September 30, 2009

american political religion

One necessary lack (because he is talking about Europe) in Burleigh's Earthly Powers is much discussion (amounting to a few paragraphs) of American political religion, and its consequences. Generally, Burleigh seems to adopt the Burkean view of the American Revolution–that it was about the restoration of traditional rights and liberties–and leaves it at that. There is some discussion about American exceptionalism later on, and a bit about slavery, but that gives a rather poor outline of the role of political religion in the US, not that it needed to do more.

However, I'd like to provide an outline for talking about the history of political religion in the US. I find that the term "civic religion" is fairly useless in American discourse. We use it both to embrace typical usage of rhetoric and themes from the dominant religion of the country, and actual exhortations of a special role, ethics or place in the cosmic order for the US. What follows is not particularly deeply considered, I would like to call it a collection of notes on the idea of American political religion.

In recent times, left-wing writers have used the term "civic religion" as a contrast to Republican messianism; right-wing writers are only now using this same contrast to the messianism of the Obama administration. Our current and prior administrations have both been well within the parameters of American political religion as it has developed over the years–apostasies among their followers notwithstanding.

If modern Evangelicals and their atheist opponents are equally confused as to the religious backing of the American experiment, they can be forgiven for both using the blunt instruments of trying to match current religious expectations to the past. It is hard for us to imagine today how Enlightenment expectations conditioned the attitudes towards religion across the elite classes of Europe and North America. (In France–for an example–there was little resistance amongst the elites and bourgeoisie to the dissolution of the monasteries by both the kings and their revolutionary successors. The vita contemplativa had no place in the Enlightenment sensibility.) This is why it is hard for us to distinguish between the uses of religious rhetoric between a relatively orthodox Anglican figure like Washington, a radical like Jefferson or a still-half-Puritan Unitarian like Adams. Much like many Christians today, traditional Christians of the educated classes in the late 18th c. conformed their traditional theologies with Enlightenment ideological positions.

This means that it is hard to separate the more traditional invocations of a Washington from the more secular, political religion, inherent in a Jefferson. The tenants of this American political tradition have changed in emphasis over the years, but we can list a few dogmas (sharper folks out there can probably list many more):

1. America is good, a "city on the hill" with a unique mission to broadcast its goodness to the world.
2. It is America's destiny to expand
3. Democracy is the natural form of government because people naturally will the good and the best.

And so on. All of these have gone through significant changes, but the second and the third have been the most notable. The second initially focused on the American destiny to dominate the continent: Jefferson in particular saw a grand march of history ending in US domination of North America, its native inhabitants either to conform ("mix" their "blood with ours" to dominate the continent together as he once put it) or die away. Today it is primarily expressed, not in territorial annexation, but ideological annexation. Bush and Obama both proposed it; they differed on the means.

Americans, I believe, tend to ignore the role of actual political religion versus our imagined "civic religion" (outside of narrow applications for partisan warfare), because of the general lack of a conservative party and of a radical one. We are, generally speaking, all Enlightenment liberals, and our political debates happen within that tradition, where the role of political religion is strong, but largely without self-consciousness (in this country: view France or risorgimento Italy for examples of self-conscious liberal political religion). Furthermore, Southerners typically blame American political religion on New England, and New Englanders on the South. Today we are treated to the spectacle of Southern apologist-libertarians ridiculing Yankee paternalism and moral uprightness, and New England liberals commenting about Southern expansionism and religious justifications of various freedoms from Federal interference. Neither understand the common territory.

It is also because we believe that our political religion has not claimed victims. I think I have a reasonable counter-examples in the form of Indian Removal (which is probably the first major conflict between the wings of American political religion, as well), the religiously-infused bloody-mindedness of the Civil War (on both sides), Theodore Roosevelt's ideological presidency (which has a strange cathedral in the form of the rotunda of the American Museum of Natural History), the rhetoric surrounding US entry into WWI, and so on.

However, I would also contend that the political religion of the US–on both wings–has reached a state of decadence. It can no longer clearly articulate itself ideologically, and has lost much of its previous power to motivate the masses. This is why those handful of demonstrators who seem to worship the idea of national healthcare seem like such oddballs (and are primarily populated by remnants of the older upper classes, like Episcopalians), rather than an expected part of the political scene. The Tea Partiers seem to largely represent followers of the Jeffersonian wing of American political religion. (Enjoy the irony: The followers whose beliefs most resemble Christianity now follow the wing of American political religion that initially had the least to do with Christianity.)

Any additional thoughts? I'm out on a limb, here.

September 28, 2009

that curious race

I read this book about a month ago, and was somewhat underwhelmed–insofar as its having success in regards to its main subject matter–but it was still worth reading. This line, however, from the opening, made me laugh and will stand here as an excuse for whatever strange things I do or write.

"…since I am a philosopher by trade, I belong to that race of people who are a bit obtuse, and for whom one must really 'just spell out' even the clearest things–Being, the Good, the City, Man, and some other supposedly self-evident notions."

