Michael Rea in his introduction to Analytic Theology: New Essays in the Philosophy of Theology engages with the work on Merold Westphal, who posits that onto-theology (that is, the notion that theology can properly tell us something about God, is a major sin to be avoided.1 Rea quotes from Westphal, emphasize the reference to Martin Heidegger, who believes that the purpose of theology is to serve “concrete Christian existence.”2 In other words, theology is envisioned as a program of exploration that is about impacting one’s own way of life; the focus of theology is decidedly humanistic. Practicality is the main criterion of theology. By contrast, analytic theology has a proclivity towards engaging in questions of truth about God Himself3. Amidst theology, there is an all too familiar class between the “theoretical” and “practical,” or as it is experienced in the context of the Church, between orthodoxy and orthopraxy.
However, the division between the two appears quite foreign to the New Testament and more particularly the Pauline literature. The Apostle Paul’s prayer in Colossian 1:9-144 cuts right to the heart of the division that we are so familiar with.
For this reason, since the day we heard it, we have not ceased praying for you and asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so that you may lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, as you bear fruit in every good work and as you grow in the knowledge of God. May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light. He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. (NRSV)
This prayer is offered up in response to the joy that PAul has in the growing of the gospel among the saints of Colossae, along with the rest of the world. Paul was hearing witnesses to the work that God’s love had been producing and he was eagerly seeking for this growth to continue; it is the very thing they had “not ceased praying for” (v. 9) Furthermore, the request for “wisdom and understanding” (I will come back to this in a minute) serves a purpose of “lead[ing] lives worthy of the Lord.” At one level then, we can be inclined to see the practical, orthopraxic focus within Paul’s prayer.
However, the request of the prayer itself does not easily fit within a “concrete Christian existence.” It is directed towards not a practical knowledge and capacity to live pleasing to God, but it is ‘onto-theological’ in seeking for the saints the “knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding.” One may certainly try to append onto the words knowledge (‘epignosin’), wisdom (‘sophia’) and understand (‘synesei’) an assumed practical (practical knowledge, practical wisdom, practical understanding), but this will not do for Paul’s letter to the Colossians. Paul’s usage of these words are described in relationship to God5, the Spirit6 and even Christ.7 Furthermore, PAul’s prayer transitions in the panegyric of Colossians 1:15-19, where there is little notion of human practicality; it is a praise of the all-encompassing, divine nature of Christ. That Paul follows this with the implications of Christ’s stature being the saints reconciliation through Jesus death in 1:21-23 only solidifies the notion that the knowledge, wisdom, and understanding is no mere ‘practicality.’
That Paul seemlessly sees the interconnection between what we might categorize as orthodoxy/theory and orthopraxy/practice suggests something deeper is happening that ‘transcends’ the normal human experience of the differing modes of thinking. Whether the theory-practice distinction is a cultural byproduct or a human universal, it does not in Paul’s mind have anything to say to the saints of the Church. Theology has both a ‘practical’ and ‘noumenal’8 dimension to it that interweaves together. Being inspired by Paul’s panegyric, one might even say Christ inhabits both the practical and theoretical dimensions.
That there is a relationship between the two ‘modes’ of thinking points to philosophical perspectives that rejects the implicit dualism that make strong distinctions between various modes of life and thinking in abstract and concrete ways, such as Descartes distinction of mind-body and Kant’s distinction between the phenomenal and noumenal. Philosophical perspectives that take into consideration embodiment cognition as propounded and popularized by Eleanor Rosch and George Lakoff offer a way of understanding the interconnection of the abstract with ‘concrete,’ embodied experience and, therefore, can incorporate theology having both practical and analytic goals that interweave together. This is not to mention the implication an embodied philosophy would have to overlap with the understanding of the Incarnation.
- Rea, Michael. “Introduction” Kindle Edition of Analytic Theology: New Essays in the Philosophy of Religion. Edited by Michael Rea and Oliver Crisp. Oxford: 2009.
- Although, it is not chained to such goals
- I am assuming Paul’s authorship of Colossians
- 1:9 and 2:2
- ‘pneumatikos’ in 1:9
- See Kant’s distinction between the phenomenal we see and the noumenal we don’t