Learning From the Past in Theology

Theology as a discipline is rather different than, say, the natural sciences, in that, by and large, the older an idea is, the more true it is. In theology, one simply has to take what has been said in the past seriously and in some ways authoritatively, and in other cases definitively. I see this as a fairly common-sense sort of idea. Consider the post-apostolic fathers (the ante-Nicene fathers). It makes a good amount of sense to take what they say as an authoritative and definitive interpretation of the teachings of the Apostles, since, you know, they were the disciples of the Apostles.

Another way it makes sense to take seriously the voices of the past also seems to be a common sense idea: a lot (a lot!) of people have thought about theology and theological things. Lots of these people were very, very smart and very devout Christians – so it makes a lot of sense to take seriously what they had to say. Chances are, somebody has had something very good to say on whatever theological idea your thinking about. Examples would be the medieval period – lots of very important and interesting thinkers there. It would be kind of not smart to simply ignore a thousand years worth of theological reflection.

Now, the opposite of what I’m saying is, unfortunately, seen more often in theology than it should be, and its basically taking the voices of the past less seriously simply because of who/where/when there did their thinking. Easy example: the medievals. It’s pretty easy, in theological circles, to make blanket-statements about the atonement because some guy’s theory of the atonement reflected an aspect of his feudal society (I wonder who that guy is). It then becomes even easier to write off the entire medieval period as theologically illegitimate because of an influential model of the atonement. I seen it with my own eyes.

The problem with that should be fairly easy to see (I actually see two problems): it’s pretty stupid to write off whole periods of church history on account of when/who they were, and it’s equally as stupid to write off whatever theological idea because it (in this case) is a model of the atonement obsessed with feudal concepts of justice and retribution (disputable, but moving on). I see the latter as worse, actually, because at the heart of nearly every theological idea, no matter how weird or offensive it may be to us, there is a legitimate theological concern. Stupid medievals, with their individualistic retributive penal ideas of satisfaction! Out with them. Never mind that behind such theories of the atonement lie some pretty deep theological reflection on the nature of the Incarnation, justice, etc. And there’s the rub: by dismissing an idea on account of what’s on its surface, we miss the deep and often edifying aspects of the idea floating below.

A kind-of case study of what I’m getting at can be seen in Nicholas Wolterstorff’s ‘Justice in Love’. Towards the end of the book, he engages in a exegetical study of the concept of God’s justice, drawing on the book of Romans. He states at the beginning of the chapter that he sees his project as concerned with the medieval concept of God’s justice, iustia dei. He then wonders why there seems to be a lack of Protestant engagement with this idea of justice – he cites N.T. Wright as an example. According to Wolterstorff, Wright has never discussed iustia dei  in any of his work on the topic of justification.

Wright has a habit of broadbrushing and oversimplifying ideas – the Enlightenment being a very prominent example. I suspect, though can’t of course be one hundred percent sure, that he would likely point to various examples of medieval theology gone wrong (purgatory, doing penance) as a reason why medieval theology was all muddleheaded, and then go about his day. He has of course engaged medieval theology (‘Scripture and the Authority of God’ had a lot of good work on medieval exegesis), but based on his slogan-like dismissal of various dynamic movements like the Enlightenment, I don’t see him as terribly concerned with medieval understandings of justice and what they have to say to us today.

This is a criticism that could probably be made of Protestantism as a whole – the medieval period is often trotted out as a whipping-boy along with the Enlightenment. The point of this, though, isn’t to pimp medieval theology but to highlight the perils of writing off the underlying concerns of any idea we disagree with for relatively shallow reasons, using Wright and iustia dei as a working example.

The point of all this rambling? Don’t write off an idea just because of what it says on the surface, but look to engage the underlying concerns of any idea.


Thought Notes 8/11/2014: Hume, Science and Faith

I think that Hume’s problem of induction is one of the most fun and fruitful philosophical problems out there. Not because the immediate problem itself is especially edifying, but because sustained reflection and engagement with the problem will cause you to reflect on and engage with nearly every major issue in philosophy, spilling over into the sciences and even humanities. Whether or not it is an actual problem is a matter of some debate, but for the sake of argument and reflection it can be kind of assumed to be a genuine problem.

