What if we turned from academic theology to “common theology?” Would we find intriguing ideas in the great conversation of a diversity of theology minds? Dr. Eric Holloway thinks so and he wishes us to think with him.
Dr. Eric Holloway has a great texts degree, a MSc in Computer Science at the Air Force Institute of Technology and a PhD in Computer Engineering at Baylor University.
What if theology were a knowledge based discipline like philosophy,
science and mathematics? Today, if one cracks a theology textbook,
there is much discussion about religious scriptures, systematic
analysis of the scriptures, and delineation of doctrine. However, it
is all very distant from our common theology.
What do I mean by common theology? To understand, we have to first
look at the sibling of common theology: common philosophy. The origin
of philosophy in Greek culture was very tied to everyday life.
Socrates talked with common folk in the market place. Plate wrote up
Socrates’ ideas in engaging dialogues. In most of the dialogues, the
participants dealt with questions that applied to everyone’s life,
such as whether it was better to be good or powerful, the ultimate
purpose in life, why celebrities don’t know what they’re talking
about, and so on. Very nitty gritty and relevant. In this down to
earth setting, Socrates was able to investigate profound questions
that reached beyond our world. This is what I mean by common
What if there were likewise a common theology? Common theology is a
way of talking about whether there is an overarching intelligence
guiding the universe, and what its nature might be, in words people
like ourselves can understand. In fact, this notion of a common
theology started Socrates on his philosophical investigations.
In Plato’s dialogue Phaedo, Socrates states he was unsatisfied with
the intellectuals of his day and their explanations. When asked why a
man walks, the intellectuals would say because his leg muscles pulled
his bones. This was not the sort of explanation Socrates was looking
for. Socrates wanted to understand the purpose behind the man
walking. So, when asked why a man walks, Socrates would say because
the man wished to reach a destination.
Purpose implies mind, and this convinced Socrates there must be some
ultimate mind behind the world’s organization. Yet the intellectuals
who proposed an ultimate mind, such as Anaxagoras, left Socrates
unsatisfied. This motivated Socrates to seek out answers for himself,
and thus western civilization was born.
Let’s imagine common theology exists. In fact, we don’t have to
imagine. Common theology exists whenever anyone starts thinking about
the ultimate nature of our world for themselves. One of the common
conclusions people reach when they start wondering about such things
is similar to Socrates’ conclusion: there must be an ultimate mind
responsible for our world. The only minds that we know of are our
own, so it makes sense to see what we can figure out about the
ultimate mind based on our own minds.
Within our minds we note at least three basic things. There is the
mind itself, the ideas in the mind, and the emotions. Within our
human minds, these are different parts of our mind. Yet, that makes
us imperfect, since that means the parts have to come from somewhere
outside of ourselves. We don’t create our own minds. We are only
partially responsible for our ideas and emotions, and they often seem
to have lives of their own.
What does this say about the ultimate mind? If the ultimate mind also
has ideas and emotions like we do, then the ultimate mind cannot be
truly ultimate, since its ideas and emotions have their own existence.
Along with the ultimate mind, there also has to be ultimate ideas and
emotions alongside the mind. From this perspective, we end up with a
world populated by many sorts of ultimate things, as many ultimate
things as there are ideas and emotions, governed by an ultimate mind.
Yet this sort of notion does not quite make sense. We originally set
out to achieve an ultimate understanding of our world. The core
intuition is there should be some sort of theory of everything, some
origin for it all, some unifying principle. Instead, we ended up with
even more complexity than when we started, with way too many ultimate
things, and even more questions as to where all these things came
from. This way of thinking ends up being exhausting.
One solution people have tried is to say all the complexity is an
illusion. The only thing that really exists is the single mind. This
answer makes some amount of sense. At least it preserves the simple
origin that we set out to discover. At the same time, I’m pretty sure
the kitchen cabinet door that keeps jabbing me in the head exists.
Yet another way is to just insist there is an ultimate mind, and say
its nature is completely beyond our understanding. This approach also
has merit. Obviously, the ultimate mind is really great compared to
ours, and it is obvious we cannot understand everything. However,
there is a difference between completely not understandable versus not
completely understandable. Just like we cannot believe in square
circles and married bachelors, things that are completely not
understandable do not mean anything.
A better solution is offered by one of history’s greatest common
theologians, a medieval monk named Aquinas. He states the ultimate
mind is not different from its ideas and emotions. They ideas and
emotions are all the same fundamental thing as the ultimate mind.
This is because the ultimate mind is existence itself, so its ideas
and emotions cannot derive their existence from anything outside of
the mind. In this way, Aquinas explains there are three distinct
things in one ultimate mind, without falling into the problem of too
many ultimate things.
Aquinas’ idea is groundbreaking in the history of theology. Previous
approaches to common theology ended up stuck in the dilemmas above
that ultimately lead to too many ultimate things. Aquinas’ idea is
the first understanding of the ultimate mind that did not result in
too many ultimate things. However, today his breakthrough is not well
understood. Most modern theologies do not recognize the dilemma of
explaining how the ultimate mind can create the world, while preserve
the reality and distinction of both. Instead, modern theologies
reject either the ultimate mind, or insist it is totally alien to our
own self understanding.
These theological divisions lead to major disagreements today. If we
were to hop on board a time machine and bring Aquinas’ brilliance back
to our day, this would go a long way to resolving the disagreements we
face today. The first step in our trip back in time is to recover the
joy of common theology.