Academic journal article Theological Studies

Mystagogy and Mission: The Challenge of Nonbelief and the Task of Theology

Academic journal article Theological Studies

Mystagogy and Mission: The Challenge of Nonbelief and the Task of Theology

Article excerpt

Recent communications between Pope Francis and atheists have again highlighted the problem of believing in our time. (1) The pope's communication with onbelievers echoes calls from the Second Vatican Council, as well as from

the Society of Jesus, to engage the secular cultures of our time, and especially nonbelievers. But, as Francis noted, this call to engagement has not moved very far within the Church as a whole since the closing of the council. (2)

One reason for this slow movement is that believing is a problem for people of faith as well. Contemporary Christians in the Western world inhabit the very same world as their atheist or agnostic friends, and make many of the same basic assumptions about how reality is structured and functions. In this world of shared assumptions, it is not unusual to find belief difficult and older formulations of faith inadequate. (3) Does Christian faith automatically entail a firm belief in God, or is there not to be found a tension between possessing the gift of faith, even in a prereflective sense, and having the ability to believe with conviction? It is tempting to dismiss a body of doctrine built upon and deriving from a premodem and myth-laden universe that no longer lays claim on us. Some have lost the ability to believe, not because they do not know what the church has proposed for belief, but because the doctrinal "content" of faith has become intellectually incredible, as belonging to another world of meaning and reference and certainly not to the world of empirical demonstration. The Creed, for example, stands as a religious classic steeped in an ancient ontology, but for some Christians, it does not meet the epistemological demands for belief today. These demands now belong to a "postmetaphysical" world of empirically verifiable claims and, even more, to a metaphysics falling outside the boundaries of traditional systems of ontology and causality. In short, it is difficult to integrate all the creedal claims with a contemporary consciousness of reality. But more fundamentally, and even more importantly, the Creed and various dogmatic statements can fail to convey to believers the wonder of the personal experience of God's self-disclosure in the history of grace that lies at the heart of Christian faith. (4) Consequently some claim to have faith in the God revealed in Jesus Christ, but are reluctant or simply unable to say much more about what they believe with any deep intellectual conviction. If this is the case for believers, then how can we begin to engage self-designated nonbelievers?

Here I can address this broad question only as a task for fundamental theology, although it has many other aspects that should be explored: theology and science, interreligious dialogue, social ethics and bioethics, and aesthetics, to name a few. But as a matter of fundamental theology, the classic framework is the distinction between what is held in faith as the knowledge about God revealed in the person of Jesus Christ enshrined in Scripture and taught by the church ({fides quae creditur). In short, the objective content of faith is transmitted in tradition. Tradition is the means by which this "content" of faith is also appropriated in and through the personhood of the religious subject, the human person who enters into a saving relationship with God through a personal faith in the God of Jesus Christ (fides qua creditur), (5) These are not two distinct tracks or ways of believing, but are distinguishable aspects of a single, unified act of faith. (6) Yet that act cannot be adequately represented by the positive content of faith itself as it may be expressed in the form of beliefs--as creedal, dogmatic, or more generally doctrinal statements. (7) It is realized in the various ways and means, religious as well as everyday, by which faith is appropriated and lived. Believing is more than an intellectual assent to propositions (or "beliefs") through a reasoning process; it is also, and complementary with this, a deeper entry into the reality of faith's "content" in and through the transcendent depths of spiritual subjectivity. …

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