–Rémi Brauge, Eccentric Culture: A Theory of Western Civilization

September 25, 2009

two rival accounts of dueling traditions

One thing really interesting about the MacIntyrean account of the history of ethics is how he uses a lot of modern, Kuhnian terminology on an Hegelian framework. This may lead some to suspect that Kuhn's account in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions is also Hegelian or semi-Hegelian. It is not.

The Kuhnian model is, in outline, very simple:

1. First, we have a "normal science". The classic example is Newtonian physics.
2. Next, we have anomalies which are difficult to account for within the boundaries of the normal science. These often lead to complicated resolutions, like epicycles in the Ptolemaic cosmology.
3. Eventually, we have one or more competing models which seek to usurp the current paradigm and better account for its anomalies. These models are incommensurable with the former model, and each other.
4. Finally, a "paradigm shift" occurs, which eventually is resolved into a new period of normal science.

Note the clear lack of antithesis and synthesis. The former model is replaced. Darwinian evolution took no prisoners with the Lamarckian*. The only reason Newtonian mechanics are still around is because they're a lot easier to learn and work well enough for nearly all human endeavors. Classical uniformitarianism was left behind after the (rather quick, and some say inspired by Kuhn) paradigm shift to plate tectonics.

Compare this also to Newman. Thesis and antithesis are not there, but his picture of the church often feels like the late-Hegelian state channeling the world-spirit. That certain Catholics, in light of Vatican I, have reread Newman in the voice of Hegel–"The Pope is the Holy Spirit on horseback!"–isn't shocking.

Now, Kuhn's work was a philosophy of the history of science. (It was not a philosophy of science, as it was unconcerned with a number of the classic epistemic problems in that branch. Professors who teach it as being a competitor to other philosophies of science, or worse yet, as being "postmodern", be warned.) That means that it is not going to fit well for other forms of human endeavors, like ethics. Even in science, it is not an excellent description for history as we have it, but very useful for coming to understand it, and to critique our conditioned notions of it.

Using the terminology was smart, and in many ways, MacIntyre's accounts of ethical traditions really resemble Kuhnian normal sciences. It also serves to couch the Hegelianism in trendier terminology.

I complained of the Hegelian portion of his model in trying to understand Aquinas: Aristotelian thesis, Augustinian antithesis, Thomist synthesis. In a quasi-Kuhnian interpretation of Aquinas, you could have Augustinian normal philosophy interrupted by an Averroist exploitation of its weakness, which is then followed by a Thomist model which usurps them all and becomes a new normal philosophy. (Obviously, that did not happen, but this is philosophy of history, and we shan't let facts disturb us long.)

This is also a poor description of what was happening.

Rather, the Church has seemed to have had a long and successful trial of straining babies from bathwater when it comes to its encounters with philosophy. We see it in late antiquity with (primarily) Neoplatonism and Stoicism. The debts to the former fall primarily in metaphysics and terminology. The debts to the latter in areas of "practical wisdom" like morals and the law.

But this was not synthesis. It was a willingness to take what was good from the world around it, without undue fear of it (we cannot grant it power). It did not only happen then, both the Greek and then the Latin worlds absorbed fruitfully Neoplatonic revivals on their soil in the late Middle Ages, though in markedly different ways.

This does not solve the essential MacIntyrean problem of incommensurability between rival traditions. I think this is a real problem today, but it does not map to history very well. While issues such as Sophism opposed to Socratic/Platonic philosophy were ones of deep conflict, there is also evidence there of a shared pre-philosophic foundation that made discussion possible. MacIntyre's account of this conflict, which focuses on an idea that they were divided by favoring, respectively, goods of effectiveness or the goods of excellence (I cannot remember if he uses that precise shorthand) says more about MacIntyre's model than Athenians. (Interestingly, another comment about the concept of rhetoric vs the concept of dialectic is introduced only as an aside.)

The question of incommensurability, however, may just be a question of pride, and confusion regarding the role of philosophy. We've held philosophy to strange standards, which have likely been further reinforced by what MacIntyre (rightly) decries as its professionalization. The good thing about incommensurability is that, properly considered, it can lead us back to some epistemic humility.

*This is why it is somewhat amusing when we talk about "neo-Lamarckian" evolution, such as with ideas that dormant genes may be "activated" in offspring due to environmental pressures on the parent(s). This is only remotely related to Lamarck, and the fact that we can call it that shows that the steam has gone out of the prior debate.

September 24, 2009

the rights of history

Here are some good comments made in reaction to my contention that the Development of Doctrine is crypto-Hegelian:

Of course, we can argue until the cows come home about how viable the “traditional” perspective is from the point of view of the “historical evidence”. Perhaps the early Church did not have indulgences, or didn’t have the name “Purgatory” kicking around, or paid little attention to what the Bishop of Rome said. But to think that you can destroy all such historical doubts with a theoretical sleight of hand is ambitious but equally unviable. All you have done is hit the target by moving it somewhere else, and such an exercise is based more on will than on intellect. Then again, that is what the romanticist metanarrative really is in the end: it is an attempt to impose a gargantuan ideological structure on the sloppy and unruly data of history. At least Marx was honest enough about this when he wrote in his famous thesis on Feurbach: “Philosophers have only tried to interpret the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” For advocates of this type of theology, there is no historical problem that a good meta-theory can’t fix.

