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.

I've posted an article on Reno's article over at Philosophia Perennis under the title "Theology's Captivity to Continental Philosophy" (12/29/06).

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 He saw that the “picture” of human existence provided by Christian teaching needed to be superseded by the “concept” of human existence provided by theology.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,


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