Faith seeking understanding
Faith is fundamentally a relational matter; it is about trusting God. Yet part of the inner dynamic of the life of faith is a desire to understand more about who and what we trust. Anselm of Canterbury (c. 1033−1109) famously remarked that theology is basically ‘faith seeking understanding’. The great Christian theologian Augustine of Hippo (354−430) was also clear that there is a genuine intellectual excitement to wrestling with God. Theology is a passion of the mind, a longing to understand more about God’s nature and ways, and the transformative impact that this has on life. Our faith can be deepened and our personal lives enriched through theological reflection. So how do we set about developing this passion of the mind?
We cannot explore the relevance of theology, however, without first noting how bad a reputation it has developed within the churches in the last few decades. For some Christian leaders, theology is irrelevant to real life. It is about retreating into ivory towers when there are more pressing things to worry about. Yet rightly understood, theology is about enabling informed Christian action. It makes us want to do things, and do them in a Christian way. It helps us make judgements about how best to act; it encourages us to engage with the real world.
Other Christian leaders express anxiety concerning the tendency of theology to create division and conflict within the Church. J. I. Packer, one of evangelicalism’s most influential and wise voices, has written of the problem of ‘entrenched intellectualists’ – ‘rigid, argumentative, critical Christians, champions of God’s truth for whom orthodoxy is all’. I think we all know people who seem to have an obsession with what Packer calls ‘winning the battle for mental correctness’ and little interest in any other aspect of the Christian faith. They may love God, but they seem to have problems loving other people – especially when they disagree with them. It’s not always easy to discern how this fixation on theological correctness links up with the Gospel accounts of the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth. Surely the better way is to pursue a generous orthodoxy, seeing disagreements in the context of the greater agreements which bind us together.
What we love most clearly and dearly unites us
The heartbeat of the Christian faith lies in the sheer intellectual delight and excitement caused by the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Here is someone who the Church finds to be intellectually luminous, spiritually persuasive and infinitely satisfying, both communally and individually. While Christians express this delight and wonder in their creeds, they do so more especially in their worship and adoration. Centuries ago, Augustine of Hippo reflected on the way in which communities were unified by the objects of their love. The surest way of enhancing the identity, coherence and cohesion of a community is to help it see what it loves more clearly, and thence to love it more dearly.
That is why worship is so important for Christian identity. It focuses our attention on what really matters, and proclaims that the Christian faith has the power to capture the imagination – not merely to persuade the mind – by throwing open the depths of the human soul to the realities of the gospel. It sustains a great passion for Jesus Christ, which nourishes the theological task, even as it calls into question its capacity to live up to the brilliance of its ultimate object.
Loving God with our minds, hearts and souls
Yet while the appeal of the Christian vision of Jesus of Nazareth to the baptized imagination and emotions must never be neglected or understated, we need to appreciate that there remains an intellectual core to the Christian faith. We cannot love God without wanting to understand more about him. We are called upon to love God with our minds, as well as our hearts and souls (Matthew 22:37). We cannot allow Christ to reign in our hearts if he does not also guide our thinking. The discipleship of the mind is just as important as any other part of the process by which we grow in our faith and commitment.
The defence of the intellectual credibility of Christianity has become increasingly important in recent years, not least on account of the rise of the new atheism. We must see ourselves as standard-bearers for the spiritual, ethical, imaginative and intellectual vitality of the Christian faith, working out why we believe that certain things are true, and what difference they make to the way we live our lives and engage with the world around us. Above all, we must expand our vision of the Christian gospel. For some, realizing how much more there is to know about our faith can seem intimidating. But it can also be exciting to anticipate the discoveries that lie ahead, as the rich landscape of the Christian faith unfolds before our eyes.
Exploring the ‘landscape of faith’
Let us explore this image of the ‘landscape of faith’ a little further. Imagine that you are standing on a mountain ridge. Below you, spread out like a tapestry, is a beautiful landscape, stretching into the far distance. Woods, streams, fields, villages are all lit by the gentle radiance of a late afternoon sun. It’s the sort of thing that made Romantics like William Wordsworth want to rush off and write poetry. So how would you describe such a stunning vista to a friend back home?
It’s actually quite hard to do this, except in the most superficial way, because words are just not good enough to express our experience of reality. You could tell your friend that you saw a wood – but that little word ‘wood’ is never going to convey your vibrant memory of a green mass of trees, their dappled leaves shimmering in the sunlight, and your emotional reaction to such beauty.
You could draw a map of the landscape, which helps you see how its elements related to each other – woods, mountains, streams and villages. But it was not a map that moved you to wonder and delight, but the landscape itself – the beautiful view, the cool wind, the fragrance of flowers and resin, the distant tinkling of cowbells as the herds wander around, seeking the best pastures.
