Friday, December 29, 2006

Theology's Captivity to Continental Philosophy

R.R. Reno, associate professor of theology at Creighton University, has written a thoughful analysis of what he calls "Theology's Continental Captivity" (First Things, April, 2006, pp. 26-33). His thesis, essentially, is that contemporary theology has been taken captive by the continental tradition of philosophy, a tradition which in its contemporary postmodern recension is deeply inimical and corrosive of its own purposes, while ignoring the tradition of Anglo-American analytic philosophy, which could be most serviceable to its ends. Referring to trends in contemporary theology, he writes:
Catholic or not, in the main it cannot see the apparent renewal of philosophy in the English-speaking world. Alvin Plantinga, Peter van Inwagen, William Alston, and the rest of the Society of Christian Philosophers can meet for twenty years, but theology remains blind to ways in which analytic philosophy can contribute to the “evangelization of culture” and renewal of theology that John Paul II—and now Benedict XVI—identify as singular imperatives in the West.

There are exceptions. Bruce Marshall’s Trinity and Truth assesses and reformulates the remarkable new philosophical resources developed since Quine lead analytic philosophy out of its epistemological captivity. Marshall’s colleague, William Abraham, works out of the analytic tradition. There are self-described analytic Thomists. The late Donald Mackinnon helped his theological students see the value of analytic philosophy. But by and large, these figures and trends are eccentric to the main body of contemporary theology. The overwhelming majority of theologians today sift through Heidegger and his philosophical children and grandchildren to try to find useable material.

This impulse is understandable but misguided. Heidegger and his progeny have developed into a tradition unsuited to the traditional role of philosophy has played in Christian intellectual life. It has little to offer for the task John Paul II thought so pressing, to renew confidence in reason, and it does more harm than good in the technical work of systematic theology. (emphasis added)
I have little doubt as to Reno's general critique of the Heidegger and his stepchildren here, but less certainty about his prescription for harnessing theology to the horses of Anglo-American analytic philosophy. On the one hand, as profound as Heidegger's critical analytic of the western metaphysical tradition may be, it ultimately disappoints. Like the work of postmodern deconstructionists who followed him, it leaves one with nothing but the dismantled debris of disbelief. On the other hand, although significant figures have emerged from the ranks of the Anglo-American analytic tradition to make common cause with Christian theology, this is by no means a generalizeable feature of that tradition, any more than the supposition that all contemporary continental philosophers have been atheists. Some of the most outspoken opponents of the Christian "meta-narrative" and of foundationalist projects generally have emerged from out of the ranks of Anglo-American analytic tradition. Bertrand Russell, A.J. Ayer, and Richard Rorty come to mind. On the other hand, some of the most outspoken defenders of Christianity have emerged from the ranks of that continental tradition of Husserlian phenomenology in which Heidegger and his postmodern deconstructionist successors, such as the French Jacques Derrida, were themselves schooled. Dietrich von Hildebrand, Max Scheler, Edith Stein, Karol Wojtila, Robert Sokolowski, and Marold Westphal come to mind. So the first tentative inference I draw is that Reno's distinction may be precipitously overdrawn.

One of the first things one notes about the Existentialist tradition is that it includes both Christians (like Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky, Berdyaev, and Marcel) and atheists (like Nietzsche, Kafka, Camus, and Sartre -- though both Camus and Sartre were reverting Catholics at the end of their lives). The same polarity is evident in the subsequent movement of existential phenomenology, which includes both Christians (like Scheler, Jaspers and Ricoeur) as well as atheists (like Heidegger, Hartmann, and Merleau-Ponty). The Anglo-American analytic tradition is similarly checkered. Until the advent of Alvin Plantiga's "Reformed Epistemology" (belief in God as "properly basic") in the 1970s, it was dominated by agnostic and atheist evidentialists. Since that time, it is true, the Society of Christian philosophers and other such groups have produced a bugeoning discussion about Christian issues within the analytic tradition. One of the interesting results has been the debate between Catholic and Reformed Protestant philosophers over questions of religious epistemology, such as that sparked by Alvin Plantinga's Reformed Epistemology (cf. the anthology, Rational Faith: Catholic Responses to Reformed Epistemology, edited by Linda Zagzebski, University of Notre Dame Press, 1994).

