Therapeutic philosophy.

Posted in Books, Second Paradise projects with tags , on 10 February 2010 by William Brafford

On page 175 of Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, Rorty expresses pretty clearly the difference between his idea of what philosophy should do and the idea that many philosophers have about what they are doing:

… Can we treat the study of “the nature of human knowledge” just as the study of certain ways in which human beings interact, or does it require an ontological foundation (involving some specifically philosophical way of describing human beings)? Shall we take “S knows that p” (or “S knows noninferentially that p,” or “S believes incorrigibly that p,” or “S’s knowledge that p is certain”) as a remark about the status of S’s reports among his peers, or shall we take it as a remark about the relation between subject and object, between nature and its mirror? The first alternative leads to a pragmatic view of truth and a therapeutic approach to ontology (in which philosophy can straighten out pointless quarrels between common sense and science, but not contribute any arguments of its own for the existence or inexistence of something).

Though I know I’m being utterly unfaithful to the spirit in which Rorty writes, I can’t help speculating about how therapeutic philosophy, with its smoothing-over function, has to relate to theology. Such a philosophy doesn’t claim for itself the authority to evaluate the “rationality” of religious claims. Does that authority pass to science? Or does revelation become unassailable — and unspeakable? What would happen when therapeutic philosophy tried to mediate between science, common sense, and claims from revelation? My first thought is that our religious philosophers would all be William Jameses, though I really haven’t read enough of WJ’s work to back this up.

More on this as I think about it.


A small and pointless failure.

Posted in Books, Second Paradise projects with tags , , , on 10 February 2010 by William Brafford

I think I am going to give up on trying to take detailed notes on Rorty. Here’s the problem: Richard Rorty wants to convince us that the philosophical emphasis on “the mind” is unnecessary — that we can just let the whole problem slip away. Some people have spent large amounts of time studying Descartes or Kant or Russell or Husserl, and for them Rorty’s arguments require careful attention. I myself have just a passing acquaintance with the thought of those figures, and so when Rorty says we can slide past the philosophical problems they posed, I’m inclined to smile and nod rather than to scribble furiously in an effort to unveil bad premises or improper interpretations of other figures.

So yesterday I decided to just forget about taking notes on Chapter III and to move right on to IV. What do you know? It’s fascinating, and it makes me want to read four or five other books in quick succession. This is what I’m after.

Have any of you read Roger Scruton’s Modern Philosophy? I browsed through a bit of it in the library the other day, and I am thinking about giving it a shot after I finish PMN and Bleak House

The Binding of Isaac

Posted in Miscellaneous with tags , , on 3 February 2010 by Brendan

The BoCP lectionary prescribes Gen. 22:1-8 for today’s Old Testament lesson. So far as I know, no commentator has fully managed to unravel the knots of this passage. My own thoughts on it are still shaped at a visceral level by the bitter complaint of my psychologist mother, who saw in this text a cruel and heinous account of child abuse, and (so far as I know) still refuses to countenance its inspiration. Kierkegaard and Derrida have each put it to the question; the former uses it to found his theory of “the teleological suspension of the ethical”: faith in God, Kierkegaard argues, calls Abraham to a radical trust that leads beyond the bounds of rational morals in the quest for spiritual encounter.

 The simplest objection, of course, to this juxtaposition of religious teleology and ethics is that it founds itself upon a Kantian notion of the ethical as those precepts which bind all men in all times: Kierkegaard does not seem to consider—as the tradition from Plato to Augustine to Aquinas took for granted—that ethics itself might be teleological (in the case of Christianity, even eschatological), that the cultivation and practice of faith, hope, and love might be internal to a peculiar, parochial way of life sustained through time.

 For Kierkegaard, the binding of Isaac requires Abraham to set aside his moral convictions, trusting in the righteousness of God’s mysterious ends: this is the “leap of faith” which he locates at the beginning of religious experience. By contrast, might we not see Abraham’s fidelity to God’s command as the very core of ethics, as man’s chief calling in the world? To follow where God leads—to follow as pilgrims, exiles, strangers bound for a longed-after homeland—is a fair summary of the burdens of covenant in both the Old and New Testaments.

 But does this reading help us make any better sense of Abraham’s trial? Objectionable though I find Kierkegaard’s reading in general, I have no simple solution to the problem posed by Abraham’s attempted sacrifice of Isaac. The text is oblique: was Isaac thirteen or thirty? What passed through Abraham’s mind? Was he merely lying to Isaac when he said, “God will provide”? The author of Hebrews sees in Abraham’s determination faith in the resurrection: “He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead” (Heb. 11:19). God himself seems to evaluate the act simply as a test of faith before irrational horror: “Now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me” (22:12).

