It is easy to get religion, something else to hold on to it. It’s like dieting—many find it easy to take off weight, but quite another matter to keep it off. Religion, however, unlike dieting, is not a solitary business. Unless one is an unchastened Jamesian, religion is communal, and for religious men and women, the challenge is not only to keep the faith for ourselves but also to hand it on to the next generation. Only with difficulty and imagination can we transmit our experiences to those after us who feel, think, and act differently than we do. For the task of handing on the faith, the warm heart is insufficient, as the parent who is “born again” or “converted” soon realizes when facing the task of religious instruction.
To be sure, without affections there can be no religious life, as we learn from thinkers as diverse as Augustine of Hippo, Maximus the Confessor, and Jonathan Edwards. Affective language permeates the Bible, as Edwards wrote: “The Holy Scriptures do everywhere place religion very much in the affections; such as fear, hope, love, hatred, desire, joy, sorrow, gratitude, compassion, and zeal.” With the development of the early Christian community, the vocabulary of the spiritual life expanded so that words such as “love,” “desire,” and “longing,” became as familiar as faith, obedience, and knowledge. The rich imagery of the Bible—e.g. Psalms 42, “As the deer longs for flowing streams, so longs my soul for you, O God”—was complemented by the passionate yearnings of the saints—e.g., Augustine, “My love of you, O Lord, is not some vague feeling: it is positive and certain. Your word struck into my heart and from that moment I loved you.”
Though there can be no faith without the affections, in a culture steeped in the jargon of psychology the subtle role of the affections in Christian life is too readily supplanted by a shriveled and subjective notion of faith. Indeed, so often is the term faith used to refer solely to the act of believing that in popular speech the object of faith seems irrelevant, as though it is the believing that counts, not what one believes. Faith, in this view, is self-legitimizing, impervious to examination, correction, or argument, and has its home in the private imaginings of the believer or in the sheltered world of religious communities. In the same way, the term “value” is used without reference to the good, as though all values are of equal worth and equal validity.
It is quite possible, however, as our daily experience teaches, to put faith in things that are illusory or false. Faith is only as good as its object; if the object of our faith is trustworthy, then it is reasonable to put our trust in it. If not, then it does not deserve our trust. Credulity is no virtue. A necessary component of faith is reason. The phrase “reasonable faith” was first used in the fourth century by Hilary of Poitiers, sometimes called the Latin Athanasius because of his fine book on the Trinity. In his view, “Faith is akin to reason and accepts its aid.” When the mind lays hold of God in faith it knows that it can “rest with assurance, as on some peaceful watch-tower.” No leap of faith into the unknown for Hilary. In his view, as in the view of all early Christian thinkers, faith was not a subjective attitude or feeling, but a reasoned conviction. Whether speaking about faith in human beings or belief in God, the church fathers knew that faith cannot be self-authenticating, and that to believe in something false or ignoble is not admirable, but foolish, like trusting a person who is an incorrigible liar.
Even a cursory study of the history of Christian thought will show that the charge of fideism caricatures the Christian intellectual tradition. Yet this caricature has become part of the way we tell the story of Western culture. From Edward Gibbon in the eighteenth century through classical scholars in the nineteenth century to historians of the present, Christianity has been charged with substituting authority and uncritical faith for reason, philosophy, and science. “Truth was finally made hopeless,” wrote Gilbert Murray, a classical scholar early in this century, “when the world, mistrusting Reason, wary of argument and wonder, flung itself passionately under the spell of a system of authoritative Revelation, which acknowledged no truth outside itself, and stamped free inquiry as sin.”
No doubt one of the reasons why faith has been divorced from reason is that by laying stress on the attitude of the believer rather than on the truth of the thing believed, it is easier for people to negotiate our diverse and heterogeneous society. That attitude also discourages religious warfare. If faith is an affair of the believing subject and is self-authenticating, then it is easier for us to tolerate differences and live together in peace and harmony. A genial pluralism offers a protected place for individuals and communities of whatever religious belief to practice their faith without external hindrance.
Yet this form of religious peace has a price, for by acquiescing in a subjective notion of faith, religious people unwittingly empty faith of its cognitive character. When the object of faith becomes secondary to the act of believing, theology becomes reflection on faith, not reasoned speech about God. The theological enterprise may be variously useful or frivolous depending on one’s point of view, but it makes no cognitive claims. It is valuable chiefly as an instrument to nurture the identity of a particular community. Hence theology can only speak about meaning “for us” or “for them,” i.e., what works in a particular community, and can make no claim to speak about what is true. This is, of course, a reversal of the classical Christian (and Jewish) view that theology’s object is God. Once the object of faith is abandoned, theology’s object inevitably becomes human experience. Similarly, when talk of the good gives way to the language of values, we inevitably abandon the notion that some values are better than others, and that the summum bonum orders all lesser values.
