Theology's Proper Humility
Reno, R. R., First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life
Theology claims to be the queen of the sciences, the master discipline that provides the deepest and most penetrating answers to our most important questions. And yet it does not reach up to the true, the good, and the beautiful, but instead attends to the particular details of salvation history. Christians treat Christ as the way, the truth, and the life. Jews look to the Law given on Sinai. Reflection turns downward and contracts our attention. Theology humiliates the mind.
This works against the grain of our natural impulses. The human mind is programmed to ascend. Thus, in one of his dialogues Plato has Socrates guiding us from the beautiful body of a particular person to the more enduring beauty of a marble statue and finally to the eternal and changeless ideal of beauty. This movement is characteristic of philosophy. If we can see things in their most general aspect-seeing what makes humans human, or what makes truth true, or what makes right right--we'll be in a much better position to live well. Seeking to attain the most universal perspective, something even the skeptic tries to do with his negative conclusions, philosophy exalts the mind.
Origen was perhaps the greatest speculative thinker in all of Christian history. Yet his theology bends the mind downward. As he writes at the outset of one of his most important works, we should draw wisdom "from no other source but the very words and teaching of Christ." He wants to realize as best he can the words of St. Paul in Corinthians: "We destroy arguments and every proud obstacle to the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ." Our goal should be to see things in their Christological aspect, as it were, which means seeing how his life, death, and resurrection make truth true. In this, Origen is typical of the theological tradition as a whole. It affirms a version of the scandal of particularity, in this case the entirely counterintuitive claim that the most intellectually powerful point of view is not above but below.
By and large, modern theologians have found this kenosis, or humiliation of the mind, difficult. They want to tell people what the Gospel is "really about," which has meant placing Christ into a universal frame of reference: a general theory of religious experience, a concept of social justice, a vision of universal history, and so forth. Anxious about and often embarrassed by the parochial character of revelation, modern theologians have tried to make theology relevant. They have wanted their work to be part of the supposedly larger conversation. This has encouraged us to ascend to the universal rather than descend in thought to Christ crucified.
But descend we must. Theology is a form of obedience, which is why Karl Barth pronounced it "a modest undertaking." It's a claim not falsified by the vast scale and vigor of his remarkable work, or by the fact that theology affirms divine truths with utmost confidence. It is modest because submissive, bending down to the given facts of revelation rather than rising up to the heights of the universal. There is a …
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Publication information: Article title: Theology's Proper Humility. Contributors: Reno, R. R. - Author. Magazine title: First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life. Issue: 225 Publication date: August-September 2012. Page number: 5+. © 2009 Institute on Religion and Public Life. COPYRIGHT 2012 Gale Group.