Liberal theology in a nutshell

“[Robert] Schuller never learned what Karl Barth said about the liberal theology of his day, namely, that one cannot get God by saying man in a louder voice.”

Timothy George, “From Crystal to Christ: A Once and Future Cathedral“, September 23, 2013, firstthings.com.

Is an incomplete picture necessarily false?, Part 2

Continuing the topic begun in this post, I happened to come across the following:

“It is true that human thinking is externally conditioned, and cannot result in conceptions that are adequate to or exhaustive of the external realities with which they are concerned. If their validity for knowledge depended upon their adequacy we should be unable to conceive of any object whatever, for no object can be conceived in its entirety. The mind is under no delusion here. We are conscious of the partial nature of all our conceptions, and this consciousness is part of the knowledge which is symbolized in our conceptions. Our knowledge, in brief, embraces not only the attributes and relations of things which are included in our conceptions of them, but also the truth that our knowledge even of what is most familiar to us is relative, limited, and inadequate to reality. And when we treat our conceptions as adequate measures of realities, we go contrary to the data supplied by our own consciousness.

It is, therefore, utterly erroneous to maintain that nothing can be known which cannot be fully comprehended within our conceptions. No object of human knowledge is thus comprehended. All realities are known incipiently, but none the less truly; and there is no contradiction between what is comprehended in our conceptions and the larger content of the realities to which they refer. If human conceptions are symbolic – and they are all of such nature – they are not for that reason inconsistent with anything in the realities which they describe, but, when rightly framed, constitute true knowledge so far as they go.”

The Being and Attributes of God, Francis J. Hall, D.D., New York:Longmans, 1918, pp. 35-36.

Humor in … Kings?!

I was reading Kings chapter 18 today as part of my daily Bible reading. There has been chapter after chapter about how this king was wicked and that king turned away from the Lord and built altars to false gods, and various people were slaughtered. But suddenly I found myself chuckling.

God has inflicted a three-year drought on Israel. He decides to end it, so he tells the prophet Elijah to approach king Ahab “so I may send rain”. On his way to see Ahab Elijah meets Obadiah, who oversees the palace. Elijah tells Obadiah to go to Ahab and tell him that Elijah wants to see him. Obadiah’s response is, ““What sin have I committed that you are ready to hand your servant over to Ahab for execution?'”

Execution? What for?

Obadiah goes on, “‘My master has sent to every nation and kingdom in an effort to find you. When they say, “He’s not here,” he makes them swear an oath that they could not find you. Now you say, “Go and say to your master, ‘Elijah is back.’ [a quote within a quote within a quote — how do I punctuate that?!]”.

What made me laugh was this: “But when I leave you, the Lord’s spirit will carry you away so I can’t find you.”

In other words he seems to be saying, “You’re so holy that the Lord is constantly whisking you from place to place. You tell me to have Ahab come to meet you, but as sure as he comes you will have vanished again and Ahab will have my head! No way man!”

Elijah has to promise Obadiah that he won’t be whisked away by the Spirit: “As certainly as the Lord who rules over all lives (whom I serve), I will make an appearance before him today.” Only then will Obadiah go and fetch Ahab.

Later in the chapter is the famous scene where Elijah challenges the prophets of Baal and Asherah to make a burnt offering to their god without using fire. So all the false-god prophets go into their invocation rituals, shouting and mutilating themselves into a frenzy, but no fire appears to consume their bull. Elijah sits there amused: “Yell louder! After all, he is a god; he may be deep in thought, or perhaps he stepped out for a moment or has taken a trip. Perhaps he is sleeping and needs to be awakened.”

My son tells me he learned in school that the Hebrew for “stepped out” actually means “turned aside”, which apparently was an idiom for going to the bathroom.

Pretty neat to think of this ancient writer injecting a bit of humor into the story that’s still enjoyed thousands of years later. Or maybe that’s just the way it happened.

