The Fruits of Study: Hilary Term 2020
Despite the exceptional circumstances surrounding the end of this academic term, the student brothers, keeping a tradition of our blog, comment on some of their latest intellectual discoveries.
Br John Bernard Church: The Breadth of Truth
My lectures and commitments have been wide-ranging this term, and the fruits of study have certainly been the greater for it. An immense richness of the Dominican life is that our contemplation permeates the entire day, starting from the liturgy and more formal prayer but certainly not limited to them: daily immersion in scripture and periods of silence pave the way for the workings of the Holy Spirit in the midst of essay writing and lectures. Alongside this, the term’s variety of material has proven mutually stimulating, with ideas in one course cropping up elsewhere and shedding valuable light. These are then all thrown into the contemplative cauldron, that bubbles away as thoughts come and go, and ultimately, as is the hope, find their expression in preaching.
It is not always so simple, as plenty of clutter ends up in that cauldron too, but the combinations can be surprising. To give a couple of examples, I came across Frédéric Bastiat’s What is seen and what is not seen, a macroeconomic theory about the hidden effects of economic agency, for our Introduction to Economics course, and it subsequently proved very useful when explaining the problem of evil in a metaphysics essay. Another case was during a confirmation class, where an attempt to explain how we can prove the existence of God to some 13 year olds, and the questions that followed, turned out to be far more useful for me than for them!
The Dominican motto Veritas might appear grandiose, or too vague to be meaningful. But this term has demonstrated to me what it really conveys: that the Dominican life helps us to search for the truth fearlessly in all things, for where there is truth, God can be found. It seems Dominican contemplation ought to savour the benefits of a healthy eclecticism.
Br Pablo Rodríguez Jordá: St John Henry Newman on Faith and Reason
Fascinating and complex as this topic is, it should not surprise us that it took St John Henry Newman over twenty years to develop fully his position on the relationship between faith and reason. A number of manuscripts spanning from his conversion to Catholicism in 1845 to the 1870 publication of his master piece, The Grammar of Assent, show a steady stream of unfinished drafts and revisions, where he rehearsed an answer to this age-old discussion.
Mirroring Newman’s own liking for enumerating his thoughts into ‘theses’, I shall limit myself to a few fundamental points I have learned from reading his work.
1. Faith never arises from ‘conclusive’ proofs, forcing the intellect to assent and leaving no room for doubt, in the manner of a mathematical demonstration. No degree of evidence can definitively prove the truth of Christianity. If this were so, we would not believe freely, but coerced by external arguments. Some see, and yet they do not believe.
2. If some intricate demonstration or analysis of the evidence were required in order to believe, then only the learned, those with the sufficient leisure to examine the proofs, would ever have faith. If, on the other hand, Revelation is to reach every person, it must appeal to something common to all. This is what Newman called ‘prudence’, the dispositions of a good heart and a good mind, informed by honesty, humility, patience and a sincere desire for the truth.
3. These considerations do not mean that there are no proofs, no evidence for Christianity whatsoever. Christianity does indeed rest on particular historical facts: e.g. ‘God became man’; ‘on the third day, Christ rose from the dead’. These form what we call ‘Revelation’, its own body of proofs, and some familiarity with these facts is a condition to have faith.
4. Our prior dispositions affect our response to Revelation. A person who passionately seeks the truth is more likely to be moved by its claims than someone who is not. These dispositions help us ponder the credibility of Christian Revelation; i.e. that it is trust-worthy, worthy of our belief; that it is intelligible, consistent with our knowledge of the world, possible, desirable, probable. In this process, reason is at work, but not a by means of ‘demonstrative proofs’, but in a manner that takes into account personal experience and varies from individual to individual.
5. Examining the credibility of Revelation leads us to assent, an act of the intellect and the will saying ‘yes’ to what we recognise as true, even on insufficient proofs, assisted by divine grace. In other words, faith is a form of intellectual assent, moved by the will, inspired by love. The certainty of the believer comes ultimately from God, who neither deceives nor can be deceived, and gives us assurance of what we believe. Faith in this sense is saying ‘yes’ to a person, not to a series of human arguments.
6. Faith does not end here, in a single act. It is a habit, a virtue, and as such it is strengthened by practice, by repeatedly saying ‘yes’ to God in the busyness of our everyday lives. By accepting God’s truth in faith, our view of the world is transformed; our reason is led beyond its ordinary possibilities. Evelyn Waugh used to say, ‘conversion is like stepping across the chimney piece out of a Looking-Glass world, where everything is an absurd caricature, into the real world God made; and then begins the delicious process of exploring it limitlessly.’
7. The life of the faith is love. Believing in God, trusting in Him, allows us to recognise His love in small everyday events, even in times of sorrow and confusion. The faith of every believer can therefore only be understood as a ‘love story’ unfolding in time, narrating God’s loving initiative and our response to it. It is this love that protects our faith from being misplaced: love and truth go hand in hand.
Faith, in conclusion, is not opposed to reason. It is, only if we understand reason narrowly as ‘demonstration’ or ‘proof’, a series of logical calculations that can be indifferently transferred from person to person. Believing, however, involves the totality of what we are, who we are – our experience of the world, our moral disposition, our beliefs and prejudices. In order to have faith, we need to think; that is, to explore the claims of Revelation with an honest heart, sincerely seeking the truth. G. K. Chesterton is often quoted as saying, in one of those untraceable references, ‘when you walk into the Church you are asked to take off your hat, not your head.’
Br Albert Elias Robertson: Aquinas and the Greek Church Fathers
This term I’ve mostly been occupied with the study of the Greek Church Fathers, which has in many ways been a continuation of some of the work I was doing last term on the doctrine of creation. I spent quite a long time last term considering how Aquinas inherited the works of Pseudo-Dionysius, and then towards the end of Michaelmas Term, I worked quite a lot on St Thomas’s use of the Greek Fathers for another project, and this involved quite a lot of research in an emerging secondary literature in the role of the Greek Fathers in the development of Aquinas’s theology.
Most of my studies this term have actually been in the later Patristic period, with the proto-scholasticism of St Maximus the Confessor and St John of Damascus. I finally got around to reading Marcus Pleasted’s Orthodox Readings of Aquinas, and spent some time considering how Aquinas, and scholasticism more generally, was appropriated by the East, particularly after the fall of the Byzantine Empire.
In all of these studies, I’ve been engaging quite a lot with Andrew Louth, who is fairly determined to draw a strong divide between Eastern and Western theology, arguing that neither Maximus nor the Damascene showed any signs of scholastic tendencies. Rather, Louth insists, they wrote for the formation of monks; a theology which expresses a way of life, rather than a set of dogmatic principles. Through Andrew Louth and Marcus Pleasted, I discovered the philosophy and theology of Christos Yannaras, and I’ve taken some of his work away with me to read while I’m away. Yannaras expresses some of the most extreme anti-Western philosophy and theology in contemporary Orthodoxy, and so I’ve been trying to engage with his writing a bit more.
In all of my studies this academic year, I’ve become quite optimistic for genuine dialogue with Orthodox, but this must be based on a proper and honest understanding of the different theological traditions. St Thomas can be a real model for us here. In a collection of essays on the Trinity, the Church, and the human person, Gilles Emery, OP says that for Aquinas there is no ‘Western’ nor ‘Eastern’ theology, but a Catholic theology that benefits from the foundations laid by the patristic tradition recognized in its fullness. Indeed, for Emery, the desire for an ecumenical Catholic fullness is something St Thomas still invites us to (Gilles Emery, OP, A Note on St Thomas and the Eastern Fathers, in Trinity, Church, and the Human Person: Thomistic Essays).