Head and Heart Knowedge: Doing What They Said Couldn't Be Done

Dale Coulter’s moving piece on adoption, image and God’s love (including extensive reference to St. Thomas Aquinas) brought back a more prosaic incident that happened to me while working in the family business.

About thirty years ago, between trips to China, I had to make a trip to Holland for an offshore hammer repair.  With me were my two field service people.  One of them was a country boy from Alabama.  As we took the motorway from Amsterdam to Rotterdam and looked out on the Dutch countryside, he made the comment “The old cowboys said that couldn’t be done.”

“What’s that?” I asked.

“Grazing sheep and cows together,” he replied.  Sure enough, out in the pastures the two species were contentedly eating grass.  Those familiar with the American West know that shepherds and cattle people came to blows because the sheep graze closer to the ground than cattle do, eating supper past the cows’ capabilities.  The Dutch, without the luxury of vast expanses of land (and much of theirs reclaimed the hard way) figured out how to get both to coexist.

In many ways Coulter’s piece is like that: it’s a moving piece about his own experiences with his adoptive parents and biological children.  Such is generally a call for pure sentimentality, but Coulter interweaves St. Thomas Aquinas’ theology of the love and will of God and his leitmotif of beginnings, causes, and ends to make a very nice tour de force, if one that’s at first surprising.

The surprise comes for those of us who have hung around Evangelical and Pentecostal Christianity for a long time.  Ever since I’ve been involved in this type of Christianity, I’ve always heard another leitmotif in one form or another: the vast gulf between “head knowledge” and “heart knowledge,” that gulf as unbridgeable as the one between the rich man and Lazarus and for the same basic reason.  The message was simple: you get one, you chuck the other; you go with the heart, you go to heaven; you go with the head, you go to the other place.  That wasn’t restricted to Evangelical circles either: once I got past my first Catholic parish, it was even difficult to get anyone fired up about Aquinas at the parish level, although some of that came from the left.

That idea was primarily developed for two reasons: to cater to a population whose formal education was frequently lacking, and to steer them clear of the kinds of open-ended speculations that are popular in the general culture.  Up to a point it’s succeeded, but much of the current crisis that Evangelicalism is going through can be traced back to this dichotomy.  (For the Mars Hill types: I take this on from a Biblical standpoint here.)

I come from a profession that requires a great deal of deep reasoned thought to solve its problems, but the goal is to figure out what’s going on and come up with a solution.  The basic problem with American Evangelicalism’s aversion to an intellectual approach to theology or anything else is that, as long as things are going the way they have, life is good.  When the ground shifts, however, forethought is lacking and we’re forced into a reactive mode where we’re always playing defence.  The Pentecostal response is to restore the prophetic to the church, but our response to prophecy depends on our earlier conditioning.  If we’re not conditioned to really look ahead, the “prophetic” we receive will only be the pathetic.  (For a completely different view of prophecy from the one we’re used to, this from Moses Maimonides will be of interest.)

That lack of skill with the “art of thinking,” as those venerable Jansenists Arnauld and Nicole would say, touches many practical issues, some of which have graced this blog over the years:

  • How can a group of serial ecclesiastical rebels claim legitimate authority?  And how can they claim authority and still deny that they have magisterium, i.e. the ability to interpret the Scriptures authoritatively?
  • Why should churches whose ecclesiology speak of strictly a gathering of saints–up to baptising only adults–expect themselves to be at the head of the culture?  (How they did that in the American South is another one of those “cows and sheep” situations, but then again the American South is one of those places where everything is different.)
  • How can people protest “redefining marriage” and then keep on insisting that the state continue to be involved in it?  If the state is involved in it, then it can and will redefine it as it did with “no-fault” divorce and now with same-sex civil marriage.
  • Why do we insist that we interpret the Bible literally and then turn around and insist that the Eucharist is totally symbolic?
  • Did we really expect that we could get secular power without the moral hazard that goes with it?  And did we really expect that we could “bring America back to God” through the electoral process when neither Old nor New Testament support such an idea?
  • Do we really expect to continue on without persecution and a cost for discipleship when Our Lord promised otherwise?

These are just a few of the “fun” issues that we must face.  Some ability to think would be helpful here.  To some extent we’re in the same situation Islam is in: we’ve woken up to a world not of our making where the only response we know is to come out swinging.  And I think, as a sometime Thomist, that this is unworthy of our calling as Christians.

What we need to do is what Arnauld and Nicole did: to teach the art of thinking, especially to those in our leadership.  The start for that would be to upend our current idea of “systematic theology:” we need, like Aquinas, to start with God and carry on from there.  Beyond that we need to reaffirm that what we know translates into what we do and how we live, and to be ready to make the dissemination of that knowledge a centrepiece of our program.  From there we need to take a more realistic view of the world, which is still fallen the last I checked.

To go on the way we have isn’t going to work, and that alone should be incentive enough to get head and heart knowledge to graze together as they are supposed to.

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