cjbanning: (Ludwig Wittgenstein)
In my post on Wittgenstein's Metaethical Mysticism, I tried to outline the metaethical thought of Ludwig Wittgenstein as found in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus and the "Lecture on Ethics." In the conclusion of that post, I noted that there are many reasons why a Witggensteinian metaethical mysticism ought to prove especially attractive to the Christian moral theologian--and in particular, to the progressive Christian moral theologian--and here I intend to take up the challenge of putting forth a couple of those reasons, with the remaining being relegated to subsequent posts.

First and most obviously, the mystical character of Wittgenstein's philosophy puts it in clear sympathy with Christianity's own deep and rich mystical tradition, seen in such figures as Meister Eckhart, John of the Cross, Julian of Norwich, Hildegard of Bingen, Teresa of Avila, and, in the twentieth century, Evelyn Underhill and Thomas Merton. Wittgenstein's notion (cf. TLP 6.522) of a mystical element at the limits of our language about which we are unable to speak, but which can be shown ("makes itself manifest"), holds much in common with the via negativa of Christian apophaticism, in which God is only able to be defined by that which God is not. "I would be speaking as incorrectly in calling God a being as if I called the sun pale or black," says Eckhart. "God is neither this nor that."

Fr. Robert Barron notes:
The twentieth century theologian Karl Rahner commented that “God” is the last sound we should make before falling silent, and Saint Augustine, long ago, said, “si comprehendis, non est Deus” (if you understand, that isn’t God), All of this formal theologizing is but commentary on that elusive and confounding voice from the burning bush: “I am who am.”
Furthermore, Wittgenstein's metaethics takes our moral intuitions seriously without reducing ethics to simply "what feels right." In the "Lecture on Ethics," Wittgenstein noted that while he believed our moral intuitions and beliefs "run against the boundaries of language" he also believed that they represented that "which I personally cannot help respecting deeply and I would not for my life ridicule it." This is important to the Christian for whom our moral sense is some combination of the reflection of the divine image in us and/or the movement of the Holy Spirit on our hearts. "For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous in God’s sight," St. Paul writes in the Letter to the Romans,
but the doers of the law who will be justified. When Gentiles, who do not possess the law, do instinctively what the law requires, these, though not having the law, are a law to themselves. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, to which their own conscience also bears witness; and their conflicting thoughts will accuse or perhaps excuse them on the day when, according to my gospel, God, through Jesus Christ, will judge the secret thoughts of all. (2:15-16, NRSV)
At the same time, of course, our Christian faith teaches us that we are fallen into sin and thus prone to error, and that therefore what is good and bad cannot be directly reducible to what feels good or bad:
If you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish. For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind. (James 3:14-16, NRSV).
Wittgenstein's metaethics allows for this in his distinction between relative statements of value (which are not philosophically problematic) and "the desire to say something about the ultimate meaning of life, the absolute good, the absolute valuable" which can only be understood mystically.
cjbanning: (Ludwig Wittgenstein)
The pursuit of a philosophical metaethic which simultaneously manages to be postfoundationalist and non-relativist dominated much of 20th-century thought, and has continued (and no doubt will continue) to do so into the 21st century. Of the major thinkers associated with this project, one might not think first of Ludwig Wittgenstein, whose remarks on ethics were admittedly both rare and brief. Still, I think it's worthwhile to use this post to quickly sketch a portrait of Wittgenstein's metaethical position, because his thought has been such a heavy influence on my own philosophy and theology, and because I think its explicitly mystical character ought to make it of particular interest to the metaethicist who is also a theologian.

Wittgenstein's most sustained enquiry into the metaethical was his 1929 "Lecture on Ethics". I recommend you follow the link to read the whole thing--it's pretty short--but the upshot is that Wittgenstein finally comes to the following conclusion:
I see now that these nonsensical expressions were not nonsensical because I had not yet found the correct expressions, but that their nonsensicality was their very essence. For all I wanted to do with them was just to go beyond the world and that is to say beyond significant language. My whole tendency and, I believe, the tendency of all men [sic] who ever tried to write or talk Ethics or Religion was to run against the boundaries of language.

