Monday, April 03, 2006

Be of one mind...the philosophical problem

R. R. Reno has a particularly fine article in this month's First Things. His main topic is why theologians tend to prefer the apparently sterile grounds of 'continental' European philosophy to the analytic philosophy more prominent in England and the U.S. (with a particular emphasis on the late Harvard philosopher W. V. Quine). The piece has exercised my mind the past couple of days, in particular because of its treatment of the 'anti-foundationalists', thinkers such as Foucault, Derrida, Heidegger and Rorty who generally have a rough time of it in certain Church circles (read: conservatives), but are all the rage in the academy.

The anti-foundationalists differ in style and message, but share a common assumption. The assumption is that there is no such thing as truth, or if there were, there is no way to know it for certain. According to this line of thought, anyone who claims that something is true is in fact asserting their version of the 'truth', usually with the motive of gaining power over someone or some group. Lest you think this is something new, this sort of argument goes back at least to Marx, the tendency probably to Machiavelli and Spinoza. Lest you think it is inconsequential, ask yourself if you've encountered anyone say something like this lately: "You can't understand because you're a man." "You're just saying that because you're white/black/Jewish/Asian/heterosexual/homosexual/rich/American/etc."

If you have, then you know how prevalent the idea of anti-foundationalism is. It is the root of the culture of victimhood in our world today. Anytime something bad happens, it is not because you ran afoul of life (which in an older way of thinking was 'reality'); rather, someone with more political clout than you has pulled one over one you. This being unjust, you therefore need to assert your particularity and seek compensation (I'm not referring to actual injustices here).

For this reason, I tend to think that while the 'analytic' philosophers (whose aims are more modest, namely to describe how we come to know or assert things about the world) may be more helpful for theologians, the anti-foundationalists can't be ignored.

Nor should they be. I must confess to a certian sympathy for them, even if I think that they are terribly in the wrong. We've all encountered actual attempts by others to bully us with the truth. Televangelists are great for this. "The Bible says, 'Call no man "father"'--therefore you Catholic priests are in error!" The message: It's true; I'm right; that's that.

The answer to the anti-foundationalists, then, cannot simply be "you're wrong and that's that!" Such a move would be playing right into their hands. I have two closing thoughts.

The first goes back to an earlier post. We normally do not come to know truth by deductions from observations about the world. Much as I admire St. Thomas, I've never found his proofs of God's existence to be convincing (I prefer St. Anselm's--but just that statement, that I 'prefer' a 'proof' displays that it's not proof at all, but an argument). On the other hand, because I admire Thomas, I trust what he says. I think it's true. This is how our faith works in the end, and why it's not philosophy at all. We believe what we've been told, in some cases because it possesses an inescapable logic, but more often because someone we trust told us about it. Why did Peter suddenly go around telling people that Jesus, crucified a few days earlier, was risen from the dead? Surely he knew the danger in associating himself with that name. The answer that has always impressed me is that Peter meant what he said. He saw the Risen Lord. The New Age has dawned and sins are to be forgiven. I trust him. I trust Paul and the writers of the gospels. It's hard not to be impressed by the martyrs, and therefore it's easy to trust them.

Secondly: the image of truth suggested by the Song of Songs has long intrigued me. The lover, rather than bust down the door and present himself in all his reality, keeps disappearing. This corroborates my experience of God. God is glorious beyond all beauty, and yet He hides. He does not bully us with power. He seduces us with Beauty and Goodness. He comes in the flesh to join us in solidarity in our humble state. He preaches the truth, and much of it is hard to be sure, but he does not go around banging people on the head; rather he is mocked, humilated and crucified. So perhaps the problem with the anti-foundationalists isn't with their theory about the lack of truth; perhaps they are pursuing the wrong kind of Truth and therefore can't find it.

I wish you peace in Jesus Christ!

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If I, who seem to be your right hand and am called Presbyter and seem to
preach the Word of God, If I do something against the discipline of the Church
and the Rule of the Gospel so that I become a scandal to you, The Church, then
may the whole Church, in unanimous resolve, cut me, its right hand, off, and
throw me away.

Origen of Alexandria
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