Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Anti-intellectualist conceptions of dogmatic theology

I've struggled for some time in trying to formulate my thoughts on the relationship between the work of a theologian and the life of the churches.  At times I've tried to express my views to different people and probably conveyed some wildly different senses of how I understand the purpose and scope of theology.  In previous years I spoke much more readily in terms of "ecclesial theology", of "church dogmatics" and theological work being done as a practice determined by the Church rather than academia.  Over the past few years, I've been much more hesitant about this way of portraying theology, and probably sounded positively elitist, "correlationist", and overly influenced by contemporary academic norms.  I also recall a recent conversation with someone where my thoughts on theology probably practically sounded like, "it doesn't much matter what we theologians do; the people in the pews are handling things just fine and they can get along well enough without us."!!  Such crass populism, if I were to actually affirm it, would soon (and rightly!) invite the question of why we are bothering to invest in academic theology in the first place.  To say that it makes no difference in this way seems to make it no more than a hobby (which is all well and good, but probably not a sufficient reason to pay for and go to the trouble of accrediting theological schools).

In Edouard Le Roy's essay "What is a Dogma?", an anti-intellectualist conception of theology is offered that has helped me in further articulating what it is that a theologian should be in relation to the churches.  Le Roy's anti-intellectualism isn't the sort that is commonly associated with American religious fundamentalisms, but rather a technical term opposing "intellectualism" of the sort that Henri Bergson opposed (although Le Roy's critique of intellectualism in this essay seems less decidedly Bergsonian than in other of Le Roy's works).  "Intellectualism", roughly, seems to be the idea that analytical knowledge of things is a prerequisite to proper orientation towards them.  It is roughly the same as the sort of propositionalism in both Roman Catholic and scholastic Protestant thought on revelation that Bonhoeffer critiques in Act and Being.  If I were to draw out a distinction, though, I would say that Bonhoeffer is more concerned about the implications of the idea that we have a grasp of revealed truth... that God cannot truly act because of a theoretical priority of being.  Le Roy, on the other hand, is concerned that intellectualism prevents us humans from going about as we normally do because of an over-theorized veil that is set up between us and reality.

Le Roy presents dilemmas for contemporary theology for consideration-- if dogmatic truth is rationally established, then what becomes of the liberty of faith (here the Bergsonian influence is also obvious)?  And how can dogma avoid metaphysical and speculative obscurantism?  The argument of the essay is that while an intellectualist conception of dogma falters on these sorts of difficulties, a conception oriented towards "action" avoids them.  The "positive significance" of dogma is that "it states for all a prescription of a practical kind."

At times Le Roy's points don't seem entirely convincing... he argues, for instance, that God conceived as a "person" in dogma simply means that we should relate to God as we relate to a person.  While I could see something like this being more extensively articulated in a way that is convincing, I think that as Le Roy presents it, the inability of dogma to offer something more than merely a moralistic, almost reverse-analogical knowledge of God is too quickly assumed.  For what it's worth, popularized conceptions of pragmatist notions of truth can fall into the same sort of over-simplistic ditches (which is one reason why I'd hold out hope for a better version of Le Roy's anti-intellectualism... he was a mathematician rather than a theologian, after all, and shouldn't be expected to offer an entirely adequate conception of theological knowledge).

What I take to be the most valuable concern driving Le Roy's anti-intellectualism, however, is his insistence on the common faith of Christians:
We also see now what the relation is between dogmas and efficient life.  We predict for [dogmas] a possibility of experimental study and of gradual research which has heretofore escaped us.  Finally we understand how they can be common to all, accessible to all, in spite of the inequality between intellects, whereas to conceive them in the intellectualist way one would be inevitably led to make a distinction of an intellectual aristocracy. (78)
Later he writes:

The Catholic is obliged to assent to the dogmas without reservation.  But what is thereby imposed upon him is not in the least a theory, an intellectual representation.  Such a constraint indeed would inevitably lead to undesirable consequences: (1) the dogmas would in that case be reduced to purely verbal formulas, to simple words whose repetition would constitute a sort of unintelligible command; (2) moreover these dogmas could not be common to all times nor to all intelligences. [a footnote at the end of this excerpt reads: "In the two words 'esotericism' and 'Pharisaism' would be the inevitable rock upon which they would split"]  (83)