I don’t remember what brought the topic of ‘science and faith’ to my mind (a topic I honestly think is so worn out as to nearly be a dead horse) – maybe it was a random tweet or something like that. But I got to thinking about the nature of the ‘false choice’ between science and faith that many people seem to think is set before earnest young enquirers – naturally, when faced with such a choice, they opt for Science, leaving their faith behind as a distant memory of something they couldn’t ‘reconcile’ with what they took to be the modern scientific world.

A few thoughts (I sort of began thinking on this topic here): if science and faith are in conflict, and you opt for science over faith, it appears to me that what you didn’t have faith, but had a system of beliefs that was actually already quasi-‘scientific’ in nature, and not religious. Basically, it wasn’t faith you had, it was crappy science that was overruled by different science. Any given piece of empirical data doesn’t do anything to strengthen or weaken faith unless it’s already presupposed that the merit of that faith are based upon empirical evidence. Apparent ‘design’ in nature (to take one example) isn’t proof of anything – but given a prior commitment to God as a designer, it becomes something which doesn’t strengthen the actual belief but simply reinforces the underlying presuppositions. I was going to say that it confirms what you already knew, but that doesn’t work either – if you know something you don’t need it confirmed – you already know it. So it’s not even that the data confirms something to be true – it simply justifies you more in holding to the presuppositions you already hold to.

So, with that in mind: the ‘false choice’ of either science or faith becomes not a choice between science and religious belief but between science and quasi-science. If belief in God or the Resurrection or what have you can’t be reconciled with a ‘scientific worldview’ then the problem isn’t reconciling science and faith but reconciling science and quasi-science. Religious ideas have ceased to be religious and have become a quasi-scientific ideas, and since those ideas can’t (obviously) be reconciled with science, they are jettisoned.

Thoughts on Wittgenstein’s Philosophy of Religion

This is actually a comment I made here – but I’ve been wanting to do a post like this for some time, so I’m reproducing it here.

Wittgenstein’s philosophy of religion (if it can even be called that – his writings on religion are very scattered and don’t form one precise picture) is, more or less, fideism. This is likely a result of two things: first, his Roman Catholic education. John Haldane notes that:

‘First, Wittgenstein had been raised as a Catholic and in that period catechetics, the teaching of Catholic doctrine, favoured a question and answer style that derived from scholasticism but only gave abbreviated formulae and not arguments. He would have found this a betrayal of the religious quest and could not fail to have been reminded of it by the lists of questions and answers in the Summa. Second, In the first decades of the twentieth century there was a good deal of triumphalist Catholic apologetics in which people cited Aquinas as if he had an answer to everything and contained no errors or omissions. This again would have struck him as profoundly unphilosophical and also unspiritual.’ (from here, a brilliant interview)

Secondly, his love of Kierkegaard:

‘Kierkegaard was by far the most profound thinker of the last century.’ (As quoted in “Wittgenstein and Kierkegaard on the ethico-religious” by Roe Fremstedal in Ideas in History Vol. 1 (2006) {stolen from wikiquotes}

Taking the two of those together, it’s very easy to see why Wittgenstein takes the route that Christianity is more about practice than belief that can be rationally grounded in philosophical proofs (IE Aquinas).

I said on twitter that I have three main objections to his PoR – I’ll confine the rest of my comments to those three for brevity.

(a) A misunderstanding of Kierkegaard and (b) the relation of history to truth (Lessing)

Kierkegaard is profoundly misused by Wittgenstein – who builds on what he perceives to be Kierkegaard’s ‘leap of faith’ – i.e., the rejection of the need for rational proof the the affirmation of pure belief. Not only do we not need proof for faith, but faith as such isn’t even about ‘belief’ but about ethical practice.

