Who can object to an effort to affirm both faith and learning! We sang Praise the Source of Faith and Learning in our graduation services at Perkins School of Theology. Perfect for university related theology school, right? (Complete lyrics below)
Except. Except that last section of the third verse. “May our learning curb the error, which unthinking faith can breed, lest we justify some terror, with an antiquated creed.“
One can see where this hymn is coming from. The mind, engaged scientifically with discovering how the world has been designed and thus full of a sense of wonder, leads to an ever growing faith. Faith just has to keep the mind humble enough to acknowledge that it cannot find the purpose of creation and thus the source of wonder, God.
But having asked that faith correct the hubris of the mind the hymn writer wanted a balancing stanza. He wanted “our learning” to correct “unthinking faith” that breeds error and ultimately terror justified by “ancient creeds.” Faith and learning are equals, interacting with and correcting each other.
This is deeply problematic. While faith, which arises when the human soul is grasped by God, rightly corrects the limited human mind (made in the image of its Creator,) the reverse cannot possibly be the case. Human learning may help us articulate clearly to ourselves and others our emerging understanding of the natural world and our faith in God. But it cannot possibly, given its limitations, judge the God given relationship of the human to the divine. That would be humans judging God.
Nor does the phrase “unthinking faith” help us here. Faith precedes thought. If it is “unthinking” it may well be inarticulate or misleading. But it is precisely the “thinking” part of faith that needs to be corrected, not faith itself. Put another way, thinking can judge thinking because both are human activities. Thinking cannot judge faith because faith is purely a gift of God.
(Unless the hymn writer has somehow confused faith with beliefs, which is possible but renders the hymn meaningless. Religious beliefs are simply a subset of what humans learn, not a compliment.)
Of course ascribing terror to an “antiquated creed” is just the typical progressive cheap shot at the way in which the church has articulated its faith through the ages. One wonders just which “antiquated creed” the hymn writer and singers would abandon. Read the following lines:
I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth, and in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord. Who was born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontus Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. The third day he rose from the dead, ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of God the Father Almightly. From thence he shall come to judge the living and the dead. I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.
Take away the gendered language for God and is there something here that represents “unthinking faith?” Is there something here we need to abandon to avoid creating terror?
The creeds are precisely the most thoughtful and complete articulation of Christian faith. To abandon the creeds, or any part of them, is to abandon the only basis on which the mind can judge and correct its understanding of its own faith.
From a classical Christian theological perspective faith and learning are not two streams that merge and lead to God. Faith is rather the beginning and end of learning, as it is of wonder, love, and praise.
One reason that the United Methodist Church, and indeed all mainline denominations, have such internal strife is that our public discourse, in this case a hymn, represents a subtle but obvious undermining of classical Christian theology around the relationship of faith and learning.
And in that respect it, and others like it, are political. They promote an understanding of the relationship between faith and human intellectual activity that favors one particular side of any number of consequential debates about human ethics.
Since John Wesley’s time United Methodists have been known for singing their theology. I fear we are now singing our theological conflicts.
Praise the source of faith and learning, that has sparked and stoked the mind, with a passion for discerning, how the world has been designed.
Let the sense of wonder flowing, from the wonders we survey, keep our faith forever growing, and renew our need to pray.
God of wisdom we acknowledge, that our science and our art, and the breadth of human knowledge, only partial truth impart.
Far beyond our calculation, lies a depth we cannot sound, where your purpose for creation, and the pulse of life are found.
May our faith redeem the blunder, of believing that our thought, has displaced the grounds for wonder, which the ancient prophets taught.
May our learning curb the error, which unthinking faith can breed, lest we justify some terror, with an antiquated creed.
As two currents in a river, fight each other’s undertow, till converging they deliver, one coherent steady flow,
Blend, O God, our faith and learning, till they carve a single course, till they join as one, returning, praise and thanks to you, the Source.