Limits of Christian Imagination


Internationally acclaimed Australian poet, theologian and philosopher Kevin Hart presented the following lecture to the Centre for the Study of Science, Religion and Society, Emmanuel College, the University of Queensland, addressing the question: “Does a belief in revelation impose severe limitations on the creative freedom of Christian artists?”

This question is very rich in concepts and assumptions, and these must be plucked from the question and individually examined in some detail before the question can be answered, even in a preliminary way.

In particular, it is worth noting at the outset that the notions of “belief” and “revelation” appear to be set in tension with the notions of “creativity” and “freedom,” especially with respect to art.

Let me begin by commenting on the two concepts that, in terms of the question, appear to be the more challenging.


The concept of belief needs to be approached with care since it is easy to confuse natural belief with religious belief. Since Cicero, if not before, it has been common to speak of belief within the natural realm. Let me give a couple of examples of this.

I do not have theoretical knowledge that there will ever dawn a 1 January 2018 on the planet Earth (a massive comet or nuclear war might destroy all life on the planet beforehand), but it is nonetheless reasonable for me to believe that such a day will occur. Without an extension of natural belief, all sociality is null and void.

Qualitatively distinct from natural faith is religious faith, which has various modes in different religions and which I think is widely misunderstood within the Christian religion. I will restrict myself to the Christian tradition and, within that, to the Latin Catholic inflection of the tradition.

Religious faith in the Latin Catholic rite has two poles: fides qua and fides quae. Fides qua is faith in something; fides quae is what one has faith in. The two are related: the fides qua is the subjective pole that is related to the inter-subjective pole of the fides quae.

In the Catholic faith no one, not even the pope when speaking of faith and morals ex cathedra, may add to the fides quae without respecting what the people actually believe and practice. As St. Prosper of Aquitaine phrases it, lex orandi, lex credendi: what the people pray determines what the Church can determine as the fides quae.

St. Prosper’s dictum is supplemented by the Vincentian test of orthodox belief – namely, that the fides quae must have been believed everywhere, by everyone, and at all times. Of course, St. Prosper’s dictum and the Vincentian test have not always been rigorously or even fairly applied, especially with regards to Eastern Orthodoxy, and due care must be taken also to ensure thatsacra doctrina can be properly developed. But how to balance the development of doctrine with the universality of what is believed is not a question I can consider here.

Besides, the relations between fides qua and fides quae tell us very little indeed about what faith is concretely. We learn far more when we ponder the differences between several apparently similar Latin expressions: credere deum (to believe in a God),credere deo (to believe God) and credere in deum (to believe in God).

It is quite possible to believe in a God and not to be Christian: deists are in this position, for example, as are those who believe in God but not in a personal God. It is equally possible to believe in the words of God: even the fallen angels, as conceived in theBook of Enoch and beyond, know that God speaks the truth, but they elect to do otherwise than He says.

The required idea of faith for Christians is credere in deum, which is usually translated as “to believe in God” but which is better translated as “to believe into God.” A sure grasp of the Latin expression enables us to see that faith in God is not a matter of affirming specific propositions – those which could be detailed by way of a tabulation of the fides quae – but rather is an entire orientation of life so that, as one lives, one gradually enters the divine life, here and now and always.

Faith, then, does not lead one to God; rather, it leads one into God. It is not principally a matter of assenting to propositions but is essentially a way of life, one that calls for conversion: metanoia, which means simply “change of mind.”

In the Latin tradition this new life occurs through focused mental activity. Remember the title of St. Bonaventure’s great treatise:Itinerarum mentis in deum, “the mind’s journey into God.” How does the mind journey into God? Not simply by thought, and not merely by meditation, but most completely by contemplation, in which love supervenes with respect to knowledge. Such is the view of Richard of St. Victor who, to my mind, is clearest on this point. What follows from this view?

To begin with, “faith” is not, first and foremost, assent to a series of propositions. This is not to say that those propositions are unimportant; on the contrary, they point us into the mystery that claims us. Without the propositions of the Creed being clearly stated, and without appropriate meditation on them, one cannot be pointed to the mystery. Yet we need to be aware of a deeper dimension of the Creed.

The Latin version of the Nicene-Constantipolitian Creed begins Credo in unum Deum, which is usually translated as “I believe in one God” but which is more properly, if more awkwardly, rendered into English as “I believe myself into the one God.” A propositional understanding of the first clause of the Symbol would not make sense to an educated Catholic, for strictly one cannot believe in the one God: the unity of God is given by the natural light of reason. Put otherwise, there is no genus of divinity: whether or not there is an actual God, the meaning of the word “God” in the Judeo-Christian world is that of an absolutely singular deity.

The Nicene-Constantinopolitian Creed has various functions in the Church, including self-identification of oneself as a member of the believing community; it has a distinct history of early Christological and Trinitarian disputes summarized in its clauses. The Creed has an immense liturgical significance. And it also has a great theological significance. But it is not a theological encyclopaedia – for instance, it tells us how Christ entered and left the world, and does not say very much at all about what he taught and did while on earth.

When I recite the Creed, I not only subscribe to particular beliefs but also affirm something that is fundamentally pre-thetic – namely, something to do with the basic orientation of my life as determined by an act of faith. That act of faith has the structure of double affirmation: I must always say “yes” to my initial act of faith in deeds as well as verbal assurances. I commit myself, as I say the Creed, to dispositions and acts that orient me to the one God, the God of Israel and the God of Jesus; and I trust that the acts I perform, those guided by Jesus’s understanding of agape, will enable me to participate in the divine life here and now, which is always social, as well as in whatever mode of life is offered to me after my empirical death.

So my creedal claim is not merely that I am led to God, the real God and not an idol, but, more radically, that I am led into the very life of God. The fides quae, then, is not a set of propositions that is less certain than theoretical propositions or those propositions based on sensuous intuitions; instead, taken together, it is a formal indication that, if I live in a certain way, guided by particular beliefs that I must seek to understand, I will be brought into the divine life: the imago dei that marks me as individual and as a social being will participate more fully in the divine life, which is at once immanent and transcendent. I have been given a life in order to live in just that way, and it may well take decades to achieve, and, however it is done, it will be done in a singular manner. There is no generic way of being Christian.

In Christianity we have a name for this mode of life, and it plays a fundamental role in my theology: we call it “the Kingdom of God.”

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SOURCE: ABC Religion and Ethics
Kevin Hart

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