Analytic Theology and the First Commandment

July 20th, 2016 by

NOTE: This post was written by guest blogger, Michael Rea. 

When I was nine years old, I thought that I destroyed God.   The whole sad scenario unfolded as follows.

I was lying in bed thinking about how Jesus had said that anything we ask in his name will be done for us.  “Anything?” I wondered?  Literally anything?  That’s what the text seemed to say; but then, so I thought, if someone asked in Jesus’ name for God to destroy himself, then God would be bound to do it. So far just a theoretical problem; but then, foolishly, I tried it—quickly, barely forming the blasphemous words in my mind, but saying them all the same.

Then came the panic. God had said “anything”, and God’s promises never fail.  I had ruined the world for everyone, all with a few minutes of careless thought.  “I should go tell my mom,” I thought.

It did not take me very long to recognize some naiveté in my thinking.  Surely the omniscient creator of the universe would have foreseen just such a scenario and taken measures to provide a way out of it without compromising divine fidelity to promise-keeping.

Just what measures God might have taken, I had no idea; they were certainly beyond my ken. But God and the world were safe from me, and it was now just a task for further reflection to figure out what exactly Jesus meant by saying that anything we ask in his name would be given to us.

Figuring out what Jesus meant by the things he said, figuring out what the authors of scripture meant by the things that they wrote, and figuring out what the core doctrines of Christianity come to has been, I now realize, a (nearly) lifelong passion of mine.

Christianity is, fundamentally, the commitment of one’s whole life to Jesus, the divine Word made flesh; but what kind of commitment is it that is grounded in and arises out of only fragmentary understanding of the Word?  How can we live out commitment to Christ without growing in our understanding of who and what Jesus is, how he relates to God the Father and Holy Sprit, and what exactly he asks of us?  How could such a commitment be lived out if one has no idea what kinds of things it makes sense to pray for, or what one is even doing when one prays in Jesus’ name (something I refused to do when I was very young, because I had no clear idea what I was invoking when I said those words)?

The foremost commandment is to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind; but what is it to love God with one’s whole mind if not to seek as great an understanding as possible of the things of God?  Jeremiah 9:24 suggests that the only knowledge worth boasting of—and so, presumably, the kind of knowledge that is most fundamentally worthwhile—is knowledge of God. But how can one acquire that, or at least learn how to acquire it, without reflecting carefully on what is said and implied by the words of scripture?

It has sometimes been said that philosophy is just the persistent attempt to think clearly. This fares better as a slogan than a serious definition; but, especially as a characterization of what is nowadays referred to as analytic philosophy, it conveys a true point. In a similar vein, one might say that analytic theology is the persistent attempt to think clearly about God and other spiritual matters.

There is more to be said about what analytic theology is, of course—some of which I have already said in my introduction to Analytic Theology: New Essays in the Philosophy of Theology, and even more of which has been said elsewhere in the pages of that volume, in the various books and articles that have now been written about analytic theology, and on this very blog.  But the slogan-like characterization on its own should suffice to make clear the tremendous appeal that analytic theology might have for someone who places high premium on understanding the person and the doctrines to which their life has been committed. It should make clear the attraction that analytic theology ought to hold for anyone who recognizes that the words we say in church mean things that have real practical and theoretical implications that matter for our lives, and who recognizes that we owe it to ourselves and others to attend carefully to these implications as we live out our commitment to God’s Word.

Michael Rea is Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Center for Philosophy of Religion at the University of Notre Dame, and a Professorial Fellow in the Logos Institute for Analytic and Exegetical Theology at the University of St. Andrews. His research focuses on contemporary metaphysics, philosophy of religion, and analytic theology. He is currently writing a book on the topic of divine hiddenness, portions of which will be given as Gifford Lectures at the University of St. Andrews in Spring, 2017.

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