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.