In sum, I agree with Reno's critique of the disappointing and often nefarious fruits of the contemporary postmodern stepchildren of Heidegger and his fellow deconstructionists; however, I think it may be a bit too facile to suggest that the future and hope of Christian theology lies in looking to contemporary developments among Christian analytic philosophers as such. What of the current development in Protestant circles of the movement called Radical Orthodoxy? What of traditions of contemporary Catholic philosophy? What of the Polish movement of (phenomenological) Lublin Thomism? Realist Phenomenology? Personalism? What of the perspective of scholars such as Kenneth Schmitz? The new semiotic philosophy of John Deely?

Update 1/3/07 -- R.R. Reno responds:
Dear Phil,

Many thanks for contacting me and directing my attention to the discussion of Continental Captivity.

As I step back and think about the many discussions I have had since the article appeared, one thought (or perhaps cluster of thoughts) keeps coming back to me. The decisive figure in modern European intellectual life was Hegel. He saw that the “picture” of human existence provided by Christian teaching needed to be superseded by the “concept” of human existence provided by theology. To do so, theology takes a subordinate place within the overarching competence of modern intellectual life, as the final section of the Phenomenology clearly (and with remarkable contemporary relevance) shows. Or as my article says, with Hegel, born of an elite culture that could not longer affirm the ultimacy of Christian teaching, European philosophy reverts to the original, theological form of Hellenistic philosophy: theology and cure of the soul. Hegel was a conservative. He wanted to preserve the phenomenological core of the Christian worldview. Others were more radical. But what makes Continental philosophy distinctive is its collective “hermeneutical” agenda — it wishes to interpret us to ourselves. Again, this is a recovery of the ancient promise of philosophy — it will bring us to know ourselves, and in knowing ourselves, into participation with that which is lasting. Such a view of the vocation of philosophy cannot but collide with theology.

One of the folks commenting on your post wrongly portrays St. Augustine’s encounter of Cicero’s Hortensius as a step forward on the journey to God. In Book Eight, St. Augustine reports that it was Ponticianus’ story of the power of St. Antony’s biography that brought him to the painful fulfillment of the Socratic imperative: know thyself. “You took me up from behind my own back where I had placed myself because I did not wish to observe myself,” Augustine writes of the visit by Ponticianus, “and you see me before my face so that I could see how vile I was, how twisted and filthy, covered in sores and ulcers.” In this state of self-knowledge, St. Augustine reports that his enthusiasm for philosophy born in his youthful reading of Cicero bore no spiritual fruits — it only shifted his self-love from material indulgence to the labyrinths of an intellectualized self-conceit. Thus he observes in Book Six how astounded he was to discover that what he had imagined a momentous new beginning as a nineteen year old was, in fact, a long detour of delays and self-deceptions.

Compare the failure of philosophy to cure his soul with Book Nine. There, the ideals of classical philosophy are portrayed as realized and fulfilled through his recitations of the Psalm. The Psalms are the language of transformative self-knowledge. By reciting the Psalms, Augustine writes, “I was expressing the most intimate feelings of my mind with myself and to myself.”

One of the great achievements of medieval intellectual culture was its full use of the cognitive potential of classical philosophy within the spirit of the Augustinian critique of its failed promises of personal transformation. Medieval theology domesticated philosophy (handmaiden!), and in so doing, claimed to realize its true potential, both as a world-focused instrument for an ever more accurate picture of finite reality, and as a discipline of mind and spirit that prepared one for full reception of the gospel.

When I wrote the essay for First Things, I tried to provide an accurate assessment of how different modern philosophical traditions might relate to this medieval achievement. Perhaps I am mistaken. Surely a popular essay cannot do justice to the complexities of continental or analytic philosophies. But I would ask readers of my essay to read Hillary Putnam’s recent book, Ethics without Ontology. It is clearly a book in which an eminent analytic philosophy tries to take responsibility for the future of western culture, and it is highly critical of any possible role for theology in that future. Compare with Gianni Vattimo’s After Christianity. Putnam bases his analysis and recommendations on material, defeasible claims about the relationship between Christianity and scientific culture. Vattimo provides oracular, “hermeneutical” pronouncements about the career of Being. Putman argues against the role of theology in public life — Vattimo offers a post-Christian theology. As a teacher of theology and a person of scholastic leanings, I can use Putman’s objections to refine and develop an account of the relationship between theology and modern scientific culture. Vattimo offers an occasion to refine my knowledge of the logic of heresy. Both may be good exercises of the Christian intellect, but only the former holds out promise of renewing and deepening the tradition of Christian philosophy.

