March 30, 2008


American Nominalism and Our Need for the Science of Theology (part 1) (Peter Augustine Lawler, 03/28/08, First Principles)

The modern world has been characterized by de-Christianization and de-Hellenization. That doesn’t mean it’s fundamentally anti-Christian or anti-Greek. We speak more of the dignity or autonomy of the human person than ever. And we certainly have more confidence in and are more dependent on the science we’ve inherited from the Greeks than ever.

Modern de-Hellenizaton has been largely animated by the desire to free the willful God and the willful human person made in his image from being distorted or annihilated by the impersonal metaphysical system of Aristotle or some other philosopher or scientist. Modern de-Christianization has been largely animated by the desire to free science from all anthropomorphic or personal distortion, to fuel real progress toward a certain understanding of the genuinely universal structure of reality—the goal of science first articulated, quite imperfectly, by the classical Greek philosophers. De-Christianization has been pursued on behalf of the free person, and de-Hellenization has been pursued on behalf of impersonal science. They have been operating simultaneously and at cross-purposes.

The truth is that our world is in some ways both more personal and more impersonal—more Christian and more Greek—than ever. The distance between our personal experiences and what we think we know through science has never been wider. Without admitting it, we’ve abandoned the true goal of science, which is to give an account of the way all things—including human beings—are. We don’t really believe we can reason about the true situation of the only being in the world—the human person—who is open to the truth about nature. We think we can know everything but the being who can know.

We really don’t deny that such a personal being exists, whatever our scientists may teach. We don’t even begin to try to lose our puny selves in some impersonal system or pantheistic reverie. Such denial is for Buddhists, with their amazing self-discipline. For now, the phrase “Western Buddhist” remains an oxymoron.

It’s particularly easy to see that we Americans see ourselves both more personally and more impersonally than ever. Virtually all sophisticated Americans claim to believe that Darwin teaches the whole truth about who or what we are. For Darwin, the particular human being only exists to serve the human species. Even our super-smart species has no enduring significance in the accidental evolutionary process. It’s true both that I’m nothing but species fodder, and that what I in particular do has less than negligible significance for our species’ future. Natural selection depends on the average, anonymous behavior of a huge number of members of any particular species. The individual and his illusory concerns about his personal significance mean nothing. Even the genes that I so dutifully spread are soon dispersed into insignificance.

The same sophisticated American who prides himself on being a whole-hog Darwinian speaks incessantly about the freedom and dignity of the individual and is proud of his or her freedom to choose. The particularly modern source of pride remains personal freedom from all authority, including the authority of God and nature. Our professed confidence in the reality of that freedom may be stronger than ever today. Even our neo-Darwinian scientists, such as Daniel Dennett, who think there’s no foundation in what we know through science for the idea of human dignity, admit it would be a disaster if they could really convince us to stop taking our dignity seriously. Certainly one piece of evidence that we’re not living in genuinely reasonable times is that most sophisticated Americans seem unable to join Dennett in recognizing the laughable contradiction in their official self-understanding as autonomous chimps.

We Americans, in fact, are so unscientific that we don’t even really try to account for what we can see with our own eyes. Culturally speaking, we’re divided into Darwin affirmers and Darwin deniers, into those who say that his theory of evolutionary natural selection can explain everything and those who say it explains nothing. Anybody should be able to see that the truth lies somewhere in between these two extremes.

The Darwin affirmers provide the best evidence we have that what Darwin teaches couldn’t possibly be completely true. They tend to think of themselves so thoroughly as autonomous individuals that often they don’t seek the natural fulfillment that comes through spreading their genes—or having kids. They’re not doing their duty to their species by generating their replacements. They’re doing everything they can not to have to be replaced, and they’re doing it in the most scientific way. They think that being itself will be extinguished if and when they die. Can Darwin really explain why healthy members of a species enjoying the most favorable environment ever would suddenly and quite consciously just decide to stop reproducing? It seems that the members of any species smart enough and curious enough to have discovered the theory of natural selection will act to make that theory untrue.

Meanwhile, our Evangelical and orthodox believers come much closer to living the way nature intends in order for our species to flourish. They pair-bond or marry, have lots of kids, raise them well, and then step aside for their natural replacements without inordinate resistance. What the Evangelicals and Mormons believe is better for our species’ future than what the neo-Darwinians believe. A neo-Darwinian genuinely concerned for our species’ future might insist that evolution not be taught in our schools. Surely our sociobiologists can’t explain why it is that those Americans who believe that, as persons made in the image of a supernatural God, their true home lies elsewhere are more at home in this world as citizens, friends, neighbors, parents, and children than are those who think their true home lies here, on this earth.

Still, our Evangelicals tend to join both those who speak of their “autonomy” and Darwinians in believing that there’s no support in nature at all for their purpose-driven lives, and that if it weren’t for the absolute truth of the Bible something like aimless or relativistic naturalism would be true. They often present the human choice as between two competing worldviews, and reason has little to say about how to make that choice. Our Evangelicals give themselves far too little credit. Their criticism of our libertarian autonomy-freaks and our Darwinians would retain plenty of force even if they lost faith in the God of the Bible.

Our libertarians, our Darwinians, and our Evangelicals all agree that there is no science of theology. Reason can’t give us any guidance on who or what God is in a way that would provide real guidance for our lives. They don’t believe that we’re hardwired, so to speak, to know the Logos who, or which, is the source of our freedom and openness to the truth about all things. Our libertarians and our Evangelicals both believe that the free person is real, but they don’t believe that there’s any support in nature for his existence. Our Darwinians, quite unrealistically, deny what anyone can see with his own eyes about personal or individual behavior. Because we all refuse to believe in the possibility of a science of theology, we all lack a way of talking reasonably about the real lives of particular human persons.

