Christianity as always “I” and “We”

Edited, 30/01/21

First line of the Apostles’ Creed:
Credo in deum patrem omnipotentem” – “I believe in God the Father almighty”
cred.o (PRES ACTIVE IND 1st person singular).

First line of the Nicene/Constantinopolitan Creed:
“Πιστεύομεν εἰς ἕνα θεόν” – “We believe in one God”
πιστεύομεν (Root: πιστευω, LN: 31.35; verb, present, active, indicative, first person, plural).

It is of profound importance that the Church, has held together the personal and individual declaration of belief with the communal and participatory declaration of belief. One way this happens is by way of the two creeds universally regarded as authoritative within mainstream Christianity (east and west, Catholic, Orthodox, and Reformed Christianity), the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene/Constantinopolitan Creed. However, this importance has not always been recognized. Here I argue for an intentional use and increased awareness of the importance of the “I” of the baptismal creed, and the “We” of the conciliar and communal creed. The Christian faith is both personal and corporate, and the two cannot be severed without seriously damaging how we understand the Christian faith.

Even though these two creeds counterbalance the ”I” and the “We” this is not to say that the Church in time has been able to hold together these two emphases in an ideal or even somewhat ideal way. In fact, it is a basic struggle to hold the individual and communal together. The Nicene Creed underwent what many regard as an incidental change, by exchanging the “We” for the “I”. Philip Schaff says that this change was “in accordance with the Apostles’ Creed and the more subjective character of the Western churches.” In other words, the change was on one hand functional, because the Nicene Creed began being used as a baptismal creed. On the other hand, it shows a preference for the individual over the communal.

The struggle is not simple, however. It can be seen also in terms of the ministry and organization of the Church down through the centuries. At times the communal aspect of Christianity (emphasizing corporate authority and what may be characterized by a mechanistic individual participation within the corporate church) has marginalized or even eclipsed the individual and personal importance of declared and lived Christian belief. At other times the individual and personal basis of Christian belief has marginalized or eclipsed the necessity of being a part of the Body of Christ (the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church).

Our age is not an age of ‘We’ (at least not in the late modern ‘West’). The drift in late modern western Christianity has certainly between towards the mere “I” of individual and subjective belief, as a default. The drift is due to deep cultural currents of subjectivism and existentialism—currents which have altered the composition of the water in the cultural wells from which we all drink. We may be attentive to the influences, but we have all been influenced in varying degrees (even if the influence has caused a negative reaction and resistance).

For example, within even more reformed minded contemporary “Evangelical” churches, There is the tendency to substitute the Nicene Creed with the Apostles’ Creed (often justified by preferences for simplicity or brevity). This imbalanced preference causes a drift away from the central importance of Catholic (universal, historical, corporate, communal, fellowship) Christianity. (Here, of course, I’m not speaking of local congregations or fellowships which have abandoned the Creeds altogether, which is a problem of a different magnitude – a problem which manifestly has resulted in (or caused) a generally unhinged subjectivism and capitulation to contemporary culture, mostly due to a degree of disregard for substantial theological union and continuity with the historical Church – no keel, no rudder – inadequate keel, broken rudder). The drift caused by imbalanced language within our worship is not only indicated in credal preference, but also in confessions. The “I confess” of the daily office services has a tendency to supplanted the “We confess” of the classical Eucharistic services. There is a disregard for, or an embarrassment about, the declared absolution for our sins from the priest or bishop. This too indicates a drift towards the mere “I” as an entity which is a member of the Church by way of free association and does not really require the Church – the ego receives forgiveness subjectively and independent of the ministry of the Church (and for that matter ultimately interprets scripture and doctrine on its own terms also). The drift from common chalices to individual communion cups reveals the priority of the individual over the body in the Eucharist.

