All good reasoning proceeds from prior commitments and beliefs
By Nicholas Lash, 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.
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