Thanks again,

Note: For comments in progress on this article, please go to the comment box for Musings of a Pertinacious Papist, December 29, 2006.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Ronald Knox on Bishop Berkeley

There was a young man who said, "God,
I find it exceedingly odd
That this tree I see should continue to be
When there's no one about in the Quad."
"Dear Sir:
I am always about in the Quad.
And that's why the tree
Will continue to be
Since observed by
Yours faithfully,
[cited in James L. Cox, A Guide to the Phenomenology of Religion (London: T&T Clark, 2006), p. 13]

Saturday, October 28, 2006

"If somebody has a bad heart, they can plug this jack in at night as they go to bed and it will monitor their heart throughout the night. And the next morning, when they wake up dead, there'll be a record."

Mark S. Fowler, FCC Chairman

Feeling any better?

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Protestant converts and ironies among phenomenologists

We've all heard about the Catholic converts from among the ranks of the phenomenologists -- Edith Stein, Dietrich von Hildebrand, and (on a bit shakier ground) Max Scheler, etc. But how many of us have heard about the Protestant converts?

While in grad school, I had heard several rumors that the father of phenomenology, Edmund Husserl himself had converted to the Christian faith before his death, but no definite details. There was some mention about conversation between him and a nun on his deathbed. But these last details may have been apocryphal.

What I did discover last year, however, through a generous contact, was that Husserl had converted to the Lutheran faith; and it was hardly on his deathbed. Here is a quotation from an online Biography:
1886-7 was a pivotal year for Husserl. He moved to Halle, and studied psychology, writing his Habilitationsschrift, entitled, The Philosophy of Arithmetic. He converted to Christianity along with his fiancé and member of the Prossnitz Jewish community, Malvine Charlotte Steinschneider. They had three children together. (emphasis added)
Furthermore, on page 15 of a book titled Husserl-Chronik by Karl Schuhmann (Martinus Nijhoff, 1977), Husserl's baptism at a Lutheran church in Vienna is reported as having occurred on April 26, 1886:
"Husserl wird in der Stadtkirche der evangelischen Pfarr gemeinde Augsburgischen Bekenntnisses zu Wien auf den Namen Edmund Gustav Albrecht Husserl getauft. Als Pate fungiert Dr. Gustav Albrecht, Gymnasiallehrer in Maehrisch-Treubau."

Translation: "Husserl was baptized under the name of Edmund Gustav Albrecht Husserl in the town church of the evangelical Pfarr municipality of the Augsburg Confession in Vienna. Dr. Gustav Albrecht, a teacher at he Gymnasium in Maehrisch-Treubau, served as his godfather."
Again, on p. 16 of the same book, one reads: "Unter dem Einfluss Masaryks ging H. zum Protestantismus ueber" (Translation: "Husserl turned to Protestantism under the influence of Masaryks").

Another interesting conversion is that of Adolph Reinach (pictured left), who was of Jewish ancestry, converted to the Lutheran faith, but apparently a lapsed Lutheran for most of his life (Evelyn Waugh called him an "apostate Lutheran" in his 1952 review of a biography of Edith Stein). However, he evidently returned to his Lutheran faith while in the army before he was killed in action. In another twist of Providence, his widow, Frau Reinach (who later became a Catholic), by the resignation and hope with which she accepted her husband's premature death, was instrumental in shedding significant light on the significance of the experience of the Christian faith for Edith Stein, who had agreed to organize Reinach's unpublished manuscripts.

Finally, as to ironies, Thomas S. Hibbs, in his splendid review of Alisdair MacIntyre's magisterial Edith Stein: A Philosophical Prologue 1913-1922 in First Things (May 2006), entitled "The Beginning of the Journey," notes how MacIntyre points out in his book the intriguing parallels and differences between Stein (pictured right) and Heidegger (below):
At various points, MacIntyre offers tantalizing comparisons of Stein and Heidegger, whose lives have intersecting but opposed trajectories. Heidegger began as a Catholic, studied with Husserl, abandoned Husserl to embark on a radical deconstruction of traditional metaphysics, and ended up an ally of the Third Reich. Edith Stein began as a practicing Jew, turned to atheism, studied with Husserl, struggled to move beyond the limitations she detected in Husserl’s phenomenology, became a Catholic, moved toward traditional metaphysics, and was executed by the Nazis at Auschwitz.
Simply amazing!

