A plea for a measure of incoherence

A plea for a measure of incoherence April 24, 2016


   “Paradox” by Brett Jordan is licensed under CC by 2.0


Whenever a new and controversial papal or conciliar document appears on the scene (Ahem…Amoris Laetitia) there will always be, as smoke follows fire, people claiming that what the document teaches is in contradiction to previous teaching.  The story of nearly every schism follows this pattern: the claim of some contradiction between a teaching and previous teaching, followed by theological controversy, followed by ecclesiastical disunity. We should not be surprised by this. Like a poet at their desk tirelessly revising a new draft, a rational animal with good philosophical hygiene will regularly turn their attention to their body of beliefs in order to detect and resolve contradictions.  However, just as a inordinate preoccupation with one’s physical hygiene can be detrimental to one’s overall health (think of the person washing their hands until raw), so also a preoccupation with perfect consistency can become dangerous and pathological. I want to go further and claim that a little slovenliness in our theological beliefs is a healthy thing.

On the face of it, when confronted by a contradiction between two beliefs, we have two options.  We can either accept the one belief and reject the other, or visa versa.  However, it is often the case that what appears to be a contradiction turns out not to be, and that choosing one belief over the other will therefore lead us into error.  At the risk of greatly oversimplifying the history of the Christological controversies, we might say that people tended to err theologically in detecting and resolving contradictions (such as ‘Jesus is fully human’ and ‘Jesus is fully divine’) where in fact there was no such contradiction.  It is very understandable how someone might see a contradiction here.  The affirmation that Jesus is fully human seems to imply that he could not be fully divine.  For those of us with centuries of doctrinal development and theological reflection at our fingertips the answer (hypostatic union, communicatio idiomatum, etc., etc.) seems obvious enough.  This is an illusion fostered by our vantage point several centuries on.  We need to step out of our priveleged place in ecclesiastical history, fire up our imaginations, and place ourselves in the awful mess of the theological controversies of the 4th and 5th centuries.  Any Christian at the time wishing for immediate and complete coherence in their theological beliefs could easily have fallen into a number of heresies.  Bishops themselves often did not really understand what they were agreeing to when signing on to conciliar confessions.  It was a hopeless muddle and required decades and even centuries of reflection and debate by the best minds of the Christian world before some measure of clarity and coherence emerged.  The wise man or woman, such as one might find in the deserts of Skete and Nitria, tended to avoid theological controversy as a great danger.  I suggest that we also treat it with reserve.  Its true that there were those in these controversies that fought boldly, even defying authority.  We tend to remember the few great ones (Sts. Cyril and Athanasius, for example) who were vindicated and not the many who went astray.  I want to suggest that it is extremely unlikely that anyone reading this is a Cyril or Athanasius, and pretending you are could get you into trouble. That is not to say that we should not try to understand our faith and engage in theological reflection, only that we shouldn’t take our conclusions too seriously or see them as definitive.  We should certainly not take ourselves seriously enough to do things like defy our bishop, leave the Church, create a web forum for the similarly unhinged, elect an anti-pope, etc.   Therefore I would like to make a plea for a measure of incoherence. As Catholics we need to foster within ourselves a kind of negative capability– the ability to stay in uncertainty and seeming contradiction without trying to arrive at a definitive but premature resolution. In the meantime, we know the demands and discipline of the Christian life and we know of our need to stay in union with our bishop, and our bishop to the Holy Father.  Communion first.  Clarity later.


Browse Our Archives