Systematic Theology

The materials in the Judeo-Christian tradition are decidedly unsystematic. Events happened, stories were told, some things gotten written down, some of those scriptures were then revised and collected as inspired by God.

In the middle ages, theologians began to organize the teaching of the Church using philosophy as a guide. St. Thomas Aquinas is perhaps the greatest of the medieval synthesizers. The goal of systematic theology is to see the faith whole and to render all of its elements in balance with each other. Some kind of philosophy is involved in every systematization of the faith. When faith seeks understanding, it leans on some particular form of reason (or for Zen Christians and fideists, rejection of reason).

I chose Thomas Aquinas as my patron saint when I was confirmed in the spring of 1966. For the next fifteen years or so, I made regular efforts to see whether I could update his five ways of recognizing the existence of God. I never succeeded entirely. The harder I tried to solidify a proof for God's existence, the more I came to doubt the whole value of proving things. That's where Newman and Polanyi come in handy. They show that proof isn't all that it's cracked up to be. We can know much more than we can prove. I can't prove this perfectly, but I believe it wholeheartedly.

I am committed to the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church.  I accept the Church's 1989 Profession of Faith.

Theological Epistemology

The purpose of theological epistemology, a branch of systematic theology, is to answer questions about how we know what we know about God. This was the topic of my dissertation, which was published as Personal Catholicism (Washington, D.C: The Catholic University of America Press, 2000).

Chris Root asking me to participate in a discussion forum. I would rather address his concerns on a page like this than participate in forums elsewhere.

Dear Chris,

Many thanks for the link to the discussion of knowing and Cherubino's kind remarks about my book.

> I'm going out on a limb and sending you an e-mail, though you don't know me,
> and perhaps don't have time or desire for this.

It's a pleasure to meet you.

> I just visited your website, which I discovered through a discussion I started
> on the Beliefnet Catholicism Critique and Challenge board, and I am totally
> fascinated! I'm not sure if I'm ready to read your book yet, but it looks very
> interesting.

I'm very sad about the price of the book. I can sell you a copy at my cost ($35) plus shipping (say $4), which probably beats any discount you could find on the net (unless it's being remaindered ...).

> I may be out of line for asking, but if you get a chance and
> would like to participate in a discussion related to the subject of your book,
> there is a discussion going on here
> <>

My initial reaction is not to get involved, but I don't have any good reason why. I participate in lots of discussion groups on other topics. Why not this one?

I'll make you an offer. If you have particular questions you want me to answer about theological epistemology (how we know what we know about God), I'll answer them in e-mail and post them on my own website. It won't be a true chat room, but for anyone who wants to know why I believe that faith is a reasonable choice, it will provide a FAQ site. If you want to quote, paraphrase or steal stuff from our correspondence for beliefnet discussions, you may.

> The discussions on this particular board are always lively and interesting, so
> if you have a moment, check it out.

I am sure you are right. I read the 11 posts in the thread as of today (October 24, 2002). I have to draw the line somewhere in my internet escapades and not get involved in too many "lively and interesting" discussions. :o)

> I am a fairly recent convert to Catholicism, and have just started school at
> Seattle University in Theology and Ministry. I am struggling mightily with the
> idea of truth, and with many issues that are fundamental to Catholicism, while
> at the same time I'm growing into my faith by leaps and bounds.

The Catholic Church is solemnly committed to the truth. Vatican Council I taught definitively that reason can recognize that there is a God. This is the foundation of the Church's condemnation of fideism ("I believe just because I believe") and solipsism ("Your truth has nothing to do with my truth"). We believe that faith in what God has revealed is a decision that we have good reasons to make.

The Concept of Truth

Dear David,

> Thank you so much for your kind response!

You're welcome.

> We have had so many rousing conversations about truth, fidelity, dissent
> and other matters on this board. The thing that I find intriguing about
> this particular board is that it attracts such a wide range of people:
> laypeople, clergy, ex-clergy, angry ex-Catholics, dissenters, heretics,
> crabby soulless neo-orthodox, bitter heterodox you name it! I started
> a thread on dissent a few months ago which went on for at least a month
> and had over 600 replies.

I guess that's why I don't want to get too involved. That is a lot of material to keep up with!

> I'm sure you're wise to limit the number of conversations you have on
> the internet, as this stuff eats up a lot of time. I'm not sure if
> this one is going to get off the ground or not, but I will pose some
> more specific questions to you on this subject as they come up, and I
> appreciate your offer to let me do so.

You're welcome.

> I think essentially what I am struggling with the most is this: I don't
> know how to put the idea of faith together with the concept of truth. (I
> know, I know, this is basic). I can't totally understand how the two
> things are solidly related. I've been asking so many questions to try
> to get underneath this, but it seems like the more questions I ask, the
> more I realize that I don't know!

Truth means to say of what is that it is and to say of what is not that it is not.

Truth imposes obligations on people. If something is true, I am obliged to believe it. If something is false, I am obliged to reject it.

The Catholic Church accepts all truth, wherever and however it is found (philosophically, scientifically, religiously, morally, historically). In the field of revelation, the Church judges all things by the standard of what has been decisively revealed to us by Jesus, Who is God-become-man. Anything that corresponds to what He has taught us is known to be true; anything that disagrees with what He has taught us is false.

> I can't seem to get away from the idea that how people view the truth is
> shaped by their experience, and this relates to the difficulty I'm
> having accepting some of the teachings of the Church.

Please notice that you have stated an absolute truth:

"How people view the truth is shaped by their experience."

This is not self-evident. It is not provable from self-evident principles. It is an observation drawn from philosophical reflection on how we know what we know. It is an assertion that can be criticized. If what you say is true, then we can know true things despite the limitations of the human mind. You cannot deduce from your observation that there is no truth.

> I've also noticed that it's awfully damned hard to find a good orthodox
> Catholic with a kind and loving heart with which to discuss these
> matters!

I'm not sure that I have a "kind and loving heart" sufficient to satisfy you. I would rather not build my case for accepting the teachings of the Catholic Church on my own virtues. I am a "sinner redeemed by grace," and sometimes my sins are more obvious than God's grace.

> Most of the orthodox Catholics in cyberspace I've encountered
> seem concerned with labeling others heretics, which I always find gets
> in the way of polite conversation!

I won't take responsibility for the sins of other Catholics. But "heresy" is a useful term. It comes from a Greek root meaning to select. A heretic is someone who takes PART of the tradition and rejects other PARTS of the whole.

The development of the Church's doctrine has come, in large measure, from rejecting false interpretations of the tradition. Examples abound in the New Testament. Look at the seven letters in the second and third chapters of the book of Revelation. Most of the letters condemn perversions of Christian doctrine.

I believe that rejecting the concept of truth in revelation is an unforgivable sin. Once someone adopts that position, there's not much point in talking with them. No matter what I say to them, their response is "Well, that's your interpretation."

John's gospel portrays Jesus as the King of Truth: "For this I was born, and for this I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth. Every one who is of the truth hears my voice" (18:38). He is "the Way, the Truth, and the Life (14:6). To deny that there is truth is to reject Jesus.