Monday, July 24, 2006

Alasdair MacIntyre update

In late 2005 Sheed & Ward, an imprint of Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, published Alasdair MacIntyre's latest book Edith Stein: A Philosophical Prologue: 1913-1922. Stein, canonized by John Paul II, was born into a devout Jewish family, became an atheist in her teens, then took up the study of philosophy under the famous phenomenologist, Edmund Husserl, during which period she also came into contact with Dietrich von Hildebrand and Max Scheler. Later she converted to Catholicism and entered the Carmelite order, and lost her life in Auschwitz to the Nazis. In his book, MacIntyre traces the neglected importance of Stein's philosophical development up to her conversion. Robert Sokolowski, a well-known phenomnologist in his own right, an professor at The Catholic University of America, comments that MacIntyre shows "how the word 'philosophical' can be said of a life as well as a doctrine. He describes the people, events and ideas in whose company Edith Stein lived in the decade that led to her baptism in 1922, and he defines phenomenology not as a method but as a dispotition to let the truth of things come to light."

In April of this year, Alasdair MacIntyre was also elected to the American Philosophical Society, the nations oldest learned society, founded by Benfamin Franklin in 1743 and headquartered in Philadelphia -- a singular privilege and honor. Alasdair MacIntyre is Senior Research Fellow at the University of Notre Dame's Center for Ethics and Culture.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Chicago conference shows interest in Scheler

The Max Scheler Society of North America (MSSNA) conference in Chicago, in conjunction with the Central Division meetings of the American Philosophical Association, April 26-29, 2006, attracted a modest but happy increase in interest this year. With two full sessions, there was still hardly enough time to accommodate the number of speakers and respondents on the roster. (A full schedule of the Society's speakers and commentators may be found on the MSSNA program page.) Furthermore, it was good to see a significant number of younger newcomers in attendance this year -- one even a student from Belarus! More than anything, I had the sense of a great deal of work in progress, with many fecund ideas for future projects in the work. A great meeting with prospects for more to come. Hopefully we can get more of the younger Scheler scholars on board as speakers next time around. Further information on the Society may be found on the Max Scheler Society of North America (unofficial website). From time-to-time I will also post updates on Scheler scholarship to my Amazon blog, which, at this point, is devoted primarily to Scheler.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Gender and Divinity (continued)

This post continues the discussion of "Gender and Divinity" (March 3, 2006) with Edgar Foster.

