Tag Archives: question

14 June. What do the Saints know? V: Faith and Simplicity

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We are reflecting on the kind of knowledge that the saints have and we are looking at the theological virtue of faith. It seems to me that there is a wonderful simplicity about the quality of ‘knowing’ that goes with faith. St. Thomas Aquinas tells us that God is simple: God is, he says, and “faith grasps that in a simple act” (II.II Q 1:2). Faith has content, then, and that content is God Himself.

Faith is not wishful thinking. It circumscribes and protects a relationship with God. That is what it contains. Once this content has been grasped in what Thomas calls a ‘simple act’ we also find, he says, that faith does involve knowing on a more ordinary level. Faith inspires us to learn about God and his life, to discover what He has revealed, to learn about the articles of belief, and so on. And, this kind of inquiry gives joy, I find. And increases love. Here it becomes possible to see the interconnection of theological virtues. Love of God is increased through the kinds of study that are an expression of faith.

Thomas goes on: it follows that, “…it is proper to the believer to think with assent.” Let’s pause here. It is proper to the believer to think with assent. This is not the way we learned to think in school. Ordinarily, thought means taking a stance not of assent but of disagreement. It goes something like this: ‘Why should I believe that any given statement is true? Chances are, you are trying to get something out of me that is not in my best interests to give.’ Now that may well be true, and faith does not mean that we abandon all capacity for critical distance in relation to the outside world. But faith is not really a dialogue with the outside world per se. It is a dialogue with God. Therefore, a different kind of thought process goes with it.

St. Thomas explains: “The act of believing is distinguished from all the other acts of the intellect, which are about determining the true and the false. In faith, [by contrast] we accept that what God has revealed is true” (II.II Q 2: 1). Why? Because God is Truth. It is simply not necessary to doubt this. On the contrary, faith calls us to absorb God’s truth more and more fully.

SJC

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13 June. What do the Saints Know? IV: How do we Cultivate our Faith?

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How do we cultivate our faith? If faith is a ‘place’, as I asserted yesterday – my word and not St Thomas’s – then we need to discover where we are. It is not a place on a map. So, and this is St. Thomas now, faith is cultivated (the ‘place’ comes to be understood) through questions, says Thomas. Faith, he says, “involves the intellect in a kind of inquiry.” What kind? Not the kind demanding empirical evidence (cf. II.II.1,5). Nor, when we inquire about the object of faith are we setting ourselves up as judges of the object of belief. If so, then this is not the kind of inquiry that is an expression of faith. It is merely a pitiful attempt to out-smart God. Thomas says that the kind of inquiry that goes with faith is that which attempts to “grasp with greater understanding what God has revealed and how he has confirmed it.” Faith, then, concerns not a vacuum in our knowledge; indeed, it concerns something that already exists, something that God has revealed, something that we therefore already ‘know’ – even if we only know it obliquely.

For me, this teaching from St. Thomas helps to dispel that temptation to think that we have to have faith because we can’t know God. At all. Faith, in that case, becomes something that merely tries to plug up the vacuum, a vacuum that we might not like to acknowledge is there in the first place.

What do we know, then? What can we say about faith? St. Thomas asserts: we can say that we know about eternal life. Or at least, we know it a little. This is how he puts it: “Faith is a habit of the mind, whereby eternal life is begun in us, making the intellect assent to what is non-apparent (II.II.4:1). The little words ‘in us’ are so important, I think. They tell us that we are ‘in touch with’ eternal life. And, so eternal life is not ‘out there’ beyond our reach. It’s not in an unbearably dull theological book. It’s not across the sea. We ‘have it’ in us. Going back to the image of the vacuum, well, we simply don’t have one, because through faith eternal life is begun in us.

This word ‘begun’ is important. Faith is not about the completion of the knowledge of God – if there even is such a thing. Which I doubt. Faith is about something that exists as a beginning – a beginning of something beautiful. This is something we ‘know’, but in a different way, on a different level from what we usually say we ‘know.’

Now, I can live with that understanding of faith pretty happily. It will probably not convince a hardened sceptic, but it does help to make my act of faith intelligible to me. If faith starts with ‘a divine infusion’ then it starts with mystery. This coexistence of real knowledge with mystery is not something to dismiss but to validate, and St Thomas does. In his teaching, faith is a real connection with eternal life, not in its fullness, but in its beginnings; not in clarity, but in mystery; not in fantasy, but in reality.

SJC.

Cultivating or Ploughing near Beachy Head, Sussex.

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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.

AMcC

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3 March. Little Flowers of Saint Francis, XV: Francis the Peacemaker

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Now as they went along this way, Brother Masseo marvelled within himself, wherefore Saint Francis had made him do as do the children, before the worldly folk that passed that way: howbeit for reverence sake he dared say naught to the holy father.

As they drew nigh unto Sienna, the people of the city heard of the coming of the saint and hied them out to meet him ; and of their devotion bore him and his companion right to the bishop’s house, in such wise that they touched not the ground at all with their feet.