It may be helpful to think of theology as a map, and the gospel as a landscape. This helps us grasp that theology tries to describe in words what we encounter through faith. When we understand theology properly, it helps us articulate, deepen and communicate the Christian vision of God in all its fullness and wonder. On the other hand, when theology becomes preoccupied with the relation of ideas, it loses sight of the vision of God, which gives vitality to the life of faith. The worshipping community is the crucible in which much of the best theology is forged, even though it may be refined by academic reflection.
We will remain with the image of the landscape for a moment longer, as there is another point we need to consider. As we try to take in our vast, rich and beautiful panorama, most of us will find ourselves concentrating on one part of the view that we especially like or are particularly struck by, filtering out the rest. This ‘selective attention’ or ‘cognitive bias’ is helpful in some ways. It allows us to focus on what we think really matters. Yet all too often, it means that we miss out on other things. We fail to see other features of the landscape, or appreciate their importance.
Now imagine that you are joined by a group of friends, all looking at the same panorama. In one sense, all of you will see the same view. Yet the observational dynamic is quite different. As you start talking to each other, it soon becomes clear that others have noticed things that you missed – a fork in a stream, a small lake, or some cattle finding shade from the hot afternoon sun under a tree. A corporate view of the landscape emerges, which is far more comprehensive and reliable than any individual account of it. Not only will a group see more than any single individual; a group may also correct an individual’s account of the landscape of faith. What one person thought was a stream running through a wood might actually turn out to be a trail.
The ‘catholicity’ of Christian theology
The significance of this point is that we need theology to give a comprehensive, critical account of faith, rather than being limited to one individual’s often very subjective perception of things. A number of theologians – such as Cyril of Jerusalem (313–86) and Vladimir Lossky (1903–58) – have emphasized the ‘catholicity’ of Christian theology. Their point is that the theologian is not a lone maverick, but someone who works collaboratively within the Body of Christ to build up a fully orbed understanding of the gospel.
We can take this a stage further. Theology values the perspectives and insights of those who have mapped and travelled the road of faith in the past, and have now arrived at their journey’s end. Augustine of Hippo, Thomas Aquinas (c. 1225–74), Martin Luther (1493–1546) and Karl Barth (1886–1968) are all dead. But they are widely recognized in theological reflection and debate today as authoritative, living voices, who have the capacity to enrich, stimulate and challenge us as we think through issues for ourselves. One of the senses of the theological term ‘tradition’ is learning to respect those who have reflected on the great questions of theology before us. What many call ‘the great tradition’ is both a resource and challenge to us: it puts at our disposal theological treasures that we may value and make use of today, but it also questions whether our theological generation understands and communicates the gospel as well as our forebears.
This naturally leads us to reflect on the sources of theology. Christians have quite distinct ideas about who God is and what God is like. But where do they get these ideas from? It is generally accepted that there are three major sources for theology: the Bible, reason and tradition. Each merits further discussion.
Excerpt from Mere Theology: Christian Faith and the Discipleship of the Mind, Chapter 1 Faith, pages 3-8, © 2010 Alister E. McGrath, first published in Great Britain by SPCK Publishing. Used with permission.
See previous article by Dr Alister McGrath in Living Bulwark: Roots that Refresh: The Vitality of Reformation Spirituality
Top image credit: photo of a small group discussing the Bible together, from Bigstock.com, © by doidam10, stock photo ID: 475359607. Used with permission.
Alister E. McGrath, born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, holds the Chair in Theology, Ministry and Education at King’s College London. He was previously Professor of Historical Theology at Oxford University and Director of the Oxford Center for Christian Apologetics.
Originally a student of science, in 1977 McGrath was awarded a PhD in Biochemistry from Oxford University for his work on molecular biophysics. Following his conversion from atheism to Christianity, he studied divinity at St. John’s College at Cambridge (1978-80). It was during this time that he studied for ordination in the Church of England. McGrath was elected University Research Lecturer in Theology at Oxford University in 1993, and also served as research professor of theology at Regent College, Vancouver, from 1993-9. He earned an Oxford Doctorate of Divinity in 2001 for his research on historical and systematic theology.
McGrath has written many books on the interaction of science and faith and is the producer of the ‘Scientific Theology’ project, encouraging a dialogue between the natural sciences and Christian theology. McGrath is a strong critic of Richard Dawkins, Oxford biology professor and one of the most outspoken atheists. He has addressed Dawkins’ criticism of religion in several of his books, most notably in Dawkins Delusion published in 2007 by SPCK and IVP.
More information on his website: Professor Alister McGrath