Thursday, 15 November 2007

Understanding Given 'From Within'

"Christianity affirms that the nature of its own vision is such that understanding can only come 'from within', i.e. it is given to faith. The vision is there for the catching in the liturgy, and it includes a practical component for living. Christianity yields its secret only to those who engage themselves existentially in worship and appropriate conduct. This is necessarily the case, since it is of the essence of the Christian vision to claim, or invite, the whole person. The sciences have tended to regard the observer's participation as a regrettable necessity, imposed by the nature of things. Christianity glories in the fact, the strict matter of fact, that reality can be known only by participation. Thus the epistemological principles of Christianity correspond better than the epistemology of much modern Western science to the place of human beings amid the reality of which they are a part and which they seek to know. Moreover, Christians gladly acknowledge that their knowledge is relative (to the knower) and, without falling into contradiction, claim that it is potentially universal."

G. Wainwright, Doxology: The Praise of God in Worship, Doctrine and Life (1980: 361).


John C. Poirier said...


I certainly agree in "seeing the light" experiences, as that relates to the Clementine) "gnostic" aspects of knowing the deep things of God, but I have never agreed with position outlined in your quotation from Wainwright. Anyone who learns enough about Christian theology can theologize Christianly. In fact, in some ways faith gets in the way of understanding, as those who take a more critical stance are often better able to spot the inconcinnities within a given Christian theology. (Barthianism comes to mind here. Those who have never been minded to agree with Barth can look at his "system" and see it for the true mare's nest it is, while it is very difficult to find, among the hundreds of books written by Barth's admirers, any frank admission of any of the really troubling aspects of Barthianism.)

Phil Sumpter said...


I'm actually having a discussion with a certain Deane on the question of 'gnositicism' on a previous post here. I'm trying to explain what I think in terms of 'paradigm shift'. I think the category of narrative as a way of knowing is also important here, not becuase 'truth' per se is narrative or in narratives, but becuase as humans we think in terms of narratives and so it is not surprising that the Bible contains a lot. I see that Deane has replied to me, though I haven't read what he said yet ...

Anyone who learns enough about Christian theology can theologize Christianly.

'Theologizing Christianly' and 'understanding' are two different things. One can operate like a logical machine according to certain principles, but that is not the same as 'catching the vision'. These are two different qualities of knowing, and it is the second which matters.

In addition to that, I don't believe that the Christian gospel is reducible to a series of logical principles that can be reproduced apart from faith anyway. The narrative shape of the kerygma problematizes that possiblitily, as the meaning of each proposition is caught up in a larger construal of what is going on. This larger construal, I think, is more mysterious then a set of logical coordinates. It involves the heart, perhaps more then the mind. Thus, the statement: "Jesus died for your sins, believe in him and you'll go to heaven" is not the Gospel. It is one attempt to summarize and present it. True understanding, in which its secret is 'yielded', involves so much more, something that perhaps only poetry and metaphor can begin to convey. Of course, a non-believer will disagree, remain at the level of the propositions and start a logical argument about whether such a thing really happened and whether it was fair of God to do it. Those discussions are fine as a holistic understanding of the person requires head and mind, but the subjective element cannot be left out of the equation.

Those are my spontaneous thoughts on the matter. I hope they make sense ...

those who take a more critical stance are often better able to spot the inconcinnities within a given Christian theology

No doubt, but critically standing back from your faith in order to better understand it takes place within a stance of already believing. As such it is part of the process of theologising 'within the fold' of faith. It would be naive to think that you can just stop believing in order to get a more objective handle on what God wants to say to you.