The Glass of Vision Lecture 5: The Rational Theologian’s Analogy

If the heavens declare the glory of God, then they do so in a natural voice, not an angelic one. For a religious person, however, “God” is not simply a name for some feature of the natural world. “For God appears in our thoughts as the name of a real being we attempt to desSpider_web_necklace_with_pearls_of_dew-1.jpgcribe, not as a convenient analogical term used by us in describing something else, in describing the moral conscience, for example.” Yet, if we cannot directly point to God, how can we know that our idea is not simply one of those “superstitions that die extremely hard“?

Part of Austin Farrer’s answer is to point to the persistence of our ideas about God across time and cultures. He is convinced, additionally, that the various mysteries, not problems (see the previous lecture), of life all draw together in our lives. Our whole conscious existence is a mystery that is at once a given, but, as we take a step back to examine it, also the point on which the other mysteries seem to converge like lines of a spider’s web toward the center. We feel the tremors of something on the edges if we are attentive. Our sensitivity to these ‘disturbances’ may vary, but in “such a knowledge of our own existence there is some knowledge of God involved.” [emphasis mine]

Farrer uses another analogy, that of a shadow which is imperceptible until it falls on a certain kind of material.

…the vast shadow of my Creator himself might fall over my shoulder into the field of finite things before my eyes. Then the visibility of the shadow to me would depend on the substance it found on which to print its figure. A shadow may fall for ever imperceptible through empty air, but even mist or smoke on the motes in the sunbeam will embody it, better still a solid surface, a shining surface best of all. So perhaps our awareness of the infinite Act depends on the materials for a shadow of him presented by finite existence: perhaps that sheerly given metaphysical mystery with which rational theology wrestles is the shadow of the Infinite in finite being.

Whether these metaphors are wishful thinking or the dawning of the awareness of God is hard to decide unless there is something else to add to the picture. I’m reminded of a quote from the poet, Christian Wiman, who said, “Human imagination is not simply our means of reaching out to God but God’s means of manifesting himself to us.” Altogether, Farrer thinks similarly. Natural (rational) theology lacks the important initiative of God which breaks into our color-box of analogies. “If the mind begins to perceive God involuntarily, it must be that acts of discourse about God are forced upon the mind.” God is known through divine actions in the world which are veiled in the finite. We cannot bypass metaphors, analogies, or images to acquire some sort of imageless truth. Rationally speaking, we are at something like an impasse. God must reveal more of himself to us in the mode of the finite. That revelation is the life and, more importantly, the person of Jesus. We should not confuse this, however, with a narrowing of revelation at this point, although it is true that critics of Farrer frequently point out that he does seem to restrict the interpretation of this revelation to the apostolic witness. I will leave the discussion of whether or not this constitutes a historical clamp on revelation and simply note that I believe the debate originates in the differences between saying scripture is “uniquely inspired” vs. “uniquely normative”. For more discussion of the implications of Austin Farrer’s supernatural/natural distinction for Christology, see Rowan William’s 2016 Hulsean Lectures, especially the first and final lectures of the six-part series.

In any case, Farrer stands in the broad, classical tradition of fides quaerens intellectum, faith reflecting on itself and the intelligible patterns in the world. Rational theology may not be an impossibility from the standpoint of unbelief, but it’s hard to imagine. Yet, once we have a living faith, that faith illuminates the reasoning process. Without the overarching narrative in which to place the clues, they remain isolated facts. Essentially faith and reason are unified, but the order in which we arrive at this harmony is what is in question here. The framing of this all in terms, which the lectures began with, of the knowledge of the infinite only through the finite, continues to illuminate the choices that Farrer makes.