Saturday, October 22, 2011

John Macquarrie on Faith

[This is the third post of four that explore the theologies of Barth, Grenz, and Macquarrie - neo-orthodox, evangelical, and liberal theologians, respectively.  Although I'm not an existentialist, I find myself closest to Macquarrie's method, as I will explain in the next post.  I'd like to point out that Macquarrie, although liberal in method, remains committed to the tradition more than many liberal theologians today.]

Finally, we turn to the liberal Anglican theologian John Macquarrie. While Barth and Grenz were very similar in many ways in their definitions of faith and doctrines of God, Macquarrie provides a much sharper contrast with both of them because of his existential theology that is rooted in the philosophy of Heidegger. As such, while Barth and Grenz both start with the object of faith, Macquarrie begins with the subject of faith – human existence itself: “it is the experience of existing as a human being that constitutes a primary source for theology." He thus defines Christian faith in existential terms, arguing that it is something that arises “from the very structures of human existence itself." In contrast to Barth, Macquarrie argues that there are human questions to be answered by revelation. So what is faith for Macquarrie? He defines it as follows:

"…faith is not a mere belief but an existential attitude…[that] includes acceptance and commitment, but what makes it a distinctively religious faith is its reference to what we have called so far only the ‘wider being’ in the context of which man has his being. It is then faith in being…Religious faith, as faith in being, looks to the wider being within which our existence is set for support; it discovers a meaning for existence that is already given with existence."

For Macquarrie, written into the very nature of human existence is a quest for meaning, and faith is then seen as an existential attitude of acceptance and commitment. This requires some explanation about how Macquarrie understands ‘the human condition.’

Macquarrie argues that human existence in the present is characterized by an imbalance between two poles: possibility and facticity. Facticity refers to our past, which largely determines and limits our present and can thus make us feel as though we cannot escape our own history. Possibility refers to our future, which can overwhelm and come to dominate our existence to such an extent that we deny the reality of our past. These two poles of human existence create a tension that pulls us in conflicting motions. But for Macquarrie, to be a whole self is to balance or integrate possibility and facticity. Authentic selfhood is about bringing unity to this tension, and it is this inherent tension that creates the question that faith provides an answer to. Faith as acceptance and commitment can provide such a unity: acceptance of our past, our finitude, our limitations in their entirety and a corresponding commitment to a realistic future and “master concern that can create such a stable and unified self." Importantly, this existential commitment involves looking beyond oneself to something greater, which for Macquarrie is ‘Being itself.’ The two poles of human existence can be integrated only if they are “rooted in the wider context of being in which man has his being." This integration of human existence comes through faith in being: “through faith in being, we can ourselves advance into fullness of being and fulfill the potentialities of selfhood."

Because of his theological starting point, Macquarrie argues that Christian faith requires both internal and external coherence (once again, in contrast to Barth and Grenz). This means that we must develop theology on a philosophical common ground that others outside the Christian tradition can interact with. Additionally, Christian theology should also be in alignment with other fields of study, such as physics, psychology, and sociology. So Macquarrie begins with the goal of articulating a reasonable faith that can intelligibly express the primary symbols of the faith to those outside the tradition. Even though Macquarrie affirms a place of primary importance to revelation in the articulation of the Christian faith, he moves beyond Barth and Grenz in arguing that revelation presupposes human experience. Furthermore, revelation for Macquarrie is not identical with scripture (9). The scriptures gain their importance as a witness to the revelation of God in Christ only within the faith community, and revelation is not for him so specifically Christocentric. In contrast to Barth and Grenz, Macquarrie’s existential theology is theocentric and revelation is thus generalized to include other religious traditions.

What does Macquarrie’s theological definition of faith imply about his Christian understanding of God? Like Barth and Grenz, his doctrine of God is already revealed to a large extent in his understanding of faith as an existential attitude of acceptance and commitment. We can see some aspects of his panentheistic doctrine of God within his discussion of faith: since God is Being itself, there is ontological continuity between humans and God; God is revealed in Jesus, but not exhaustively so; revelation is an unveiling of the Being of our being rather than something infinitely Other (as for Barth and Grenz); Being enables our being to be and is present and manifest in the beings that are; and Being is incomparable – that is, it is neither an object amongst others nor a subject, but a reality that encompasses both. As Macquarrie summarizes, “the essence of being is precisely the dynamic ‘letting-be’…of the beings." Yet how is such an abstract, “existential-ontological theism” rendered as an explicitly Christian, trinitarian theism? Macquarrie argues for the necessity of the Trinity, in part because it helps to describe a more dynamic rather than static understanding of God.  He understands the three ‘persons’ of the Trinity to be something like dynamic ‘movements’ within the mystery of Being. The Father is ‘primordial being’, the ultimate source of possibilities for any being at all. The Son is ‘expressive being’, which is generated by the Father, creatively gives rise to finite beings, and is expressed through them. The Holy Spirit is ‘unitive being’, which maintains, strengthens, and restores unity between Being and beings.

1 comment:

  1. Austin: I just stumbled upon your clear, concise analysis of my favorite theologian, John Macquarrie. As professor of theology at Unity Institute & Seminary, it's good to find resources like this, albeit five years after it was posted!