The second seminar of the ‘Understanding and Christian Doctrine’ project took place on the 17th of February, 2015 in St. John’s College, Durham. Dr. Susannah Ticciati, Susannah Ticciati of Kings College London presented a paper, building on her work in A New Apophaticism: Augustine and the Redemption of Signs (Leiden: Brill, 2013).
Dr Ticciati’s paper explored the same broad theme that had been opened up by Sarah Coakley in the first seminar in the series: the insistence that the kind of understanding marked out by Christian doctrine does not involve the secure positioning of items of knowledge within a given context, but a process of on-going transformation. Her exploration was framed by the broad claim that ‘God is known, not as an object of human speech, but in the context of transformed lives’. The purpose of speech about God (including doctrinal speech) is not to enable God to be grasped as a cognitive object, but to foster the kind of living that responds to God. Indeed, such transformed living is the knowledge of God (or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that living that is being so transformed is the knowledge of God). Much of Dr Ticciati’s paper consisted of an account of two ways of characterising the transformed living involved: as the undermining of premature closure, and as the exploration of life beyond closure.
Dr Ticciati offered a reading of Augustine’s categories of uti (use) and frui (enjoyment), building on the discussion in A New Apophaticism. To enjoy some finite object is to define that object in terms of my existing pattern of desire. To use that object for some finite purpose is to define it in terms of that purpose. Either way, the possibility of other contexts of understanding is overlooked, and the object is reduced to its significance within one context. It is evacuated of all significance except its significance for me.
To use the object for the enjoyment of God, however, is to enter into a relationship with that object that has a very different logic to it, because God is not a graspable context. This is a relation to the object in which it is acknowledged that the object is involved in a more fundamental relationship, beyond our grasp. To understand some object in relation to God is to acknowledge that there is always more to that object than can be grasped in any finite act of understanding.
In other words, just as Professor Coakley’s paper insisted that, in true understanding, epistemology, morality and spirituality could not be separated, so Dr Ticciati’s paper insisted that questions about proper understanding are inseparable from questions about right relations between knowers and the objects they know, and between knowers, objects, and God.
Dr Ticciati offered two complementary descriptions of such understanding. In the first of these descriptions, right understanding involves the on-going breaking down of problematic fixings of the objects of our knowledge. We define some object against the horizon of our existing patterns of desire, but as we learn to see that object in relation to God, that definition is destabilized, or at least shown to be a partial understanding of the object. We are sent on a journey consisting of the repeated unpacking of closed understandings – a journey of purification or purgation. To the extent that doctrine points us to God, and to the nature of God’s relation to the world, doctrine ‘unfixes contexts’. (Dr Ticciati used the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo as her prime example of doctrine functioning in this way.)
However, that account on its own is inadequate. Dr Ticciati therefore offered a second description of good understanding. She argued that we also need to see the journey of understanding to which doctrine calls us as the exploration of the pattern of redeemed relationship within which the objects of our knowledge may stand: a pattern of relationships within which there is no reduction, but each object of knowledge is allowed to stand in its own integrity, within a pattern of relationships that do justice to it. That pattern of relationships cannot be actualized in the present. It is, rather, an eschatological horizon to our present understanding. In the present, in the ‘thick of things’, we glimpse but do not grasp this redeemed sociality.
To understand some object in the world is, then, to commit to on-going discovery of how to live with well with that object, acknowledging that there is always more of this right relation to discover, and that such right relation is properly a gift of God. Right understanding involves continual openness to the possibility that God will call us to penitence for the ways in which we have reduced the objects of our knowledge to their significance for us, and continual openness to the breaking in of the ‘more’ that God has for us, in the thick of our encounters together with the object in question.
Summary by Mike Higton and Michael Raubach