But it is not my purpose here to elaborate on faith and reason, or the question of values, at least not in the narrow sense of those terms. I begin with these observations because I want to discuss tradition.
Religious believers travel in packs, and hence it is assumed that the communal parallel to the subjective idea of faith is tradition. In the marketplace of ideas, particular commitments, i.e., tradition, are thought to be limiting and restrictive because they rest on authority and exalt the wisdom of the past over supposed rational insights of the present. Enlightenment thinkers, writes Alasdair MacIntyre, hoped that “reason would displace authority and tradition. Rational justification was to appeal to principles undeniable by any rational person and therefore independent of all those social and cultural particularities which the Enlightenment thinkers took to be mere accidental clothing of reason in particular times and places.”
So deeply have these ideas penetrated into our consciousness that even religious thinkers have taken them as axiomatic. The mark of rationality, it is assumed, is autonomy. Unless a thinker is freed from the constraints of inherited beliefs and institutions, he or she cannot engage in the spirit of free inquiry that leads to truth. Only if the scholar frees himself from the claims of tradition and becomes independent of external constraints (i.e., tradition) can he properly carry out his work of research, scholarship, and original thinking.
“The traditional Christian theologian,” writes David Tracy, “of whatever tradition, preached and practiced a morality of belief in and obedience to the tradition and a fundamental loyalty to the church community’s beliefs. The modern historian and scientist—whether in natural or social sciences preaches and practices an exactly contrary morality. For him, one cannot investigate a cognitive claim with integrity if one insists simultaneously that the claim is believable because tradition has believed it . . . .” Tracy applies these same principles to the theologian: “The fundamental ethical commitment of the theologian qua theologian remains to that community of scientific inquiry whose province logically includes whatever issue is under investigation.” In Tracy’s view, the theologian must be committed to the “ethical model of the autonomous inquirer.”
Now there is something to what Tracy and others like him say. As early as Origen of Alexandria, Christian thinkers claimed that their ideas should be judged by the “common notions” that are at work within the intellectual community. The openness of Christian thinkers in the last two hundred years to modern thinking is a remarkable sign of confidence in reason as well as in the Christian tradition. They believed, rightly, that truth was one and that if one joined with others in the quest for truth, the results could only be beneficial for Christianity. Christian thought has always been a critical and rational enterprise, and at its best has welcomed the wisdom of the world into the household of faith.
Nevertheless, Christian thinkers have also known that they were bearers of a tradition. “That which I have received, I have handed on to you,” wrote St. Paul. This tradition, exhibited first in the Scriptures, was later subjected to critical examination, tested in the lives of countless men and women, defended against its critics, and elaborated in myriad social and cultural settings. Hence, I am a bit baffled why one should assume, as Tracy apparently does, that reason is to be found only outside of tradition and that genuine rationality requires “autonomy.” This seems to invite a willed amnesia, a self-imposed affliction that would rob our lives of depth and direction. Yet Tracy believes (or did when he wrote Blessed Rage for Order) that the liaison with tradition obstructs the path to enlightenment. To be an intellectual, in this view, is to loosen the moorings that bind one to a particular tradition or a living religious community.
That such ideas could take hold in the academy is evidence of how insular intellectuals can be, even religious ones. In many fields of creative work, immersion in tradition is the presupposition for excellence and originality. Think, for example, of music. On Saturday mornings, I often listen to a jazz show on National Public Radio that features interviews with famous and not-so-famous jazz pianists, saxophonists, drummers, trumpeters, etc., and I am regularly struck at how they speak with such respect of teachers and masters, and how to a person they emphasize that they learned to play the piano by first playing in someone else’s style or learned to blow the trumpet by imitating Louis Armstrong or someone else. Similarly, one is impressed with how often a performer like folksinger Jean Redpath speaks about tradition as the necessary condition for making and singing folk music. How often we are admonished not to let the old traditions be forgotten. Why? Surely not for historical or archaeological reasons, but because musicians, like painters and writers and sculptors, know in their fingertips or vocal cords or ears that imitation is the way to excellence and originality.
Without tradition, learning is arduous at best, impossible at worst. In most things in life—learning to speak, making cabinets, playing the violin—the only way to learn is by imitation, by letting someone else guide our movements until we learn to do the thing on our own. I am not sure why this is so, but I suspect a chief reason is that only in the act of doing and participating do we truly know and understand. To do something well, we have to give ourselves over to it. Eliot made this point about literary criticism: “You don’t really criticize any author to whom you have never surrendered yourself . . . . You have to give yourself up, and then recover yourself, and the third moment is having something to say, before you have wholly forgotten both surrender and recovery.”
