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”.

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).

The Realization of Personality

“The personality is only realized in the act by which it tends to become incarnate (in a book, for instance, or an action or in a complete life), but at the same time it is of its very essence never to fix itself or crystallize itself finally in this particular incarnation. Why? Because it participates in the inexhaustible fulness of the being from which it emanates. There lies the deep reason for which it is impossible to think of personality or the personal order without at the same time thinking of that which reaches beyond them both, a supra-personal reality, presiding over all their initiative, which is both are beginning in their end”

Marcel, Gabriel. Homo Viator: Introduction to the Metaphysic of Hope. USA: Harper Torch Book, 1965, p. 26.

Aquinas studies – Can there be a conflict between natural and divine law?

On one level, no there can be no conflict between natural and divine law. However, there may be conflict between the two in how they are embodied on an individual or cultural level. There may also be the appearance of conflict if we don’t properly distinguish the principles from the proper conclusions.

For an excellent introductory guide to Aquinas follow this link.

Human beings, in having a natural inclination to “the fitting act and end”– which is ultimately “eternal reason” — exhibit in our rational and creaturely existence, a participatory relationship between natural law and divine law (Thomas Aquinas: Selected Writings, Penguin Books., London 1998, p. 620). The rational recognition and obedience to natural law is the means by which we participate in the divine law (p. 620). Our rational natures, our desire and ability to contemplate about things beyond the merely material, and to concern ourselves with things not merely limited to material well-being, should provide us with a hint that the “fitting act and end” exceeds our material or natural capacities. For this reason, God gives us divine law. Thomas gives four reasons for God revealing to us his divine law. First, as our ultimate end exceeds our natural capacity in being directed towards “eternal happiness” we need divine direction in order to attain our ultimate end. Second, we are not accurately able to judge on “contingent and particular things” and so we require certitude of judgement which can only come from God. Thirdly, as our “fitting act and end” involves our interior intellectual lives, natural law is not adequate to govern or “restrain interior acts.” Fourth, in order for there to be final clarity and justice in the mixture of practical and particular judgements, all things will ultimately be judged according to divine law (p. 623).

In none of these things is there a conflict between natural and divine law. The one serves as a floor upon which we may, by the light of faith, break through the ceiling of our materiality and apprehend and participate in divine law. And as God is simple/holy and infinitely Good, it is not possible for the principles originating in him and sustained by him to be in conflict. “God through his wisdom is the maker of the universe of things… the notion of divine wisdom moving all things to their fitting end takes on the note of law… the eternal law is nothing other than the idea of divine wisdom insofar as it is directive of all acts and movements” (p. 633).

However, in terms of how human beings exhibit this participatory relationship between natural law and divine law, there is conflict. While human affairs are subject ultimately to eternal law, in both our knowledge and our actions we are in varying degrees “imperfect” and “corrupt” (p. 640). Insofar as our knowledge of eternal law and natural knowledge are obscured by “passions and the habit of sin” a holy/perfect participatory relationship between natural law and divine law is “defective” (p. 640-641). The conflict is in proportion to how “bad” one is. On the other hand, “the good are perfectly subject to the eternal law, as always fulfilling it” (p 641). Also, there may be failure in this regard in terms of “rectitude” (there may be an impediment in nature (e.g., are psychopaths born that way?) and knowledge (if one’s reason has been “depraved” by bad customs, or a “bad cast of nature”). This is to say that there may be a general culture which depraves or malforms us in relation to specific moral principles (p. 649). Finally, a conflict may arise as a consequence of prolonged damage to the human heart. This may be a result of “bad persuasion” regarding speculative matters, depraved customs, or corrupt habits. Such things may result in the natural law being “erased from the hearts of men” (p. 652).