 Perhaps, however, this fidelity to God against all odds—terrible though it must have been for father and son—is the essence of faith, which, as the author of Hebrews would have it, is “the conviction of things not seen” (11:1). As best I can tell, the fundamental lesson of the Akedah of Isaac is—as Eve Tushnet has put it so often—“the sacrifice God wants isn’t always the sacrifice you wanted to make.” Bonhoeffer’s embellishment of Jesus’ call to take up the cross in Mark 8 springs to mind: “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” God calls us to lay down our best held dreams and desires, to accept failure and ignominy and wretchedness, that we might become blessed in him. Apart from that terrible call, we could scarcely imagine men such as Gregory VII, Francis of Assisi, Henri Nouwen, or Theresa of Calcutta.

 I hope I’m not being too hard on Kierkegaard, who is after all always good for laughter or provocation or both. It seems to me that while Kierkegaard saw the nature of faith as luring us from the bright perspicacity of reason out into the unlit wastes of “religion,” the true lesson of Genesis 22 is that faithfulness to God first means abandoning the idols of one’s heart, which are always at bottom distorted projections of narcissism. The looming danger in this passage is not a Kantian categorical imperative, but a (Augustinian) disordered love. In that light, Abraham’s fidelity here is paradoxically a “reasonable service” (logiken latreian, to borrow Paul’s phrase from Romans 12).

 To return, as a final note, to the subject of the effect of all this upon Isaac: while I have a hard time imagining a manner of narrating this episode that does not issue in serious long-term trauma inflicted upon Isaac, I am comforted by the text’s moderate ambitions. There is no psychological speculation here; this is not a Camus novel. The overriding theme worked in the binding of Isaac is that, against all odds, God provides to those who trust him. The lesson carried forward by later Jewish readers (including the author of Hebrews) does not concern a capricious or malicious God who tortures children, but rather a gracious and beneficent God who shelters those in need. There is still a mystery at work here, but (sad to end with such crude phrasing!) God seems to be on the right side of it.

Brendan’s thesis

Posted in Uncategorized on 2 February 2010 by Brendan

For any and all who might take an interest, my thesis, titled “Freedom, Tradition, and Property in Early Modern England,” is available online.

Meditation on Baptism

Posted in Uncategorized with tags on 2 February 2010 by Brendan

(I wrote this a couple of months ago, and just found it on my hard drive.)

Poor Peter Leithart is defending himself once again from his suspicious PCA presbytery, and nowhere with more vigor than regarding baptism. In conversation with a friend, the subject came up, and it sparked a thought.

Leithart suggests that even much contemporary paedo-baptist theology presumes something like a “believer’s baptist” perspective, in that the “subject” of baptism “remains the adult convert”: though the sacrament is applied to infants, it is applied in anticipation of that child’s future salvation through personal profession. This raises the perfectly legitimate question of just what function the baptism is then thought to serve: if the sacrament does in fact simply emblematize an existential event, why not place the marker a bit closer to the event itself?

Leithart’s critique points to a further possibility: rather than revising our baptismal theology in terms of an individualist soteriology, perhaps a more radical sacramental theology could be allowed to tutor our soteriology. That is, perhaps we could conceive baptism as a first important step in a journey of salvation, in which grace is mediated to us on the basis of no personal merit. Most fundamentally for baptism, this grace takes the form of the blessings of family and church community, by whose fostering a child acquires the disciplines and habits of worship. In a sense, baptism remains a symbol, but it can equally be construed as the actual channel through which grace passes, as it is the public declaration of church and family that forms the bond—enforceable by shame and rebuke—by which the child will later be catechized.

Of course, as Leithart acknowledges, such a bond is by no means a guarantee of salvation, any more than is participation in the Eucharist. Taken together, the sacraments as a whole are sufficient, but not necessary, conditions for salvation: they form the stage upon which the drama of salvation might be enacted. The sacraments—particularly as the crown of a rich liturgical setting—form a public space conducive to the discipline and habits of faith whose perfection is salvation. Such disciplines are broader than the sacraments themselves, and indeed may be construed as animating them: without fellowship, charity for neighbor and stranger, and a rich devotional life, baptism, table, confession, confirmation, etc, are empty parodies of the Church’s life. Nevertheless, if daily faithfulness puts flesh on the sacraments, the latter provide an eschatological context that renders the former intelligible: the Eucharist is what makes Christian charity different in kind from Buddhist charity, etc.

The more one’s soteriology comes to locate salvation in an existential transaction within the individual, the more infant baptism—nay, even baptism at all, and even notion of a “sacrament”—will become unintelligible, will come to be seen as simply an empty signifier of an interior reality. However, if we understand salvation as the disciplined habituation to life in the Kingdom, and grace as providing the necessary conditions—emotional, mental, or social—for that discipline, then the sacraments can be understood as a real vehicle of divine grace, which opens up the possibility of a transformed life within a redeemed community.

The comforts of Euclid.

Posted in Books with tags , on 26 January 2010 by William Brafford

Without saying too much, some issues out in what we call “the real world” have sapped my creativity and left the well from which I draw inspiration for blogging rather dry. There are at least four posts I would try to write for this blog if I had the energy. But it’s gotten hard for me to focus Rorty or even on theology.