Reason, it seems, is found within rather than outside of things; it is not an abstract quality that exists independently in the human mind. Which means, of course, that it is reasonable to allow one’s hands to be guided by a master, and foolish to go it alone, as though one could learn to play the violin or sculpt a statue by studying a set of instructions. In this context, the ideal of the autonomous individual is glaringly inappropriate, for we recognize that here the true mark of rationality is to apprentice oneself to another rather than to strike out on one’s own. To paraphrase Kenny Rogers, “Th’ll be time enough” for originality when the apprenticeship is done.
What applies to violin-playing or cabinet-making also applies, mutatis mutandis, to the intellectual life. The way we learn to think is by reading great thinkers and letting their thoughts form our thoughts, as Matthew Arnold reminds us: “Commerce with the ancients appears to me to produce, in those who constantly practice it, a steadying and composing effect upon their judgment, not of literary works only, but of men and events in general. They are like persons who have had a very weighty and impressive experience; they are more truly than others under the empire of facts, and more independent of the language current among those with whom they live.”
From the ancients, we learn to use language in a precise way, to understand the inner logic of ideas, to discern the deeper relation between seemingly disparate concepts, to discriminate between things that appear similar, to know what is central and what peripheral. And in the process we are tutored in humility, for we see that the things worthy of reception by us have been tested in the Eire of human experience. As Charles M. Wood has pointed out, “Concepts . . . are creatures of history: they come into being, are molded and occasionally transformed through their complex and flexible relationships to other concepts and to the particularities of human existence, and may even fade and wither. The lives of concepts are inextricably related to the lives of actual persons and communities.” Hence there can be no genuine Christian intellectual life that is not rooted in history.
In the first volume of his Systematic Theology, Wolfhart Pannenberg observes that for a long time he had thought it possible to present theology in such a way that its chief themes could be divorced from the “bewildering multiplicity of historical questions.” Only then could the systematic unity of Christian theology become evident. Contrary to his own expectations, however, he found that this way of presenting theology had to be discarded. “Christian teaching is of such a character that it is through and through a historical creation.” Its content rests on the historical person of Jesus Christ and on the historical interpretations that arose as a result of his life, death, and resurrection; the language of Christian thought cannot be extracted from its place in history, for without history, it loses particularity, and hence intelligibility.
The first question, then, that a Christian intellectual should ask is not “what should be believed” or “what should one think,” but “ whom should we trust?” Augustine understood this well, and in his early apologetic work, On True Religion, he links the appeal to reason with trust in the community and authority. Our notion of authority is so attenuated that it may be useful to look a bit more closely at what Augustine means by authority. For us, authority is linked to offices and institutions, to those who hold jurisdiction, hence to notions of power. We speak of submitting to authority or of obeying authority, and assume that authority has to do with the will, not with the understanding.
Yet there is another sense of authority that traces its source to the auctor in auctoritas. Sometimes translated “author,” auctor can designate a magistrate, writer, witness, someone who is worthy of trust, a guarantor who attests to the truth of a statement, one who teaches or advises. Authority in this view has to do with trustworthiness, with the confidence a teacher earns through teaching with truthfulness, if you will. To say we need authority is much the same as saying we need teachers, or to use my earlier term, that we need to become apprentices.
Augustine put it this way in On True Religion: “Authority invites trust and prepares human beings for reason. Reason leads to understanding and knowledge. But reason is not entirely absent from authority, for we have got to consider whom we have to believe . . . — In the Library of Christian Classics translation of this passage, the first words are rendered: “Authority demands belief.” Translated in this way, especially the term “demand,” the sentence is misleading. For Augustine is not thinking of an authority that “demands” or commands or coerces (terms that require an act of will), but of a truth that engenders confidence because of who it is that tells it to us.
Authority resides in a person who by actions as well as words invites trust and confidence. Augustine’s model for authority is the relation of a teacher to a student, a master to a disciple, not a magistrate to a subject. The student’s trust is won not simply by words but also by actions, by the kind of person the teacher is—in short, by character. When Gregory Thaumaturgus, a young man from Asia Minor, went to Caesarea in Palestine to study with Origen, the greatest intellectual of his day, he said that he did so because he wanted to have “fellowship” with “that man.”
