Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Theology and practice

To understand what I have been trying to get at in some previous posts, it is important to draw a distinction between two operations of faith: faith as cognitive faculty and faith as practical guide. These two functions are not separate, being operations of the same faculty, but the formal operations are different. The distinction is the classic Aristotelian distinction between speculative and practical sciences (Maritain states it most explicitly with the futher distinction between "speculatively practical" and "practically practical" science).

With respect to what I have been discussing as the "proximate object of faith," what I mean is faith as cognitive faculty. It is the operation of faith used to study God's revelation as an intellectual object. It is the science of theology. In this respect, it operates like any other intellectual science, through our knowledge and our concepts and concepts received by sensory experience. It bears a resemblance to natural philosophy, mathematics, and metaphysics, in that it studies these objects in a manner not proper to their individuality but abstractly.

Moreover, faith studies these objects in a manner that is not apparent by any natural operation, knowable by faith only because it allows the grasp of the divine in them. Likewise, it faces inherent limitations, in that it must always return to these sensory concepts that are necessarily inadequate, which convey truth only analogically according to the creature/Creator distinction. Hence, the submission to theological truths is not compelled but rejectable by the will. Nonetheless, they are suitable to convey true knowledge regarding the things around us and their orientation to God and even analogical knowledge of God in Himself. This is faith seeking understanding, faith seeing its object in scientific terms.

There is also a practical aspect to faith; this is faith working in love. It governs the individual action to do what is right, the loving response to God. Children are the exemplars of this operation of faith; mystics and contemplatives are those who take it to its highest level. In this, the relation of God to one's own action is known experentially and intuitively. This is the form actual grace, grace directed at specific action, takes as well. Concepts are used only instrumentally in this sort of faith as a kind of means to sustain the principle of right action, so they do not convey knowlege in the scientific sense, but a sort of practical wisdom. That is a very real operation of faith, and indeed, it is by far the more essential one. For example, an apostate theologian might well retain the theological virtue of faith and all his knowledge, even while rebelling against it, but his lack of charity renders his faith dead and sterile, useless for salvation.

That example of the apostate theologian is one that illustrates how unnatural it is to find faith as cognitive faculty and faith as principle of right action separated. But the separation is unnatural in either direction. It simply isn't normal for someone having the principle of right action not to want to know God, to stretch his knowledge toward its proper object. That isn't to say that such a person will be omniscient; most people's acceptance and understanding of dogma will extend little on the conceptual level beyond a very basic notion that the concept is somehow from God. But it is practically unthinkable that someone operating under the principle of right action would not want to take the action of knowing more about God.

Because of the considerable cognitive effort required, gaining definite speculative knowledge is extremely difficult. It is not easy just because it is connatural in the ontological sense (in that the intellect by nature becomes formally identical to what is known). Indeed, it is so difficult that as a practical matter, we simply rely on what other people tell us (improper knowledge based on practical judgment) for virtually everything that we believe. But it is essential to understand that this practical judgment itself MUST be grounded in knowledge of reality, that we must really have it, even if we lack the time or motivation to investigate it. There are fundamental matters of cosmic order, both true and knowable, that provide the environment in which practical judgment operations, and to the extent one does not know them, one's practical judgment is vulnerable to error. Thus, knowledge of the faith, while of lesser importance that practical faith, is nonetheless part of the life it commends. It's our moral obligation to each do the best we can to acquire and conceptualize knowledge of the faith (which is why I have chosen to blog on theology). Moreover, truth is one; practical knowledge never contradicts speculative knowledge, and each serves to correct the other.

