After having posted some quotes from the first chapter of Discerning the Mystery, I’m posting an overview of the rest of this chapter “Dissociation of Sensibility”.

Andrew Louth, Discerning the Mystery. An Essay on the Nature of Theology (Oxford, Clarendon, 1983)

In addressing the division between theology and spirituality Andrew Louth points to how the traditional object of theology, namely God, has retreated from view. The commitment that prayer implies is somehow seen as comprising the objectivity of theology, whose object instead becomes other theologians. He quotes Kerkegaard:

To me the theological world is like the road along the coast on a Sunday afternoon during the races – they storm past one another, shouting and yelling, and when at last they arrive, covered with dust and out of breath – they look at each other and go home. (4)

When and how this division entered theology is a matter of discussion. The emergence of the universities in the twelfth century and the ensuing divergence between monastic and scholastic theology is cited as one moment, with the conflict between Bernard and Abelard coming to symbolise this division. Whereas Augustine had held knowledge and love together, arguing that we cannot love what we do not know, with Bernard they become juxtaposed and love is seen as more fundamental. However, there is also evidence to suggest that the original unity of the patristic vision continued in scholastic theology and that the real divide came after Thomas Aquinas and was especially linked with the nominalism of Scotus and Ockham. Their focus on abstract possibilities led to much purely theoretical discussion contributing to the barrenness of later medieval theology. It is hardly surprising that the fourteenth century brought a rise of affective mysticism that was hostile to academic theology.

Such developments paved the way for both the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. The former undermined the traditional way of understanding things as something inherited, while the latter substituted this with the idea that there is a method by which we gain access to the truth. With Descartes and Locke doubt replaces prejudice as the privileged means to truth and prejudice comes to be seen in pejorative terms. Louth comments:

Such an approach to knowledge involves a break with tradition, not only in the sense that it is a different way of proceeding from what preceded it, but also in a more fundamental sense: for it destroys the notion of tradition altogether. According to Descartes, and even more Locke, man’s mind is a tabula rasa upon which ideas are to be freshly written; there are no ‘innate understandings’. The word ‘prejudice’ acquires pejorative overtones: it means simply an unfounded judgement, which is therefore to be rejected. A statement is not conceded to be true simply because it is correct, but only if it can be shown to have a proper methodological justification. (8)

The emphasis on method is reinforced by the successful use of method in the natural sciences in which it becomes a proven way of attaining truth. However, the natural sciences deal with quantifiable data, repeatable experiments and mathematical language whereas the humanities are dependent on the language of words. The humanities are moreover historical “in the sense that they do not study what is independent of any particular time, as in the case with the sciences, but study man in society, his language, his thoughts, his actions.” (11)

This historicity of knowledge in the humanities, in which the writings of the past reveal a world that is different to ours, led to a search for a method. One possibility was that of using our experience of the present as a criterion for judging statements of the past. Thus Voltaire rejects that in the past which seems incredible to him. Another possibility was not to reject the incredible but rather, with Spinoza, to seek an imaginative conjecture whereby we attempt to see the world as the ancients would have seen it. But this in effect ends up explaining away that which is foreign to us, such as the miraculous. Yet another possibility was the option of the Romantics to view all ages as equally important, but despite their enthusiasm for the past they effectively ended up treating the whole tradition as equally false.

This emphasis on method, and in particular the historical-critical method, leads to “an utterly horrendous division” that opens up within the humanities themselves. (13) A gulf develops between philosophy, for instance, and the history of philosophy and “the philosophers are no longer of interest in themselves; they are interesting only as they contribute to the history of the subject.” (14) And this gulf has rather curious effects, for philosophers do not think in isolation but in dialogue with one another, including with those who are dead.

Louth argues that this divide between the humanities and their history can take two forms. When a discipline is fairly confident then the past becomes a quarry in which contemporary practitioners can search for arguments and trace the development of their subject. But when a discipline lacks confidence this leads to a sort of fatalism.

Conscious of what we have learnt from an objective study of the history of our subject is that even the great figures of the past are carried along by influences and strands of historical development of which they were perhaps quite unconscious, we fall back in our own study of the subject into a fatalistic subjectivism. This can easily be illustrated from modern theology, which is deeply affected by a crisis of confidence. (15)

This fatalism comes from striving after an historical objectivity which is fundamentally elusive. And Louth argues that the crisis of confidence is entirely justified if theology continues on the path laid down by the Enlightenment and the Romantics.

For it is a path which leads theology away from the heart of the subject, and is meant to. The historical-critical method is a way of explaining away what does not fit within a fairly narrowly defined, rationalistic enterprise. … If the past is rendered inaccessible, Christianity will have to change pretty radically in order to survive. (16)


Louth’s discussion of the late medieval division between theology and spirituality is important, but is also one that I would like to see discussed in more detail. I suspect that it is linked to shifts in the understanding of the body (which he has written on elsewhere and which I will post on sometime) and to shifts in liturgical consciousness, among other things. I have very little background in medieval theology, and not that much enthusiasm for it – although as a Cistercian it’s probably important for understanding our origins – but it does seem important to come to a fuller understanding of these issues!

I am particularly struck by what Louth says here about the gulf between the humanities and their history. The Enlightenment gives us the illusion that we are autonomous, able to stand apart from the past and judge it. But in doing so it also effectively cuts us off from the whole, making us view it as something external to us. (And there are probably parallels here to the way it has cut us off from the created world). Even when a discipline is confident and uses the past as a positive quarry from which to draw ideas, this is still something external to it. Thus   fundamentalism (as a specifically modern phenomenon) and the post-Tridentine manual theology used Scripture and tradition respectively as a reservoir for building their arguments, but they were still external to them.

The past does indeed need to be accessible for Christian theology – which, as Louth notes, is rooted in a solid temporal event – but I suspect that this is only possible if we recognise ourselves as participants in it, giving up our pretensions to autonomy and recognising our kinship with those who have gone before us. But that will be explored more fully in the rest of this book!