This running against the walls of our cage is perfectly, absolutely hopeless. Ethics so far as it springs from the desire to say something about the ultimate meaning of life, the absolute good, the absolute valuable, can be no science. What it says does not add to our knowledge in any sense. But it is a document of a tendency in the human mind which I personally cannot help respecting deeply and I would not for my life ridicule it.
This is a further development of the line of thought on ethics found in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus:
6.41 The sense of the world must lie outside the world. In the world everything is as it is and happens as it does happen. In it there is no value—and if there were, it would be of no value.
If there is a value which is of value, it must lie outside all happening and being-so. For all happening and being-so is accidental.
What makes it non-accidental cannot lie in the world, for otherwise this would again be accidental.
It must lie outside the world.

6.42 Hence also there can be no ethical propositions.
Propositions cannot express anything higher.

6.421 It is clear that ethics cannot be expressed.
Ethics are transcendental.
(Ethics and æsthetics are one.)

6.422 The first thought in setting up an ethical law of the form “thou shalt …” is: And what if I do not do it? But it is clear that ethics has nothing to do with punishment and reward in the ordinary sense. This question as to the consequences of an action must therefore be irrelevant. At least these consequences will not be events. For there must be something right in that formulation of the question. There must be some sort of ethical reward and ethical punishment, but this must lie in the action itself.
(And this is clear also that the reward must be something acceptable, and the punishment something unacceptable.)

6.423 Of the will as the subject of the ethical we cannot speak.
And the will as a phenomenon is only of interest to psychology.
Obviously, there is not much here to satisfy the typical analytical philosopher, who is likely to reject it as so much mystery-mongering. But we need to place Wittgenstein's metaethics into the context of his broader metaphysical project and his deflationary metaphilosophy, a project my understanding of which I have tried to sketch out in my previous posts on Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein's mysticism about ethics is, of course, not a specific refusal to address the ethical, but rather simply a subset of a broader mystical approach to the relationship between reality and language in general.

A potentially damning criticism of Wittgenstein's metaethics is that his mysticism doesn't provide any real insight into how we ought to actually go about the activity of ethical reflection. Mystical notions of transcendental good and evil don't necessarily provide all that much help in, say, determining the morality of drone warfare--or even whether one should cheat on a test. However, I think this understates the usefulness of Wittgenstein's guidance. It is of course true that Wittgenstein never took up these issues directly (and only rarely even indirectly) and that the following is thus of necessity somewhat speculative. That said, I think it should be possible (and not even difficult) to imagine what a Wittgensteinian ethical approach ought to look like from extrapolating from the work Wittgenstein did do on metaphysics, philosophy of language, and philosophy of mind.

Imagine if Wittgenstein were to have written an Ethical Investigations alongside the Philosophical Investigations, in which he applied the PI's quasi-phenomenological method to moral reasoning. Just as PI enquires into philosophy of language by examining the real-world ways in which human beings actually use language, this hypothetical EI would look at the actual ways we go about the process of reasoning morally--a phenomenology of morals, if you will. (It's been a while since I read the book, but I suspect that an argument could be made that Nietzsche had already done precisely that in his Genealogy of Morals--although I also suspect that, given Wittgenstein's known Tolstoyan sympathies, the Austrian philosopher would have come to very different conclusions had he undertaken the project than had the German.)

Ethical Investigations might even go on to speak of "ethics games" just as Philosophical Investigations does of language games. Just as Wittgenstein wanted ""to bring into prominence the fact that the speaking of language is part of an activity, or a form of life" (PI §23), in EI he would want to similarly focus on the way in which ethical discourse represented a human activity and way of life. This would not be moral relativism (remember that for Wittgenstein, there was some sort of "bastard sense" in which transcendent notions of good and evil still held reign) but rather a faith in the power of our ethical discourses as they take place "on the ground" to encourage moral behavior and discourage immoral behavior--a sort of critical moral realism coupled with a skepticism that philosophy (at least as the discipline has been practiced for the the last couple of centuries or so) represents the best tool for coming to moral conclusions.

