Thursday, May 19, 2011

Knowledge of God and Holiness (Part 1)

A few weeks ago, I was conversing with Jeremy about the relationship between one's personal piety and their ability to engage in the theological task. Since college, I have often wondered about the connection between the words and deeds of the individual and the ability to think properly about any given subject (I blame this on reading Paul Johnson's Intellectuals in college). My intention is not to put forth one giant ad hominem against any particular philosopher or theologian. Rather, I genuinely wonder if anyone, especially myself, can possess the ability to think properly and rightly about an object of inquiry if these same persons are engaged in habitual and intentional immoral behavior. Let's break it down: can you have repeated affairs on your spouse and do theology? What bearing does your affair have upon your cognitive faculties and your ability to understand the object of theology, Jesus Christ?

If there is no connection whatsoever between proper knowledge of God and personal behavior, what keeps the theologian from engaging in any type of corrupt behavior that shares no identity with the message of the Gospel? And if there is a connection between proper knowledge of God and personal behavior, what hope is there for any creature? Romans 3:23 never seems to go away, no matter how much you try to forget it.

Throughout the past few weeks, in between watching more episodes of The Wire than I'd care to admit, I have been reading T.F. Torrance. In an earlier post, I mentioned that I have been reading The Mediation of Christ. The following excerpt verbalized nearly everything that I have wondered and considered concerning the connection between knowledge and behavior for the task of theology (though Torrance notes that some argue for the necessary connection in all disciplines). It is quite powerful:
"All genuine knowledge involves a cognitive union of the mind with its object, and calls for the removal of any estrangement or alienation that may obstruct or distort it. This is a principle that applies to all spheres of knowledge, and not simply to our knowledge of God. I have sometimes argued that a person can be a good scientist or mathematician without being morally upright. All of us, I suppose, are aware of scientists or mathematicians who are not morally good people, and perhaps of some who are quite immoral or depraved. A number of years ago, when I ventured to say to a group of scientists, mathematicians and theologians that while an immoral person could be a good mathematician he could not be a good theologian, an eminent mathematician, Professor Gonseth, objected. He insisted that a good mathematician had to be dedicated to integrity and rigour which could not but affect his whole character. In fact he claimed that mathematics induces what he called 'a sanctity of mind'. That was certainly true in his case, and in the case of many others to whom we might refer, not to speak of outstanding people like Pascal, Clerk Maxwell, or Einstein.

Nevertheless, it is largely true that mathematics, where we are concerned with impersonal or abstract truth, our personal being is relatively unaffected. That is not the case in our relations with other persons which are mutually modifying. In fact we are not really able to know other people except in so far as we enter into reciprocal relations with them through which we ourselves are affected, that is, in friendship. If it is a fundamental principle that we may know something only in accordance with its nature, then we may know it only as we allow its nature to prescribe to us the mode of knowing appropriate to it and to determine or us the way in which we must consciously behave toward it. Personal beings require from us, therefore, personal modes of knowledge and behaviour, that is, the kind of knowledge that comes through a rapproachement or communication of minds characterised by mutual respect, trust and love. It cannot be otherwise with our knowledge of God. If we are really to know God in accordance with his nature as he discloses himself to us, we require to be adapted in our knowing and personal relations toward him - that is why we cannot know God without love, and if we are estranged without being reconciled to him. Knowing God requires cognitive union with him in which our whole being is affected by his love and holiness. It is the pure in heart who see God.

That God may be known only in a godly way, in accordance with his nature as God, is an emphasis that one finds in whole areas of Christian theology, especially in ancient times. I have in mind what is sometimes called the tradition of ascetic theology in the patristic period, where stress was laid upon the need for askesis or spiritual discipline in mind and life promoting a way of understanding of God that is worthy of him. To know God and be holy, to know God and worship, to know God and be cleansed in mind and soul from anything that may come between people and God, to know God and be committed to him in consecration, love and obedience, go inseparably together. That is to say, ascetic theology sought to put into serious effect the fact that the knowledge and vision of God involve cognitive union with him in accordance with his nature as holy love, in which reconciliation and communion with God through Christ and under the purifying impact of the Holy Spirit are progressively actualised in the renewal and transformation of human patterns of life and thought. The closer people draw near to God, the more integrated their spiritual and physical existence becomes, and the more integrated their spiritual and physical existence becomes, the closer they may draw near to God in mind and being in ways that are worthy of him."

- T.F. Torrance, The Mediation of Christ, 34-36.

This leaves me with a few thoughts:

1. If Barth is correct and revelation is the reconciling event of the personal encounter with the Triune God, what necessary consequences should the Church expect in terms of one's behavior and morality? To be clear, I am not arguing that the subjective aspects of one's response to the Gospel or any other subjective element within the person should determine the objective reality of their election in Christ. I don't think I have to explain how dangerous it can be to allow this to happen and to let the noetic factors determine the ontic reality of election in Jesus Christ.

2. What hope is there for anyone, especially myself, if there is such a necessary connection between knowledge of God and morality (i.e. sanctification)? There is no degree of false humility when I confess that sometimes I feel like the chief of sinners. How can anyone faithfully witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ unless they truly know and encounter the object of faith in Jesus Christ? And how can anyone confess that they have truly known and encountered Jesus Christ if their lives are marked by any degree of sin, rebellion, corruption, and intentional depravity?

Stay tuned . . .


Jordan H. said...

Torrance has been particularly influenced by the patristics in this regard... In "The Trinitarian Faith" he devotes a great deal of attention to the relationship between godliness and the knowledge of God in the writings of the Church Fathers. I believe that he has an essay to this effect as well.

Anonymous said...

Seems like Torrance (you?) are going to run into the practical problem that many of our great theologians lived morally bankrupt lives, at least in one area or another (sexual ethics seems to be a special weakness for the Doctors of the Church). So what do you do with Barth and Charlotte, whose relationship I find repugnant at best, despite the protestations of Dr Hunsinger? Abelard impregnating his young student? Augustine's abandonment of his son's mother? Yoder's dalliances? King David the husband-killer?

Kait Dugan said...

Melissa - I know what you are saying and I understand that this post sets such a high precedent that one must shy away from nearly every theologian of the past once their demons are revealed. But isn't there a way of recognizing their severe moral failures while still offering a listening ear? Must listening to the voices of the past mean that we surrender discernment and moral conclusions when evaluating their lives? Some sort of dialectic must be present. I don't have it figured out, but the practical problem should not diminish the importance for the necessity of holiness in relation to the theological task.

Also, can you elaborate on your statement "repugnant at best" in relation to Barth and Charlotte? I have my own feelings about the issue, but I'm really interested to hear your thoughts.

Anonymous said...

wow, n look at the knowers today the media moguls with credit for generations to come imprinting pseudo realities for an extremely malnourished humanity.

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