Worse, whatever limitations one may have in science more generally are just as troublesome in theology. If someone accepts false notions of philosophical method, science, or epistemology, all those limitations will manifest themselves. If you are intellectually lazy or immature, you will not arrive at true knowledge. So we're limited, and acceptance of all dogmas of the Catholic Church was meant comprehensive knowledge, there would not be a Catholic on earth, just as no scientist knows every scientific fact (and indeed, "list all dogmas" for a Catholic makes just about as much sense as "write down every scientific fact"). Fallibility in forming definite conceptual knowledge of anything is inevitable, and knowledge gained is precarious, and it can be lost. But despite all of these difficulties, a well-formed faith as rule of practice demands that one deploy one's intellectual ability to the best of one's ability as well. To rely on heuristics in place of knowledge, e.g., relying on the authority of others without justification, is simply intellectual laziness to avoid doing actual science. In the linked article, Dr. Carson has the following to say about the way many Protestants rely on sola fide and sola scriptura:
If both of these principles are incoherent, what is their appeal? It is too facile to point out that we live in times in which incoherence is itself taken to be a value--all you have to do is to look at the moral relativism that pervades our materialistic culture. This is too facile because, of course, the defenders of sola Scriptura are not moral relativists--usually they are quite the opposite--and it seems unlikely that their thinking is influenced by that kind of intellectual banality. I would suggest that, on the contrary, the appeal of these doctrines lies in their perceived capacity to rule out a wide range of interpretive options right from the start. In my prefatory remarks to this post (they can be found here), I suggested that these principles are the functional equivalent of the scientific principle of parsimony: they are grand simplifications that act as even grander simplifiers, rendering difficult theological questions easy and brightly delimited within boundaries of stark black and white. Reality itself is seldom like that, but if you pretend that it is you may find reality somewhat easier to deal with. This is not an intellectual attitude that is conducive to moral relativism, but it is a kind of intellectual sloppiness and laziness nonetheless, dressed up as a desire for precision and loyalty to a text.

Therefore, the quality faith provides is not infallible or comprehensive conceptual knowledge, but the recognition of a criterion of truth in reality. Effectively, it identifies a certain and definite object to be understood (a proximate object), just as our knowledge of particular things is real intelligibility in those things. As Maritain put it, "a cherry between the teeth holds more mystery than all of idealist metaphysics." Faith is that awareness of something real, the object of study that can be known definitely by theology.

This, too, is Newman's concept of development of doctrine (see Fr. Al Kimel's quote here). It is not a quest for some Hegelian ideal; it is an intellectual investigation into the reasons behind these concrete divine acts, which are themselves eminently practical (i.e., it is a speculatively practical science). The early Church was eminently practical and intuitive, without necessarily articulating or even knowing in a conceptual way why certain acts were done; the development of doctrine makes these acts objects of study to produce knowledge that can be deployed later. It is a conceptual explanation for what really is, what really subsists in the practice of the Church, and this is the sense in which Tradition is understood as a source, an object of speculative understanding. Effectively, dogmatic development isolates the reasons behind the acts: why did the Church provide this resolution to this difficulty? What was the reason for this practice? I appreciate Zubiri's correction of Newman's analogy in that regard, because the development of dogma is not natural in the sense of some internal compulsion (as the acorn grows into the oak by the very law of its nature). But rather, it is a conscious, experimental, scientific inquiry to know the object of study and to penetrate to the reality of the thing itself. It is natural to have this knowledge, but to articulate it in definite conceptual manner is nothing but toil. Faith shows us the object of that toil.

This is also the Catholic view of Scripture. Inspiration is fundamentally a practical kind of knowledge, with the author (or angel) guided by a principle of right action, but not in the anthropomorphic sense of some conceptual content being communicated to him as in human speech. The inspired agent remains an agent, not a mouthpiece, guided by wisdom and faith. Thus, they are not communicating concepts delivered to them by God; rather, they are through their own proper action expressing this practical wisdom guiding them to act. This speaks to the practical knowledge of faith, the understanding of which is a requirement for proper exegesis as well. Most people are content to use Scripture as a practical guide to their own lives, and this is perfectly legitimate, and no scientific exegesis should (or can) exclude that. But just as development of doctrine seeks to penetrate conceptually into the reasons behind the dogmas of the faith and the practical life of the Church, so does Catholic exegesis seek to penetrate into this practical knowledge of Scripture for conceptual content. Again, truth is one, and all scientific methods collaborate (including metaphysics, speculative theology, and mundane sciences) to identify truth, so the fact that knowledge is conveyed through inspiration in the practical sense (directed toward the act of the author's composition) hardly means that it is not an object of speculative study.