Now at that same hour certain folk of Sienna were at strife with one another, and already two of them lay dead. Saint Francis having won there preached to them in so devout and saintly a fashion, that he brought them one and all to peace and close unity and concord together. For the which cause the bishop of Sienna, hearing of the holy work that Saint Francis had wrought, bade him to his house and received him with high honour that day, and eke the night.

And the next morn Saint Francis, who with true humility sought naught in all his works save only the glory of God, rose up betimes with his companion, and without the bishop’s knowledge was away. Whereat the said Brother Masseo went by the way murmuring within himself.

 

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December 16. Zechariah: an Unlikely Advent Star: IV.

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Your son will be your joy and delight and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord; he must drink no wine, no strong drink; even from his mother’s womb he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, and he will bring back many of the Israelites to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him to reconcile fathers to their children and the disobedient to the good sense of the upright, preparing for the Lord a people fit for him (1:14-17).

Zechariah and Elizabeth had longed for a child. A child will be born to them, says the angel, but such a child as they could not possibly have imagined. The angel declares that their son will be “great in the sight of the Lord… in the spirit and power of Elijah. Their son will have a mission for all Israel: to bring them back to their God, to prepare for the Lord a people fit for him (cf. 1: 12-17).

This angelic utterance is really a rather long one, containing information that can only have been completely mind-boggling for Zechariah. Perhaps readers of this post have heard this story many times, and through familiarity have lost the sense of its being beyond fathoming – this prophecy from the mouth of a powerful and numinous being. Certainly for Zechariah, it is all too big to absorb. At first he is silent while the angel delivers his astonishing message.

When Zechariah does find power of speech, he comes out with the words that have earned him such criticism through the centuries: “How can I know this? I am an old man and my wife is getting on in years” (1:18). I rather doubt I’d have performed any better than Zechariah, and would probably have done far worse, but note well: this was an angel, after all, and angels generally know what they are talking about. Zechariah, however, seems to think that the angel might not realise how old he and his wife are. Even with my bias in favour of Zechariah, I must confess that I can’t help smiling here. It is almost as though he is asking the angel to check his divine instructions and make sure he has not come to the wrong temple and spoken to the wrong man.

So, what do we see here? Zechariah blurts out a question that is pretty daft in the circumstances. But is he really so bad after all? His question shows at least that he is a stable character, not easily diverted from the path of righteousness. And it has already been established that Zechariah is a good and upright man in the sight of God. He is not someone to curry the favour of men (or angels), or to give his consent, even to an angel, without deep conviction of heart. He is a man of depth. He wants to understand what is happening, but he is out of his depth now. He is used to having his prayer unanswered, we know. But he is not used to that same prayer now being answered.

SJC

John baptising Jesus – Zakopane Basilica of the Holy Family, Poland.

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November 21: Jesus Beyond Dogma II: xxi – ‘Challenged to respond unconditionally’.

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NASA

Faith has more to do with getting the right question, not necessarily the right answer. Nature has its own unique way of asking questions. Everything from galaxies to people is gifted in love. This is so because the relating in everything is attracted by goodness. God is unconditional love; don’t waste time trying to persuade God to love – we have always been loved. We tend to seek and offer love with conditions attached – so that unconditional love is unknown territory for us. Jesus is God’s Word that we are loved unconditionally. If I am loved unconditionally, I am being gently challenged to respond unconditionally.

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This was a step too far for the rich young man who went away – sad! This is not a request [command] from God that we must respond in the same way – what matters is that we love whatever unconditionally; there is no real experience of love where there are conditions. Loving God means being one with God in loving without conditions – notice loving, not necessarily loving God. The only way we can co-create our world is by becoming unconditional lovers.

Love changes everything – says the song [Les Miserables]. The major change is that where there is unconditional love there can be no hierarchical living, so we are now living by mutually empowering partnership. Co-dependency based on child/parent modelling has no place where adults relate inter-dependently. See the flowers of the field, the birds in the sky, they trust unconditionally so why can’t I? Love is not something to be performed, love is the unconditional response to unconditional gift.

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November 6, Jesus Beyond Dogma II: vi – ‘How would he tell his own story? ‘

 

Is there a place for Jesus in today’s world? Has Evolution side-lined Christian belief? Certainly questions like these are not readily answered in terms of traditional theology. There isn’t an obvious fit between the conventional understanding of faith and the unfolding reality of the world. It might be preferable to be content with asking the questions rather than trying to provide answers!

It is clear that such questions are being asked more and more today and it is not clear whether conceptual answers are available. The questioners seem to be from a group familiar with the Christian story, but suspicious of the ways the churches tell it, or live it in a challenging way.

Scholars tend to say the Jesus story is for students and researchers of the Bible to elaborate. Jesus belongs to anyone struggling with faith – and how to live it truthfully. There is no doubt that Jesus remains a fascinating figure for many; and it is clear that many who would call themselves agnostic or even atheist actually live by values closer to the Gospel than do many Church-goers.