As noted above, the drift to the “I” is not merely a late modern innovation, however. Liturgically, in east and west, the original “We” was replaced by “I”. In the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, and following revisions, the original “We” of the Nicene Creed has been replaced by the “I”. Some later revisions have adopted the “We” of the original Greek text of the Nicene/Constantinopolitan Creed. Schaff’s simple point above regarding subjectivity in the west is a vast and important topic to explore. Eastern Orthodoxy does not typically use the Apostles’ Creed, thus the adaptation of the Nicene Creed for baptismal purposes makes sense. When it was incorporated into the Eucharist it was in response to Arianism. While there are notable theological and cultural differences between eastern and western Christianity regarding the individual and the community I find it odd that the Orthodox Church has not returned to the original “We” of the Nicene/Constantinopolitan Creed. I contend that the absence of this interplay is a loss for them that may well bear fruit as they also feel the influence of western subjective individualism in their own jurisdictions.

Of course, the Creeds do not invent this dual character of belief. It is Biblical. Biblical anthropology and the character of belief has held the “I” and the “We” together from the start. Adam’s “I” is inadequate, even in the time of innocence, and thus the Lord God creates Eve. We learn logos (intelligent human speech) which enables growth in rationality and ‘personhood’ (variously conceived), from the “Other”. Intelligent human speech requires always the “Other.” The primary “Other” is our Maker, whom we worship and to whom we pray and offer our solitary interiority to the extent we are able to fathom ourselves and communicate this fathoming. Secondarily, we direct human speech to one another in community. If we are incapacitated or born without the capacity for human communication, how much more do we depend upon the “We” of our family and broader community (and crucially, how does a local church which has emphasized the “I” to the exclusion of the “We” include the very young, those who have suffered some kind of mental injury, or those born incapable of intelligent human speech)? The covenant of circumcision is the “I” being circumcised within the Covenant people of Israel. There is the individual and corporate calls to repentance, as well as individual and corporate redemption and judgement. In the New Covenant, the baptized person is encountered by their Maker alone, but never utterly alone, as they are baptized within the Church, by the Church, and into the Church. The Eucharist cannot rightly be celebrated in a solitary fashion (and even when it is celebrated solitarily by individual priests, even that is generally joined to a deep belief of the solitary nested within the Body of Christ’s church victorious, and within the Body of Christ’s church militant).

The solitary human heart and mind is inadequate to the task of its own formation. Not only do we require being encountered by our Maker for our salvation, we require one another for instruction and influence. One of the key sources of Divine influence in the world, if not THE key source, is the Body of Christ, the Church. She is entrusted with God’s Word Written. Through her worship, and flowing out of that worship, she is called, in the words of J.H. Blunt, to “influence, subdue, and attract the world” with the Good News. Of basic importance to our worship and our ministry is this understanding that we approach our Maker always as both “I” and “We”.

The agnosticism of Kant regarding the noumenon

I’ve never read anyone so difficult to understand as Kant, but his importance serves as a goad to persist… If anyone reading this is a Kantian or a Kant scholar, please feel free to correct me if what I’m saying here is either inaccurate or contested. Anyway, as I quoted in a previous post, Etienne Gilson writes, “Today our only choice is not Kant or Descartes; it is rather Kant or Thomas Aquinas. All the other positions are but halfway houses on the roads which lead either to absolute religious agnosticism or to the natural theology of Christian metaphysics” (God and Philosophy p. 114). In §32 of the Prolegomena, Kant refers to “special beings of the understanding (noumena), which are supposed to constitute an intelligible world.” He grants the possibility of the existence of such beings “but only with the enforcement of this rule that admits of no exception: that we neither know nor can know anything at all determinate about these pure beings of the understanding, because our pure concepts of the understanding as well as our pure intuitions extend to nothing but objects of possible experience” (i.e., extend to the realms of Newtonian physics). Here is Kant’s agnosticism regarding intellectual beings. Kant’s interest is not that we be conformed to the totality of what is real as much as we are able (in conduct and thought) but that we ourselves process our intuitions rendering them into experience which is in accordance with the laws of Newtonian physics (the principles of which reside in us a priori). I would like to contrast what Kant regards as being our own a priori understanding which is able to order our intuitions as coherent experience with Aquinas’ notion (h/t Aristotle) of the “agent intellect” (i.e., the proper active principle). The agent intellect renders intelligible all sensory experience received by the “possible intellect” (i.e., the passive principle). Aquinas’ cognitive theory has the interaction between active and passive principles as foundational to all reality. In Kant there is also an interaction between active and passive principles, but where the natural theology of Aquinas gives us the ability to say something “positive” about the objects external to us, in Kant we have external to us something real but we know not what (“we are not discussing the origin of experience, but what lies in experience” §21a). Kant’s agnosticism regarding “special beings” extends to the very origins of our intuition. While they are ‘real’ we can’t know them. So, there is an activity of some sort, as without it our intuitions receive nothing whatsoever, but his philosophical commitments don’t allow him to express anything confident or positive about what constitutes that activity.