First off, I love the subject of this post: "Romanticist Metanarrative" is certainly a good description of both Hegel's and Newman's projects. (And, perhaps, what we have of MacIntyre's, as well.)

I have been reading Michael Burleigh's Earthly Powers recently, and his coverage of the period immediately following the Napoleonic Wars has had me thinking about the relations between the new monarchism of the post-war era, the conservatism of Hegel, the faux-medievalism of much of the arts of that time and later… all were about a desire to recapture a sense of historical place, which is not uncommon a reaction to a sort of ahistorical rationalism run amok.

I am not totally without sympathy here, either. These sorts of gropings towards an organic connection with a past can create real fruit and actual art. We all stand in some degree of relation to the past, and as human beings, that relation will be in some sense an artifice, a craft, perhaps even a τεχνη.

But, Americans are part of a Protestant culture, and that culture can infuse a desire to sterilize or compartmentalize the past in the way also found in the Reformation. Even those of us who have never been Protestants can find the temptation to fall into that dominant mode. Now all histories sterilize to a degree: Otherwise there would be no narrative. But the past itself is not sterile.

I am skeptical of claims that rationalistic talk about theological differences will solve the problems between the Orthodox and Catholic churches. Thank goodness that Abp. Hilarion and the MP seem to avoiding that route: There is the possibility of that necessary groundwork, a common history, in the proposed cooperation on social issues. This is far more important than yet another talk about the filioque or Roman primacy at an Amalfi villa, yet very small to the sorts of persons who salivate over such proceedings.

Among Orthodox and Catholics in this country, we have similar desires to sterilize history. They are more severe for the Orthodox because we are a much smaller community, so a few bloggers and intellectuals seem like a far greater presence in Orthodoxy to outside (and even many inside) observers, while Catholicism can be defended from stereotype by waves of obvious diversity.

Orthodoxy is the faith of the fathers; but, it is also the faith of those Greek grandmothers who seem to use icons for sympathetic magic; it is also the faith of those working-class converts that cannot seem to avoid Evangelical fad books (but have seven-plus kids and stand devoutly in every service); it is also the faith of those Russian migrants with their frustrating, to me, combination of piety and lackadaisical attitude that my wife & I worshipped with in Italy. And we don't cast those folks outside the Church. The Church, rightly seen, is big enough, important enough, is the Body of Christ enough to take in all of these things and allow all sorts of persons to work towards their salvation. And all of these things are our history.

And what stands between Orthodoxy and Catholicism is not so much debates about the papacy or doctrine as it is history. History that many wish could be pushed under the rug, "just for a moment", so we can get to the important things.

Orthodox and Catholics need to learn to live with each other, to be with each other, to sing and have festivals and bring in the harvest with each other. No true union would come without that.

The problem with philosophies of history is that they are near-uniquely suited to serve as intellectual idols. Because of our relation to history, systems that define its course, through our lives and others, are going to drive us insane if we take them as the One Answer. This is why, for Kierkegaard, the best method to use against the Hegelians was theatre and ridicule.

We cannot do without them, though. Human beings are always in relation with the past, and working out that relation is a craft. And all crafts find their roots in knowledge and wisdom. The trick is to hold our philosophy humbly.

the second translated address

This is a translation of the address that Abp. Hilarion gave to the press and the community of the Russian Orthodox Church of S. Caterina, which is (as far as I can tell) on the outskirts of Rome. This one is a bit more interesting, though it does have some repeated material.

Sirs and Madams, Brothers and Sisters:

This morning I met with Pope Benedict XVI.  Many times in passing I have had the occasion to meet him, but this was the first time that I  met with him in my new position as Chairman of the Department of External Church Relations of the Patriarch of Moscow. In fact, it was only a few months ago that I succeeded Patriarch Kirill in this post, which he had occupied for twenty years before his election to the Patriarchate.

The visit of our delegation from the Patriarch of Moscow to the Catholic Church began on Wednesday the 16th.  In these past few days we have met with Cardinal Walter Kasper, President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Chrisitan Unity, Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the prefect of the Congregation for the Oriental Churches, Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, President of the Pontifical Council for Culture, Archbishop Gianfranco Ravasi, and with other authoritative representatives of the Catholic Church.  Today, finally, I had the opportunity to meet the Pope.

The scope of this visit is to continue, strengthen, and develop the dialogue with the Catholic Church which was undertaken by my predecessor, who is now Patriarch Kirill.

The Orthodox Church of Russia bears great esteem for His Holiness Benedict XVI.  We fully support the Pope in his commitment to the defense of Christian values.  We support him even when his courageous declarations elicit negative reactions from politicians and public figures, and when they are opposed–and sometimes misinterpreted–by the media.

We believe that the head of the largest Christian church does not need to care for being "politically correct"; he does not need to conform himself to the present, dominant mentality, or seek to be liked.  We believe that he has a duty to bear witness to the truth, and we are with him even when his words meet with opposition.