Blosser (from earlier post):
Nice point, again. Analogies always work only to a point. Obviously a corporate legal 'person' is an eidetic abstraction (the adjective 'eidetic' here serving no purpose but to appeal to your salubrious nomenclaturological appetite) and not a concrete reality, as God is. The claim Volf is making is that gender presupposes biological specification, and from that I surmise that you're wishing to infer or argue that gender cannot be specified in any other way but biologically. Would that be fair?
I believe Volf himself argues that a sexed body is requisite in order for gender to subsist. He most certainly denies that gender specificity obtains IN DIVINIS:
"The ontologization of gender would ill serve both the notion of God and the understanding of gender. Nothing in God is specifically feminine; nothing in God is specifically masculine . . ." (Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace, 171-173).
Well of course that's because God isn't a species of anything, though we are. But why should we suppose that gender must be understood in terms relative to biologized human species? (Notice I'm not necessarily referring here to God, though the question of God is of course relevant.)
Gary Rosenkrantz and Joshua Hoffman similarly conclude:
"Indeed, assuming that God is nonphysical, and that a nonphysical being could not be biologically gendered,
it is impossible that God is biologically gendered" (The Divine Attributes, 2).
That's a moot point, though, isn't it; because I never disputed that a non-biological being couldn't be biologically gendered. I only raised the question whether gender necessarily is exclusively (or even ultimately, for that matter) biological.
John Cooper rightly observes that God's supposed genderlessness is based on a number of philosophical assumptions about ultimate reality (ENS REALISSIMUM). But he sides with those who eschew gender specificity in God because Cooper thinks that Christian believers customarily have confessed that God is not gendered. Moreover, he maintains that Scripture indicates God is neither masculine nor feminine.
It would be interesting to know what he thinks those philosophical assumptions are (I don't have Cooper at hand.) His eschewing of gender specificity in God is the traditional view of Christian tradition, in any case. I don't necessarily disagree with that tradition. I like Kreeft's notion that God in Himself embraces whatever is in either human gender, since the original must logically contain everything that is in its image -- though Kreeft goes on, as you know, to insist that God is masculine in relation to us. There are both biblical and metaphysical arguments one could make, I would suggest, for that point (but we may have been through that together).
Finally, Kallistos Ware makes a case that God is genderless based on God's boundlessness or qualitative limitlessness (i.e. infinity):
"God in himself is neither masculine nor feminine, since he infinitely transcends any such categories. Yet it does not therefore follow that we are free to apply to him whatever symbols we please."
Timothy (or Kallistos) Ware would seem to agree with Kreeft here.
As far as I'm concerned, independent of special revelation, all we have to inform our concepts of God is our phenomenal experience.
What about metaphysical (logical philosophical) reasoning? (I would have said "metaphysical speculation," but that usually gives non-Catholics unfamiliar with the tradition of scholastic speculation apoplexy.
. . . It is my belief that phenomena and special revelation should largely govern our view of gender IN DIVINIS. But you make an interesting comment above. Could you please explain what you mean by gender differences being expressed in one's psyche? I'm not sure that gender theorists would acquiesce to the notion that such differences are psychically expressed. For gender is considered a cultural taxonomy by most anthropologists. Volf ultimately contends that gender is rooted in a sexed body, but it is played out culturally or dynamically.
Well, let's assume for the moment that Volf is right and gender is rooted in a sexed body. Furthermore, let's add to that the quite widespread rejection of Platonic or Cartesian dualism one finds in contemporary discussions of human nature. Then we've got a syllogism:
  • Major Premise: Biological gender is innate.
  • Minor Premise: The psychological and biological are one, not two.
  • Conclusion: Psyches must be innately gendered too.
This would support such popular discussions as that found in the book, Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, the supposition being that, whatever connections these differences may have to biology (hormones, etc.), men and women have psyches that express themselves differently too.

One could of course deny the minor premise and still argue that psyches are in some way 'gendered' as well, though not by virtue of being rooted in a biologically gendered organism. For example, if one were to accept that the soul of a human being is capable of subsisting apart from the body in the 'intermediate state', as much of Christian tradition has assumed, then I think one could try to make the argument that the soul of, say, the apostle Luke is a masculine soul, whereas that of Lydia is feminine. If someone were to counter that such a difference were based solely on the soul's having been previously lodged in a biologically gendered body and its residual associations with that previous incarnation, I suppose one could counter with some notion of Creationism (as opposed to Traducianism) with respect to the origin of the human soul, where the identity is divinely determined independently of the biological process of organic generation and then (either simultaneously or subsequenly) infused into the biological organism. In that case, I suppose, one could argue that the identity of the soul -- including its gender orientation -- is something independent (even if concommitant with) biological gender -- perhaps somewhat as in Malebranche's doctrine of Occasionalism. But that's all another matter.
You raise some issues that would probably take us down familiar beaten paths. What is mind? Is it metaphysically possible for mind to exist independently of the body? Is it possible (logically speaking) to conceive of mind as gendered independently of the body? These are tough questions with no easy answers, from the vantage-point of logic.
True. But that doesn't mean one can't build a decent metaphysical case for one view or another. Plato would have certainly thought the mind or soul capable of existence apart from the body. Aristotle was in two minds about the matter (no pun intended). On the one hand, he seemed to view the individual soul as the animating principle of the body, which would not survive the body. On the other hand, he seemed to accept the notion that the rational soul, or at least the rational part of the soul, is capable of subsistence independently of the body, though of course the question of whether such a rational soul could sustain a personal identity was moot for him. Coming up into the later Christian centuries, the notion of a soul that survives the body becomes somewhat entrenched, based on the tradition (found also among the Pharisees) that the body of the deceased would later be resurrected, and, thus, the emergent notion of an 'intermediate state' (see, e.g., Loraine Boettner's book Immortality, or, for that matter, the Catholic Encyclopedia entry on 'Immortality.'). I would also recommend the book with which you are familiar, John Cooper's book, Body, Soul, and Life Everlasting: Biblical Anthropology and the Monistm-Dualism Debate (2000).
Regarding your final sentence above, keep in mind that when Volf refers to God's lack of gender specificity, he probably has in mind God the Father or God the Son, not the risen and exalted "incarnate" Christ.
The above reference to Volf raises interesting questions. For example, the question to what extent the identity of the Second Person of the Trinity as "Son" is dependent or independent of the biologically incarnate and physically gendered historical Jesus. Someone might want to argue that the question of gender as pertaining to the preincarnate Logos purely rests on incarnational associations. One might raise the counter-argument, however, that the identity of the historical Jesus is already fully established in the pre-incarnate Logos, but only comes to expression in His incarnate form in the historical Jesus. After all, the Second Person of the Trinity is understood to be the "eternally begotten" Son of the Father prior to His incarnation.