There’s obviously something bigger about Jesus than what is contained in doctrinal teaching. He appeals to the imagination in ways that make official teaching about him seem very bland. What is the reality of Jesus beyond dogma? He was very imaginative, to a degree more suited to story than to doctrine. How would he tell his own story?

There never has been a time when God was not fully involved with Creation. The Book of Genesis states that God takes great pleasure in the creative process – and God saw that it was very good – everything is good because it is of God, good only comes from goodness. With evolution the time came for the break away from our primate ancestors, when God adds a new dimension with the arrival of the human.

Strictly speaking this is when the Incarnation actually began – the Incarnation means God identifying with the human species. God, who created the human six million years ago did not say I’ll wait millions of years until Jesus comes before declaring salvation. Yet this has been basic to Christian faith for 2,000 years.

AMcC

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Prayers Please!

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Caernarfon in David’s corner of Wales.

Dear Friends,

Please pray for David Powell, our contributor DBP, who is gravely ill.

It was David who invented the Ossyrians for Agnellus Mirror– aliens who disguised themselves as T, a male human and two male chihuahuas, Alfie and Ajax, when they were sent to earth as, in David’s words: ‘a special observation unit established to closely watch the earth and its strange inhabitants.’ 1

Of course they have been learning lessons in life ever since they pitched up in Margate. An inspired vehicle for reflection on all manner of things. Thank you David!

MMB

1See April 26 2016, ‘Peace on Earth I’ and subsequent posts by various writers.

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An Invitation.

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Kent’s answer to California: Margate, looking across to T’s apartment.

Dear Friends,

I had a message from our contributor Doug Woelke in California, inviting all Agnellus readers to join in the on-line summer school course organised by RCIA in his Mission.

It certainly looks worthwhile! Doug writes:

If you could be so kind and visit the web site, click on the Summer Bible Study Tab, and take a look around.  Although I have a schedule for the course, the timeline is more for me to meet than for participants to adhere to…the beauty of an online study is that folks can opt in at their leisure. click on the Summer Bible Study Tab, and take a look around. 

You can visit the website here: www.missionbiblestudy.com I have copied the course syllabus below; as Doug says, you can take your time to get the taste of what the Scripture is about by concentrating on small extracts. I urge you to take a closer look.

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Creation – Course Syllabus

  • At the start of each session, you will be given a few short questions or ideas to consider when reading, pondering, and studying the source reading for each weekly session.
  • TAKE YOUR TIME…you have all week to read and reread the references…ponder, meditate, and pray on the readings.

Course Outline

Week 1 (11 – 17 June 2017) Introduction to the Creation of the World (Gen 1:1-2:3)
Week 2 (18 – 24 June 2017) Creation:  Day One  (Gen 1:1-5)
Week 3 (25 June – 1 July 2017) Creation:  Day Two (Gen 1:6-8)

02-08 July 2017 – No Session (Holiday Week)

Week 4 (09 – 15 July 2017)  Creation:  Day Three (Gen 1:9-13)
Week 5 (16 – 22 July 2017)  Creation:  Day Four (Gen 1:14-19)
Week 6 (23 – 29 July 2017)  Creation:  Day Five (Gen 1:20-23)
Week 7 (30 July – 05 August 2015)  Creation:  Day Six (Gen 1:24-31)
Week 8 ( 06 – 12 August 2017) Creation:  Day Seven (Gen 2:1-3)
Week 9 (13 – 19 August 2017)  Review of the Creation Story (Gen 1:1-2:3)

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Doug sent this picture of the Holy Door at his church, the Mission of San Luis Rey. The door is open, you are welcome to enter!

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June 6. Justice II: Justice and Prudence Work Together

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Following the herd

 

When we consider the virtue of justice, we first find that it is intimately linked to prudence. Josef Pieper again says: ‘justice is based solely upon the recognition of reality achieved by prudence.’ No prudence, no justice, he seems to be saying. Why is that? Surely, an imprudent person cannot be all bad. Even someone with a limited capacity for making prudent decisions would not wish to be unjust, we might argue. But, sadly, the wish to be just is not the same thing as the capacity to be just.

What is justice? The Catechism of the Catholic Church gives us a wonderful definition:

Justice is the moral virtue that consists in the constant and firm will to give their due to God and neighbour. Justice toward God is called the ‘virtue of religion.’ Justice toward men disposes one to respect the rights of each and to establish in human relationships the harmony that promotes equity with regard to persons and to the common good. The just man, often mentioned in the Sacred Scriptures, is distinguished by habitual right thinking and the uprightness of his conduct toward his neighbour (no. 1807; also see nos. 2095 and 2401).

Justice is not about merely wanting to be just. Justice, like prudence, requires ‘habitual right thinking.’ The word habitual is the operative one, I think. Once in a while isn’t good enough. Life is too complex, and if we just drift along like an animal in a herd most of the time, without actively questioning our culture’s half-truths and exercising our powers of insight, we will not develop the ability to evaluate situations truly, nor will we recognise what our obligations are in the situations life throws at us. Nor, for that matter, will we respond generously if, by chance, we happen to notice that something is required of us.

SJC

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