In contrast to Le Roy, it seems that a more common strategy for attempting to avoid the problem of an "intellectual aristocracy" in the churches is to decentralize theological dogma altogether.  In extreme cases this may amount to a complete lack of concern for what Christians believe concerning the central tenets of the faith, but in most situations the emphasis is simply shifted to other centers for which theology is intellectually important, though ancillary.  These other centers may include common prayer, a personal relationship with Christ, or redeeming works of justice in the world.  None of these things require a conscious assent to creedal orthodoxy, and this fact allows the unintelligent parishioner to be ignorant of theological niceties while remaining a faithful Christian.  For the educated theologian, of course, the doctrinal bar may be set a bit higher- not because of any higher absolute standard attained by the theologian, perhaps, but rather simply because the theological vocation requires its own particular standards in order to properly edify the church. 

The problem with this way of understanding dogma is that it brackets the importance of dogmatic truth, which should be a common value.  If Arius is condemned because of a heretical christology while an illiterate peasant or an as-yet-uncatechized new believer are excused for holding to the same heretical belief, then we're in danger of cheapening the importance of a high christology for orthodoxy by making it both too important and not important enough.  If dogmatic truth only makes a difference for those involved in cerebral discussions concerning it, then we're in no better a position than if it is enforced upon all believers based on the standards of the intellectualist position... in both cases an "intellectual aristocracy" of some sort is being formed that introduces the danger of rending the garments of Christ.

Le Roy, in an odd sort of way, preserves the centrality of dogma for all believers without conceiving of dogma in a way that makes it a high priest through which the believer must pass to reach the truth.  Rather, it is from an encounter with the truth of Christ in the faithful life of the believer that dogma receives its positive implications for thought:
Hence one sees positively how the two meanings of a dogma, the practical meaning and the negative meaning, are reunited, the latter being subordinated to the former [and left completely undiscussed in this blog post].  Moreover we see how dogmas are immutable and yet how there is an evolution of dogmas.  What remains constant in dogma is the orientation that it gives to our practical activity, the direction in which it inflects our conduct.  But the explanatory theories, the intellectual representations, change constantly in the course of the ages according to individuals and epochs, freed from all the fluctuations and all the aspects of relativity manifested by the history of the human mind.  The Christians of the first centuries did not profess the same opinions on the nature and personality of Jesus as we, and they did not have the same problems.  The ignorant man to-day does not have at all the same ideas on these lofty and difficult subjects as the philosopher does, nor the same mental preoccupations.  But whether ignorant men or philosophers, men of the first or the twentieth century, every Catholic has always had and always will have the same practical attitude with regard to Jesus. (87)
Le Roy's essay is relatively unspectacular, offers some dubious claims and others that are only true in a rather unoriginal way.  A more extensive consideration of the Dogma controversy that unfolded following the publication of this essay and of Le Roy's more important work on science and philosophy would offer better resources with which to establish an understanding of theological work.  The focus on an anti-intellectualist response to "intellectual aristocracy" within the churches, however, seems to effectively clarify a central impediment to theological method that is usually a blind spot for theologians, who are after all a part of the aristocracy more or less by default.  I think Le Roy also presents a non-intellectualist option that is legitimately distinct from approaches that decentralize dogma, as well as approaches that try to turn dogmatic theology into a kerygmatic or prayerful practice (a move that I think often simply displaces true kerygma and prayer as well true dogma, despite good intentions for the opposite effect).

Monday, June 21, 2010

A few items...

