Theology in an Existential Key

In his mid-life autobiographical essay, “Taking Time Seriously,” James Luther Adams notes the profound effect that singing in the chorus for a performance of Bach’s Mass in B Minor had on him.  Recounting the experience a decade later, he speaks of being emotionally overwhelmed—at once both humbled and exalted: “In the language of Kierkegaard, I was forced out of the spectator into the existential attitude.”[1]

Here follows the Preface and Table of Contents to the third edition of my book, If Yes Is the Answer, What Is the Question? Eight Existential Issues of Faith.   By “existential issues” I mean consequential questionsquestions that go to the core of our existence and issue in a new or a clarified sense of identity.  The quest for faith is rooted in such a quest for self-discovery.

The book is available from the UUA inSpirit bookshop, Amazon, or the author.

G. K. B.

 

If Yes Is the Answer, What Is the Question?

Eight Existential Issues of Faith

 

Preface to the Third Edition:

 

 

Heaven doth with us as we with torches do,

Not light them for themselves; for if our virtues

Did not go forth of us, ‘twere all alike

As if we had them not.  Spirits are not finely touch’d

But to fine issues. . . .

Shakespeare, Measure for Measure I. l. 33ff

 

With characteristic panache philosopher and poet Kenneth Burke said a perfect book title would contain the book’s entire contents.[2]  A perfect reader, then, wouldn’t need actually to read the book but would intuit its contents from the title.  (If this seems fanciful consider a great oak enciphered in an acorn.)  What of the book at hand?  Both author and reader are surely less than perfect, but this Preface may help us decipher the revised title.

If Yes Is the Answer, What Is the Question? was first published in 1995 without a subtitle.  The Introduction, then as now, explains its curious title, a question-within-a-question.  In brief, if you could name the questions that are central to human existence, then in answering them you will be deciding what you believe or disbelieve.  If there are no “central questions,” then life may indeed be “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”  (Shakespeare, again.)  Seeking those things we can affirm without qualification, we begin a personal quest for a faith we can articulate, live with, and enjoy.

Of course, everything hangs on the if—“if you could name the central questions . . . . ”  Actually naming  these questions is the task of the eight chapters of this book.  They describe eight existential issues of faith.

Bad theology is simplistic; good theology is inherently perplexing, but yields insights, large and small.  “Theology is necessary in order to make preaching as hard for the preacher as it needs to be.”[3] To write an extended reflection on religious faith that is systematic—that seeks to touch all the bases—requires the unfolding of a central idea that changes our perspective on human existence.  This is not, then, a book about questions or questioning; but about “getting to yes,” about identifying the questions that elicit personal affirmation.  These could not be any and all questions, but precisely those that ask for commitments rooted in our sense of ultimate concern.

I learned from Bernard Lonergan that an existential question is one that asks not for information or an opinion, but for a decision yes or no.  This Third Edition of the book reclaims its original, Lonerganian title, If Yes is the Answer, What is the Question? and adds a subtitle: Eight Existential Issues of Faith.  The questions we must ask are existential issues—matters that are contested in our hearts and minds, and being resolved, issue in life-changing decisions. 

The word issue carries a wide range of meanings, all seemingly rooted in two  intertwined ideas.  An issue can be a question to be decided—often a strongly contested question.  Or it can be an outcome, a declaration, something that “goes forth of us.”  I have puzzled over Shakespeare’s words, “Spirits are not finely touched but to fine issues,” from a play that delves into moral deception and self-deception, issues with dire consequences.  Existential issues are, then, both personal and fateful, both intimate and ultimate.  They are contested questions that call for decision and thereby shape the moral and spiritual character of our lives.

Faith is over-worked in our religious vocabulary.  The word seems irreplaceable but becomes problematic when reduced to a given set of beliefs.  James Luther Adams called attention to the creative thrust of Paul Tillich’s theological language.  Tillich coined new terms for words rendered bloodless by sheer familiarity, for instance, he proposed ultimate concern as an alternative to faith.  Adams, too coined new terminologies, suggesting, for instance, that religion comes alive at the intersection of the intimate and the ultimate.

Re-reading this book I am struck by how thoroughly Adams’s thought has shaped my own.[4]  The other major influence, further discussed in the Introduction, is Bernard Lonergan’s seminal work, Method in Theology.[5]  Lonergan describes the “conscious and intentional operations of the mind”—not only in religious reflection but in any field of endeavor—issuing in four transcendental imperatives: be attentive, be intelligent, be reasonable, be responsible.  Sometimes he adds a fifth, all-encompassing imperative: be in love.  Lonergan’s four operations of the mind build on each other; taking them first, successively, and then in reverse order, the four become eight, a framework for the eight existential issues of faith.

“There is no escape,” said Gregory Vlastos.  “You must say yes or no according to the light you have seen.  There are a thousand ways of saying no; one way of saying yes; and no way of saying anything else. . . .But commitment is never merely a series of prunings.  It is a tremendous decision.”[6]

May our spirits be finely touched, as they only can be, to fine issues.

GKB, Madison County, Virginia, 2020

 

 

Table of Contents

 

Preface to the Third Edition

Introduction:

           If yes is the answer, what is the question?

Chapter 1:       The Heart’s Directive

           Are we incurably religious?

Chapter 2:       Naming God

           Does the question of God presuppose God?

Chapter 3:       The Human Condition

           Can we acknowledge evil and tragedy, and not lose heart?  

Chapter 4:       Creative Freedom

           Do we have a human vocation?

Chapter 5:       The Moral Covenant

           Are ethical values rooted in reality?

Chapter 6:       Newmindedness

           Is help available when I need it?

Chapter 7:       The Dedicated Community

           Is religious community a religious necessity?

Chapter 8:       Parabolic Vision

           Does faith make sense?

Epilogue

Notes

[1] James Luther Adams, “Taking Time Seriously,” The Prophethood of All Believers (Boston: Beacon Press, 1986), p. 37.  “The Existentialist Thesis” is major essay by Adams, with particular emphasis on the “theological existentialism”of Paul Tillich; reprinted in Adams, An Examined Faith (Boston: Beacon Press, 1991), pp. 172-185.

[2] Kenneth Burke, The Rhetoric of Religion: Studies in Logology (Boston: Beacon Pree, 1961).

[3] Gerhard Ebeling, Word and Faith (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1960), p. 424.

[4] George Kimmich Beach, Transforming Liberalism: The Theology of James Luther Adams Boston: Skinner House Books, 2003).

[5] Bernard Lonergan, Method in Theology (New York: Herder and Herder. 1971).

[6] Gregory Vlastos was a distinguished scholar of ancient Greek philosophy, especially Socrates and Plato.  The citation is from Prayers of American Genocide: The United States and the California Indian Catastrophe, 1846-1873he Free Spirit, edited by Stephen Hole Fritchman (New York: The Women’s Press, 1943), p. 52.

Leave a comment