Tuesday, November 2, 2010

An Orthodox Attitide

I’ve not posted too many “classic Kerr theological reflections” of late. But not only did the topic I will be presently considering come up in a conversation today, it was also a theme in an intro. to a book I started reading today. The topic is, in a nutshell, that of ‘ensuring orthodoxy’ by word, especially within the academic setting.

In my years of theological formation, I have observed, and have myself adopted, more than one of the approaches. As a younger man, I was zealous for orthodoxy in a more restrictive sense. I considered error generally something easy to spot, and almost always a good idea to expose in some way or other. Now I think I employ a more enquiring approach (as a teacher), knowing that the truth is generally identifiable in its broad strokes (but perhaps not in its details), but that it is more important that a student discover it (by means of Socratic prodding), than that it be adhered to by any means whatever (i.e. by it being perpetually pointed out to him). After the catechetical stage, education in theology must ascend to this level, yet even during catechetical formation, a personalized approach to the data of faith must not be absent. Without it, the Faith can be learned but will it be properly interred, adequately situated intellectually, spiritually, emotionally?

There are two glaring errors with respect to attitudinal orthodoxy: too loose, too tight. Too loose is relativism that doesn’t prize that data of the Faith as informative and as per se divinely unitive. I have never been guilty of this (it seems to me). Too tight means to limit possibility for deepening of insight, means a reductive correspondence between res and signum (the thing and the word signifying it). Remember, this is theology, not mathematics, or, to be fair to the complexities of theoretical mathematics, I should say, this is theology, and not fundamental mathematics. Basic mathematics is full of statements where the subject and the predicate, where the propositions and conclusions, can be grasped simultaneously; this is not the case with all theological formulae. To deny a basic mathematical equation is absurd; it is not absurd to deny a basic theological proposition. In fact, the more basic the theological proposition, the more elusive its meaning: God, good, end, etc.

It was a book on Origenism that sparked these thoughts. Origen is an interesting ‘subject.’ There were hardly any theologians more significant in the history of the Church. Yet on several matters his position cannot square with the progression of the orthodoxy understanding of the Faith: pre-existence of souls, apokataphaticism (including the final salvation of the devil!), perhaps his heterodoxy with respect to the Holy Spirit, perhaps subordinationism. These are not small matters, but neither was his great contribution to orthodoxy. The question is, does his contribution offset the failure of his thought in posterity? I think it does for B16, who numbers him among the “Fathers of the Church” in his book by that name. It does so for me too, just as Thomas’ singular contribution offsets his blunder with regards to the Immaculate Conception. A theologian is not a fortune teller.

My point is, what is about people that makes them feel like they have to condemn every ‘outlier’? No one doubts that subordinationism is false (no one worth learning from theologically, anyway), so what’s the cause of concern? If Athanasius proves to be a monothelite, who cares! Many things have been clarified by the Magisterium, but this is not a fraction of the things that theology might potentially consider. The Church does not stand in dire need of grouchy castigations from theological half-wits.

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