Today I told the Pope that we must develop our collaboration in all fields, collect and bring to fruition the enormously vast possibilities for cooperation which are open to us at the present time.  It is evident to us that today, the Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church can no longer be competitors, as we have been in the past, but on the contrary, we must be allies, open to cooperation.  Before us stretches a vast field, in which the Lord has called us to work: Today's de-Christianized world.  Moral relativism, practical materialism, militant secularism, hedonism, unbridled consumerism, and secularism are all coming to a climax; all these characteristics of thought, and even more of contemporary ethos, are challenges which society is sending against all Christians.

To these challenges all Christians, and particularly we Orthodox and Catholics, can and must respond together. Together we can bring to the world the spiritual and moral values of the Christian faith.  Together, we can offer our Christian vision of the family, of procreation, of human love formed on more than pleasure; we can affirm our commitment to social justice, of a fairer distribution of resources, of a commitment to safeguarding our environment, for the defense of human life and human dignity. 

We are convinced that many of the ills and problems of the contemporary world are nothing other than the direct result of the abandonment of Christian values.  The current demographic crisis of of all the First World countries can be linked to this: The loss of Christian family values, of fatherhood and motherhood as gifts of God.

Today, the Church finds herself caught in a dialogue with the secular world which has become more anthropological than theological.  We believe that the outcome of this controversy will determine the future of the human race, and perhaps even the continuation of life on Earth.

The Church is not a spiritual supermarket; we are not occupied simply, as some claim, with "satisfying the spiritual needs of the people."  Helping man to find meaning in his own existence, the Church inevitably makes a man's life both more fully human, and more fully divine.

This is the common task of Orthodox and Catholics today.  In all these questions, our Church has nearly the same positions.  We strongly hope that soon, the Catholic-Orthodox relationship will develop to the point where the problems that still exist between the two traditions will be overcome.

Personally, I hope that sooner or later we will realize the long-awaited meeting between the Pope and the Patriarch of Moscow.  Presently, I cannot predict the date or place of this meeting; but, I can say that on both sides there is commitment to it, and a desire to prepare carefully for the meeting, for it marks a leap forward in our relations.

There is a lot to digest, here. Perhaps more cooperation than seemed evident to skeptics, but obviously no overnight union is in the works here (pace, y'all). I imagine just agreeing on a spot for Pope and Patriarch to meet will take some time longer.

address of abp. hilarion to the community of s. egidio

The day before yesterday, the Department of External Church Relations for the MP posted two speeches given by Abp. Hilarion while in Rome. Unfortunately, they are in Italian. Fortunately, my wife is conversant in the language. (She does the living tongues, and I the dead. It is a fruitful division of labor.) Here is a (fairly literal) translation of the first address, given to The Community of Sant'Egidio (Saint Giles). If you have any severe issues with the following, blame me: I was editing.

My dear friends, brothers and sisters in the community of S. Egidio!

It is with great joy that I have come this evening to be with you.  I am happy to find myself again among you all, and in particular to see my friends, professor Andrea Riccardi and Bishop Mons. Vincenzo Paglia.

Thank you for the invitation to attend at your prayers.

I happily salute the bishops present, and all of you, who have come tonight to this church, and through you I greet the community of S. Egidio across all the world.

Before anything else, I would like to bring you the greetings and blessings of His Holiness the the Patriarch of Moscow.  Both in his name and in my own, and on behalf of these others present here, I wish to tell you of the esteem and love which we have for your community.

First of all, we have great esteem for your commitment to tradition, for your aid to the poor and needy, for your actions in this and in other cities to feed the homeless, for your aid to the disabled, the sick, the orphans, and the elderly, of the attention which the community of S. Egidio has for those who are at the margin of society: prisoners, refugees, immigrants.  With your commitment to this social work, your Christian diakonia towards the disadvantaged, you put the Gospel into practice.  In the face of a suffering man, you see the image of your Savior, for as you serve the poor, you serve him; as he said, "Inasmuch as ye have done it unto the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me."  (Matt 25:40).

And so, we have a great consideration for your contribution towards the dialogue between Christians, and also with the faithful of many other religions. But in particular, we are very satisfied and happy with the relationship of mutual understanding and esteem that has been established for years between your community and the Russian Orthodox Church.

We live in a de-Christianized world, in an era which some would call "post-Christian."  Contemporary society, with its consumerism, hedonism, practical materialism, and moral relativism, poses towards we Christians a serious and difficult challenge.  The future of humanity, and perhaps also the future of all life on the Earth, depend on our Christian response.  It is a challenge to all of us, and so we must also respond together.

Only together can we bring to the world the spiritual values and morals of the Christian faith.  Together, we can offer our Christian vision of the family, of procreation, of human love formed on more than pleasure; we can affirm our commitment to social justice, of a fairer distribution of resources, of a commitment to safeguarding our environment, for the defense of human life and human dignity.  These moral values are traditional, affirmed by Christians for twenty centuries, and have formed our European civilization and culture.  But at the same time, they are new and modern, because the Gospel of Jesus Christ is eternally new and modern, eternally young.

