instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Perspectives on faith

A lot of difficulties people have with the Faith seem to boil down to false dilemmas. Omniscience and free will, mercy and justice, faith and works: the standard arguments over these all seem to center on assertions of conflict, that either one or the other, but not both, must somehow win out or be true.

I think many of these apparent contradiction resolve themselves with the judicious application of St. Thomas's formulation "under the aspect of." If you look at something under one aspect or from one perspective, then look at it from a different aspect or perspective, the fact that you see different things does not demonstrate an inconsistency in the thing looked at nor a deficiency in one or another of the aspects looked under.

Imagine two people looking at a third person. Suppose one observer says, "I can see that this person's eyes are brown," and the other observer says, "I can't tell what color this person's eyes are, or even whether he has eyes." Before we conclude that the eye color of the person being observed is some unfathomable mystery, or that his eyes possess some occult property of revealing themselves only to certain select persons, we might first ask the second observer whether, from where he is standing, he can see the person's face. If he answers, "No, I'm looking at the back of his head," then we don't have much of a conflict between the observers' statements.

I think we need to be particularly careful about false contradictions when we refer to Scripture. If you put a verse from a Gospel next to a verse from the Pentateuch, you are comparing things that were written by different people at different times from different perspectives for different purposes. The unity of all Scripture lies, not in a single perspective, but in a single Spirit Who inspired it.

So, for example, the parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew, which is coming up in the Lectionary in a couple of weeks, is told from a perspective of judgment. Last Sunday's reading from 1 Thessalonians, is told from a perspective of Christian hope. Other references to the Final Judgment (a term not without its own perspective) are made from perspectives of exhortation and mystery.

There are people who say things like, "I don't see how Jesus can be loving and say, 'Depart from me, you accursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.'" And yes, this objection can be answered in various arguments that "Depart from me, you accursed" can be said in love, but... they aren't really convincing arguments, are they? I mean, do they persuade many people who don't want to be persuaded?

It might be better to say, in so many words, that they are right, "Depart from me, you accursed" is not very loving, but that it comes from a story of the Second Coming told under the aspect of judgment. To hear the story of the Second Coming told under the aspect of love, look elsewhere.

Maybe this just shifts the problem, from "how do you reconcile these two verses" to "how do you reconcile these two perspectives." But it at least disposes of the immediate problem of an apparent contradiction, and changes the conversation from a stock proof-texting exercise to a shared exploration of the mysteries of Christ.