We don’t live in a particularly reasonable time, because we’re governed by a particular cultural or historical choice to limit the domain of reason over our lives. This modern self-limitation, as I’ll explain, was quite understandable. But we now know from experience that the simultaneous attempts to free faith from science or philosophy and science from faith have produced undignified, self-mutilated lives. Most fundamentally, we seem not to be courageous enough to live well with what we really know. The truth is that the modern view of reason is quite questionable. It is, thank God, far from the last word on what we can really know.

The Science of Theology: Hellenic Christianity vs. Classical Philosophy
To free us from the delusion that we have the last word on reason, we must return to the first words about the relationship between Greek philosophy, or science, and Christianity spoken during the period of Hellenic Christianity. At that time, the Greeks and the Christians agreed that we are hardwired, so to speak, as beings with minds to think about who or what God must be, and we are animated by eros or love to seek the truth about God. The idea that God is Logos is what allowed the Greeks and the Christians to use both arguments and mockery to collaborate against those religions which are obviously unreasonable and man-made. God is neither cruel nor arbitrary, and the truth about God must correspond to what we can know about ourselves and the rest of nature according to our best lights. Both the Greeks and the Christians contributed to genuine enlightenment, to the liberation of human beings from the confines of merely civil or political theology, from a world where the word of God was both used as a weapon and justified the use of weapons.

Aristotle attempted to grasp through reflection God as the object of every human desire or love. He understood God only as the object of love, as a wholly self-sufficient or unerotic or unmovable being, not as a person at all. Aristotle’s God is certainly not a “relational” God, one who cares or even knows about the existence of particular human beings. According to Aristotle, our pursuit of divine knowledge—or what God knows—becomes progressively more impersonal. The pursuit of philosophic or scientific truth requires that the particular philosopher die to himself. The Socratic drama of the pursuit of wisdom is about the particular being losing himself in his apprehension of anonymous or impersonal truth.

From this view, we approach divinity—or what is best in us—through our perception of the logos or rational causality that governs all things. We see through every anthropomorphic claim for personal intervention or personal causation that would disrupt that logos. From this liberated view, the idea of a personal God is an oxymoron. It is, in fact, a repulsive denial of the responsibility of theological science and science generally.

The Christian criticism of Aristotelian theology is that it doesn’t account for what we really know about the human person. For the Greek philosophers, the realm of human freedom, finally, is a mythical idea, one which must be rhetorically supported but for which there’s no scientific evidence. The only real freedom is the freedom of the human mind from anthropomorphic delusions about natural causation. The Christians respond that human longings and human action exhibit real evidence of personal freedom, and the person must have some real foundation in being itself. What we really do know points in the direction of the creative activity of a personal God. The personalities of God and man can’t be wholly or irredeemably unrelated. The possibility of the free and rational being open to the truth depends upon the corresponding possibility of a personal, rational science of theology.

The classical philosophers were, of course, perfectly aware that human beings are “manly,” that they need to feel important. Such self-confidence, of course, is required to make self-conscious life endurable and great human deeds possible. But according to their science, all assertions of human importance are unrealistic exaggerations, and the philosopher gently mocks without obviously undermining the aspirations of particular individuals to self-sufficiency. But for the Christians, even science depends upon the possibility of personal significance, and Christian theology criticizes both the civil theology and the natural theology of the Greeks and Romans for being unable to account for personal freedom—for the being who is not fundamentally merely part of a city or part of some necessitarian natural whole. For the Christians, not only do particular men and women need to feel important, they in fact are important. The Christians add that the unrealistic exaggerations of humans’ magnanimous pretensions need to be chastened by the truthful virtue of humility, the virtue of ineradicably relational and lovingly dependent beings.

That there is a ground for personal freedom in an otherwise seemingly necessitarian cosmos does, in some ways, offend the mind. But to understand all that exists in terms of impersonal causation suggests that Being itself is constituted by an intelligence that is incapable of comprehending itself. The being who can understand Being—the human being—seems to be a chance occurrence in a cosmos that has no particular need for and is seemingly distorted by his existence. The appearance of the human person—even the philosopher with the name Socrates—necessarily offends the human mind in some ways, but as far we know the human mind can only appear or function in a whole person. The real existence of the whole philosopher or physicist can’t be accounted for in any mathematical or necessitarian physics. So in some ways it might offend reason less to affirm an account of the precondition and ground of all being to be creative and truly conscious—or erotic and rational—thinking. The world, in the final analysis, is more love than mathematics, and the particular human person is more significant and wonderful than the stars.

The Greeks focus on the eternity, the Christians on the loving creativity, of God. For the Christians, the God who is the ultimate source of our being is animated, as we are, by logos and eros. The source of our Being is someone who can’t be reduced to mind or will or even some theoretical combination of the two. Made in his image, we personal, erotic, and knowing beings can’t be reduced to mind or will or body or even some abstract combination of the three. One aspect of the reasonableness of faith is its perception of the intrinsic link between God’s love and the whole reality of human life.

The philosophic or scientific understanding of the world in terms of impersonal necessity or eternity alone can’t account for the real existence of persons, of beings open to the truth and defined in this world by time.

Every essay by Mr. Lawler is a treat and they've a bunch and lectures at ISI.

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 30, 2008 8:34 AM
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