Authority rests neither on external legitimization nor on power but on trustworthiness, or in Augustine’s words, on truth. Its purpose is to clarify and illuminate, i.e., to aid understanding, and its instrument is argument, not coercion. If a teacher is constantly saying “believe me” without giving reasons, the student may for a time assent, but he will not understand nor be persuaded, and in time will stop listening. As St. Thomas wrote: “If the teacher determines the question by appeal to authorities only, the student will be convinced that the thing is so, but will have acquired no knowledge or understanding, and he will go away with an empty mind.”
Thus far, I have spoken rather generally about the place of tradition in the intellectual life, but since I have made so much of particularity, it is time to be more specific. Apprenticeship is a purely formal category, and, like reason, cannot be discussed in the abstract. Here the point about “whom shall we trust” becomes critical, for just as there are different styles of playing the piano, so there are different ways of thinking. What makes the difference between ways of thinking is not only the subject matter (whether law or biology or mathematics or statecraft or philosophy), but the sources that one draws on.
A particularly acute problem for Christian intellectuals today, especially those who work in philosophy, theology, and related fields, is that they have hired themselves out as apprentices to a body of literature that is drawn almost wholly from the recent past, the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. For various reasons, we assume that the post-Enlightenment sources formulate the problems that are distinctive to our age, and hence make a unique claim on our attention. Other sources—the Bible, the writings of the church fathers, the treatises of the scholastics—belong to the past and to the domain of historians and biblical scholars.
Further, we assume that the task of the intellectual is to “translate” the substance of the tradition into contemporary language and categories. How, it is asked, are we to speak of God in an age of lightbulbs and computers? The presumed answer is that we need to translate the idiom of the Scriptures into the idiom of our own time, to discuss the biblical faith in terms intelligible in the non-biblical categories of today.
The difficulty with this program of translation is that the language of the Bible is irreplaceable, and more often than not the result of “translation” is that the language of the Scriptures is supplanted by another language, or relegated to the footnotes. It ceases to be the vehicle of thought. As necessary as it is to “translate” the Bible into the thought patterns of our age, it is also the case that Christians in every generation must learn afresh bow to think and imagine in the language and idiom of the Scriptures.
Let me illustrate the point with the Trinitarian language of Father and Son. My example comes from the dispute between Gregory of Nyssa, the fourth-century bishop, theologian, and spiritual writer, and Eunomius, a second-generation Arian who believed that Christ was “unlike” the father. Eunomius summed up his doctrine as follows: We believe in the “supreme and absolute being, and in another being existing by reason of the First (the Son), and a third being not ranking with either of these but inferior to the one as to its cause, to the other as to its energy.” This was a rather startling argument for a Christian bishop, especially in light of the Council of Nicaea’s confession (325 A.D. ) that the Son was “of the same substance” as the Father.
Gregory in response appeals to the language of Scripture. Note, he says, that Eunomius “corrects as it were the expressions in the Gospel, and will not use the words . . . by which our Lord conveyed the mystery [of the Holy Trinity] to us; he suppresses the names of ‘Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,’ and speaks of a ‘Supreme and absolute Being,’ instead of the Father, of ‘another existing through it, but after it’ instead of the Son, and of a ‘third ranking with neither of these two’ instead of the Holy Spirit.”
Now one might reply that Gregory, in simply appealing to the authority of Scripture and the words of Jesus, ignores the real issue: How is the language of the Scripture to be understood by people who have been formed in a Hellenistic culture? What point is there in defending the metaphorical language of the Bible in the context of a genuine theological dispute about the relation of the Son to the Father, a dispute, moreover, that has arisen exactly because of the imprecision and diversity of the biblical language? But Gregory was as much aware of the difficulty as was Eunomius, and so he proceeded to give reasons why the biblical language has to be respected and cherished and used.
The words one uses, he argues, make a difference; terms cannot be indiscriminately exchanged, as though the content of a proposition remains the same no matter what the vehicle. The term Father, for example, is quite different from “supreme and absolute being,” and Son from “one existing after the other,” says Gregory, because when the words Father and Son are spoken, we recognize at once “the proper and natural relationship to one another” that the terms imply. These terms signify a relationship that the others do not. By abandoning the terms “Father” and “Son” Eunomius does not simply jettison the biblical language, he also abandons “the idea of relationship which enters the ear with the words.” Similarly, his way of designating the Holy Spirit does not make clear that the Holy Spirit is a “distinct entity.”