Richard Rorty famously said in Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity that if one took care of freedom, truth would take care of itself. I think there is a sense that for Wittgenstein, ethics ought to be similarly capable of "taking care of itself." I think that Wittgenstein might have agreed with Rorty's subsequent comments in CIS:
If we are ironic enough about our final vocabularies, and curious enough about everyone else's, we do not have to worry about whether we are in direct contact with moral reality, or whether we are blinded by ideology, or whether we are being weakly "relativistic." (176-77)
No doubt there is plenty in the above paragraphs which would be perhaps somewhat less than totally persuasive to our hypothetical analytic interlocutor. So it goes. However, I do think there are many reasons why a Witggensteinian metaethical mysticism ought to prove especially attractive to the Christian moral theologian--and in particular, to the progressive Christian moral theologian--and I hope to discuss those in my next post.
cjbanning: (Trinity)
Tony Jones has challenged "all progressive theo-bloggers to write one post about God between now and August 15."

"Write something substantive about God," Tony writes. "Not about Jesus, not about the Bible, but about God." He's afraid that progressive Christians "don’t write that much about God. That is, we don’t say substantive things about who God is, what God does, etc."
We might think that people know what we think about God, but they don’t. It’s clear in the comments on this blog and elsewhere.

It really struck me yesterday, when listening to a recent edition of the TNT podcast, in which Tripp repeatedly and forcefully said things about who God is and how God acts. He didn’t relativize those statements with qualifiers, and he didn’t cowtow to political correctness or academic jargon. That was jarring to me because it so rarely happens.
Tony's challenge reminds me of the story of Moses before the burning bush in Exodus chapter 3. Moses knows that when he returns to the enslaved Israelites in Egypt to tell them of God's promise of liberation for them, they're going to want to know just who this god is who is giving the promise. "If I come to the Israelites and say to them, 'The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,' and they ask me, 'What is this god's name?' what shall I say to them?" asks Moses.

And God answers back to Moses, "I am who I am":
Thus you shall say to the Israelites, "I AM has sent me to you. YHWH, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you." This is my name forever, and my title for all generations.
Tony's point seems to be that progressive Christians, when we speak of justice and love and liberation and mercy, need to be prepared also to answer the question that Moses knew the Israelites would ask him: "What is the name of the god who has sent you?"

God is who God is. Liberals know well that God transcends any attempt by human beings to describe the divine, that our attempts to make God fit into our own categories and concepts can quickly become idolatry. As Scott Paeth puts it:
we are using human language to describe the indescribable, and referring to a human being as the incarnation of that which is beyond all created order. These are the paradoxes that exist at the heart of the Christian tradition. This is what makes it a mystery. In speaking of God, the answers aren't at the back of the book. And the mistake that is too often made by conservative and liberal Christians alike is to believe that in their God talk they are speaking about something that can be definitively spoken of, rather than alluding to something that in the end we know only in partial and fragmentary ways.

What this ought to lead to is a great deal of theological humility, especially about the kinds of things that seem to animate contemporary American Christians so thoroughly. Yet if as Christians we are to attempt to live lives in accord with our faith, we have no choice except to attempt to speak of the unspeakable and know the unknowable. The challenge then is to do so in ways that acknowledge our inherent limitations, and the ultimate futility of any attempt to speak definitively of God.
For Paeth, as of course for me, it all comes back to Wittgenstein's Tractatus:
I am always drawn back in these conversations to the ending of Ludwig Wittenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, where after sketching out the basis of an approach to philosophy that would come to dominate the discipline in the ensuing years, he ended with the much misunderstood dictum: "Of that about which we cannot speak, we must remain silent."

For Christians of course, it is possible to recognize the truth of that, and yet feel compelled to speak nevertheless. The basis of our speech though, is always the very human reality of Jesus Christ, and our very human attempts to understand the connection between him and the God whom we believe he revealed. Once again, this ought to lead us to a great deal of humility. More's the pity it seldom does.
At the same time, I take Tony's point. What can we say as progressive Christians about God? And as I reflect about what insight our revealed tradition has given us into the nature of God, two points stand out in particular. One is broadly Abrahamic; the other is very specifically Trinitarian Christian. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, the two points reinforce and illuminate each other.

First off, God is concerned with justice. This is incredibly clear throughout the Hebrew scriptures. The prophet Micah asks, "What does YHWH require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?" In the first chapter of Isaiah, the prophet likewise instructs Israel: "Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow." Jeremiah agrees:
They know no limits in deeds of wickedness; they do not judge with justice the cause of the orphans, to make it prosper, and they do not defend the rights of the needy. "Shall I not punish them for these things," says YHWH, "and shall I not bring retribution on a nation such as this?"
These are just a few of the most obvious examples, but the thread of justice weaves itself visibly through the entirety of the scriptures. The very worst sin Israel could commit is to turn away from God and commit idolatry, but the second is to fail to take care of the society's most vulnerable members.

