‘Living the Mystery’ by Andrew Louth

 Chapter 6 in Discerning the Mystery: An Essay on the Nature of Theology (Oxford; Clarendon, 1985: 132-147)

I decided to write a post on this chapter of ‘prescribed reading’ because it highlighted for me, a couple of significant shortcomings of Enlightenment Rationalism which postmodern theology is attempting to address.

The first is seen by looking at Newman’s conception of theology as the apprehension of the believing mind coupled with a right state of the heart, a stance forged in the specific context of Englightenment rationality in the mid 19th century.  He saw faith as an intellectual act and skill, though one that was safeguarded by its grounding in love.  It was an attempt to transcend the Enlightenment division between thought and experience, rationality and intuition, intellect and will.  this is an excerpt from Louth:

“The desire to make all reasoning explicit manifests ‘a dislike of an evidence, varied, minute, complicated, and a desire of something producible, striking, and decisive’:  such a desire is really irrational, as it fails to understand the realities of human behaviour and action.  ‘To maintain Faith is a judgement about facts in matters of conduct, such , as to be formed, not so much from the impression legitimately made upon the mind by those facts, as from the reaching out of the mind itself towards them, – that it is a presumption, not a proving – may sound paradoxical, yet surely is borne out by the actual state of things as they come before us every day.'”

Newman is not only attempting to find a way out of the objective-subjective construed as incompatible dichotomy, but he also evidences the Enlightenment’s cultural codependency with the simultaneously evolving Capitalist Politio-Economy, which reordered rationality along consumer lines.  To have an opinion is to buy into something.  A capitalist system of society requires individuals to think as consumers in order that they might act as consumers.

A second Enlightenment stumbling block  is seen when Louth, drawing on the thoughts of Joseph Pieper, starts to look the subject matter for theology.  For Socrates, the beginning of philosophy was ‘wonder’.  For Descartes is it ‘doubt’. The mystery of God is irreducible and theology’s goal is not to understand all that there is know about God, the Universe, Humanity and the Interconnectedness of Life but rather to pay attention to Mystery.

“The life and death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth is the place where we meet with the mystery of God… – the mystery of the ultimate is met with in the particular: … presently active, seeking us out, making itself known to us.  Here, more than anywhere else, we learn the true character of mystery: mystery not just as the focus for our questioning and investigating, but mystery as that which questions us, which calls us to account.”

Theology which manages to embody the humility required within this task of describing the knowable (the particularity of Jesus) within the unknowable (the ‘beyond us’ nature of the Divine) has an important contribution to the natural and social sciences.  As Pieper says, theology “should hinder and resist the natural craving of the human spirit for a clear, transparent and definitive system” of embracing, empirically conceived, constructions of systematic truth.

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