Hume’s skepticism and human epistemological interdependence

Hume pushes philosophical skepticism to the utmost limits, and in so doing serves to illustrate perhaps what Locke anticipated in his caution regarding total skepticism. Hume does recognize that he must make an effort to safeguard his humanity–his participation in human community—while exercising his philosophical skepticism. He knows that man is a sociable no less than a reasonable being [and] man is also an active being (An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Section I). There is an intentionality to his words when he says, Be a philosopher, but amid all your philosophy, be still a man (Enquiry, I). His own remarks underline that his philosophical method if embraced tends to fragment how humans engage with and think about, the world. He makes a distinction between approaching life as an agent and as a philosopher (Enquiry, IV, 2). One area where this fragmentation is acute is in his understanding regarding the nature of belief. He states in philosophy we can go no further than assert that belief is something felt by the mind which distinguishes the ideas of the judgment from the fictions of the imagination (Enquiry, V, 2). However, this understanding of belief excludes the key component of relationship which most people, if given a chance to consider what they mean when they say they believe in something, implicitly recognize. Josef Pieper speaks philosophically from within the perennial stream when he states that the reason for believing “something” is that one believes “someone” (Faith, Hope, Love, p. 30). Hume’s philosophical skepticism often excludes “the other”. For example, he says, suppose a person, though endowed with the strongest faculties of reason and reflection be brought on a sudden into this world… He would not be able to reach the idea of cause and effect (Enquiry V, 1). But, of course, this is not how people ever enter into the world, and we cannot come to learn anything about this world unless we first “believe” someone who “knows” something about it and communicates that knowledge to us. I think Hume’s definition of belief, his philosophical skepticism which excludes this notion of a relationship of trust with a knower, and his comprehensive denial regarding the legitimacy of the testimony of others in gaining knowledge (Enquiry X, 1), have a corrosive effect on our understanding of what it means to be a human in community.

It’s either Thomas Aquinas or Immanuel Kant…

According to Etienne Gilson anyway…

“Today our only choice is not Kant or Descartes; it is rather Kant or Thomas Aquinas. All the other positions are but halfway houses on the roads which lead either to absolute religious agnosticism or to the natural theology of Christian metaphysics” (God and Philosophy, p. 114).

A connection between Locke and Aquinas regarding the limits of human perception and understanding

Locke states, “There is not so contemptible a plant or animal that does not confound the most enlarged understanding” (Essay Concerning Human Understanding Bk III, VI, 9).  Later he says, “how, vain… it is to expect demonstration and certainty in things not capable of it, and refuse assent to very rational propositions… because they cannot be made out so evident as to surmount every… pretense of doubting” (Essay Bk IV, XI, 10). Locke then establishes belief as a way to “supply our want of knowledge.” The grounds for believing which Locke gives, especially the second being “the testimony of others…” has implications regarding the intellectual defensibility of the Christian faith.

