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Reasonable Faith

Written by: on November 14, 2014

Aquinas

Once in a while you meet a student who is head and shoulders above the rest, not necessarily in academic skills but in maturity level. I have such a student this semester. His name is John (not his real name). His father is the pastor of a small, quite conservative, Evangelical church. John loves the Lord. But he is learning some new things in college and is now asking some questions that his father is uncomfortable with. He is afraid that John might be abandoning the faith because of his questions and doubts. What John is doing, however, is healthy and normal. He is learning how to think and is beginning the process of individuation, which all of us go through to some extent. I love meeting with John; we have begun a weekly routine of chatting together and discussing matters of faith and ethics. In fact, we are meeting today.

In our text for this week’s reading, The Matrix of Christian Ethics: Integrating Philosophy and Moral Theology in a Postmodern Context[1], Patrick Nullens and Ronald T. Michener attempt to trace and revive the heart of Christian ethics in a world that is often resistant to such matters. Suffice it to say that there have been many views on this subject throughout the history of Western Civilization (which is the emphasis of this book) and many different views among contemporary philosophers and theologians. The authors do a thorough job of expounding on their subject, including chapters on Consequential Ethics (Chapter 3), Principle Ethics (Chapter 4), Character Ethics (Chapter 5), and Value Ethics (Chapter 6). Frankly, I found these sections to be good, but dry – until I came to the section on Thomas Aquinas. Since Thomas Aquinas is one of my heroes of faith, I found this particular section most interesting. The reason I have loved Aquinas for years is that he has given me permission to think, to reason, to ask questions, and even to doubt. In essence, Aquinas allowed faith and reason to coexist. For me, this was revolutionary in my faith journey. Like John, I finally had the guts to disagree with my strongly conservative, fundamentalist father. But unlike John, my journey did not begin until my mid-thirties.

Thomas Aquinas taught me to think and ask questions without fear, while still holding on to my faith. The text says of Aquinas, “Reason and faith were in tune with each other, but faith took precedence.”[2] I do not agree with everything Aquinas taught (actually I do not fully agree with anyone), but nor do Nullens and Michener. Some of the areas I do agree with what Aquinas taught are as follows:

  • The task of ethics is to use reason to guide people toward happiness.[3]
  • The ultimate goal of human existence is to manifest God’s glory.[4]
  • The will and reason make mankind unique as the image of God.[5]

Aquinas states that man has free will. Whether or not I believe this as a theological system, one thing I do know for sure is that my will is strong and often supersedes my reason. I am a sinner. I mess up. I sometimes choose to do things, think things, and say things that are not godly. But I also sometimes choose to do right. God does not force me to do right, and He certainly does not force me to do evil. I am, like the apostle Paul, always in the midst of a wrestling match. Sometimes I pin my opponent, but often my opponent pins me.

To be honest, I struggled through most of this book and did not like the authors’ conclusions. I felt that they were comfortable with certain questions but not with others, particularly with concepts and views that disagreed with their own views of Biblical interpretation. Perhaps I struggle with the sacred cows of Evangelicalism, even though I (at least in part) am an Evangelical. It is OK to ask questions, to have doubts, to say, “I don’t know” once in a while, and to allow for mystery in one’s theological and Biblical views. So am I a skeptic? Probably. Do I believe in an ethical faith? Absolutely. I, like John, am no longer a fan of blind faith. I, like John, have a father who disagrees with me. I, like John, am comfortable with ambiguity. And finally, I, like John, desire to live a moral and ethical life. We are almost 40 years apart, yet we are on a similar ethical journey. By the way, if John’s father only knew how his son was thinking, he wouldn’t worry but would rejoice in the fact that his son is becoming an original, not a copy.

[1] Patrick Nullens and Ronald T. Michener. The Matrix of Christian Ethics: Integrating Philosophy and Moral Theology in a Postmodern Context (Colorado Springs, CO: Paternoster Publishing, 2010)

[2] Ibid., 93.

[3] Ibid., 94

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 97.

About the Author

mm

Bill Dobrenen

I am a husband, father, and educator. I love my wife, my two amazing children, and my students. My dissertation research is on the importance of Traditional Native-American Tribal Leadership Practices. Being in the LGP program is a gift from God for me during this season of my life. I look forward to another great year with my LGP4 cohort.

2 responses to “Reasonable Faith”

  1. mm rhbaker275 says:

    Bill,
    I really enjoyed your post. You are always reflective in your thinking which does allow deeper thinking and being flexible; allowing growth and maturation of one’s faith and spiritual understanding while maintaining a moral stance true to one’s beliefs is important.

    I love your photo icon of St Thomas Aquinas. I know you are a student of history; I also minored in church history while at WPC. Your post does justice to the author’s references to Aquinas whom the they might have referenced more than any other single theologian or philosopher. Like you, although I enjoy history, I did find it difficult to stay with some sections (and in fact did not).

    You noted your disagreement over the author conclusions. In the end, I discovered the possibility of making my own moral decisions within the matrix presented by the authors; sort of a way forward in the midst of uncertainty and indecision. I guess I felt they were true to their intent “to impart hope in the midst of the ‘unknowability’ of the enigma of life” (243) as we are constrained by our limits of knowledge and we are governed, to a large extent, by our hermeneutical suppositions. We are after all, not God. Ultimately, I found their prescriptive formulation when faced with indecision on moral practice to be helpful: collect, formulate, consider the problem, consider the solution, make a decision and evaluate (reflect).

    Great post, Bill.

  2. Bill…
    Good words. As I gear up to into my dissertation topic I sometimes wonder if Christians in our age demographic (we pesky baby boomers :)) are questioning now in a more “critical” way because we were not given that chance in our younger years — whether growing up in the faith or whether we came to Christian faith in our 30’s. The journey of your friend John parallels well the insights from Fowler (he of “stages of faith”) and Janet Hagberg & Robert Guelich (The Critical Journey: Stages in the Life of Faith). It is a healthy part of faith development.

    As the time to read this book approached I was apprehensive. I anticipated that it would be projective, but I found its primary premise for Christian ethics as centered in our relationship w/ God, others and creation a surprise and refreshing. That there are limits to their perception of how that might be applied is noted (glad you brought that up). Do you think there are areas of present post-modernity life that they perceive as outside the realm of Christian ethics discussion? In essence it seems the searching and growth of John (and others as well) means that the groundwork and the framework may have to be applied to terrain that before was considered unsuitable, but we now know is terrain that can be built upon… Thanks Bill for your wise and good words!

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