Before this communal challenge which the contemporary world has launched, today more than ever, we Christians must work [“be”] together.  It is the hour to pass beyond conflict and competition, to solidarity, mutual respect, mutual esteem.  Or in other words, I will say without hesitation that we must pass to reciprocal love.   When he gave us his new commandment to love one another, Christ said: "By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another."  (Jn 13:35).  Here is the way that our Christian preaching can be effective and convincing to the modern world: They must see, in life, the love that we share as Christians.

With these sentiments, I thank you again for having invited me and I repeat to you my happiness at being here with you.  And to express, concretely, our brotherly love for the Community of S. Egidio, I would like to give you this Russian icon of the Madonna.

And with this I pray to the Mother of God to bless you, protect you, and sustain you  always as you seek to love the Savior, serving him in all others, particularly the disadvantaged.

I would also like to give this pectoral cross to Bishop Paglia, our dear friend, and with it, wish him every blessing of the Lord.

Hopefully we'll have the other done later today, which was given after his meeting with the Pope.

September 23, 2009

like a thief in the night

Certain Catholic friends of mine have been passing around this link today. Downshot: Because the pope re-communicates a certain Holocaust denier, the New World Order is going to force the "Three Romes" to reunite suddenly, and soon.

I don't blame you if you're lost; I'm totally confused.

The Zenit article Moynihan cites in full also got posted by the usual suspect, and the discussion there has a reasonable point of departure: The issue of Pope Benedict XVI's "Newmanism", or not. I'll come back to that. (Preview: I think not.)

While driving up to visit family, today, I was talking to my wife about what I had heard and thought about the recent meeting between Archbishop Hilarion and the Pope. I thought that expressive hopes that the silence was particularly meaningful were misplaced, but I generally feel more comfortable with Abp. Hilarion and the Patriarch of Moscow engaging in these sorts of ecumenical discussions than the Ecumenical Patriarchate, mostly because the power differential is not as great. Since the 14th century, Constantinople has had an unfortunate habit of being necessarily in a disadvantaged position vis-a-vis Rome. (I found it interesting that some claimed to catch in the video release about it that the Pope requested to speak in German and Abp. Hilarion requested English, instead. This is likely not only about Abp. Hilarion's greater comfort in English–if he is more comfortable, I do not know–but also about the power differential inherent in the Pope being able to converse in his native tongue while the Archbishop would still be speaking in a second language.)

There are real issues on which Rome and Moscow can speak effectively together. Not only against the continuing "secularization" of the West, but also regarding ethics and faith to the whole world. Seeing a political trend that may very well lie in ashes in a century as being able to "force" reconciliation is a strange philosophy of history. The Church moves with the Spirit.

Now, at heart, I'm an ecumenical sort of person. I am an American, and I live in the West. Furthermore, I imagine that reconciliation of these old and difficult divisions would be a miraculous signal–an icon of the reconciliation the Church brings between human beings every day in her Liturgies, and obviously so, because communication involves that very same reconciliation.

That said, I'm a pessimist, and I'd be less surprised that the government of America suddenly became interested in governance than I would be about a few back door talks causing real and effective reunion within a matter of weeks, from nearly nothing (and, believe me, decades of ecumenical statements have left us with nearly nothing).

This is not to say that, for Orthodox, there are not real and hopeful things about the papacy of Benedict XVI for our relations with Catholics. (And I do not simply mean the fact that he isn't Polish.) What I am talking about is his genuine interest in and familiarity with Orthodox theological tradition. What other pope would have given sermons on St. Maximus or St. Symeon that are recognizable to the Orthodox? There is, in his theological sensibilities and ecclesiological leanings (versus the prior pope in particular), a certain friendliness and availability of common ground from which good things can come. I am uncertain how much we can hope from them, though.

The book of his I always recommend to friends is Truth And Tolerance. (The book I recommend to everyone else is Jesus of Nazareth, which I really liked.) I cannot really do his arguments justice in short form, but in it, the then Cardinal Ratzinger gives us three modes of moving out of the mythological world-view: Mysticism, Enlightenment and Monotheistic Revolution.

This is the Pope's essential philosophy of religion, and if there is an author I would compare it to, it has more in common with René Girard than John Henry Cardinal Newman (I should note that much of Truth and Tolerance represents a period before Girard ever published Violence and the Sacred, and there is no clear borrowing of either author's themes by the other. Rather, there is a similar tone). The only relation would be in the overall move towards a "provisional" understanding of pre-Christian religion as preparatory to Christ, which bears some similarity to the development of doctrine, I suppose, but that's a horrible stretch.

Rather, like Girard, Ratzinger sees a pre-rational, pre-revelation humanity with a "mythical" worldview primarily based on sacrifice and primitive magic (though I do not know if Ratzinger used those terms). There is not the essential violence found in Girard, but there is a definite tone to this mythological world that makes it clear that mankind must move beyond it. The mode of mysticism is rather like that found in late-paganism or Hinduism (as opposed to the mysticism of Christianity, though it sometimes slips into the heresy of obliteration at the hands of το Ον). The mode of Enlightenment is that of rationality, like that of the Greek philosophers or the later Enlightenment. The Monotheistic Revolution is peculiarly Jewish, and then Islamic. Despite roots in Monotheistic Revolution, however, the typology of Christianity given by Ratzinger is not wholly contained by that category. Where it touches Mysticism as described in the book is not entirely clear. I may be misremembering the book at some level, here: I have not read it a few years and I'm without my copy. But the contact with Enlightenment is different: Hellenic philosophy granted unto Christianity not only useful theological terminology, but also the anchor of natural reason. And this is not simply an instance of a rationalistic West versus a mystical East: Ratzinger seems to understand that reason in a way that would not be alien to the Cappadocians, for example, though he may claim more power for it.