Friday, March 03, 2006

A reflection on religious doubt

You raised the question of 'doubt' today in a conversation with me. You said that you remembered when I was received into the Church and now found, ironically, that you were having doubts about your faith. You said that I must have "faith," as though it were some sort of achievement. This got me thinking.

Curiously enough, as soon as I got back to my office, I received an email with this provocative quotation on the question of 'doubt' by St. Thomas Aquinas:
"Doubt can happen to some in matters of faith but this is not because of any lack of certitude in the thing itself but because of the weakness of the human intellect. And yet it is at least true that whatever can be obtained in the knowledge of the highest realities is more desirable than absolutely certain knowledge in matters of least importance." (Summa Theologiae Part One, Question 1, Article 5).
The last sentence has, it seems to me, a Pascalian implication: though our knowledge in matters of least importance may seem much more epistemologically certain in terms of 'disinterested' scientific categories, our knowledge of the highest realities is much more desirable. I'm sure you've read Pascal, so I'll say no more about this now.

The first sentence, however, is no less intesting, because it supposes a distinction between what is subjectively certain and what is objectively certain. Matters of faith, it says, are not lacking in (objective) certitude, but may seem (subjectively) uncertain because of the weakness of the human intellect.

This leads me to an observation: I was puzzled when you referred to me as a person who seemed to "have faith," because it seemed to suggest that faith involves some sort of virtue. I can imagine only one circumstance in which that might be so: in the circumstance that one's fidelity is called upon in the face of prima facie data that may suggest the opposite -- as, for example, when one is confronted by 'data' suggesting his wife's infidelity, but gives her the benefit of his doubt because he trusts her (and it is virtuous in such a circumstance to doubt the 'data' and trust her).

On the other hand, I usually don't find myself called upon to exercise such 'virtuous' or 'heroic' faith in matters of religion -- perhaps because my faith has never been tested quite like that of Job in the Old Testament. In any case, this is where Aquinas' statement, to me, makes a great deal of sense. He says that our lack of faith comes from "weakness of the human intellect." He does not intend "weakness" here, I believe, in any sense suggesting any defect of moral virtue. Rather, I believe he is thinking about the metaphysical deficiency of the human intellect vis-a-vis its supernatural object, which, in this case, far surpasses its limited capacity. Because of this weakness, our knowledge of God must rest on a posteri inductions from the empirical record of history (about Jesus, the Bible, the Church, etc.), metaphysical inferences of an analogical nature based on divine revelation (about God's existence, and loving, merciful, fatherly nature, etc.), and existential intuitions forged out of our cultivation of a personal relationship with Christ (about his faithfulness, forgiveness, fidelity, etc.).

When someone says I have "faith," then, I feel rather awkward and uncomfortable if this suggests that faith is some sort of virtuous achievement, because faith -- as a species of "intellectual assent," is something effortless. It is effortless to believe in something when you have the right facts to support your belief. It becomes difficult to believe when those facts are covered over by apparenly contradictory facts suggesting the belief is not well founded. If I have faith, perhaps it is because some things seem evident to me that to not seem evident to others.

