Fides quaer ens intellectum

All good reasoning proceeds from prior commitments and beliefs

By , Friday 1 July 2011 22.29 BST

Over 40 years ago, I was taking part in a seminar during which the Australian Jesuit theologian Gerald O’Collins defined the theologian as someone who “watches their language in the presence of God”. To get a sense of just how good a definition this is, set it alongside the definition of a philosopher as someone who “watches their language”.

Many theological tasks can be done, quite competently, by a non-believer: much of church history and biblical exegesis, for example. But the very heart and centre of theological investigation is reflection before the face of the transcendent mystery which we call God. Theological investigation is, in St Anselm’s motto, a matter of fides quaer ens intellectum: “faith in search of understanding”. It follows (and O’Collins’s definition brings this out so well) that serious theological investigation is never purely a matter of inference and deduction; never merely a matter of the reasoning mind. It is also a matter of the mind and heart at prayer. There is a sense in which all good theology is done on one’s knees.

But, if this is the case, does it not follow that theology is so unlike all other academic disciplines – which are, presumably, purely matters of the reasoning mind – that it is far from clear that the university is the proper place for its pursuit? Before reaching this conclusion, however, it would be prudent to have a look at how, in practice, other patterns of inquiry are conducted.

The Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe once told me that, when translating Thomas Aquinas into English, he often found the best translation of intellectus, in his writings, was not “intellect” or “understanding” but “imagination”. Good work, in any academic discipline, requires a passionate concern for accuracy, for truthfulness; requires what it would not be in any way metaphorical to describe as reverence for the matter at hand. Scholars and scientists of every kind are servants of the real, disciples of truth. Moreover, all good reasoning expresses and proceeds from prior commitments and beliefs and relies, at every step along the way, on believing – however cautiously and critically – the testimony of others engaged in this and similar collaborative enterprises. I emphasise “collaborative” because at the heart of the inadequacy of frequently repeated accounts of the supposed incompatibility of “science” and “religion“, and of the imagined conflicts between “faith” and “reason”, is the failure to appreciate all our intellectual enterprises are social enterprises, projects undertaken in community.

Some years ago, George Steiner argued that “any coherent understanding of what language is and how language performs … is, in the final analysis, underwritten by the assumption of God’s presence”. One supposes many of his readers found this contention bizarre. But Steiner believed there would be “no history as we know it, no religion, metaphysics, politics or aesthetics as we have lived them, without an initial act of trust, of confiding, so fundamental as to be constitutive of the relation between word [the logos] and world”.

It is not that theology is so unlike other academic enterprises as not to earn its place in the university, but rather that we have lost sight of the extent to which other academic enterprises are – as social projects, projects undertaken in community – rather more like theology than they know.

Nicholas Lash is Norris-Hulse professor emeritus of divinity at the University of Cambridge. This is an edited version of remarks he made on accepting an honorary degree at Durham University on Thursday.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/belief/2011/jul/01/reasoning-proceeds-from-prior-beliefs or http://bit.ly/kfOywy or http://tinyurl.com/3qeujlx

Photograph by Dragos Lumpan, “The Monastic Life,” from daily life of monks at the Sihastria Putnei in northern Moldavia, Romania.  http://www.stjohndivine.org/MonasticLife.html or http://bit.ly/lEvzrr or http://tinyurl.com/3dnklcl

Related Posts

A holy harangue   Franklin Graham made a recent appearance in Little Rock.  The Arkansas Times described it this way: He preached against godless politic...
No such thing From the lying lips of Mike Huckabee (a likeable liar), a man who has known Palestinians, who has children who were educated by a Palestinian:  "There...
Fit the battle Which chapter from the Book of Joshua? By Yitzhak Laor, 01:37 19.05.11 ... Between 1949 and 1956, in what Israel calls "retribution operations,...
Not everything bounces back Last edited by Monsieur d'Nalgar on September 9, 2012 at 4:18 pm.   1965 was an interesting year. The first American combat troops were sen...
And we better wake up President's fine words may not address the Middle East's real needs By Robert Fisk, Thursday, 19 May 2011 ... OK, so here's what President Bara...
Bob Jones textbooks Republican religious fundamentalists would rewrite American history By Stephen Bates, Thursday 30 August 2012 09.00 EDT   It is always goo...
Divesting themselves of their overabundance Celebrating the 100th Birthday of Clarence Jordan: The Man Who Inspired the Fullers' Affordable Housing Movement By Kirk Lyman-Barner, 08/12/2012  9:...
Kindred Spirits Dominionism Rising: A Theocratic Movement Hiding in Plain Sight By Frederick Clarkson, August 18, 2016   This article appears in the Summe...
We were there http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xu_GW2osRVA http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xu_GW2osRVA ...and on a brighter note: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v...
Born through the loins of Ephraim Mitt Romney: Son of Abraham? By Valerie Tarico, Saturday, Aug  4, 2012 08:01 AM CDT   While in Jerusalem Mitt Romney made an appearance at...

Permanent link to this article: https://levantium.com/2011/07/02/fides-quaer-ens-intellectum/

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.