Thursday, July 1, 2010

Am I Going to Upset Faith or Strengthen it?

I ask myself this question every year, especially every summer when I go about choosing texts for my courses (since I revise things every year!). This is perhaps the most crucial question a teacher of theology can ask himself. If he ignores it, it is to his own eternal peril, regardless of the tenacity of the hubris that sometimes undergirds it.

I have seen students upset by my classes, and I have seem them edified. I think the answer that I am moving toward is at least this much: mere statistics cannot settle the issue of textual choice, but neither can it be ignored.

  • Sometimes students are upset by silly things (yes, silly!), like the bold suggestion that St. Thomas was not correct about everything, or that I ultimately prefer St. Augustine.

  • Sometimes students are upset by things that aren't silly but that they will quickly come to see as no big deal at all, for instance, that no scholar thinks that Moses wrote verbatim, strictly, dictatorially, the Pentateuch. Among such scholars, Pope Benedict XVI and John Paul II.

  • Sometimes students are upset by big things.For instance, when they really begin to embrace the problems of faith and reason, especially those focused on the matter of creation and the historicity of Scripture.

(It is Augustinian to make a tripartate distinction; Thomistic to dichotomize.)

I would never dismiss their 'problems.' A theology teacher has a greater obligation to his students than, for instance, does a literature prof. or a history prof. A philosophy prof. has a special obligation too. Part of my obligation is to chose texts that are both helpful to the elucidation of the issues at hand and clearly spell out the Church's teaching, as much as that is possible. Often the Church does not have a teaching on the issue per se. It is the theologian's job in this case to point out probabilities and consistencies.

When I was in the seminary I was shocked by the teacher's assertion regarding the multiplicity of authorship behind the Pentateuch. He said a lot stupid things also that are not consistent with the Faith, but they were so ridiculous that I never paid them any mind. The modern theory regarding the four (is it four, is it still four - Yahwist, Eloist, Priestly Author, Deuteronomist? I'll look it up later) primary sources of the Pentateuch is not absurd. It is consistent with the Faith, as well as extremely interesting. This prof. wasn't wrong for introducing the topic, he was wrong for handling it in an insensitive manner, and sprinkling good scholarship with absurd speculations.

It is difficult to find the right tenor, I admit. I'm often in a rush to cover all the material and so tenor can take second seat. But what I'll maintain to the end is that the issues cannot be ignored. There is absolutely no use teaching the Scriptures today if you are not going to deal with these matters. If you ignore them what you are saying in effect is that it is false that there is anything problematic with a literalist, verbatim view of Scriptural inspiration, that it is false that Scripture scholars have anything important to say. But how do you know when these scholars are right and when they are not? There is no fool-proof method available to us, but I would propose this general methodology:

Scripture --> Church Teaching --> Scholarship

What I mean by this is that the Scriptures have to be read and embraced first on their own, so to speak, and that when one makes the move toward critical meaning (that is, one moves beyond the personal meaning that God is communicating to you the individual) that this meaning has to be filtered through (be consistent with) Church teaching. Scripture can deliver a subjective meaning, which means that you don't have to be a scholar to learn from it, just a saint (!), but when one moves from the subjective, mystical sense to the objective sense (so, the meaning meant for all people) one is moving into the domain of reason, science, history, and, despite any objection to the contrary, ecclesiology or dogmatics. I maintain then that:

Scripture   is not   History   is not    Dogmatics

There is a certain sense in which it is true (but don't exaggerate it into tyranny!) that:

 Dogmatics > Scripture > History

This works with other courses too, like Christology, which is the one really on my mind right now.



The question here is how, and how much, heterodoxy do you introduce to make things most productive?

I generally divide the subject matter intoAncient Sources, Central Sources (Anselm and the Summa), and Contemporary Issues.

Since doctrine primarily developed in a privileged era called the Patristic, special attention has to be paid to it. And you cannot understand the teachings of an Athanasius, without paying attention to the Arian and Gnostic heresies, or to the teaching of Origen. Compare this to the contemporary age. A certain amount of heterodoxy must needs be referred to. The teachings of Dominus Iesus and Benedict's Jesus of Nazareth cannot understood without reference to them. The later works would seem merely spiritual forays without doing so, and that was not their sole point.

Psychology of a Student

I think that no matter what, a student today is conscious that, because the Articles of Faith are not universally accepted, one might not be able to be defended by reason to everyone's satisfaction. That might create a nervousness in regard to their veracity. Who doesn't begin to question something they are not sure about so as to be able to defend it? This is the state of the Christian today, I'll be so bold as to assert universally. As a teacher the best thing I can do in this context is to show them how strong is the Faith and how weak are the arguments against it. They are weak, yes, but not that weak. They do need to be encountered and understood before one can be said to have full-grown faith.

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