The misunderstanding is this: Kierkegaard was not describing a fideistic ‘leap of faith’ but rather a rather stunning epsitemological move born out of wrestling with classical Christian ideas. I’ll let physicist/theologian T.F Torrance set Wittgenstein straight on Kierkegaard:

‘…(in ‘Philosophical Fragments’) Kierkegaard developed a sub-theme which turned out to have the greatest signifigance, the relation of truth to time, which had been conspicuously missing from Anselm’s thought. Behind Kierkegaard’s concern, as we can see from some of his other writings, lay his engagements with problems he found in Aristotle. Kant, Lessing and Hegel and the stimulation of some ideas he derived from Trendelenburg’s critique of Kantian notions of time. But what really gripped Kierkegaard and forced him to come to terms with it was the fact that in the Incarnation, “absolute” truth moved into time in Jesus Christ and became “historical fact”, which implies that we cannot know the truth except in a dynamic way involving a temporal or historical relation to it. If the truth has moved into time and become historical event, then movement or kinesis belongs to truth and has categorical significance.

In wrestling with this problem of transition Kierkegaard found he had to abandon a way of thinking from a point of absolute rest, and opt for a kinetic mode of reason with which to apprehend movement, continuty, dynamic truth, without resolving them into something quite different in terms of static necessities or timeless possibilites. He referred to his act of reason variously as a decision, a resolution or a leap, and spoke of faith as having the required condition.’ (T.F. Torrance, ‘Reality and Scientific Theology’, p. 90)

(c) Dictotomization (my new word) of practive/belief

Wittgenstein’s error here is an old one – assuming that things that are distinct are opposed. Practice is better than only belief, so Christianity has to be more about practice than belief. Had he simply payed close attention to the Christian tradition, he would have found that the concerns he had were more than addressed by Christian thought, though not in his language. The classical Christian ethical tradition holds that ‘doing the good’ requires ‘knowing the good’ because our actions have as a ‘formal cause’ our desires and beliefs. Desire/belief effects practice, and practice effects desire/belief. Virtue ethics is an appropriate reference point here.

To be sure, the Christian faith is about affirming certain truths – we could rephrase that to ‘making truth claims’ in modern lingo. However, as Torrance showed above, these aren’t static timeless propositions that one merely assents to – the knowledge effects the desires, which effect the actions (praxis), which in turn effects the desires. The ethical dimension of Christianity is far more than Wittgenstein’s ‘meaning is use’ move.

EDIT: I made a comment (scroll down if you’re on the post or click on it to see comments) here:  which hopefully clarifies and fleshes out some of what I layed out here.



Notes on Abraham Joshua Heschel I

Abraham Joshua Heschel basically takes the ineffable, and our experience of the ineffable, as an axiom in his philosophy of religion. The experience of the ineffable is something not too far from Polyani’s tacit knowledge – it is experience that we cannot codify or put into words but remains no less real for that fact.

Another key axiom for Heschel is ‘wonder’. This actually plays a key role in his epistemology:

‘Standing eye to eye with being as being, we realize that we are able to look at the world with two faculties – with reason and with wonder. Through the first we try to explain or adapt to world to our concepts, through the second we seek to adapt our minds to the world.’ (‘Man is Not Alone’, p. 11)

So wonder is a kind of epistemic reaction to the reality of being, if that makes sense. What the classical tradition called the ‘active intellect’ is Heschel’s ‘reason’ – how we organize, categorize, conceptualize and formalize the world:

‘Wonder is a state of mind in which we do not look at reality through the latticework of our memorized knowledge; in which nothing is taken for granted.’ (p. 12)

Wonder can then be defined here as the immediate, tacit apprehension of being as such – the sheer there-ness of the world. Not this or that particular reality, at least in this case:

‘Radical amazement has a wider scope than any other act of man. While any act of perception or cognition has as its object a selected segment of reality, radical amazement refers to all of reality; not only to what we see, but also to the very act of seeing as well as to our own selves, to the selves that see and are amazed to see.’ (p. 13)

Heschel defines radical amazement as what happens when we are struck with wonder – radical amazement is what follows immediately after wonder. It’s the wordless pre-conception, precognition state of mind that lies beneath all inquiry of any kind.