  • Jeffrey R. Di Leo has an article in IHE on the lack of journal rankings in the humanities and why it is a good thing.  Worth a read, and I wholeheartedly agree, although I think that the hierarchy of journals probably gets a bit steeper depending on what field you're in.
  • The new issue of Theological Librarianship is out.  Included in the issue are articles on theological librarianship more generally, issues in religious archives, and starting a theological library from scratch.
McMahon's article is published for In Trust, a non-profit working to strengthen governing bodies of North American theological schools, so it is written with administrators as its intended audience.  Also note that Di Leo, who wrote the IHE piece, is a dean.  These two articles represent some substantial research-related issues, and it's a good sign that the message is being spoken directly to and by administrators in academia.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Some notes on pragmatism

In a recent comment, Chris helpfully links Richard Horner's "Two Cheers for Pragmatism", from the Fall 2001 issue of the Hedgehog Review on pragmatism.  Horner discusses two worthy contributions of pragmatism to which even non-pragmatists should be receptive, followed by a possible shortcoming that deserves critique.  I think the article offers some worthwhile thoughts, but a few points came to mind that I thought I'd mention here.  I'd welcome the thoughts of others on this as well. 

The second positive contribution that Horner describes of the pragmatist understanding of the history of reason is well-stated, and I think deserves even more attention.  Critiques of scientific law amongst late nineteenth-century French thinkers could also be added to the chorus of pragmatist philosophies of science that prepared the way for 20th century advances in scientific theory and also opened up the possibility of seeing reason as something distinct from bare rationalism.  I'm fine with this section as far as I could tell from an initial read-through.

Horner's first section strikes me as possibly more problematic... he says that "the first cheer for pragmatism [...] is for its simple method of framing inquiry and argument."  I wouldn't deny that pragmatism can be employed this way- as a "simple method", or in another of Horner's characterizations, as a "strategy".  But I'm not sure that this is at the heart of the pragmatist point.   It seems to me (from my limited knowledge and reading) that people often take pragmatist statements to be more prescriptive in their intentions than is actually the case.  Take this section from Horner, for instance:
Following William James one can think of this modest means of proceeding as the practice of trying on beliefs in order to see which of them carries us about in experience most satisfactorily. Try on ideas and beliefs, James writes, in order to see which of them “help us to get into satisfactory relations with other parts of our experience.” We should make the most, he continues, of “any idea upon which we can ride, so to speak; any idea that will carry us prosperously from any one part of our experience to any other part, linking things satisfactorily.”
 As I was reading this, something struck me as being slightly off.  Did James really say that we should come to our beliefs in this way?  Is it something that he thought we ought to do, or something that he thought we simply do?  Following is the larger context of the quote that Horner excerpts, from James's lecture "What Pragmatism Means" and in the midst of a discussion about the views of Dewey and Schiller as they relate to late nineteenth-century critiques made by philosophers of science:
Riding now on the front of this wave of scientific logic Messrs. Schiller and Dewey appear with their pragmatistic account of what truth everywhere signifies.  Everywhere, these teachers say, 'truth' in our ideas and beliefs means the same thing that it means in science.  It means, they say, nothing but this, that ideas (which themselves are but parts of our experience) become true just in so far as they help us to get into satisfactory relation with other parts of our experience, to summarize them and get about among them by conceptual short-cuts instead of following the interminable succession of particular phenomena.  Any idea upon which we can ride, so to speak; any idea that will carry us prosperously from any one part of our experience to any other part, linking things satisfactorily, working securely, simplifying, saving labor; is true for just so much, true in so far forth, true instrumentally.
This strikes me as more of a descriptive point than a prescriptive one.  It's not that we should do as the pragmatists do and pursue our beliefs this way, rather it's that the pragmatist thinks that all of us already pursue our beliefs this way, whether we are pragmatists or not.  Whether we are involuntarily categorizing our visual intake as so many distinct shapes and distances or consciously deciding upon how best to make sense of a friend's ambiguous comment, what we're doing is attempting to establish a "satisfactory relation with other parts of our experience", and we're constantly revising our conclusions as things fail to become or remain satisfactory.  Pragmatism strikes me as being much more of a metaphilosophy, that is, rather than an ethical program.