Aquinas wrote something regarding how the limits of our powers of perception and understanding ought to not result in skepticism of anything that cannot be demonstrated, especially in relation to the Christian faith. In the Prologue of his exposition of the Apostles’ Creed (https://dhspriory.org/thomas/english/Creed.htm) he answers the question “what is faith?” Aquinas says, “But someone will say that it is foolish to believe what is not seen, and that one should not believe in things that he cannot see. I answer by saying that the imperfect nature of our intellect takes away the basis of this difficulty. For if man of himself could in a perfect manner know all things visible and invisible, it would indeed be foolish to believe what he does not see. But our manner of knowing is so weak that no philosopher could perfectly investigate the nature of even one little fly.” Given our limited experience and understanding we must often “partake” in the knowledge of a knower. This involves a humble recognition of the limits of our experience and knowledge, and a willingness to be in a relationship of trust with our fellow human beings who have experience and knowledge which we have not. Ultimately, according to Aquinas and Locke, it must direct us to trust in God and his revelation.

Comparing Thomas Aquinas and Aristotle’s conception of the human good.

Whereas both Thomas and Aristotle would agree that “the ultimate end of man, as of any intellectual substance, is called felicity or happiness” there is a profound difference between them regarding in what that happiness consists. The difference between Thomas and Aristotle’s accounts of the human good boils down to the difference between Thomas’ Christianity (grace and faith) and Aristotle’s virtuous paganism (the integrated intellectual life at its humanly best).

For an excellent introductory guide to Aquinas follow this link.
Continue reading “Comparing Thomas Aquinas and Aristotle’s conception of the human good.”

Aquinas studies: if we cannot know the essence of God, how can there be a science of divine things?

The notion that there can be a science of divine things does not negate Thomas’ statements regarding how we are unable to know the essence of God. A science of divine things is possible so long as we are clear regarding what we actually can and cannot know, and how the science of divine things proceeds.

For an excellent introductory guide to Aquinas follow this link.

First of all, only God can know his own essence. In fact, he knows himself “through his essence” (Thomas Aquinas: Selected Writings, Penguin Books., London 1998. p. 116). In other words, only God can truly know himself, as it is his essence to do so. The science of divine things must proceed from this basic understanding, namely, we cannot essentially know God. This does not mean, however, that we cannot in any way come to know God (as we will see).

Secondly, in terms of human reason, according to Thomas we can approach knowledge of God referring to the fact of his existence (and not of what he is). This can be done in three ways: 1) observing his effects in creation; 2) understanding his causality of “more noble effects” which grants a “better display of his eminence”, and; 3) in a negative sense we understand more clearly how he transcends all things and defies definition (Thomas quotes Dionysius, “he is known as the cause, the excess and negation of all things” – (Aquinas, Selected Writings, p. 117).
Continue reading “Aquinas studies: if we cannot know the essence of God, how can there be a science of divine things?”

Thomas à Kempis – “desire to be unknown”

Chapter II – Of thinking humbly of oneself

There is naturally in every man a desire to know, but what profiteth knowledge without the fear of God? Better of a surety is a lowly peasant who serveth God, than a proud philosopher who watcheth the stars and neglecteth the knowledge of himself. He who knoweth himself well is vile in his own sight; neither regardeth he the praises of men. If I knew all the things that are in the world, and were not in charity, what should it help me before God, who is to judge me according to my deeds?

2. Rest from inordinate desire of knowledge, for therein is found much distraction and deceit. Those who have knowledge desire to appear learned, and to be called wise. Many things there are to know which profiteth little or nothing to the soul. And foolish out of measure is he who attendeth upon other things rather than those which serve to his soul’s health. Many words satisfy not the soul, but a good life refresheth the mind, and a pure conscience giveth great confidence towards God.

3. The greater and more complete thy knowledge, the more severely shalt thou be judged, unless thou hast lived holily. Therefore be not lifted up by any skill or knowledge that thou hast; but rather fear concerning the knowledge which is given to thee. If it seemeth to thee that thou knowest many things, and understandest them well, know also that there are many more things which thou knowest not. Be not high-minded, but rather confess thine ignorance. Why desirest thou to lift thyself above another, when there are found many more learned and more skilled in the Scripture than thou? If thou wilt know and learn anything with profit, love to be thyself unknown and to be counted for nothing. [alternative trans: “If thou wilt know or learn anything profitably, desire to be unknown, and to be little esteemed”].

