Saturday, 17 July 2010

cjbanning: (Bowed Head)
The other day, I posted the following as my status update on Facebook:
Cole J. Banning thinks that Thomistic soteriology's proto-Cartesian rational psychology is philosophically untenable due to its implicit metaphysical realism. Anyone know of any contemporary Christian soteriologies which do a better job?
Now, I was mostly putting forth as a joke because I recognized that it reads like unintelligible gobbledygook. But, at the same time, it is also something that I believe to be true, and I was (and am) open for recommendations.

For those who would like a lexicon to translate:
Thomistic = according to the theology/philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas
soteriology = the branch of theology which deals with the soul and salvation
proto-Cartesian = anticipating the philosophy of René  Descartes, who is famous for the credo "I think, therefore I am" and who posited the self as a substantial entity
rational psychology = metaphysical discipline which uses a priori reasoning to determine the nature of the soul
metaphysical realism = the metaphysical doctrine which asserts that truth can transcend the possibility of verification due to the existence of objects, properties and relations which the world contains and which are independent of our thoughts about them or our perceptions of them (e.g., Platonic "forms") (definition reworked from this article)

In short, the Thomistic account of the soul is as a substance (although further reading has led me to suspect this loses some of the true subtlety of Thomistic philosophy, and that a detailed reading of the Summa contra Gentiles is in order), slightly more holistic in its character than the Cartesian cogito but no less an existent metaphysical entity. It's this thing that I have (which has itself?--it is I). Obviously this understanding of the self as a thing still enjoys broad popular support, but it has been the subject of grave philosophical objections since Hume. (The soul as a thing to be posessed apart from the self also has some popular support--cf., e.g., Buffy the Vampire Slayer and its account of the soul as something which can be lost or regained).

Both Kant and Wittgenstein deal with this problem by understanding the subject-ego as a limiting concept, belonging not to reality but instead being a limit of reality.* This tends to be my own position. I'm not sure what the implications for soteriology ultimately are, however: what does it mean for a limiting concept to die and go to heaven (or to hell, or to a next life, or to any other conception of an afterlife). It seems we must assert with Wittgenstein that "Death is not an event in life: we do not live to experience death."

Liberal Protestantism tends to interpret our soulfullness largely in terms of our innate dignity which demands justice on the part of society. I like and agree with this perspective, but it doesn't make any more sense for innate dignity to go to heaven than it does for a limiting concept to do so.

I guess I'm principally interested in how Christian soteriologists respond to Humean and post-Humean objections in crafting their account of soulfullness (and the afterlife) without retreating to metaphysical realism: "the soul exists, and is a thing, so there." (A healthy dose of mysticism, as in Wittgenstein, is just fine by me, OTOH--so long as it is not reified into a realism.) I haven't really seen any accounts which do this well. The Episcopal catechism's only mention of the soul is to remind us we're supposed to use it to love God. The contemporary Roman catechism's description of the soul is admirably holistic but troublingly vague. (I perform a fuller and deeper survey of conventional Roman Catholic tradition and understandings of the soul in my previous post, The Nature of the Soul: Synthesizing Tradition and Reason: Soul as Metaphysical.) Even Essentials of Evangelical Theology, Vol. 1 which has been a tremendous resource for me in explaining many points of theology (and the debates over them) in much fuller detail than I had previously understood them, has provided absolutely no account of what a soul actually is. (I'm only partially through Vol. 2, but so far neither has it.)

So my primary question is: what is a soul, and why should I care what happens to mine? (Note that the answer is not particularly central to my life as a Christian; I'm a Christian because Christ has reavealed Christself to me as Lord, and not to get into heaven.)

To lay my cards on the table: I think our own subjecthood, our unity of apperception, the fact that we experience ourselves as selves, is a subject of the deepest mysticism, which means so too will have to be the question of life after death. It's not that the afterlife does or doesn't exist, exactly, it's that our attempt to ask the question of what happens to us after we die necessarily falls into the nonsense of metaphysics, trying to put into words what cannot be said, but only shown.

*Wittgenstein actually uses "the world" instead of "reality," but this shouldn't be confused with the (deeply problematic) use of "the world" by many Christians to refer to "the satanic system which is hostile to God." Wittgenstein uses "the world" (die Welt) to mean "all that is the case" (alles, was der Fall ist). He actually uses "reality"  (Realitat) to mean something subtly different, but that's not particularly germane to our needs here.

More on Baptism

Saturday, 17 July 2010 03:17 pm
cjbanning: (Palm Sunday)
(Following up on my previous post, On Baptism.)

The Evangelical anti-sacramentalism towards baptism is a result of that movement's overemphasis on personal experience and individual salvation. At its extreme, this results in a denial of the eficancy of infant baptism, for infants do not have the development in faith to come to Christ on their own accord. (But then, who does?)

Against this, we affirm in our Anglo-Catholicism the properly sacramental understanding of the baptismal rite, one grounded in the community of the Body of Christ. Properly understood, it is not so much that an individual enters the Church so much as it is the Church who grows by one member. It is Christ who works through the sacrament, with the Church as mediator, not the baptisand--but as God has bound the sacraments to Godself, we may be fully certain than the sacramental infusion of grace shall be efficacious.

By entering into the bonds of community which mark the mystical Body of Christ, it is of course true to say that something significant happens in the life of the baptisand. It is a turning, not away from the world, but from sin and its tyranny, and most especially "the conditions which hold people in economic and political bondage" (Bloesch 24, not speaking with praise).

This will not necessarily be of the character of some prominent conversion experience on the part of the individual person (although we may be sure that the Church feels her growth by even one person deeply), as she may well be an infant. Even for those of us baptized as adults, it is often a less than profound experience, as we are focused for the moment more on the theatre of the performing of the sacrament--on our outfit, on friends and family we may not usually see in church, on getting wet--than on God. Such is the nature of any sacrament; we place our trust in God to do God's work in any case.

But just as the transformation of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ is, however many bells we may ring or smells we may produce, quite ordinary (the communion elements sit there, still looking--and feeling and tasting--like bread and wine), our faith assures us that the mystical change is both deep and profound. Baptism, like the Eucharist, enacts a deep Radical Transfiguration--only it is ourselves rather than the bread and wine who are in this sacrament transformed into the Body of Christ.
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"This is my prayer: that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best."
-- St. Paul's Epistle to the Philippians 1:9-10

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