This point leads into Horner's final section, where he outlines certain problems with pragmatism... although it is not really pragmatism that he is critiquing, but rather some beliefs held by Rorty and Stuhr in "the morally lightweight, detranscendentalized understanding of homo sapiens that seems to accompany the skeptical swing of the pendulum of modern reason."  Horner even employs pragmatist arguments against these two, so it is clear that his concern is not with pragmatism itself:
On pragmatic considerations alone, therefore, Rorty and Stuhr fall short. They do not provide us with beliefs that are sufficient to guide action. In a pragmatic frame we are looking for a set of beliefs about ourselves and our fellow inhabitants of this planet that will not simply allow for good behavior by making that behavior a legitimate possibility. We are looking for action-guiding beliefs from which good behavior follows as a consequence. It is not clear that Rorty’s and Stuhr’s beliefs are generative of action. 
I think this more or less conforms to a sense I have had... that the naturalist commitments of many (especially post-WWII) pragmatists is not really a particularly pragmatist stance, but rather simply one that a lot of pragmatists happen to affirm.  I wonder, however, whether it is appropriate for Horner to be so critical of Rorty's views on the human condition (at least on the ethical grounds that he pursues).  Horner writes, "we are not arguing that Rorty’s liberal and humanitarian ethics are inconsistent with his understanding of the human condition. His understanding is open to numerous ethical conclusions, and one of these possibilities is the ethical stance to which he holds."  The problem, however, is that, "their action-guiding beliefs are inadequate as guides to action. While their beliefs allow for the ethical choices they prefer, their beliefs do not require these choices."

While pragmatist conditions for the truth of a given belief do depend upon the extent to which it holds good in consequence, I don't know why this would require us to set an additional standard of belief needing to require certain consequences or guide certain actions.  Insofar as we will act upon them, they are beliefs, but if they are not actionable, then they're not really beliefs in the first place.  Beliefs can't fail as guides to action because this is what defines them as beliefs.  As to the standard of not only allowing certain ethical choices but rather requiring them, I'm not clear on why Rorty's understanding of human nature needs to precede his ethical beliefs in progressive liberalism as some sort of basis for them.  Presumably if he has liberal ethical beliefs as well as non-metaphysical beliefs about human nature, he retains both "just in so far as they help [him] to get into satisfactory relation with other parts of [his] experience".  Now, this juxtaposition of beliefs may not be acceptable to Horner or myself, but in that case we don't hold to one, the other, or both of them, and for precisely the reason that the pragmatist has already outlined: because they are not satisfactory for making sense of our wider web of beliefs.  Something has to give for Horner, although it apparently doesn't for Rorty.  This doesn't constitute a critique of pragmatism, however, or even a critique of Rorty's beliefs about metaphysics.  It is simply a statement, perhaps quite compelling so far as it goes, of the shortcomings of certain beliefs about the (lack of a) metaphysics of human nature if one is to maintain liberal ethical stances.

[To Chris-- I know I've written an extended post on difficulties that I have with this piece, but don't at all take this to mean that I wasn't helped by it or didn't appreciate the reference.  I wouldn't have put so much time into a response if I didn't think it was a worthwhile essay, and I'm glad you mentioned it.  To others-- I'd welcome thoughts as these are only some musings and I certainly can't claim to be any expert on pragmatism at this point.]

Against the universal library

In the first chapter of Library: An Unquiet History, Matthew Battles describes the vertigo that often attends initiates of the large research library.  Even at much smaller institutions, it is jarring to consider the breadth of a collection of books and the extent of what else is out there, not yet and probably never to be acquired (much less read).  The idea of a universal library often animates these concerns, and while such an ideal seemed to have been losing currency and increasingly identified with a bygone Enlightenment mentality, my sense is that it has been reasserting itself lately, primarily as a result of digital repositories, open access, and other means of providing a lot of information to a lot of people.  Feeding into this situation is the unending stream of publication.  Yesterday I was looking through the 2010 religion/theology subject catalogs of Ashgate and Cambridge, which can instigate the same overwhelming feeling of inadequacy-- and this is only one field of study, from only two academic publishers, publishing only English-language works. 