What I hope to convey here is that it is hardly impossible for someone to have faith outside of explicit faith in the Church. That faith may be imperfect or confused in some respects, but non-Catholic Christians can certainly be infused with right principles of action. What they lack is understanding of their faith. There is no external object of knowledge, so all they have is this practical understanding: they know when they have done something right, like being baptized or behaving in a moral fashion or loving one's neighbor or praising God. But they don't understand the "why" or the "how" behind it, and without an external object of theological science, they have no way to gain knowledge beyond this practical level. Even Scripture, as testimony, does not provide knowledge in this sense; it is at best a practical guide that will likely end up written over with one's own errors. And indeed, this might well limit the practical exercise of faith. By this, I do not mean to denigrate the practical level at all. The practical level of faith is how the vast majority of people are saved, and it is by far the more essential operation. But the separation of the practically practical from the speculatively practical, of faith as a principle of right action from faith as a principle of knowledge, is just unnatural. And that is effectively what a reflexive concept of the object of faith, such as making one's own operation of interpreting the Scriptures the object of knowledge, does. Human fallibility, the weakness of the intellect, is such that we can't know things in abstract purity. We know through concrete things, and while Scripture may be a concrete thing in terms of ink and paper, its abstract meaning is necessary grounded in our other concrete experiences, and this is what makes it the Word of God to the believer.


At 3:36 AM, Blogger Reginald de Piperno said...

Another brilliant, extremely helpful post. Thank you.

At 5:10 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

From the Peanut Gallery:
I thought I was following but all I can parse from this is there are two kinds of faith(roughly): knowladge and trust.

I don't follow how this shows that the Church IS a proximate object of faith (maybe because I couldn't define proximate object from a distant object).

if you decide to go futher with this could ypu work on saving vs. (unsaving?) faith. Ken is excoriating the church in DA' s open forums for not making this distinction.


At 10:56 AM, Blogger CrimsonCatholic said...

I thought I was following but all I can parse from this is there are two kinds of faith(roughly): knowladge and trust.

Then you've misunderstood me. I'm saying that there are two kinds of faith: knowledge and practical action. Faith involves "trust" in only a very narrow sense, in that one knows for certain that doctrine promulgated with divine authority by the proximate object of faith is true. But it isn't "trust" in the sense of a probable judgment of reliability. One actually knows that the object is trustworthy; it is not a matter of probable judgment that might go one way or the other.

I don't follow how this shows that the Church IS a proximate object of faith (maybe because I couldn't define proximate object from a distant object).

It doesn't show that the Church is a proximate object of faith; it only shows that the Church CAN BE a proximate object of faith and that Scripture CANNOT BE a proximate object of faith.

if you decide to go futher with this could ypu work on saving vs. (unsaving?) faith.

Saving faith is faith formed by charity, faith as a principle of action.

Ken is excoriating the church in DA' s open forums for not making this distinction.

That's because Ken has a poor grasp of Catholic theology, which unfortunately doesn't stop him from displaying his ignorance for all to see. In particular, he doesn't draw the distinction between faith as rule of practice and faith as theological science. Dogmatic theology is the object of theological science, i.e., faith as known. Conversely, willful denial of dogma as dogma requires one to know the dogma as dogma (i.e., to have the requisite theological knowledge) and to apply one's will to deny the dogma that one knows to be true. As I mentioned above, because the object of theological knowledge is greater than the knower, it is possible to willfully deny the truth. In fact, the distinction is implicit in the definition of what dogma is and this distinction that I have outlined between practical faith and faith as a cognitive faculty. But Ken, like Bill Webster, has no grasp of the most basic matters of Catholic theology, so he doesn't even know what the documents are talking about.

The reason for Ken's confusion is that Ken doesn't even have a way to know theological truth in the first place. Since private judgment is viciously circular, his entire approach to theology is irrational, and he reads Catholic theology in just the same irrational way. For him to correctly interpret Catholic theology would require him to have a rational approach to theology in the first place, and that ain't going to happen as long as he adheres to a theology that can't be corrected by reality.

See this excellent pair of posts by Scott Carson.


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