Student Essays in Christian Wisdom Competition
|The eighth annual Student Essays in Christian Wisdom Competition attracted 19 papers from nine Anglican seminaries and university divinity schools in the United States, Canada, and England.
Rebecca Bridges Watts of Seminary of the Southwest took the top prize with her paper, “‘They are no less capable of our Christianity’: 16th-century Catholic Missions in Indigenous Cultural Contexts,” which TLC was pleased to publish in its Oct. 8 edition.
Second place — Edward Watson, Yale Divinity School: “Seeking Wisdom in the Spaces of Schism: How Hooker and Coleridge’s Accounts of Reason Can Support Christian Unity.”
Third place — Martin Geiger, Virginia Theological Seminary: “History, Theology, and Mediation: Wisdom’s Female Character in Proverbs 1-9.”
We are grateful to the judges of this year’s competition: the Rev. Matthew Burdette, curate for student ministry at Church of the Good Shepherd, Dallas; the Rev. Zachary Guiliano, associate editor of TLC; the Rev. Beth Maynard, rector of Emmanuel Memorial Church, Champaign, Illinois; and the Rev. Katherine Sonderegger, William Meade Chair in Systematic Theology, Virginia Theological Seminary.
By Edward Watson
Division in the Church is at least as old as First Corinthians. It has had a long and storied past since then — to take two examples, a cursory glance over Christian history can cover the East-West Schism and the Reformation. There are of course positives to these great schisms. The churches that emerged from them have given rise to profound theological traditions and inspired faithful Christians, whilst efforts at rapprochement have provided beautiful moments of Christian dialogue. For all this, however, schism still pains the body of Christ. The bread at the Eucharist is indeed broken so that many may be fed, but this is the breaking open of God’s unity that brings diverse peoples together in grace. Even in the best light, schism is a fracture caused by the yeast of the Pharisees, where the imposition of human unity casts difference as necessitating division.
Compared with schisms of the past, the prospects of ecclesial amputation blighting the Anglican Communion can appear minor. The consecration of a breakaway bishop in Jesmond seems unlikely to echo through the corridors of history, let alone shape them. The treatment of Bishop Philip North is a low watermark, but will not have the ramifications of Calvin’s vilification in France. The emergence of GAFCON, meanwhile, may be of more consequence — but the nature of the time suggests it will not have the world-shaping impact of the Reformation. Even the loss of a digit causes pain, however, and the Church should not evaluate such things according to utilitarian calculi. These fractures are of significance, even (especially) when their antagonists are filled with sound and fury.
We must pray, then, that God’s grace will enliven scattered bones so as to transfigure potential disintegration into something more like ecclesial meiosis. One of the concrete forms of this prayer is to search traditions birthed by schism for resources that can help Christians live as the Church — not to live as the Church “once more,” moreover, as if we could reify nostalgia and gloss history, but to live as the Church which has this history. One such resource can be discerned through particular accounts of reason developed within the Anglican tradition.
It is not by accident that Paul focuses on human wisdom after expressing dismay at division in Corinth. Schism follows from human wisdom that has forgotten the internal dialectic of the Wisdom literature — that though “all Wisdom is from the Lord, and with him it remains forever” (Sir. 1:1), to know Wisdom is but chasing after wind (cf. Ecc. 1:17). Knowledge of Wisdom is of essential importance, since Wisdom calls us down the narrow path. But it is not by our knowledge of Wisdom that the hawk soars (Job 39:26), whether in nature or the symbolism of John the Evangelist. We must never forget this insufficiency. Or, to put it another way, we must seek to know Wisdom as She, not “it” — after all, there is no better limit to the presumption of sufficient knowledge than the inscrutable existence of persons.
We can now describe the knowledge of Wisdom as a form of human reason. There is a risk of doing violence to Paul here, since he speaks of human wisdom, not reason. It is possible, however, to cast his distinction between “God’s wisdom, secret and hidden” (1 Cor. 2:7) and “the wisdom of the world” (1 Cor. 1:20) in terms of Wisdom and reason. After all, the wisdom of the world can at best be this “knowledge of” God’s Wisdom, and this wisdom remains reason by its own standard even when it is folly according to the Wisdom it seeks to know. When reason does know Wisdom, meanwhile, it can be described as wisdom by analogy — but just as Christ’s humanity remains humanity in the Incarnation, so reason remains reason within this analogy.
If this is allowed, we can turn to Richard Hooker and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who together outline an account of reason tracing its necessity and its limits. Beginning with necessity, it is important to first note that Hooker ascribes primacy to revelation, since “Nature is no sufficient teacher what we should do that we may attain unto life everlasting.” This revelation is given to us in Scripture, which contains “whatsoever we neither could with safety be ignorant of, nor at all be instructed in but by supernatural revelation from him” (Hooker, 3.3.3). In order to approach Scripture as revelation, however, we require reason — for “of things necessary the very chiefest is to know what books we are bound to esteem holy; which point is confessed impossible for Scripture itself to teach” (Hooker, 1.14.1). The significance of the inspired words of Scripture, moreover, must be “known with presupposal of knowledge concerning certain principles whereof [Scripture] receiveth us already persuaded, and then instructeth us in all the residue that are necessary” (Hooker, 1.14.2). Hooker’s emphasis on revelation, then, “must be understood with this caution, that the benefit of nature’s light be not thought excluded as unnecessary, because the necessity of a diviner light is magnified” (Hooker, 1.14.4).
