The Personalist Project

What does any of this have to do with personalism or Christianity?

I think there's a lesson here about faith.

It's possible to be geeky about theology and the Faith. You can obsess over the details and the history and the incidentals and accidentals of two millennia of Christianity in an utterly geeky way.

But just as geekiness loses its way when it elevates theory and debate over the experience of the actual loved thing, so too does theology go off track when it elevates theory over the lived experience of faith--the experience of God's presence in the world.

John Henry Newman wrote defences of the reasonability--the rationality--of faith in an era when faith was often derided as anti-rational and superstitious. Rather than working within the confines of a definition of reasons that was limited to the strict limits of explicit reasoning, Newman argued for the reality and value of implicit ways of reasoning and knowing. Instead of being caught trying to build a case for faith from the ground up, Newman asked the epistemological question, "but how is it that we do actually know of God?"

We know things by our direct and indirect experiences of them and their effects, and by the testimony of people we trust. Rather than reasoning in a straight line--deductively--we often reason indirectly, implicitly, or using what Newman called "the illative sense," which constructs a picture of a whole from suggestions, probability, experiences, testimony, and every other source of knowledge, however slight.

Newman writes:

"The mind ranges to and fro, and spreads out, and advances forward with a quickness which has become a proverb, and a subtlety and versatility which baffle investigation.  It passes on from point to point, gaining one  by some indication; another on a probability; then availing itself of an association; then falling back on some received law; next seizing on testimony; then committing itself to some popular impression, or some inward instinct, or some obscure memory; and thus it makes progress not unlike a clamberer on a steep cliff, who, by quick eye, prompt hand, and firm foot, ascends, how he knows not himself, by personal endowments and by practice, rather than by rule, leaving no track behind him, and unable to teach another."

What we know this way, implicitly—often unconsciously—can often be sort of retroactively defended by means of an explicit line of reasoning, but the explicit argument has as little relationship to the complexity and depth we grasp via our intellectus--our understanding--as fan arguments about the virtues of particular fandoms have to the experience of loving the fandom itself.

There is a place for argument and apologetics--in the Church and in geekdom. But debate is not love, and theology is not faith. We should take care not to confuse the two.

Image credits:
Man in church image by Joshua Earle

"John Henry Newman" by Sir John Everett Milais, via Wikimedia 

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Comments (1)

Katie van Schaijik

#1, Jun 14, 2017 10:19am

A great pair of posts, Kate. Thank you!

When I was reading that beloved Newman quote, I spontaneously pictured myself climbing a steep cliff face. There would be nothing sure-footed or swift or skilled about it. Progress would be painfully slow and shaky and awkward. Nerve-wracking to watch. Yet, I'd have to try. I'd have to keep looking for that the next thing I might grab onto or solid spot to put my foot. I'd be miserable and scared. I'd have to take some chances, though, because the alternative is falling.

That, too, is an analogy for the way some of us make our way to faith. It's not only not smooth and linear and traceable, it's bumbling, scary, and really hard.

The last thing a person in that situation wants, is people who were born safe at the top yelling at her for not being there already or mocking the gracelessness of her effort to get there.

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