God’s helpers: The dignity of causality

‘One is said to be helped by another in two ways; in one way, inasmuch as he receives power from him: and to be helped thus belongs to the weak; but this cannot be said of God, and thus we are to understand, “Who hath helped the Spirit of the Lord?” In another way one is said to be helped by a person through whom he carries out his work, as a master through a servant. In this way God is helped by us; inasmuch as we execute His orders, according to 1 Corinthians 3:9: “We are God’s co-adjutors.” Nor is this on account of any defect in the power of God, but because He employs intermediary causes, in order that the beauty of order may be preserved in the universe; and also that He may communicate to creatures the dignity of causality.’

Summa Theologica, I.I., Q. 23, Art. 8.

Why did the early Christians adopt metaphysical explanations for their beliefs?

“The early Christians didn’t adopt metaphysical explanations of their beliefs because it was stylish to do so. They weren’t trying to fit in among pagan intellectuals or make themselves popular with their persecutors and former persecutors. Contrary to what some Mormons think, neither is there any evidence of a cabal working to destroy God’s work and using Greek philosophy to do so. Instead, early Christian leaders were, first of all, responding to the real issues that confronted the Christian community as it was attacked from outside and as it encountered heresies within, heresies created or at least underscored as theological arguments and requiring response.

“Whatever the problems of metaphysics, apology is an unavoidable Christian activity, and apology often requires metaphysics. Perhaps eventually it always does. If you’re going to do apology, then you’re going to do theology, and unless you practice your religion in a vacuum, you’re eventually going to do apology of some kind. Q.E.D. for theology.

“Presumably, just as we sometimes run up against questions for which we feel an acute need for rational answers, early Christians were also, secondarily, responding to questions that arose in their minds as they thought about their religious lives. Apart from the challenges to religion made by skeptics of one sort or another — believers or not — genuine intellectual challenges arise as we think about our life before God. In a culture with a history such as that of the West, those challenges push us to demand answers that accord with reason. Unavoidably those answers will eventually be metaphysical / theological. Q.E.D. again.

* * *

“James Faulconer is a Richard L. Evans Professor of Religious Understanding at Brigham Young University, where he has taught philosophy since 1975.”

James Faulconer, “Just say . . . whatever!”, Speaking Silence blog (on patheos.com), December 9, 2010.

To create anything out of nothing, an infinite power is required

Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange writes,

“[T]he only way a finite cause can produce its effect is by transforming an already existing object capable of such transformation. Thus a sculptor, in order to carve his statue, requires a material; so also a teacher gradually forms the intelligence of his pupil, but he did not give him intelligence.

“The greater the poverty of the object to be transformed, the greater must be the wealth and fecundity of the transforming active power.”  [1]

But what if the poverty of the thing is so extreme that it lacks even existence?  What then must be the wealth and fecundity of the transforming active power?

St. Thomas says,

“[I]f a greater power is required in the agent in proportion to the distance of the potentiality from the act, it follows that the power of that which produces something from no presupposed potentiality is infinite, because there is no proportion between ‘no potentiality’ and the potentiality presupposed by the power of a natural agent, as there is no proportion between ‘not being’ and ‘being.’”  [2]

The counterpart, if you will, of a strong thing is a weak thing; and the weaker the thing, the stronger needs to be the agent that can transform it into the thing desired.  Thus, there is a proportion between the weakness of the thing and the strength of the transforming agent.

But what proportion can there be between a transforming agent and nothing?  There can be none.  Being and non-being are entirely disproportionate.  You can’t say how much strength corresponds to the weakness of nothing, because the weakness of nothing is absolute.  The strength of its counterpart, therefore, must also be absolute, or in other words infinite.  Thus, the power needed to make something out of nothing, is infinite power.

“Not only was it impossible for even the most exalted angel to create the physical universe, but he cannot create so much as a speck of dust; and it will ever be so. To create anything out of nothing—that is, without any pre-existing subject whatever—an infinite power is required.”  [1]

[1] Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, Providence (1932), Part II, Chapter 8.