Precisely in its necessity, however, reason remains insufficient. This is first because it is a creaturely faculty, bound by the constraints of Nature. But this insufficiency can also be expressed in terms of how it functions. Coleridge claims that “it is the office, and, as it were, the instinct of Reason to bring a unity into all our conceptions.” This does appear to be how reason works — we observe manifold particulars, and as we are taught to discern commonalities and differences we develop abstract conceptions under which particulars can be united. Crucially, it can be easily overlooked that the “most indispensable of these notional beings [are] but the necessary forms of thinking … [which subsist] solely in the mind that contemplates them” (Coleridge, p.109). We needn’t get lost in controversy between realism and nominalism here. All that must be claimed is that even if Forms are real, our concepts function in more diverse modes than naïve realism appears to allow, since they are ‘phantasms’ of the real and so cannot attain absoluteness (this is, I believe, Aquinas’s view). Because our abstract conceptions can be employed in diverse ways, then, appeals to universal notions cannot furnish us with universal claims. And because these conceptions cannot comprehend the manifold, we cannot treat any part of our knowledge as encompassing the whole.
The very nature of the raw materials of reason thus shows why “we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part” (1 Cor. 13:9). In virtue of its limited reality, reason cannot play the unifying role proper to Wisdom alone — it can only impose unity upon the world, not create it. This then substantiates the Catholic theologian Hans Urs Von Balthasar’s claim (worth repeating in full) that:
We cannot set up any kind of universally valid norm for theological pronouncements … Even the revelation in scripture itself displayed a wide range of expressions that are dialectical and indirect … Whoever tries to select from the statements of Scripture — or, worse, declares that one moment is irreconcilable with another — has also made his choice, that is, has excluded one whole aspect of the issue. Materially speaking, that is the very definition of a heretic: one who makes arbitrary, stunted choices. They have excluded from the treasury of faith the full series of statements by the simple edict that declares: ‘Impossible’ — whereas they should insure that everything in the treasury of faith be illumined by the light that the Word of God wishes to shine on it.
These descriptions elide much of Hooker and Coleridge’s accounts. And it should not be assumed that they are at one in every question of reason. But with the qualification that this is an introductory sketch, not a comprehensive survey, we can begin to see how it furnishes an account of reason that may serve the Church as it seeks loving communion in, with, and through Jesus Christ. It emphasizes the necessity of reason, such that no appeal can be made to Wisdom as if it were known apart from the contingencies of human knowing. And it emphasizes the functional and natural insufficiency of this reason, meaning that the wisdom of the world cannot be held over God’s Wisdom as standard or arbiter.
Turning to questions of schism and reconciliation, we can make two observations. First, several fractures in the Anglican Communion are characterized by a failure to take into account one or other aspect of this account of reason. To take one example: GAFCON is correct in asserting that many within the Communion have “rejected the authority of God’s written Word and have put their trust in their own reason.” There has been a failure to take into account the inability of human reason to encompass Wisdom, and too much faith placed in secular knowledge. But in claiming to represent a way of restoring the Bible which is not subject to the dialectics (and so the critique) of reason, GAFCON has forgotten that Scripture must be known through reason. It has as such read one particular form of reason into the position of Wisdom Herself — and so in attempting to faithfully lift up Scripture, it has instead claimed Scriptural authority for its own rational principles.
Secondly, however, we can observe that resources for healing these fractures can be discerned from within the Anglican tradition they threaten. Elements within this tradition affirm the necessity of reason, and so the necessity that any rational position be open to critical dialogue (especially positions with Biblical foundation). They also affirm the contingency of reason’s unifying faculties, so as to refuse human reason the authority to categorically adjudicate matters of ‘nature’ or usurp the primacy of God’s revelation. There must therefore always be room for the love and grace that characterizes God’s Wisdom within the spaces of division, since these spaces are grounded in the mutual finitude of our shared reason. Rather than presuming the presence Wisdom on our own side of the threatening divide, then, we must instead seek Her by stepping out of our own certainties and meeting each other in those spaces. We must seek truth in the honest faith of those with whom we fundamentally disagree whilst acknowledging the logs in our own eyes.
The point here is not that all will be well if we return to some core of Anglican tradition. After all, if this tradition were a safeguard, it is unclear how things could have deteriorated. The point is that resources for navigating schismatic divides can be discerned in the tradition of a church born through schism. We can have faith, then, that Christ turns the breaking of His Body towards its own healing (and so the healing of the world as well). We can have faith that the Wisdom of God is stronger than our folly, and that this Wisdom turns our reason towards knowledge of Her. Finally, for our part, we must give glory to that Wisdom by seeking Her where She wills to be found — in the spaces between factions of reason, which we must explore in love and humility so as to come to know each other anew in Christ.
 Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity: An Abridged Edition, ed. A.S. McGrade and Brian Vickers (Sidgwick and Jackson, 1975), Book 1. Chapter 14. Paragraph 1. Following citations take the pattern of the BCP.
 Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Aids to Reflection and The Confessions of an Inquiring Spirit (G. Bell and Sons, 1904), p.109
 Hans Urs Von Balthasar and Edward T. Oakes, The Theology of Karl Barth, 3rd ed. (Communio Books, Ignatius Press, 1992), p. 358