That is the God who has sent us.

The preoccupation with justice continues into the Christian scriptures. Part of the process of our salvation is "justification"--literally the process by which we are "made just" by taking the character of God's divine justice upon ourselves. In Matthew 5:10, Jesus says that those who are persecuted for the sake of justice are especially blessed: for the kindom of Heaven is theirs. Similarly, in Matthew 6:33, Jesus instructs us to strive first for the justice of God's kindom--and tells us that it is in the process of that striving that that kindom is made available to us.

That is the God who has sent us.

And of course, God's concern with justice is seen in the witness of the saints, perhaps most visibly in Francis and Clare, but also in Dorothy Day and Martin Luther King, Jr. and Oscar Romero and Harriet Beecher Stowe, and in the whole number of those compelled by the grace of God and the love of Christ to do our part to create a just and loving society in which all are capable of flourishing, in tearing down the sinful social structures which stand in the way of that flourishing.

That is the God who has sent us.

Secondly, God exists in community, in relationship, in dialectic, in conversation, in dialogue. I've already written about this character of the Triune God of Trinitarian Christianity extensively elsewhere in this blog, so I won't belabor the point here. But the God who has sent us is the God who is Parent and Child and Spirit all at once, three persons in the unity of a single being, each the equal of the others, all complicated and messy and perichoretic. The God who has sent us models for us a way of living in community and engaging in dialogue. The God who has sent us is dynamic, never static.

That is the God who has sent us. And it is because we have been sent by this God that we progressive Christians strive and work for the justice of God's kindom, because we have been promised by our God that it will indeed be opened unto us.

That is the God who has sent us. Amen.
cjbanning: (Bowed Head)
The issue which Wittgenstein's mysticism foregrounds is not unique to his philosophy, as it seems some of his interpreters would have one believe, but rather are as old as philosophy itself, with poststructuralist theorists like (here it comes) that of Jacques Derrida or Julia Kristeva locating it in Plato's cosmological Timaeus, in the notion of the chora, the chasm which lies beyond the limits of time and space. (Derrida omits the article before the term chora, claiming that “the definitive article presupposes the existence of a thing, the existent chorato which, via a common name, it would be easy to refer” [“Chora.” Trans. Ian McCloud. Chora L Works. By Jacques Derrida and Peter Eisenman. Ed. Jeffrey Kipnis and Thomas Leeser. New York: Monacelli, 1997: 17]. I know of no such grammatical principle in either English or French, and thus I refrain from this practice.) Kristeva acknowledges that naming the chora (even in Greek) “ontologizes” it, i.e. makes it a “thing,” but concludes that we cannot not talk about it either (Kristeva, Julia. “From Revolution in Poetic Language.” Trans. Margaret Walker. The Nortan Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. New York: Norton, 2001: 2171).

She thus turns to the ontologized term and its self-contradiction as an example of the very difficulties inherent in its use. When we speak of chora we do not so much use language as reveal its limits. By relying on a brutish display of linguistic force, a “bastard reasoning,” we can assert that the chora is pre-symbolic—not de-ontologizing the term chora but at least recalling to the mind the need to de-ontologize (2171). This assertion of negative theology—the via negativa—is enough for Kristeva to feel she can dismiss any worries that she is illegitimately ontologizing the chora.

Derrida is distrustful of projects like Kristeva's which apply bastard reasoning in order to build a psychoanalytic theory upon the chora—there is a point, it seems,” Derrida argues, “where the relevance of this rhetorical code meets a limit and must be questioned as such, must become a theme and cease to be merely operatory”—but nonetheless recognizes that its very impossibility brings its reader to the problems of philosophy which it fails to denote (31). For Kristeva and Derrida, then, the quietist conclusion of the Tractatus must be rejected.