Any researcher is forced to confront a lot of material and to live up to it in some sense- the peer-reviewer will point out a reference that should have been included, and the researcher will either need to include it or appeal to the inevitable limitations of scope that justify ignoring it.  Anyone working at a library, however, is forced to confront a lot of material and simply cope with it as best as possible.  There is no way to "live up to it" because, unlike the researcher's task of merely synthesizing material in a written project, the library is a place that collects these materials for use.  It has to maintain the bibliographic manifold, rather than simply make use of it.  It's the difference between Atlas himself and a mere cartographer.

While it can be instructive and humbling, this sort of nauseating reception of bibliographic sprawl strikes me as something that is juvenile and should eventually be overcome.  At a certain point we need to come to grips with the incompleteness that accompanies any extensive literature, and we need to make ourselves at home as best we can.  There's a certain virtue in provincialism that should be pursued in libraries, from the personal collection to the national library.

Of course, a library is always already provincial.  To take one example (that won't apply to everyone), if your library doesn't have substantial collections written in non-roman alphabets, then it's quite regional in scope.  What is more important than simply being provincial, therefore, is the recognition of the provincial scope that is already present.  And in this recognition itself, we gain a more cosmopolitan glimpse of our own boundaries and context.  When our particularity becomes explicit we can form reasons for living with it in good conscience.  We no longer harbor totalizing conceptions of things based on our limited perspective.  Because in the end, the universal library could hardly be perceived even if it were recognized as an ideal rather than a concrete possibility.  We simply wouldn't possess the categories to express something like that.

We would do better to work within our means and pursue smaller intentions along those lines.  We should stop dreaming about a universal library, and build a lot of small ones with more cooperative mentalities.  We should welcome the unevenness of mixed paper and digital collections and various temperamental databases whose navigation is somewhat counter-intuitive.  My sense is that these sorts of frictions are what develop cultures, and that the monotonous efficiency of a single complete storehouse of reference is what discourages them.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Two new European pragmatist journals

While American in origin, pragmatism has always been substantially European as well.  Taking influences from German idealism and psychology and contributing to French thought (and more recently German and Scandinavian), it resists the sort of regional inferiority complex that Americans often develop about their contribution to intellectual life.  The Society for the Advancement of American Philosophy lists a number of research centers in Italy, France, and Scandanavia. Two new journals are also worth adding...

Associaizione Culturale Pragma has started an open access journal, the European Journal of Pragmatism and American Philosophy, which will be published twice yearly.  The first issue offers an introductory symposium, and forthcoming issues will focus on themes of "Moral Perfectionsim and Pragmatism" and "Individualism and Community".  For those who are interested, I ran across this journal by way of one of its editors, Roberto Frega, who has an article in the latest issue of Journal of Speculative Philosophy on "Expressive Inquiry and Practical Reasoning".

 The Central European Pragmatist Forum has also started a journal, also open access... Pragmatism Today.  The first issue of the journal has just been published, and seems to focus primarily on Dewey and Rorty.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

"From Jena to Copenhagen"

For the past few weeks I have been checking the early-view articles at Religious Studies on a multiple-times-daily basis, knowing that Samuel Loncar's article would soon be published.  Today, we finally have it available-- "From Jena to Copenhagen: Kierkegaard's relations to German idealism and the critique of autonomy in The Sickness Unto Death".

Samuel is currently an MA student at Yale Divinity School, working in theology and philosophy, and especially with German Idealism & Kierkegaard.

Kathryn Tanner to Yale

Following other moves of theology faculty to Yale and to Notre Dame, it has just been announced publicly that Kathryn Tanner will be leaving Chicago and returning to Yale Divinity School, effective in July as with Jennifer Herdt.  Notre Dame and Yale now have two new faculty each, and Chicago will surely be looking for two senior faculty (along with Tanner leaving, they have chosen to fill Tracy's chair with an inside candidate, so that Jean-Luc Marion's chair is now empty as well even though he still teaches here).

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The future of clavi non defixi, as well as some less substantive points...

