’s example or teaching, or the teachings of the apostles and their followers.  Therefore the graspings for power to be observed in the 14th century church leadership must be of their own inventions.  Jesus’ example is not merely to submit to the just proceedings and exercises of coercive authority by imperial rulers, but even to provide undue tribute – to submit to the unjust as well!  As the Apostle in 1 Corinthians 6 states, ‘why not rather be wronged than quarrel with one another?’

In the ultimate display, Christ submitted to unjust punishment by the emperor’s representative (even though he could have submitted himself and those who followed under ecclesial authority by choosing rather to be punished by the priests).  Although Christ points out that Pilate’s authority is merely the way political affairs happen to be (de facto) and not one of right (de juro),still he submits!  In Romans 13, Paul agrees that there is no power except from God.

As Chrysostom writes:

“The rulers of the world exist in order to lord it over their subjects, to cast them into slavery and to despoil them [namely, if they deserve it] and to use them even unto death for their own advantage and glory.  But the rulers of the church are appointedin order to serve their subjects and to minister to them whatever they have received from Christ, so that they neglect their own advantage and seek to benefit their subjects, and do not refuse to die for their salvation. (ibid, Par. 13, as quoted, italics mine)”

Therefore, as pertains to power, if church leaders would follow Christ’s example and teaching, they should put off the use of coercive force and serve those placed under their care, not using them to their own advantage or glory.  For my take, such an argument is particularly persuasive.  The opportunities for abuse in ministry abound.  Where the Church has fared best it has been subject to empire without exhibiting a controlling interest therein.  Stretching Marsilius’ teaching to its fullest extent: the use of coercive force even inside the church strikes against the teaching of Christ modeled by the apostles.

Taking as a case study the Mars Hill church discipline controversy, the potentials for abuse in church leadership are clearly demonstrated.  The Scriptures describe models for approaching one who has wronged you and for dealing with the unrepentant one who sins openly.  But, the role of church discipline is to bring the offending brother or sister to repentance, not to create an official record of wrongs or maintain a paper-trail so that the fruits of repentance are displayed for the benefit of church leadership.  If one comes to repentance, there is no further responsibility for the church other than to serve.  Recommending counseling, offering accountability, and offerings of help fit Chrysostom’s model in today’s context.  Enforcing one interpretation and requiring that another repent in the way which satisfies your church model is way off base.  I do n’t claim to know with all veracity what has occurred in this situation, but the example demonstrates how damaging the use of coercive force by church leadership can be in a specific context.

At best I can seek to follow in the manner I believe Christ laid out for us.  Marsilius may not have final say, but I think his teachings are relevant to our discussions today and I ‘m curious to hear how such a viewpoint is helpful or unhelpful.