An interesting aspect of Heschel’s epistemology is the tacit component. Heschel rejects out of hand the notion that there is nothing in the intellect that was not first in the senses – he does the same for a priori reasoning as well. This he calls ‘insight’:

‘Just as the mind is able to form conceptions supported by sense perception, it can derive insights from the dimension of the ineffable. Insights are the roots of art, philosophy and religion, and must be acknowledged as common and fundamental facts of mental life.’ (p. 17)

The insight is a primordial datum, so to speak – it’s what our mind apprehends in its state of wonder when it comes into contact with being as being – which is beyond the realm of logical codification. This is where Heschel comes very close to Polyani – this aspect of the mental life is fundamental for both of them. That there are things we can know but only grasp tacitly, wordlessly is an axiom for both. Insights are beyond logic and beyond expression and beyond sensory perception – an insight is, perhaps, what being tells us when we apprehend it.

David Bentley Hart on Knowing God

‘As the source, ground and end of being and consciousness, God can be known as God only insofar as the mind rises from beings to being, and withdraws from the objects of consciousness toward the wellspring of consciousness itself, and learns to see nature not as a closed system of material forces but in light of those ultimate ends that open the mind and being each to the other. All the great faiths recognize numerous vehicles of grace, various proper dispositions of the soul before God, differing degrees of spiritual advancement, and so forth; but clearly teach that there is no approach to the knowledge of God that does not involve turning the mind and will toward the perception of God in all things and all things in God. This is the path of prayer –  contemplative prayer, that is, as distinct from somple prayers of supplication and thanksgiving – which is a specific discipline of though, desire and action, one that frees the mind from habitual prejudices and appetites, and allows it to dwell in the gratuity and glory of all things. As an old monk on Mount Athos told me, contemplative prayer is the art of seeing reality as it truly is; and, if one has not yet acquired the ability to see God in all things, one should not imagine that one will be able to see God in himself.’ (David Bently Hart, ‘The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss’, p. 321)

Joy, Longing and Nostalgia

C.S. Lewis is pretty well-known for his ‘argument from desire’, which is more or less a take on certain aspects of Platonic philosophy. Nostalgia and joy (or sehnsucht, or longing) for Lewis are indicators of our other-worldiness. Our desires and longing for beauty reflect our desire for the Divine, beauty itself. That small nostalgic ache we get at the end of a beautiful symphony or as a sunset fades is a desire for something ‘which no natural happiness will satisfy.’ Sensible beauty serves to awaken a much deeper longing for the beauty of the absolute.

Augustine makes a similar point in with the famous opening phrase of his ‘Confessions’: our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you. Pascal says similar things as well. Beauty, the experience of the beautiful, our desire for the beautiful, is a reflection of our desire for the absolute, for beauty itself. Lewis makes another point that when we have summoned into glory, that old ache will be healed. We’ll be made whole again. (A quick Google search will yield a large number of quotes made by Lewis on this topic that are worth reading)

‘The beautiful is unquestionably a transcendental orientation of the mind and the will, because the desire it evokes can never be exhausted by any finite object; it is an ultimate value that allows one to make judgements of relative value, and that weds consciousness to the whole of being as boundlessly desirable. whether or not there is actualy such a thing as an eternal beauty beyond the realm of the senses, the effect within us of beauty’s transcendce as an ideal horizon, toward which the mind is habitually drawn and apart from which the mind would not be open to the world in the way that it is. And that, in itself, is enough to render the physicalist narrative of causality profoundly dubious.’ (David Bentley hart, ‘The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss’, p. 285)

Now, obviously, this isn’t an argument of any kind – nor is it ignoring the physiological/biological aspects of nostalgia, which, incidentally, is a fascinating study. Think of this as simply some musings on the transcendent nature of the experience of beauty.