[Contra ‘social media’, contra various (I suspect) vain and (without question) brand-building church personalities – making much of exploits in order to sell books and speak at conferences etc. Cf the Apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians 12 – he easily boasts and catalogues various disasters and hardships, but only reluctantly shares the vision and leaves uncatalogued entirely the various “signs of a true Apostle”].

4. That is the highest and most profitable lesson, when a man truly knoweth and judgeth lowly of himself. To account nothing of one’s self, and to think always kindly and highly of others, this is great and perfect wisdom. Even shouldest thou see thy neighbor sin openly and grievously, yet thou oughtest not to reckon thyself better than he, for thou knowest not how long thou shalt keep thine integrity. All of us are weak and frail; hold thou no man more frail than thyself.

H/T The Literature Project http://literatureproject.com/imitation-christ/immitation-christ_chapter_ii_-_of.htm

Patrick Leigh Fermor on the Efficacy of Prayer (particularly monastic prayer)

“After the first postulate of belief, without which the life of a monk would be farcical and intolerable, the dominating factor of monastic existence is a belief in the necessity and efficacy of prayer; and it is only by attempting to grasp the importance of this principle–a principle so utterly remote from every tendency of modern secular thought–to the monks who practice it, that one can hope to understand the basis of monasticism. This is especially true of the contemplative orders, like the Benedictines, Carthusians, Carmelites, Cistercians, Camaldulese, and Sylvestrines; for the others–like the Franciscans, Dominicans or the Jesuits–are brotherhoods organized for action. They travel, teach, preach, convert, organise, plan, heal and nurse; and the material results they achieve make them, if not automatically admirable, at least comprehensible to the Time-Spirit. They get results; they deliver the goods. But what (the Time-Spirit asks) what good do the rest do, immured in monasteries far from all contact with the world? The answer is–if the truth of the Christian religion and the efficacy of prayer are both dismissed as baseless–no more than any other human beings who lead a good life, make (for they support themselves) no economic demands on the community, harm no one and respect their neighbours. But, should the two principles be admitted–particularly, for the purposes of this particular theme, the latter–their power for good is incalculable.”

Fermor, Patrick Leigh. A Time to Keep Silence. New York: New York Review Books, 2007. p 26-27

Summary and Outline of St. Athanasius’ “On the Incarnation”

To purchase this classic book please follow this link.

To purchase the handbook containing the summary please follow this link.

Summary of St. Athanasius’ ‘On the Incarnation’

“His treatise on the Incarnation of the Word of God, though written quite early in his life, and before the rise of Arianism, is the best example of his theology, and is of special interest in modern times from its breadth of view and thoroughly philosophical standpoint. It is well worthy of his Alexandrian training and traditions. The Incarnation, he teaches, culminating in the death on the Cross, was not primarily a propitiation or the averting of a penalty. What is known as the “forensic” theory Athanasius avoided. It was rather a restoration from death to life. Human nature through sin was in corruption, and must be healed, restored, recreated. A true theory of Creation is given, in opposition to the views of the Epicureans, the Platonists and the Gnostics. Men were created above all the rest, in God’s image, with even a portion of His own Word, so that having a sort of reflexion of the Word, and being in fact made rational (λογιχοι), they might be able to abide ever in blessedness (c. 3). But if they did not obey His laws, they were to fall into and remain in death and corruption—a negative state; for what is good is, what is evil is not; evil is the negation of good, death of life, etc. Man turning to the evil partook of negative things, evil, corruption, death, and remained in them: he lost the image, and lost the life in correspondence with God (c.5). The handiwork of God was in process of dissolution (6). God could not justly prevent this, seeing that He made the law, nor could He leave man to the current of corruption, and watch His work being spoilt. Even repentance by itself was useless (7), for it did not alter the nature, or stay the corruption. Only He could restore or Continue reading “Summary and Outline of St. Athanasius’ “On the Incarnation””