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On the (In)Adequacy of Theological Description

Peter Van Inwagen is one of my favourite philosophers not only because he is brilliant and because he discusses matters that interest me, but also because his writing characteristically includes a welcome quotient of smarty-pantsery. Indeed, he seems unable to write for very long without taking an amusing poke at some deserving fool or foolishness. This, in my book, qualifies him at least for beatification.

In the following selection, however, he restrains himself from puckishness and offers a powerful argument-by-way-of-illustration against all those, within and without the Church, who chide theology (and, indeed, the Bible itself) for offering such partial, somewhat incoherent, and generally not-completely-satisfactory views of even the most basic tenets of the Christian faith. (Creation ex nihilo, origins of evil, original sin itself, incarnation, atonement, salvation, … pretty much every topic in the syllabus of dogmatics.) Van Inwagen suggests that we should not be so hard on theologians, as we ought not to be on the Biblical writers themselves, for not being capable of rendering for us accounts of these great subjects in crystalline clarity:

Christian mysteries are News, and the recipients of news are not always in a position to understand it perfectly. I believe that in relation to the Christian mysteries, we Christians are like people who have never seen a mirror, or even a reflection in a pond, trying to grasp the nature of a mirror from listening to one of their fellows who has been shown a looking glass by traveler. Perhaps the closest analogy the observer of the mirror can find is provided by pictures scratched in the sand: “A ‘mirror’ is a kind of flat plate that shows pictures like the ones we scratch in the sand, but they’re three-dimensional—looking at a mirror is almost like looking through a window, even though the mirror has hardly any thickness and you just see an ordinary surface if you turn around and look at the back—and they’re in color, and they’re absolutely perfect pictures (except that they’re backward), and they change and move just the way real things do, and the mirror always shows pictures of the things right in front of it.” One can easily imagine the conceptual havoc a skeptical philosopher among these people could wreak on this attempt at description. Nevertheless, considering the situation of the speaker and his audience, it’s a good, practical description of a mirror. (It would, for example, almost certainly enables someone who had never seen a mirror to recognize a mirror on his first encounter with one.) In my view, creedal descriptions of the Trinity and the Incarnation are good, practical descriptions of real things, descriptions that will do till we no longer see through a glass darkly. I’m confident that they are at least as good as descriptions of curved space or the wave-particle duality in works of popular science.

Over and over again in debates private and public, I find it helpful to stress that the kind of argument we are having (what counts as evidence? as a good argument? as a valid conclusion?) depends on the kind of subject we are investigating. It is both stupid and counterproductive to argue about, say, the reliability of Bible on the terms of laboratory science, or to argue about the epistemological value of religious experience on the terms of deductive logic. The kind of debate depends on the kind of thing debated. Van Inwagen implicitly helps us in this regard, even as he also implicitly rules out a double standard for explanations of very strange subjects in religion versus very strange subjects in physics.

By all means, let’s keep arguing, rather than each of us leaving each other alone marooned, if also unperturbed, on tiny islands of What We Think We Know. But let’s argue well, which means appropriately. Van Inwagen helps us here, I think, with this marvelous illustration.

(The quotation is from his contribution, “Quam Dilecta,” in God and the Philosophers, ed. Thomas V. Morris [Oxford UP: 1994], 47-48.)


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