This model, however, with its high claims for the deposit of revelation in religion is not temperate ground for the Development of Doctrine (which is a philosophy of religion, rather than an ecclesiology). And as it is the Development of Doctrine that Orthodox should most be worried about when understanding a person as a follower of Newman, this should encourage.

Where we might see an influence would be in epistemology, but I have no clear idea if the Pope has one (and if he does not, it may not be a bad thing). Newman's epistemology is not simply the caricature found in the blogosphere–the Pope resolves all epistemic angst–so it is not entirely unfriendly. The Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent is well worth serious attention.

However, all this to understand the Pope vis-a-vis the Orthodox gets us only a little further. So, he respects us. So, his philosophy of religion is perhaps very compelling. So, he is not a supremacist in the manner of prior incumbents. But does that make miracles likely? Obviously not.

But it is good to hope and to try to understand the man with whom we talk.

pieper on the resilience of christian philosophy

It is the old, silent, unyielding, irrevocable "cliff" of revealed truth that hinders philosophical thinking from flowing into a smooth, well-channelled stream. It is through the complication of thought that arises from this opposition, wherein Christian philosophy differs from the non-Christian.

–Josef Pieper, "The Philosophical Act" [trans. Gerald Malsbary]

It was this quote that was in the back of my head when I wrote in the prior post that theological answers about grace should contain the speculations of Christian philosophy.

I use, and will likely continue to use, the terms "philosophy", "theology" and "Christian philosohpy" throughout this blog in ways not totally consistent with each other. This is because the barrier between what is each is not entirely clear to me, and I mistrust all who tell me exactly where the boundary is or who, better yet, wholly disparage one to glorify another. At least on this side of the eschaton, theology cannot exist wholly independent of philosophy, nor can philosophy exist apart from theology.

from hegel to theurgy

Over at this post we have, in the comments, a wonderful understatement: “It would appear that multiculturalism has theological implications.”

If, for St. Gregory Palamas, philosophy was to have the use of medicine from serpents, then for us it can also be the canary in the mine. Theology (and, to a lesser extent, Christian philosophy) is more robust, having revealed truth to man the walls; eventually, though, theology will usually have to deal with the same problems philosophy does.

Multiculturalism is probably not the best term, here. What we are dealing with, in the American world of a religious marketplace is simply the autonomous individual acting as his own synthesizer in a world of competing (and possibly incommensurable?) traditions. But because "multiculturalism" is a convenient shorthand, I will use it, but I don't want it to be totally identified with the multiculturalism that is dredged up for our "culture wars".

In order to discuss the implications of multiculturalism for theology in the context of the last discussion (because they are related), we’ll have to talk Hegel for a while longer, at least to keep from replicating his mistakes.

There are two generally held theories on Hegel. There is the traditional view of Hegel as a predominantly metaphysical philosopher, focusing on his philosophy of history and phenomenology (and possible monism). There is also the critical view, which primarily views Hegel in light of his Kantian qualities, specifically the scientific outlook of his philosophy. These views have typically been taken to be incompatible: How can a philosopher who critiques metaphysics simultaneously have the enormous metaphysical system implied by his philosophy of history? I don’t think that they are incompatible, however, and the fact that they have been held to be probably tells us more about philosophical faculties than it does about Hegel. (For a brief extract from my reasons: Hegel’s phenomenology had less to do with “spirit” as a normally-understood metaphysical construct, but more to do with a Kantian rationality encountering various epistemic and ontological modes. For another reason, more obvious: Any sort of philosophy that tells you it is doing without metaphysics is pulling your leg, anyhow.) Hegel was doing both, in a reaction to Kant and a continuation of his method (thus being in a relation to Kant similar to Schiller’s relation to himself).

Kant (in an actual example of the sort of synthesis between dueling traditions of the sort MacIntyre places on Aquinas) had hoped to combine what we can call dueling philosophies of the subject and of the object. Hegel continued this philosophy in a mode that made him the high priest of Romanticism*, of which multiculturalism is a child. And Hegel’s method has actually been compelling enough to be revisited time and again. Marx gave them a new form for the Left, but it is generally conservatives who feel the temptation to revive Hegelianism today.

Hegel’s answers seem like a path out of multiculturalism (as they were in his day a way out of both the ambivalence left in Kant’s wake and the wreck of the Enlightenment on the battlefields of the Napoleonic Wars). We simply need to find a system that can transcend the current arguments and provide an ultimate answer. Even better, we like to adopt his determinism; this is all part of a cycle, driven by the oversoul, or the Holy Spirit, or whatever. (In terms of church history, I sometimes call this the Charles Williams answer: Christian divisions are guided by the Holy Spirit to lead us to deeper truths.)