I pick my illustration from Gregory of Nyssa because he is one of the most philosophical of all early Christian thinkers, a man who rigorously subjected the biblical tradition to critical analysis. Yet he also believed that the Scriptures had come from God, and that the language of the Scriptures was not simply the result of historical accident or cultural conditioning. The Scriptures were a firm point of reference, rooted in history, and there could be no genuine talk of God that ignored the biblical language. He approached the Scriptures with humility, looked to them for instruction, and believed that he was subject to them, not they to him.
The difficulty with the idea of “translating” biblical truth into nonbiblical language, as Janet Soskice observes in her fine book, Metaphor as Religious Language, is that it assumes that “revelation exists as a body of free-floating truths . . . “ Meaning takes precedence over words, for what is essential, it is claimed, can be had independent of the language, the metaphors, the practices and form of life that have been the bearer of the meaning.
Soskice illustrates her point by reference to the biblical metaphor of water: “Ho, every one who thirsts come to the water” (Isaiah 5.5:1). She shows how this image runs throughout the Scriptures (“fountain of living waters” [Jeremiah 2:13]; “rivers of living waters” [John 7:37-38]) and Christian tradition (e.g., Teresa of Avila: “I cannot find any thing more apt for the explanation of certain spiritual things than this element of water; for, as I am ignorant and my wit gives me no help, and I am so fond of this element, I have looked at it more attentively than at other things.”)
The constant repetition of metaphor has gone hand-in-hand with typological interpretation of the Scriptures. To say that God is a “fountain of living water” or a fortress or vine keeper or king, Soskice notes, “requires an account not merely of fountains, rocks, vines, and kings, but of a whole tradition of experiences and of the literary tradition which records and interprets them.” The Christian imagination is biblical, and for this reason certain emblematic metaphors, ways of speaking, and events are given priority over others. “The Old Testament’s importance is not principally as a set of propositions but as the milieu from which Christian belief arose and indeed still arises, for these books are the source of Christian descriptive language and particularly of metaphors which have embodied a people’s understanding of God.” Further, the value of the biblical language is not only that it is biblical (that is to say, authoritative), but that it is grounded in the experience of men and women who have known the God about which it speaks.
Language is a vehicle of memory. Few things are more satisfying than to hear old and familiar words spoken or read anew to us. Like the madeleine cake in Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu, language not only makes alive (or makes present, to use a sacramental term) what gets lost in the recesses of the mind, it also molds our experience, stirs our imagination, keeps before us the same things that it kept before earlier generations, and keeps our mind trained on that to which the language refers, the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus. A pernicious feature of much historical criticism is that it unravels the cord linking the language of the Bible to the living God, and trains us to look away from the ostensible meaning to meanings which, however interesting, are not rooted in history or experience.
The Christian intellectual tradition, then, is inescapably historical. Without memory, our intellectual life is impoverished, barren, ephemeral, subject to the whims of the moment. Memory locates us in the corporate and the particular. There is no memory that is not rooted in communal experience, a strange fact that we all experience whenever we return to the place we grew up and talk to family and friends, yet one that is often forgotten in abstract thought. Just as there can be no human life without the bricks and wood, the trees, bills, and rivers, the neighbors and family and friends that make up the world of each of us, so there can be no Christian intellectual life without reference to the writings of the prophets and evangelists, the doctrines of the church fathers, the conceptual niceties of the scholastics, the language of the liturgy, the songs of the poets and hymn writers, the exploits of the martyrs, and the holy tales of the saints.
The Christian intellectual is inescapably bound to those persons and ideas and events that have created the Christian memory, as Dante understood so well. Across the pages of the Divine Comedy stride an unparalleled cast of characters, Virgil and Beatrice, the Blessed Virgin, St. Bernard, Potiphar’s wife, Cato the Elder, King Solomon and Justinian, Pope Gregory the Great whose views on angels Dionysius the Areopagite corrected, popes Boniface VIII and John XXII, St. John examining Dante on love, and Marco Lombardo discoursing on free will—characters presented not as a series of disconnected lives or philosophical ideas, but as a grand story held together by one thing: how every person and event and idea stood in relation to the “never ending light.”
Dante understood that the Christian intellectual tradition is rooted in concreteness. Christian thinking does not begin with general religious ideas or universal principles, but with a particular history that began in a tiny part of the world called Judea and extends across the generations and centuries in a stately procession of those who look to that light which “once seen, alone and always kindles love.” For the mystery that lies at the center of Christian faith is mediated by the men and women whose lives have been illumined by that light. The Christian intellectual, then, knows that he does not traffic in ideas alone, for he perceives, with Dante, that God’s ways are “buried from the eyes of everyone whose intellect has not matured within the flame of love.”
Robert L. Wilken is the William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of the History of Christianity at the University of Virginia. He is immediate past president of the American Academy of Religion.