[2]  Summa Theologica I.I., Q. 45, A. 5.

Religious oppression in America

“Constantine’s policies towards paganism were, as noted above, relatively mild. The main pagan practice he forbade was animal sacrifice, which is illegal even in hypertolerant twenty-first-century America.”

Peter J. Leithart, Defending Constantine, The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christendom (Downers Grove:IVP Academic, 2010), p. 141.

Though for entirely different reasons.

Who can speak of his own humility without losing it?

“And lastly, with regard to the faithful, He says: ‘Learn of Me, because I am meek, and humble of heart; and you shall find rest to your souls’ (Matt. 11: 29). Such is this simplicity of His that He alone can speak of His own humility without losing it.”

Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P., Providence (1932), Part II, Section 7.

When I read this it hit me hard: Jesus alone can speak of his own humility without losing it. I’m sure others have noticed this, and I may even have read it before. But things don’t always strike us at one time as they might at another. In any event, how true, and how amazing: Who else can pull off saying, “Learn of me, for I am humble”, and not come across as arrogant and conceited?

What gravity comes through in the scriptures when Christ is portrayed. How much more in person? Is it any wonder that people, upon hearing him speak, were often converted on the spot?

The Mass in literature, part 2

(Part 1 was a quote in this post from W. Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge.)

The dawn of Sunday did not break at all. The fog that had formed in the night only became a little lighter and more visible as it moved in quiet swathes along the quays, sometimes making silent whirlpools at the street corners, where it met a current of air. The slight increase in light was not enough to wake Dr. Maturin, however, and the two nurses with whom he had contracted to go to early Mass were obliged to beat on his door to rouse him.

He hurried into his clothes, but even so the priest was on the altar by the time they reached the obscure chapel in the side-alley, and crept into the immensely evocative smell of old incense. There followed an interval on a completely different plane of being: with the familiar ancient words around him, always the same, in whatever country he had ever been (though now uttered in a broad Munster Latin), he lived free of time or geography, and he might have walked out, a boy, into the streets of Barcelona, blazing white in the sun, or into those of Dublin under the soft rain. He prayed, as he had prayed for so long, for Diana, but even before the priest dismissed them, the changed nature of his inner words brought him back to the immediate present and to Boston, and if he had been a weeping man it would have brought the tears coursing down his face.

Patrick O’Brian, The Fortune of War, New York:W.W. Norton, 1991 (originally published 1979), pp. 256-257.

An innumerable multitude of good things can’t equal good itself

Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange offers the following as part of an argument for God’s existence:

There is, then, a purpose in our natural desire for happiness; its inclination is for some good. But is this inclination for a good that is wholly unreal, or, though real, yet unattainable?

* * *

It will perhaps be said that our universal idea of good leads us to seek happiness in the simultaneous or successive enjoyment of all those finite goods that have an attraction for us, such as health and bodily pleasures, riches and honors, the delight in scientific knowledge, art and friendship. …

But experience and reason undeceive us. That empty void in the heart always remains, making itself felt in weariness of spirit; and intelligence tells us that not even the simultaneous possession of all these goods, finite and imperfect as they are, can constitute the good itself which is conceived and desired by us, any more than an innumerable multitude of idiots can equal a man of genius.

… Even if the whole sum of created goods were multiplied to infinity they would not constitute that pure and perfect good which the intellect conceives and the will desires. …

If therefore this natural desire for happiness cannot be ineffective, if it cannot find its satisfaction in any finite goods or in the sum total of them, we are necessarily compelled to affirm the existence of a pure and perfect good. That is, the good itself or the sovereign good, which alone is capable of responding to our aspirations. Otherwise the universal range of our will would be a psychological absurdity, something radically unintelligible and without a purpose.

Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P., Providence (1932), Part I, Section 4.