MacIntyre’s attraction to Hegelian modes (other than his comfort with them due to his former Marxism) is because it is hard to see a way to truth beyond competing modes of culture. While the theological answer–that God gives grace enough to recognize Christian truth to all souls that hear it–should not be enough for philosophy, it should be enough for theology… or to contain the speculations of Christian philosophers.

(Instead, many modern Christians sound awfully like Julia Flyte: If only we were ignorant like the Protestants, then we could enjoy life and still go to heaven!)

William James was the one who first thoroughly made the challenge to theology from the multicultural point of view. Because of widespread acceptance of his point-of-view (and even of the occult spiritualism that lay secretly behind it) by our age, The Varieties of Religious Experience is not so much a book that needs to be read anymore, as its thesis made explicit. (This isn’t to say it isn’t worth reading; James can be engrossing.) However, really, if you’ve seen or read What Dreams May Come, you’ve read his book**.

James saw essential connections in the how of religious experience between religions, and inferred from this essential connections in the whys. (Compare and contrast with modern neuroscience, if you will.) While this is a simplification, it contains within it much of James’s program. The rest can likely be adequately explained by some Enlightenment and New England Transcendentalist hang-overs like his abhorrence of real asceticism, favoring a “religion of healthy-mindedness”, which–come to think of it–looks rather like Moral Therapeutic Deism.

You see the spirit of James frequently within modern Christian theological discussions. Vain stretches (like Julia Flyte’s) of the Catholic idea of “invincible ignorance”; constant invocations of “all religions” as “paths to God”; quasi-pantheism (or open panentheism) and a fascination with a spirit-haunted world of the sort that the Church once abolished. (An appreciation of the sincere relief and triumph the ancient world felt as the Church overran the mediums and astrologers is hard, but not impossible for us. Just read St. Athanasius.)

Christian philosophy has so far dealt with these problems in an immature way. Secular philosophy has done little better (though we should not have expected it to), but the canary has long sang and we are still playing catch-up. For theology, these problems simply should not exist, but the barbarians are no longer at the gates. There are, I suspect, parallels to be drawn with the Church’s conflicts with neoplatonism and theurgy in late-antiquity, but those lessons need to be applied to new situations.

*This may seem like a stretch, but–for example–Hegel’s theory of the total state as the vehicle for the world-spirit to guide humanity is very much in step with Romanticism’s view of nationhood, or at least nations-in-themselves.

**I could have real fun talking about Swedenborg’s influence on the Romantics, James and spiritualism of the What Dreams May Come variety…

September 17, 2009

aquinas was not a hegelian

Probably the oddest blurb on the back of Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry is that from the New York Times Book Review:

"MacIntyre's project, here as elsewhere, is to put up a fight against philosophical relativism. … The current form is the incommensurability,' so-called, of differing standpoints or conceptual schemes. Mr. MacIntyre claims that different schools of philosophy must differ fundamentally about what counts as a rational way to settle intellectual differences."

It actually gets worse from there, if you will trust me. What is interesting is the author's confidence that MacIntyre speaks against relativism–including incommensurability–but immediately recognizes that MacIntyre, uh, claims that different schools of philosophy are incommensurable. Maybe the NYT reviewer did not know what incommensurability meant, or maybe she had an axe to grind, and MacIntyre's book was as good a stone as any other.

I am not claiming that MacIntyre is a relativist, but by the standards of analytic philosophy, he comes dangerously close, and we should understand what his proposed solution is.

And in order to grasp the proposed solution, it is worth noting something that MacIntyre's analytic critics are fond of pointing out: MacIntyre is a former Marxist–sometimes not even so former.(Specifically, he moved within Marxism from being a Stalinist to a Trokskyite.) There was an intermediate period where MacIntyre attempts to bring Christianity and Marxism into open dialogue, but by After Virtue, the Marxist influence is largely in the background, and mostly shows up via his vocabulary and asides.

In Three Rival Versions… MacIntyre's reading of Aquinas places him as an arbiter of the competing schools of Augustinian theologians and Aristotelian philosophers (the "Latin Averroists"). This is a reading that has a lot in common with Gilson's reading of Thomas as being a reaction against scholasticism, rather than being its best proponent. For MacIntyre (this is to simplify a bit), Thomas overcame the incommensurability of the two schools by being able to play both language games; Thomas brought out the best critiques from within each school against itself and then synthesized the competitors into a brilliant system which has never been fully appreciated.

It's difficult to say whether or not this reading of Thomas is warranted or not. It certainly is a leap. It seems reasonable within the bounds of his biography, but less so when you read Thomas, or read other medieval thinkers. While there were certainly schools and factions in the medieval university, the idea of a contemporary self-consciously carrying out the project MacIntyre proposes seems highly unlikely. In fact, Aquinas's project is often directed against the Averroists, while retaining a very medieval reverence of Aristotle. While Aquinas may have saved Aristotle from the Averroists (especially after the confemnation of the 13 theses), it does not seem as if Aquinas thought of himself as a synthesizer in any fashion.

