Wednesday, December 13, 2000

Systematic Theology Final

The take-home final for my Foundations of Theology course at Washington Theological Union in the fall of 2000 consisted of four questions, of which I had to answer two.

1. Define faith for a Christian. Is faith also found outside Christianity? What, then, is faith in its most generic sense? Relate faith to God as ineffable mystery. Does faith have any content? Explain briefly. What is the relationship of beliefs to faith? Do beliefs exhaust faith? Adequately express it? Explain the corporate character of faith or why the Church is the Great Believer.

Faith can be viewed in two dimensions, passive and active. For a Christian, faith understood passively means trusting in and depending on God – being open to his revelation and guidance, and relying on his providence. This trust rests on an implicitly understood (or, perhaps, imagined), image of reality at whose center (or foundation) is a gracious, transcendent God. This passive dimension of faith is complemented by a more active dimension, which can be described as loyalty or fidelity – being faithful in one's relationship to God in living out one's life. This loyalty rests on commitment, an exercise of one's human freedom in which one freely binds oneself to one object (e.g., course of action, way of life, community) rather than to others. The particular commitment entailed by Christian faith is commitment to God, in his transcendence and mystery. When fully realized, faith becomes central to the Christian's identity, engaging his imagination and intellect, his heart and soul, in prayer and ministry, in life and death.

Faith is not exclusive to Christianity. It is, rather, a universal human phenomenon. The capacity for faith, like the capacity for language, is a part of human nature. But the fulfillment of one's capacity for faith, like that for language, will depend on the community in which one learns to exercise that capacity. Where Christian faith rests on one kind of implicit image of reality, faith in other religions or cultures might rest on different underlying images of reality. And, where the transcendent object of faith to which Christians commit themselves is envisioned as a unique, personal God, those in other religions or cultures might envision the transcendent object of faith as multiform or impersonal. But faith can also be directed towards lesser objects, such as nation, pleasure, or security, particularly in modern societies where cultural norms no longer guide their members' faith development (or where they misguide it). Some anti-religious forms of modern secularism, by actively avoiding anything that looks even slightly like religion, might even have established themselves as exceptions to the rule that faith is a universal human phenomenon. And while faith, like language, is a normal part of human life, its development can sometimes be impeded by abnormal circumstances. The rare child raised by wild animals will not learn human language, and a child raised in a chaotic environment without reliable caregivers will not learn the fundamental trust that serves as the foundation for faith development. But apart from these aberrations, the underlying human capacity for faith is the same, even if it is expressed differently by different communities and individuals.

As suggested above, faith, in its most generic sense, entails confidence in an object beyond the self, to which one submits freely. This commitment is expressed by dedicating one's life and energies to the object and the values it implies. While we say that God is the proper "object" of Christian faith, God is not just a finite object alongside other finite objects. God is infinite, complete in himself. God is not just another creature, but the foundation on which creation rests, and without whom creation could not exist. As such, God is that on which we implicitly rely, and that to which we explicitly commit. Faith draws us to transcend ourselves as we draw nearer to God. But, because God is infinite, we finite creatures cannot comprehend him. This is not to say that God is entirely unknowable – we may know him in his works and in revelation – but that God cannot be exhausted or transcended. This is what we mean by saying that God is ineffable mystery. We put our faith in God, knowing that we do not and cannot fully comprehend him. But if God were fully comprehensible, he probably would not be a worthy object of faith.

Even though the capacity for faith is universal, the actual forms it takes in different communities and individuals are not. While faith is not only or primarily a matter of knowledge, it does not exclude the cognitive dimension. The knowledge contained in faith is of the a priori kind. One cannot commit oneself to the transcendent God without having at least some implicit, unthematic knowledge of him based in revelation and/or imagination. When we move to a posteriori knowledge, however, we are on the way from faith to beliefs.

Beliefs are objective expressions that define and interpret faith and its object in order to mediate them to us. They aid believers in reflection, allowing them to bring their faith to greater consciousness. Beliefs also provide a common reservoir of terminology, doctrines, images, and stories that permit discussion of faith within the community and provide the potential for communication of the community's faith to those outside its boundaries, to the extent that the language is comprehensible without the underlying faith experience. Beliefs are always secondary to faith itself, and beliefs can never exhaust faith. Because faith, like its object, is inexhaustible, no set of beliefs can constitute a comprehensive expression of faith. Perhaps some beliefs may constitute an adequate expression of some aspect of faith for a given community at a given time. But, because the meanings of words and images can vary between different times and places, this adequacy is likely to be limited to a small, temporary audience. Moreover, adequacy is a standard that leaves room for further development, and cannot, therefore, be taken as an excuse to cease the enterprise of theology. As the community's understanding grows or changes, beliefs may have to be refined.

Faith has an inherent tendency to want to communicate itself. Jesus did not keep his faith to himself, nor did his apostles. The preaching of a sincere, profound faith tends to draw a community to share that faith. When new members join themselves to the community, and when even newer members are born into the community, they help to shape the community, and it, in turn shapes them. Beliefs and practices develop to express and embody the faith of the founders, so that it becomes the faith of the community. These beliefs and practices further develop in the process of transmission, becoming a tradition. Members of the community identify with the community and its tradition. This identification normally takes the form of a public commitment. In short, believers normally learn, express, and live their faith within a community of more-or-less like-minded believers.

