Tag Archives: development

10 May: What is theology saying? V: Development of doctrine is a work in process

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Life is always in process, and all possible developments cannot be foreseen; there is a time-lag between the first experience of a new way and the discussions of theologians, and then the new way of formulating a doctrine. This means that the practice of the faithful will be in place before official pronouncements; which means that even when the pronouncements are made, life will again have moved beyond that point and the theologians will be trying to follow life.

However, some seem to think that the developments that happened in the past completed everything, save a few minor points. Before Vatican II this was a widely accepted view; but anyone who has taken care to read the documents of Vatican II will see how development of doctrine is very much a work in process; with any issue being revisited for further discussion. As regards the past we can judge what in fact true development was. For the present and the future we must live with risk, not having access to absolute certainty. This means remaining open to truth, no matter from whom or from what it may come. Just another way of saying – we live by faith and not by sight.

Life and growth of the Church, including the development of her teaching, cannot be without conflict; sometimes conflict is painful, but need not involve bitterness or hostility – exclusions and condemnations are not necessary. Those who have most furthered the doctrine of the Church have usually been persons who acted discreetly and patiently, without fearing the truth of their own experience, insight and learning.

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9 May: What is Theology Saying? IV: Every believer has a part to play.

According to the ordinary knowledge of the universe current at the time, it could not have occurred to the theologians or Church authority that when Genesis speaks of the six days of creation, and itemises what happened on each day, that this was poetic rather than literal. Today, the increasing knowledge of the universe, along with the rapidly accumulating evidence for the unified and organic evolution of the universe and all things in it, caused many to say that the traditional way doctrine was taught no longer makes sense. The Church while not denying doctrine, reformulated it radically, so that believers could take it seriously. Today people are more comfortable with an account of creation that has incorporated all we currently know of evolution. Thirty or forty years ago many were still worried, and fifty years ago almost all Catholics believed evolution contradicted faith.

Theological development: every believer has a part to play, but not all are properly equipped to do so. When the faithful say that existing explanations do not make sense any more, it is a wake-up call to theologians that it is time to reconsider why these formulations were made in the first place, what was the important message and the historical circumstances leading to such a formulation. Having made this study, theologians then attempt to reformulate doctrine in a way faithful to the Christian message, but which is also up to date for contemporary believers. Not an easy task! They try to do it in different ways, according to what their people share with them. The way theologians think in Italy and Spain will differ from those in Central Europe, for example.

Dogmatic development: because the experience of various kinds of believers is so different, there are often clashes between different schools of theology – sooner or later, because of differences, they will ask the teaching authority of the Church to intervene with an official version. There are usually many ways of expressing the truth; there has never really been only one correct way of doing it. The teaching authority of the Church has no hot line as to which is the better way. Even when infallibility is invoked by the Holy See or a General Council it does not mean that this statement was made on the basis of a new revelation. It means that it claims to be the authentic interpretation of what the faith of the people as a whole has always explicitly been or implied.

Such statements tend to be conservative, because that is their purpose. This does not mean there has been no dogmatic development. It takes third place because there cannot be a judgement on something until it has been discussed [the role of theology], and cannot be discussed until human experience has given rise to the query [the role of all faithful]. Some feel guilty when thinking differently from official pronouncements. They should respectfully and responsibly express this mismatch, because this is how development of doctrine has always taken place, and must continue to do so.

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8 May: What is Theology saying? III: A new way of being human

The Church teaches the same doctrine, but continues to make explicit what is implicit. An example: Peter preached God raised Jesus from the dead. What is implicit is that Jesus died, which the Creed makes explicit: was crucified, died and was buried…

However, Rahner insists there has been much development of doctrine that cannot be explained only by showing what was contained in words of previous formulations. What is handed down in the Christian tradition is much more than words; it is a new way of being human. The more we live it, the more we understand and try to express in words what is involved. Doctrine helps not only when we study words already written, but in trying to reflect on further implications through reflecting on the daily experiences of living this new way.

An example: the love between man and woman, parent and child. Certainly poetry and art forms have helped us see this wonderful gift in deeper ways, as indeed has scientific research. But common sense tells us the most realistic way to know is to experience it. The written word can only tell us about it. Experience lets us know it ever more deeply. The Church has developed a theology of prayer – but this is valuable, not because of study, argument or research, but through the real presence of praying people. When the disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray – the way they had seen him at prayer – he simply sat down within who he was, the beloved of Abba, and let this wash over and through him, and produce its own response.

Newman and Rahner, among others, tell us that from the apostolic times through till now there have been three necessary elements for the development of doctrine: all the faithful, trying to live the Gospel – theologians trying to make this understandable – Church authority intervening occasionally to select an official explanation. Notice the right ordering of these three. Doctrine develops first at the level of ordinary human experience. Each generation has its own catechesis of the faith they cherish. This stage is obviously influenced by the contemporary understanding of the universe, of humankind, social relationships within time and space as then understood.

As new things are learned and uncovered about all of these, there is the ongoing need for renewal and review, realising from time to time that there is something in the current formulation of faith that doesn’t seem to fit, in terms of their experience of life. All through the ages this has been voiced, and it is this that has provided the agenda for theological research. Take for example the way Genesis says in the beginning – speaking as if God physically shaped clay with his hands, and spoke the words. The Church was already aware that God doesn’t have hands or voice, and that this Genesis account is poetic not intended to be taken literally.

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7 May: What is theology saying today? II: Earthquakes and thunderbolts.

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Before we understood what caused thunder, and earthquakes we were inclined to see God’s presence – as if God in anger sent thunderbolts; and could switch-on rain or sunshine. To understand the laws governing atmospheric conditions does not mean losing faith in God’s providence, but needs to express it differently. Just so, a more traditional believer might think we are becoming godless because we no longer make the sign of the cross when there is lightning, or say god-willing when speaking of future plans. In fact there might well be truer understanding and greater faith than before.

Newman’s criteria, discussed yesterday, are difficult to apply, but others have worked on them since he wrote. He, himself, showed insight gleaned from his own knowledge of the history of ideas within Christianity – pointing out that in the past, at the time of the great heresies, faith always emerged again from deep within the heart of the Christian community, who were not acquainted with theological subtleties.

Karl Rahner, an Austrian Jesuit, began with the fact that we know now what it was in the past that led to present orthodox teaching of the Church. Whatever development was needed to bring us to where we are now, is a lawful development and very likely to be necessary again. He takes the development of doctrine we can see within the New Testament as the model of what development of doctrine should be; because the New Testament is given to us to show what Christian life is and should be. The development is more than a question of logic; the Church teaches the same doctrine, but continues to make explicit what is implicit.

An example: Peter preached God raised Jesus from the dead. What is implicit is that Jesus died, which the Creed makes explicit: was crucified, died and was buried…

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