Essentially, MacIntyre's reading of Aquinas flows from his foundational Marxism: It is Hegelian (or perhaps Fichtean, to be more precise): Augustinian thesis meets Aristotelean antithesis–thus, Thomist synthesis. It is a post-Kuhnian Hegel (the very use of the word "incommensurable" is the biggest evidence of the debt MacIntyre's model of competing moral schools holds to Kuhn), but Hegel nonetheless. I imagine that the historical inevitability and dialectic of Hegel would seem not that far from relativism to most readers, and I think they are somewhat justified.

This implicit Hegelianism in MacIntyre's elevation of Aquinas is further demonstrated by his lack of understanding in how Hegel underlies the two modern schools he opposes to Aquinas: The Encyclopedia (exemplified by the high Enlightenment attitudes of the editors of the Encyclopaedia Britannica's Ninth Edition), and the Genealogist (Nietzsche and his 20th century students). Hegel provided an important background for both schools: He was a point of influence and detraction for Nietzsche and the great monument of the late Enlightenment for 19th century liberals. (Americans are often at a loss to understand how Marxism was given birth by liberalism because we never read Hegel.)

The depths of MacIntyre's misunderstandings can probably be summed up in a few sentences from the book:

"The theologians of the late nineteenth century were not, of course, as yet aware of the genealogical challenge. But they could not but be responsive to the recurrent attempts within every major Christian denomination to reshape and to diminish central Christian doctrine in a way that would make it acceptable to post-Enlightenment culture, the culture of the encyclopaedia. And these recurrent attempts evoked a variety of theological restatements, of which Kierkegaard's and Newman's were among the most notable."

Kierkegaard and Newman! Newman's project (the "Development of Doctrine") was certainly of its time and place, and even quite Hegelian in a fashion, though I do not know if Newman read Hegel or only imbibed the spirit of his age. But Kierkegaard's project? It was directed against the heart of the culture of the encyclopedia, and Kierkegaard aimed constantly at the biggest target of all: Hegel. That MacIntyre is probably making the common mistake of reading Kierkegaard as a fideist and radical Protestant is forgivable; that he misses Kierkegaard's obvious lack of interest in making his ideas palatable to his age is ridiculous. The blind spot is glaring.

MacIntyre's final chapter is devoted to discussing a vision of the university. He returns again to his anachronistic vision of the University of Paris, circa Aquinas. He wants university professors to honestly hold forth their "schools", to duel openly and discard some of the niceties that have made the liberal university inane. This is likely preferable to the current situation. MacIntyre seems to believe that Thomism can play the role today, between the inheritors of Enlightenment rationalism and Nietzschean nihilism, of mediator. That it is questionable enough that Aquinas played that role in the 13th century should make us skeptical of the use of this suggestion, that (according to MacIntyre) Aquinas failed so miserably in having anyone understand his supposed synthesis should make us even more wary.

There is no way out of the relativism pictured, here. MacIntyre still dwells in the world he identified in After Virtue: A world where ethical emotivism may not be true, but is a definite description of the condition of that world. MacIntyre identifies "Thomism" as "tradition", but if there is tradition in a realm of dueling theses, it is not with the synthesis, but beyond it, as well.


I should add a bit to my suggestion of a comparison of Newman to Hegel: Reflect on the role of the world spirit in Hegel's philosophy of history, and that of the Holy Ghost in Newman's development of doctrine, and you will soon see the parallels.

Pelikan once called the development of doctrine to be Newman's "great idea", and based his entire remarkable history of Christian Doctrine on it. The development of doctrine is a philosophy of history, and Pelikan gave it a practical application. (That Pelikan ultimately rejected the development–implicitly–by embracing Orthodoxy is evidence of its weakness as a grounds for understanding Christian doctrine and faith.) In defense of Newman, the Cardinal often claimed in the essay that the development was simply the fact that no idea is ever first expressed in its fullest form. This seems reasonable enough, but flies in the face of traditional Christian conviction that the Gospel is the fullest form of all doctrine, and that the Church simply defends its deposit through the inspired Creed and councils. It would be truer to say that what develops is the number of occaisions to which doctrine has to be explicitly applied, though no father of the councils would have dared to say he was finding a new doctrine, rather they were always defending that which had always been taught. And from Nicea to iconoclasm, there is plenty of evidence for that fact. New technical language is applied to explain doctrine, but for the orthodox Christian, doctrine itself never develops*. Newman's essay, therefore, attempted to defend orthodoxy against the enlightenment by undermining it; Hegel simply defended incipient-liberal Protestantism against the enlightenment by removing from it all the content of the Gospel. But their methods of engaging it bear a more than cursory similarity.

Similarly, McIntyre's history of philosophy in Three Rival Versions… has a philosophy of history behind it that also bears strong notes of Hegel. Unfortunately, McIntyre's philosophy of the history of moral inquiry is not explicitly laid out anywhere (including–I would argue–in Whose Justice? Which Rationality?), so we must presume its contents–to an extent.

As for the key to the cage…

*Lest this seem like splitting hairs, let me note: A single statement, "A", can have more than one explanation of its content. "A" remains the same, though the bodies of sentences explaining its content are altered.