2. Many theologians maintain that the category of symbol is our best approach to expressing revelation. Define and explain what a symbol is. What is a religious symbol, and how would you distinguish religious symbols? Take a symbol of your choosing and explain how it operates as a symbol. Now apply symbol theory to the concept of revelation, and explain how it does justice to revelation as transcendental and particular. [In my answer I reverse the order of the last two parts of the question.]

A symbol is that which mediates the knowledge or presence of something other than itself. The symbol is, itself, a finite reality of this world. But it points beyond itself to reveal another reality. It works by implicitly positing an analogy between the symbol and the symbolized. That which is symbolized is to be understood in terms of the symbol. Barbour suggests that the analogy consists of positive, negative, and neutral analogies. When we call Jesus the Good Shepherd, for instance, the positive analogy draws our attention to the ways in which Jesus cares for the Church like a shepherd cares for his flock. The negative analogy reminds us that the symbol is not to be identified with the symbolized completely or literally; thus, the Good Shepherd symbol is not to be taken to mean that Christ was literally a shepherd or (as some English cathedrals would apparently have it) that there is some sort of Christian virtue inherent in the wool trade. The neutral analogy consists of elements of the analogy not covered by the positive and negative analogies, which are open to further exploration. Because symbols have this element of neutral analogy, they are open-ended, encouraging extension through further reflection. The Good Shepherd symbol has been extended to picture the apostles and their successors, the bishops, as shepherds of Christ's flock in the world. At one time, it was further extended to picture the political establishment as sheepdogs, protecting the flock from worldly dangers in cooperation with the shepherds. The first extension of the shepherd symbol to bishops is still a living symbol, but the sheepdog extension is rarely heard today outside the context of medieval history.

The open-endedness of symbols suggests their potential richness and depth, in contrast to signs, which strive for a simple one-to-one correspondence with that which they signify. Symbols appeal to the unconscious mind as well as the conscious, and no conscious description or explanation can exhaust their meaning. Symbols mediate what the Eastern Orthodox sometimes call indirect knowledge. While direct knowledge might come from studying a catechism, indirect knowledge arises from immersion in a symbolic tradition. Symbolism engages the imagination (right brain) as well as the intellect (left brain), bringing the believer into a holistic relationship with what is symbolized.

A religious symbol is one that points to a proper object of religion – a transcendent reality. Because religious reality is transcendent, it can be difficult to mediate to believers. A religious symbol addresses this difficulty by making present, in a sense, the transcendent reality that it symbolizes. The symbol re-presents that reality in a way accessible to the religious subject. Or, alternatively, it might be understood as making the religious subject present to the symbolized reality by fully engaging him in the encounter mediated by the symbol.

Transcendental revelation is God's self-communication in the depths of a person. All revelation must be mediated. In a sense, in transcendental revelation, the person becomes the medium in which God reveals himself. But this becoming might involve the person's appropriation, or internalization, of various media through which such divine self-communication takes place. Symbolism is one such medium, and one particularly suited to transcendental revelation. Because of symbolism's appeal to both conscious and unconscious, to both imagination and intellect; because of its complexity and richness, as developed in tradition; and because of its open-endedness, which invites the participation of the subject, it has the potential to fully engage a person at the deepest internal level, where transcendental revelation takes place. A tradition's first-order symbols, in their concreteness, provide basic structure and content within which both community and individual encounter God. From these concrete symbols, the experienced divine encounters associated with them, and reflection on these, second-order symbols are consciously developed, such as terminology, formulations, and dogmas.

An example of a Christian symbol is the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. On the finite level, it can be expressed in a straightforward way: Mary died and went to heaven. (I will not address the question of whether the Assumption should be considered a first-order or second-order symbol. I would lean towards second-order, but I could not argue the point well enough to convince myself.) Mary, in addition to being a historical person, is a symbol of the Church. Her identification with the Church is not entirely a matter of symbolism, since the New Testament puts her in the company of the apostles after the Crucifixion (Acts 1:14); and, moreover, her being the first person to have a committed, faithful relationship with Jesus could arguably make her the first Christian. But Mary has come to symbolize the Church as more than just another member. This symbolism achieves it full realization in the tradition of her Assumption, in which we celebrate not only the glorification of our blessed Mother, but also our own hope of glory, as members of the Church that she symbolizes. The bridal references in the hymns of the Byzantine service known as the Epitaphios of the Theotokos (observed on August 14, the Eve of the Dormition) serve as a reminder that the Church, as the Bride of Christ, will one day be united with him as Mary is in her Assumption. Further reflection on the symbol of the Assumption has suggested to some Christians 1) parallels with Christ's Ascension, to which the Assumption can be understood as a logical sequel, and 2) Mary's coronation as Queen of Heaven. These extensions illustrate the open-endedness of the symbol and suggest the potential for the fruitfulness of further reflection on the symbol. At the same time, the contrast (some would say dissonance) between Mary's roles as mother and bride provides a paradoxical element of the symbol that is difficult to resolve in a straightforward way on a purely conscious level, suggesting a deeper symbolic complexity.