I've been thinking a bit about what I want to do with clavi non defixi as I move into doctoral studies this fall, and now that the summer is here I'll probably have a bit more time to brainstorm/try a few things out.  I was strongly considering moving to a more stable format where the content would mostly stay unchanging and blogging would play a smaller role, but I think I'm neither technical nor patient enough to put together a veritable website like that.  I may, however, make some more use of Google sites than I have thus far, and tie them in with the blog more extensively.  I have a few sites that haven't been made public but contain a lot of links to sources for research (of the sort that I mention here often enough), and I may polish something like that up and make it more central to clavi non defixi as a public feature.  I've tested out WordPress to see if it would be a better place for this, but just can't get the hang of it... it seems like it has more to offer than Blogger, but it's been too much of a pain to use in comparison.  So I'll probably remain here, which will be easier for those who are already subscribed.  I suppose there's always a chance that I may stop blogging altogether in the near future... the idea has been tempting... but I think that the ability to get to know and work with other people through this format has been quite beneficial, and is probably worth the effort.  So I do intend for all of this to continue, whether or not the day-to-day updates will remain in force quite as strongly as they have been.

I don't know what my purpose was in starting the blog, exactly, but since that time it has primarily become a platform for helping to share resources and think alongside folks who work in theology as an academic discipline.  My concern is mostly to tend to the sort of infrastructure required to do good theological work, rather than to actually do the work itself on this blog (although I do venture into constructive comments occasionally).  I've also strayed more and more into neighboring fields of study, and I hope the benefits of interdisciplinary considerations outweigh the limitations of a generalist mentality.  I've never been too comfortable in discussing my own research publicly unless it's forthcoming or in print (the Le Roy paper that I brought up recently is, I think, my only Chicago paper that I've even hinted at here).  Actually, this blog has been a great place to get away from what I'm writing papers on and look at some other things that are somewhat related though not central to my own projects.  So I don't think that this will become a place to share my doctoral research over the next few years.  The subject focus will probably look a lot like it has over the past two years.

In the realm of rather superficial points, I've changed the look of the place ever so slightly.  I've always liked the Garamond font, and I'm proud (probably inordinately so) to say that I looked up how to change the html format so that the text is in Garamond rather than one of the less-classy choices offered by Blogger.  I've also changed the page background to white rather than the light gray that I normally use.  I'm not sure what I think about this.  Sometimes I feel like it's too dark here and I want to lighten it up, but I also like gray because it's a bit easier on the eyes than a stark white computer screen.  So that may shift back to the usual background in a bit (update... well, that didn't take long.  I'm back to the gray backdrop).

Thursday, June 3, 2010

A few items...

While class sessions are now over, I have a paper to write, and I may not post much in the next week or so.  By way of soothing my conscience, then, I thought I'd throw up a few items...
  • Thanks to John P. for pointing out an article in CHE on digital humanities at Stanford.  You can also hear a lecture of Franco Moretti from the pretty well advertised Experiments in the Humanities event put on by the Rutgers Center for Cultural Analysis last fall.  While I don't find this sort of data analysis work all that interesting for work in theology, the wider questions posed by digital humanities are significant for anyone working in related fields, whether or not they are personally involved in the technological advances that are going on.  
  • Continuing with the theme of digitized humanities, Gallica digital library has been a helpful resource as I've been working on my paper.  In particular, they offer full-text of the Revue de métaphysique et de morale from 1893-1939, covering the significant period for Edouard Le Roy's career.  This is much easier to deal with than the University of Chicago's paper holdings... although I'm grateful for them, they have been quite liable to crumbling and rather large tomes to just take home with me.  I would also repeat my recommendation of Hathi Trust, which is mentioned in the above CHE article and has been highlighted here before.  While tracking down journal articles still requires a bit more preliminary bibliographic work, I've been able to find a good portion of the monographs that I need, by Le Roy as well as his contemporaries, on Hathi.
  •  Anthony Paul Smith and Daniel Whistler have just published an edited volume, After the Postsecular and the Postmodern: New Essays in Continental Philosophy of Religion, and would appreciate it if readers would request that their libraries purchase a copy.  As a hardback, this book (like many academic books) is priced rather highly for individuals, but if enough copies are sold then the publisher can move on to a paperback version and allow for wider distribution.  You can read the Editors' Introduction here, and read some further thoughts on debates opened up by the volume here.