Basil Mitchell has a parable of a freedom fighter from the Second World War:
In an occupied country during the second world war, a freedom fighter meets a mysterious stranger and spends the night in deep conversation. The stranger tells the fighter that he is on the side of the resistance, even if at times he might be seen helping the enemy. They never meet alone again. The fighter's faith in the stranger is constantly tested. Sometimes he helps members of the resistance and they are grateful that he is on their side. Then the stranger is seen with German officers, going into their headquarters and attending parties with them. Sometimes he is seen in police uniform handing over patriots to the occupying forces. However the freedom fighter still trusts him. Sometimes he asks the stranger for help, and he receives it. Sometimes he asks and no help is given, but he still feels that 'the stranger knows best'. His friends in the resistance finally say, 'Well, what wouldhe have to do for you to admit that you are wrong and he is not on our side?' The partisan refuses to condemn the stranger. Sometimes his friends say that if the stranger's conduct is what he means by 'being on his side' then the sooner he switches sides the better. Despite being tempted to lose faith in the stranger, as he sometimes sees him appearing to help the enemy and sometimes not, the figher always says t himself, 'The stranger knows best.' (Source.)
On the one hand, from the point of view of the skeptical agnostic, the freedom fighter could easily be taken to be a sort of fideist -- someone who 'blindly' believes. On the other hand, from the point of view of the fighter, it could be that he 'knows' something that others do not see by virtue of having had this personal encounter with the stranger. It's possible that he may have different data. Or, it's possible that he may have no different data, but perceives the same data differently. We all know, for example, how people say the "love is blind" -- whereas it is almost the exact opposite that is the case. It is the lover who sees in the beloved what the indifferent skeptic may not see. The Baptist evangelist, Billy Graham, may wake up in the morning and see a world saturated with the handiwork of God. The French existentialist, Albert Camus, may wake up and gaze upon the same 'data' and see a world evacuated of all meaning, pointless and utterly absurd.

Why is this? Does it mean there is no objective reality, that meaning is in the eye of the beholder? No, of course not. But it may mean that the 'evidence' and 'facts' are not simply neutral 'data', but always presuppose an interpreting subject. The question, then, might be: whom do you trust? Whose understanding of life and the world seems most penetrating, insightful, and trustworthy?

Gender and Divinity

In one of our arresting dialogues many aeons ago, I wrote:
Making divine triadic relations the basis for gender content may seem perplexing to those who analyze gender scientifically. Volf's analysis may also lack cogency or persuasiveness for non-Trinitarian Christians. Nevertheless, his notion that gender is rooted in a sexed body appears to have potential explanatory power. Since God the Father evidently does not possess a corpus that is biologically sexed, it evidently follows that He no doubt transcends gender. See Volf's Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996), 172-176. For an alternative approach to the question of gender, see appendix [not yet numbered]."
You then offered the following rejoinder:
Nice point: and the inference is a bit like asking how a business corporation like Microsoft could possibly have any legal rights like a human person, since, unlike a human person, it has no physical hand with a pinkie on it.
In my opinion, Volf's argument that one should not ontologize gender in God because deity does not possess a sexed body is not analogous to denying legal rights to Microsoft because it does not possess a physical hand with a pinkie on it. According to Volf and other thinkers, gender appears to be rooted in a sexed body. The very concept of gender presupposes a sexed body (e.g. a corpus informed by hormones, genitalia, or chromosomes). On the other hand, it does not seem that legal rights are rooted in a sexed body. Legal rights may be rooted in human personhood; but that is not the same as contending that sexed bodies are requisite for the extension of legal rights.
Nice point, again. Analogies always work only to a point. Obviously a corporate legal 'person' is an eidetic abstraction (the adjective 'eidetic' here serving no purpose but to appeal to yo salubrious nomenclaturological appetite) and not a concrete reality, as God is. The claim Volf is making is that gender presupposes biological specification, and from that I surmise that you're wishing to infer or argue that gender cannot be specified in any other way but biologically. Would that be fair?

Again, I think Volf has a point. Human gender is certainly expressed biologically in our experience. I'm not sure that's enough to claim that its 'rooted' in biology in the sense that, say, gender differences that might express themselves in one's psyche are exclusively dependent upon biological gender differences. One would have to make that case, it seems to me, which would require further assumptions about the nature of a body and its possible relation to a mind or soul, even if one wishes to go in a holistic or non-dualistic direction.

I guess what I might contend is that the question of whether the Persons of the Godhead can be conceived of as gendered in some way might be analogous to the question of whether human minds can be conceived of as gendered in some way independently of the body. As far as the Godhead is concerned, of course, Trinitarians are stuck with one Person of the Trinity, Jesus Christ, whose gender is already accepted as specified, however the psycho-somatic question is settled.