September 23, 2009

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…

1 comment:

  1. "the autonomous individual acting as his own synthesizer in a world of competing (and possibly incommensurable?) traditions"

    Great way of putting it. Keep writing!