You just never know what thrills are in store when you get up in the morning. I would never have guessed, never have imagined, that last Sunday, when I sat down after the Gospel reading, I would hear a Hegelian interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount. It was classic – a clear exposition of one of the ways that Absolute Spirit has developed dialectically through history – the Torah as thesis, the Sermon on the Mount as antithesis, and later commentaries – illustrated by Thomas Aquinas’s distinction between individual and social morality – as the synthesis. Truth, ever evolving. As Hegel put it: “Truth lies in infinite qualification.”
It shouldn’t have been a surprise, because it shouldn’t be unusual. But it is unusual – unheard of even, because, I think, theology, unlike other bodies of knowledge, hasn’t caught up with the intellectual transformation wrought by the German Idealists in the 19th Century, chiefly by Hegel. According to Carl J. Friedrich, Hegel’s philosophy is the foundation of modern sociology, cultural anthropology, psychology, and, although he doesn’t list it in his enumeration, I think he might have included historiography. We are all Hegelians now, even those who have never heard of him, and those who have but would vehemently disagree. But theology is still, to the extent that it is coherently anything, Aristotelian.
Phyllis Tickle talks about the church going through intellectual upheavals and redefinitions every 500 years and says that we are in the midst of one of those turning points now. My own view is that what is needed is another tour de force a la Thomas Aquinas, a new Summa Theologica, recasting Christianity on Hegelian foundations as Aquinas recast it from Platonic foundations to Aristotelian when Aristotelianism had displaced Platonism in Western thought, thus saving Christianity from irrelevance by being ever more out of step with the current of Western thought.
Even though that is my assessment of a the crisis of our age; I also know that I can’t do it. I can’t even imagine what it would look like. It will take someone of the towering intellect of an Aquinas – an Aquinas for our age. Or will it? I wonder. In this age of Wikipedia and open software written collaboratively by many developers, might such a new Summa be written by the Holy Spirit through hundred of contributors? That would in itself be an example writ large of the dialectic process, as myriad theses are put forward, opposed by their antitheses, and subsumed in new syntheses, ad infinitum, as new truth evolves though “infinite qualification.”
Has it started perhaps? Was February 16, 2014, at St. Alban’s Episcopal Church in Washington DC, the beginning? Dare we imagine it? That would be “Good News” indeed. Thank you Jim Quigley for that brilliant sermon.
I close with this adaptation of the BCP Collect “Of a Theologian and Teacher.”
“O God, by your Holy Spirit you give to some the word of wisdom, to others the word of knowledge, and to others the word of faith. We praise your Name for the gifts of grace manifested in your servants, the theologians of the Church, and we pray that your Church may never be destitute of such gifts; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, now and for ever. Amen.”
Ron Hicks, Parish Verger, St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, Washington DC, 17-February-2014.