Faith Seeks, Understanding Finds

Augustine

Welcome to my first blog.  My hope is to provide a regular (at least monthly) reflection on matters of interest to the community of Newman Theological College.  My hope is that this space may provide opportunities for less formal theological or philosophical reflection, as well as a chance to let people know about things that have been going on at the College, or the special accomplishments or contributions of members of our community.

Given this range of purposes, it seemed fitting to use the motto of Newman Theological College as the title for this blog: Faith Seeking Understanding.  As is widely known this phrase was famously used by St. Anselm to encapsulate his account of what theology is all about.  What is less known, is that this approach has profound roots in St. Augustine.  Indeed, St. Anselm goes so far as to claim that everything he wrote can be found in St. Augustine, particularly in his work on the Trinity.

In one of my favorite passages in the entire theological tradition, St. Augustine puts it this way:

“Why then look for something when you have comprehended the incomprehensibility of what you are looking for, if not because you should not give up the search as long as you are making progress in your inquiry into things incomprehensible, and because you become better and better by looking for so great a good which is sought in order to be found all the more delightfully, and it is found in order to be sought all the more avidly?

Faith seeks, understanding finds; which is why the prophet says, ‘Unless you believe you shall not understand’.  And again, understanding still goes on seeking the one it has found.”

This is one of the most profound reflections on the proper disposition of the Christian theologian.  And since every Christian, insofar as she or he is called to understand the faith they profess, is a theologian, this is relevant to us all.

What is clear here is that theology cannot be reduced to a list of absolute truths about God.  This isn’t to doubt that there are such truths, but rather that any such list will be incomplete.  The articles of the faith, professed in the Creed and through the Church’s magisterium are the points of departure for theological thought, not its conclusion.  However, much we have understood, the very nature of the one we wish to encounter is inexhaustible; thus, we must go on seeking the one we have found.

This can be a cause for frustration.  Some want to achieve truth about God in the way we do in math or science.  We discover it, know it for certain and then move on to something else.  But, God is not that sort of thing.  In philosophy and theology the truth is disclosed progressively, in an ever deepening way.  It is much more like understanding the beauty and meaning of a complex poem than like finding the answer to a particularly difficult math problem.

We would probably never dream of coming to a definitive and final understanding of T.S. Eliot’s poem the Wasteland, such that any further reading of it would be a pointless task.  Yet, we expect to find definitive solutions to theological problems that will compel all rational people, and are surprised when we fail.  If this is the kind of answer we are looking for in our theology, we are very likely looking for the wrong thing.

To say this is not to throw upon the doors to the cancer of relativism, any more than denying a definitive reading of the Wasteland would require one to say the understanding of a casual reader is on par with that of the scholarly expert:  that would be nonsense.

The progress we make in understanding our God is definitive and real.  It is simply progressive and admits of ever further development.  Accordingly, the best advice for the Christian is to take on the role of a seeker throughout this life.  To embrace the stance of faith is to not to embrace a position that puts an end to inquiry, but is to inhabit the perspective which allows us to look for truth and encounter it precisely where it is to be found most deeply.

 

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2 thoughts on “Faith Seeks, Understanding Finds

  1. Thank you Jason. A thoughtful first blog. Looking forward to many more! One of the most profound learnings for me as an adult Christian came from Fr. Don, who reminded us that our theology must always be a “both/and” encounter and the avoidance of “either/or”. The first leads to compassion and service, the second to intolerance and fundamentalism.

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