God, the model parent, leads us to...

Doctrine, then Morality, then Divinity

Ellen T. Charry: I first started noticing purpose clauses while reading Thomas Aquinas's treatise on the passion of Christ: Christ was lifted up on the cross to purify the air; he stretched his arms out to bring all nations to himself. I started rooting around for similar comments that indicated why God did such and such, working out details of the biblical narrative. I worked back from Aquinas to Anselm, to Augustine, and finally to Athanasius, and found similar comments: God did all things gently and by persuasion in order to gain our trust; Christ became human so that we might become divine. I saw that the explanations of the divine rationale were to a practical purpose.

It slowly dawned on me that what I was seeing made sense to me from my years of experience as a mother, and that this perspective had been left out of account by modern theology. These older writers thought of God on the model of a good parent. Taking the doctrines of the Christian faith seriously was assumed to change how we think and act - to remake us. The theologians who shaped the tradition believed that God was working with us to teach us something, to get our attention through the Christian story, including those elements of the story that make the least sense to us. They were interested in forming us as excellent persons. Christian doctrines aim to be good for us by forming or reforming our character; they aim to be salutary [health-giving]. They seek to form excellent persons with God as the model, and this in a quite literal sense, not as metaphors pointing to universal truths of human experience that lie beyond the events themselves. In other words, I came to see that the great theologians of the past were also moralists in the best sense of the term. They were striving not only to articulate the meaning of the doctrines but also their pastoral value or salutarity - how they are good for us.

I also noticed that they understood human happiness to be tied to virtuous character, which in turn comes from knowing God. Becoming an excellent person is predicated on enjoying God. For these theologians, beauty, truth, and goodness - the foundation of human happiness - come from knowing and loving God and nowhere else. I realized then why this no longer makes sense to us. All of these have become disjoined in the modern world, and especially the postmodern world, with the unsettling consequence that from the point of view of the classical tradition, we are moral and intellectual barbarians.

Excerpted from the Preface (p. vii-viii) to "By The Renewing of Your Minds" by Ellen T. Charry, New York: Oxford University Press. 1997. [Emphasis ABCOG].


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