Who can I turn to? Euclid. The Elements.

The clean lines, the blank slate, the straightedge and the compass, the accrual of complexity, proof upon proof, the subtle structure, rhythm, and direction. Escapism that makes you feel smarter.

Euclid is even better if you know how later mathematicians grappled with his work. You can see where modern algebraic notation lets us express his proofs more cleanly — but you can also see how his proofs work without negative numbers. You can see why it took two thousand years and modern mathematics to figure out how to make a heptadecagon. In the first book alone, it’s neat to see how far Euclid goes without invoking the famous Fifth Postulate. (The Fifth Postulate, if you’re wondering, is the one that you can change in order to get non-Euclidean geometry.)

Really, I would love to get a small group of people to work through some part of the Elements as a discussion group. Not likely, I know, given the ham-handed presentation of geometry that everyone gets in high school. But it’s incredibly rare to come across a book in any genre that balances depth and accessibility as well as the Elements.

Robert Jenson on the Trinity

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , on 25 January 2010 by Brendan

Aside from brief flings with Kierkegaard and Bonhoeffer, reading Robert Jenson’s Systematic Theology, Vol. I: The Triune God has been my first sustained encounter with Lutheran theology, and the experience has been altogether enjoyable. Jenson begins with some wonderfully ecumenical reflections on the task of theology (which “is the church’s enterprise of thought” when “the only church conceivably in question is the unique and unitary church of the creeds” (vii)) within a divided church, which must always on his view be sustained by an active faith in a God who “breaks down the dividing wall” (Eph. 2). For Jenson, “Theology’s question is always: In that we have heard and seen such-and-such discourse as gospel, what shall we now say and do that gospel may again be spoken?” (14) 

At its heart, Jenson’s whole project is animated by his devotion to a single thesis: the only God worthy of worship is the God revealed in Jesus of Nazareth. As Jenson puts it, “Any pattern of thought that in any way abstracts God ‘himself’ from this person, from his death or his career or his birth or his family or his Jewishness or his maleness or his teaching or the particular intercession and rule he as risen now exercises, has, according to Nicea, no place in the church” (103). Jesus is “very God from very God”: in him, all the fullness of the deity is manifest. To speak of God the Son is to speak of this man, and no other. 

In Jenson’s view, the Nicene theology (particularly as articulated by the Cappadocian fathers) overcame the twin temptations perennially facing Christian theology: modalism, which buffered God from time by positing a monadic identity beyond his manifestations in time, and subordinationism, which protected God from time by erecting a gulf between the true Deity and the created Son. However, argues Jenson, even after Nicea, the Church has continually failed rigorously to think out the logic of the temporality of God, a failure particularly evident in Augustine’s inability to grasp the distinction between the Cappodocian use of hypostasis and ousia to describe the being of God: hypostases are the identities or persons of Father, Son, and Spirit, each of which fully constitutes the ousia (being) of God within a set of “subsistent relations” (as Jenson observes, and as my own attempt to formulate this paragraph attests, the challenge of Trinitarian theology is largely the task of choosing the right prepositions). Jenson writes, 

The Augustinian supposition that there is no necessary connection between what differentiates the triune identities in God and the structure of God’s work in time bankrupts the doctrine of Trinity cognitively, for it detaches language about the triune identities from the only thing that made such language meaningful in the first place: the biblical narrative (111).

In aim and outline, Jenson thus far seems entirely orthodox; nonetheless, he is perhaps too genial in his rejection of the traditional perfections of God, particularly impassibility: most Christian thinkers have regarded God as transcendent of any potential for change, indeed of any interval that could constitute a lack or deficit in the boundlessness of his love. Jenson, however, regards this claim as a vestige of “Greek theology,” which “defined deity by immunity to time, by ‘impassibility’; offensively to this definition, the gospel identifies its God by temporal events of Exodus and Resurrection” (16).

However, God for Jenson is not merely identified by temporal events, but in some sense constituted by the whole temporal drama of creation, fall, and redemption:

Something like Barth’s teaching must be true: the goal of God’s path is just what does in fact do appear in Christ’s victory over them […]So also a mystery of suffering, of an interplay between created regularities and evil, must belong to the plot of God’s history with us” (73). 

A thorough argument against such a theological course is set out in David Hart’s excellent essay on Jenson, “The Lively God of Robert Jenson,” which has become something of a paradigm for me of the combination of warmth and critical distance appropriate to a book review. Hart’s essential argument (this time from The Beauty of the Infinite) is that if “God depends on creation to be God, and [so] creation exists by necessity,” then “God is robbed of his true transcendence and creation of its gratuity” (157). 

Admittedly, there is no simple, clear-cut way to speak of God’s transcendence without immediate qualification, for if it was on the Cross that God suffered as the decisive confrontation with the powers of the world for our rescue from sin, then, as Cyril of Alexandria put it in his First Letter to Nestorius, “the Word suffered impassibly.” And that is a mystery which no amount of reflection might exhaust.