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.

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