Finally, there may be the appearance of conflict if we don’t distinguish between the common principles and the proper conclusions (i.e., secondary precepts or particular applications). Whereas there is “the same truth or rectitude for all “in reference to “common principles of reason” (e.g., “one cannot simultaneously affirm and deny something” p. 644) this does not mean that everyone knows matters pertaining to “proper conclusions” of speculative reason to the same degree (e.g., the outworking of speculative reason resulting in specific of geometrical definitions not known to all). Neither do the common principles work themselves out in a uniformed way, as the “proper conclusions” of practical reason will vary depending upon the specific circumstances (p. 648). Also, relating to the reality of circumstantial and cultural change, whereas the “common principles of reason” are immutable, the natural law may change by way of addition or subtraction in reference to particular contexts or situations (p. 650). This addition or subtraction will, if proper and good, leave the common principles uncorrupted, but effect the proper conclusions in a generally applicable way for a particular culture. For example, the principle of “everyone should act according to reason” results in the proper conclusion regarding terms of borrowing goods and returning them to the rightful owner. However, there may be culturally or regionally unique circumstances that may make the terms of borrowing (and the rectitude of returning them) different (p. 648). For example, in peacetime, a scythe has simpler associations than during a time of war. It may be right not to return such a tool during wartime if it threatens the safety of the owner or others. If we don’t keep the difference between the common principles and the proper conclusions clear, we may think there is a conflict between natural law and divine law, when in fact there is only a difference in the outworking of natural and divine law in a local or individual context.

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 – happiness is found in an act of the intellect rather than an act of the will.

Thomas agrees with Aristotle regarding in what faculty happiness is found. Aristotle limits the state of happiness to those beings which have the capacity for rational thought. He says, “Happiness is an activity of the [rational] soul” (Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1100a15). Thomas echoes and expands on this when he says “happiness is the proper good of the intellectual nature” (Thomas Aquinas: Selected Writings, Penguin Books., London 1998, p 268).

For an excellent introductory guide to Aquinas follow this link.

Arriving at the link between ‘happiness,’ ‘the proper good,’ and the ‘intellectual nature’ occurs after discounting the various misconceptions regarding what happiness/the proper good are, namely physical pleasure, honour, wealth and any other pursuits which are not ‘self-sufficient’ but rather transitory and contingent. Also, finding happiness in the intellect involves recognizing that the intellect is our highest faculty. As sight is are our highest sensory faculty by which we are able most accurately to perceive the world around us, so our intellects are our highest faculty, enabling us to understand the world around us. Happiness and the proper good are bound up with our telos. It is the intellectual nature which is the specific difference between humans and all other created compound beings (the imago dei), and thus our happiness is to be found in relation to our intellectual nature. Thus, true happiness for us is to be found in intellectual activities directed towards God. “God is the ultimate end of the intellectual substance and that operation whereby a man first attains God is said to be substantially his happiness or felicity” (Aquinas, Selected Writings, p. 270). This ‘attaining’ is some kind of intellectual sight – the Beatific Vision.
Continue reading “Aquinas studies – happiness is found in an act of the intellect rather than an act of the will.”

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).
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Aquinas’ view of the possible errors in ‘investigating’ God using natural reason

It is good and right to direct everything in our being towards God and union with him (including our intellects). However, errors are possible.

1) Presumption: in directing our intellect towards God we should not presume that we can comprehend God as we may be able to comprehend other aspects of creation (Thomas Aquinas, Thomas Aquinas Selected Writings, ed. by Ralph McInerny. Penguin Books: New York, 1998. p. 128).

For an excellent introductory guide to Aquinas follow this link.

2) Placing reason before faith in the directing of ourselves to God and to union with him. As God is incomprehensible to our intellects, and yet we are to direct everything towards him, we must “Begin by believing” (Aquinas, Selected Writings, p. 128). Believing is to hold something as real and true on the basis of what a knower tells us, so belief is the way we are able to transcend our intellects by receiving from God his self-revelation. This self-revelation is an outflow of God’s love towards us and thus the extent and form of his self-revelation is suited to our capacity. “Every creature is moved as to be made more and more like God insofar as it can be” (Aquinas, Selected Writings, p. 129). This movement happens through “infused faith” (Aquinas, Selected Writings, p. 131).
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Boethius’ description of Providence, Fate, and Fortune in Bk IV.

Lady Philosophy asks Boethius to “imagine a set of revolving concentric circles” in her effort to explain how Providence and Fate relate to one another. It is extraordinary how Boethius evokes a visual image to try and explain a deep and perennial mystery. The innermost circle is closest to “the simplicity of the centre” which is equated to the “high citadel of oneness” which is Providence or “Divine Reason.” Providence is also equated to the “Primary Intelligence.” Due to it being equated with Divine Reason, Providence does not itself orbit anything. It does not move. It is essentially the Unmoved Mover. The closer an orbit is to the simplicity of the centre, the more that thing which is the circle is freed from Fate (or “above the chain of Fate”). It seems to me this is essentially “rest”.
Continue reading “Boethius’ description of Providence, Fate, and Fortune in Bk IV.”