The Study of Theology: Fides Quaerens Intellectum Part I

Saint Anselm of Canterbury tells us that theology is the systematic coming to understand what we believe. Accordingly, St. Thomas Aquinas boldly asserted (and defended) that theology is a science—a science of God. If theology is the science which deals with God and His being, we must necessarily ask the questions of how theology is to be approached and how does theology help to elevate human reason to the understanding of the mysteries of God? I will investigate these questions to see how the limitation of human reason is transcended by the study of theology to recognize and understand the mysteries of God—even if it can only grasp such these mysteries partially.  This is the first part of my investigative reflection.

Before considering the role theology plays in transcending the limits of human reason, we ought to first see what Anselm and Aquinas had in mind for theology qua theology. Anselm’s fides quaerens intellectum (faith seeking understanding) presupposes faith; and that indeed faith is the highest good in the order of faith and reason. Therefore in his Proslogium Anselm writes that unless he believes he shall not understand. But in doing so, he is not disregarding reason or rejecting it as something defective; for it is reason which is the means to understanding—without it no understanding can be possible. Anselm’s ‘faith seeking understanding’ allows him to demonstrate the existence of God through an ontological argument and to consequently propose many of God’s attributes.

Whereas Anselm’s definition of theology is a presupposition with no argument attached, Aquinas does provide an argument for theology as a science based on faith. For Aquinas, unlike the sciences which build their principles based on direct knowledge from human reason, the science of theology is one which builds itself upon premises accepted “from a superior body of knowledge.” These known premises, or knowledge, which theology uses as its first principle is both known in God Himself and known through those who have experienced Him through revelation. Conclusively, any minute study of theology, even the simplest and most particular, is only done so in relation to God.

Because theology is a faith which seeks to understand what it is that it believes in, it therefore seeks to understand that which is beyond the scope of reason. Faith as, William O’Malley suggests in his book ‘God: The Oldest Question’ is a calculated leap; it is a leap fully grounded in reason, yet it is still a leap into the unknown. In theological studies (and reflections), one has already made this leap of faith, it is now to answer the question of why this leap is sensible. Where the calculations have been made for the leap, it is now the leap itself that is subjected to light of reason. However, we should remember that reason surely cannot explain that which it is not meant to understand and so therefore reason must once again subject itself to faith. This is precisely the reason why Pascal proposes his wager, for it is impossible that the finite should fully grasp the infinite, seeing as how their natures are infinitely different.

All hope is not lost, however, because, contrary to what the what Pascal insists, the infinite God has revealed Himself to us. Consider the experience of Saint Augustine in his Confessions when he was told to “pick it up, read it; pick it up; read it.” This commanding voice and obedient action on the part of Augustine led to his conversion. Or consider the experiences that St. Teresa of Avila had when she was having her mystical encounters with Christ. The experiences were many, but here is one of her descriptions of levitations:

These effects are very striking. One of them is the manifestation of the Lord’s mighty power: as we are unable to resist His Majesty’s will, either in soul or in body, and are not our own masters, we realize that, however irksome this truth may be, there is One stronger than ourselves, can do absolutely nothing. This imprints in us great humility. Indeed, I confess that in me it produced great fear—at first a terrible fear. One sees one’s body being all lifted up from the ground; and although the spirit draws it after itself, and if no resistance is offered does so very gently, one does not lose consciousness—at least, I myself have had sufficient to enable me to realize that I was being lifted up.

With experiences such as these and other religious experiences, theological studies and reflections can help in coming to understand what it is that one encounters. Theology, in this context, is to find the meaning behind the otherwise too meaningful experience. The ineffability of these experiences can be hard to reason but it is precisely because they are beyond reason-ability that makes them the object of theological reflections. The turn required to understand these revelations is the one from the mundane to the divine. Here, one can do much by studying Paul Tillich’s proposition of the study of theology. Behind Tillich’s proposal of theological studies is the main focus on our ultimate concerns—those which deal with our being or non-being. If therefore, experiences such as the above mentioned occur, we must inquire its meaning in relation to us and why it is so. Here, again one finds Anselm’s position echoing true—in that it is faith, i.e. the belief of the mystic that something divine has caused such an experience, seeks to understand, i.e. why such an experience and what does it mean in terms of God’s message to the human person insofar as their ultimate concern is concerned.

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