Faith As Supernatural Understanding Of Existence

What does it really mean to be a Christian in Latin America? First of all, we have to define in real-Iife terms what it means to be a Christian today in the twentieth century. Once we tackle the complex reality of Latin America, the whole question becomes even more complex. On the one hand, it seems clear that it is in the light of faith that we live out our existence here in Latin America. By the same token, however, we must re-define and re-conceptualize. That is one of the tasks that faces Catholic thinking today. It must probe the implications of historical interpretation of the faith.

I just said "re-conceptualize." Conceptualization is the process of passing from a de facto experience to an abstract, analytical expression of it. This process cannot help but be ambiguous at times. We must be very careful about the way we conceptualize something, about the "how" of the process. Now traditional Christian theology, and of course Western philosophy, took its inspiration from hellenic thought. This mode of thinking seemed to be merely methodological and hermeneutical. In fact, however, a specific experience of life and a specific understanding of being was woven into that way of thinking. Conceptualization can indeed shed light on certain aspects of everyday life. In the absence of de facto experience, however, it may leave other aspects in the dark. Such was the case in the present instance. The process of conceptualization began to give special emphasis to certain Christian experiences to which it could give expression. Other Christian experiences, for which Greek philosophic thought could not find any expression, were not conceptualized in an adequate way. The Christian faith was conceptualized only partially.

Today faith is described by some theologians as a "supernatural existential," although they do not always mean what I mean by the term here. People familiar with contemporary philosophy appreciate the import and thrust of this term as an attempt to describe the essential nature of our faith. It enables us to work out a more exact understanding of faith. Human beings have an understanding of what things are that is existential, matter-of-fact, ontic; it is called Verstehen in German. But faith is some kind of new existential understanding, as it were. Living in the "world," I have a pre-conceptual understanding of being. Faith is a new "world" in a sense. Thus we can take everything that is described and discussed in phenomenology and the existential thought of people like Heidegger and Jaspers, and then turn it into a completely new treatment of faith.

The term "new world" does not refer to a theoretical viewpoint or perspective. Faith is not a habitus of the heoretical mind or intellect. Faith is something that opens me to a whole new horizon of existential understanding; and it presupposes the whole of man in his pre-Christian world. "To be a Christian in Latin America" is to understand Latin American existence under a new light. But if we want to analyze this experience theologically, if we want to be able to express it to students and the people, then we must carry out a whole hermeneutical task that still remains to be done. We must attain a new understanding or comprehension of existence. And this new understanding must be dialectical, in the sense that the original Greek word dia-logos suggests "moving from one horizon of comprehension to another horizon of comprehension." As a form of understanding or comprehension, faith can never get to its last and ultimate horizon because that horizon is historical. When I think I have reached the point of understanding everything around me with full and complete clarity, time has passed and God has already revealed himself to man in another, more mature way. Faith, like understanding, is dialectical and hence historical.

But what do we do? If we want to train people, we send them to Europe. There they study liturgy, catechetics, theology, and a host of other subjects. When they come back, they are completely lost in Latin America. They are out of touch and never get their feet back on the ground. They are Frenchified, Germanized, Italianized, or otherwise alienated. It is not simply a matter of reading the Gospel message. We must read it within tradition. And tradition has come down to us, not through Italy or Germany, but through a Spain that came to America and through a concrete Church in Latin America to which we belong.

The fact is, however, that theology at some point came to lose its rootedness in history, its primary theological experience. The Hebrew way of thinking in the Old Testament and Christian thinking in the New Testament were almost exclusively history-minded or "historical" in nature. Note that this was real "thinking" because it is precisely a logos about God we find in the Bible. We are used to hearing and imagining that the apostles were uneducated, unlettered fishermen who did not know a great deal. We feel that Jesus' message was for simple people and hence had no developed methodology to it. We feel that way because we have come to equate the methodology of Greek thought with theological thinking as a scholarly discipline or science. What has happened is that we have lost sight of a different but perfectly sound and coherent logic-the logic used by the prophets and by Jesus in his preaching. Their methodology is a strictly theological one. It is a process of thinking which is experientially aware of its course, but which had not spelled out its methodology as Greek logic did.

I cannot explain the methodology of Hebrew thinking in a few brief words here.1 What is clear is that it is not the same as that of the Greek organon. But it is a coherent and organized way of thinking even though it differs from that of Aristotle. This "Hebrew theology" always contemplated history. The Hebrews thought something like this: "What is happening to us today is akin to what God did with Moses and our people in the desert of Sinai. "In other words, the Hebrews found the meaning and import of the present moment in the past history of their people. When the people of the nation are being sent off into exile, prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah tell them that their imprisonment and exile are due to their sinful actions. The meaning ofwhat is happening to them is to be found in history, always in history.

From the days of ancient Israel on, historical self-awareness comes to exist as a reality in the world. In the eyes of the Old Testament prophets, the history of Israel is the revelation ofYahweh. In and through this concrete history, the nation progresses in its self-awareness. The Jew in exile in Babylon around 550 B.C. was reflectively aware of his nation's past, a past that began with Abraham. For him Abraham was not a mythical figure but a concrete being in actual history. And after him came Isaac, Jacob, and all the other great forefathers of Israel. The book of Chronicles, for example, offers a theological interpretation of Israel's past history. Past events are recalled in order to discover some meaning in them. Thus the Babylonian exile is interpreted as a punishment inflicted on the Israelites by God, through an alien nation, for their sinfulness.

In short, ancient Israel continually strove to give some meaning to its past history. On the basis of this past and its meaning, Israel also tried to explain the present and glimpse the import of the future, and this is again prophecy. Israel was fully aware that its concrete existence here and now, its present safety and salvation was determined by its link to the past history of its patriarchs and forefathers.

Such was not the case with Plato and Aristotle. The Greeks did have people like Herodotus and Thucydides. They recounted things that happened in history, but they stayed on the anecdotal level. We are told, for example, that ten thousand warriors trekked so far, were defeated in battle, and then marched home again. But the doings of those ten thousand soldiers do not constitute, for someone like Aristotle, an ontological level which is adequate for defining man. Mankind is not seen to be dependent on historical happenings. Instead man is seen to be dependent on mythical happenings; i.e., the fall of a soul into a body. Because this soul is divine and therefore transhistorical, nothing that happens in time is part of its essential constitution. The Greeks were never able to get beyond anecdotal history because certain events recalled by them would inevitably be repeated again in the endless cycle of eternal return. These events did not have anything definitive in their nature. Nothing happened "once and for all."

In the writings of Saint Paul, by contrast, the notion of "once and for all" (Greek hapax) is very prominent. He applies it to the historical reality of Christ, and it is a central notion in his whole theology. In his book entitled Christ and

Time, Oscar Cullmann gives a clear exposition of the notion.2 But the notion of hapax does not appear on the scene only with the coming of the Word. For the Jews, Abraham himself had been a hapax too in some sense; and so was every event from day to day.

This is so because "once and for all time" there existed this concrete human being to whom a promise was made. By associating oneself with him, one became a member of the covenant and an object of the promise; one could be saved. History becomes the constitutive element on the metaphysical level, because one cannot obtain salvation if he is not associated with Abraham and the covenant. Such could not be the case with the Greeks. It is among the Hebrews that the notion of sacred history or salvation history takes root and develops. The Psalms reiterate the theme endlessly: Our forefathers were released from Egypt and went through such and such experiences, all of which proves God's providence and his love for us. Interpreting history in their own age, the prophets propose revolutionary reforms. For the people of Israel, in short, history is a sacred history, a reflection on the past in which here and now existence takes on meaning.

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