Note that my appeal to Derrida and Kristeva has not really gotten us any farther than we were before (which is why, I think, any accusation of “Derrida-izing” Wittgenstein must ultimately fall flat); we have only put forth the problem in a way which will be familiar to students of the postmodernist Continental tradition and, in so doing, perhaps made clear its essential features. Derrida and Kristeva merely seem to have fallen into the same trap that Wittgenstein has in the Tractatus. Both Derrida and Kristeva's responses do not, after all, seem to be significantly different from what we have already called the ineffabilist interpretation: "there is something which is sort of true, but sort of not, because we really cannot talk about it, but we sort of can, and you know what I'm trying to say, right?" No wonder the analytic philosophers throw up their arms in disgust!

But my interest is not so much in how Wittgenstein's conception of the mystical is similar to the Derridean or Kristevan chora—the similarities are undoubtedly great—but how differently he talks about it, the stark disconnect between the philosophical methods employed. Invoking these two French thinkers clarifies for me exactly what it is that we need from the Austrian: a sustained defense of this type of bastard reasoning. Instead, we get a call for silence:
7 What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.
Thus ends the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Having concluded that philosophy can produce no truths, no genuine insights gained, the project is drawn to a close. Philosophy is finished.

Yet note that the quietism of the Tractatus, like any quietism which is spoken aloud (or, in this case, written down), is always-already unstable; as Russell scathingly points out, “Wittgenstein manages to say a good deal about what cannot be said” (xxiii). "Wittgenstein did want to write the Tractatus,” Moyal-Sharrock notes, “indeed put great effort into writing it, and into producing its translation. So that not following the strictly correct method in the Tractatus, far from implying a repudiation of what was achieved, was essential to achieving it” (168)

Nor is there anything to lead us to assume that the Tractarian project of a “strictly incorrect” but nontheless elucidatory method of philosophy (cf. proposition 6.53) is unique to the Tractatus itself or to Wittgenstein; proposition 6.53 immediately makes one think of the Platonic dialogues (and their similarly therapeutic-poetic formats), as Russell does when he notes in the Introduction that “[i]t is true that the fate of Socrates might befall a man who attempted this method of teaching, but we are not to be deterred by that fear, if it is the only right method” (xxiii).

Wittgenstein too notes that he has “fallen a long way short of what is possible” because his “powers [of expression] are too slight for the accomplishment of the task,” adding, “May others come and do better” (pg. 4). So we do not have one single descent into bastard reasoning, like Dante's into Hell, so as to forever more escape it, but one more work in a line of bastard reasonings—an entire bastard discourse, that is, which as a collective we can and do call “philosophy”—which is neither the first nor the last of its kind, nor should it be.

That said, it is true that Wittgenstein, in his Preface, claims to “have found, on all essential points, the final solution of the problems” (pg. 4); it is equally true that following the writing and publishing of the Tractatus he dropped out of philosophy. But even this is painted as a personal enlightenment―of the sort which might more easily come to a St. Teresa or a Julian of Norwich than an analytic philosopher—which cannot be reliably shared or reproduced. “Perhaps,” Wittgenstein suggests in the Preface, “this book will be understood only by someone who has himself already had the thoughts expressed in it―or at least similar thoughts” (pg. 3). Indeed, for austere readers and some varieties of non-therapists, the only thing that makes the nonsense of the Tractatus more likely to be elucidatory than that of, say, Lewis Carroll's poem “Jabberwocky”―if the Tractatus is in fact more likely to be so (there is indeed, after all, a good deal to be learned about language and its limits by reading Carroll's poem)—is an accident of historical contingency. For the ineffabilist, presumably there is some truth which inheres in the Tractatus which does not in Carroll—although for all one knows, perhaps the meaning of life is that the snark was a boojum after all!

This not to say there is not an uneasy sense―born of the Tractatus' own bastard logic, I believe―that philosophy up to Wittgenstein has been a productive struggle in the sense that it has been striving for its own dissolution which it at last finds in the Tractatus, only afterwards being replaced with the therapeutic approach described in 6.53. At the very least there is the assertion that for at least those who can be said to understand the work it represents an end to their philosophizing, even if other people might well need other works. The Tractatus is, in the end, a quietist document, and this should not be glossed over.

Nor need it be, since Wittgenstein's philosophizing does not in fact end here. Enter the Philosophical Investigations: at some point prior to Wittgenstein's return to philosophy, he clearly abandoned the quietism of the Tractatus; when contrasted with the style of the previous work, in the Investigations he has become downright chatty. This might seem obvious and trivial, but it is worth saying nonetheless, for it represents the most fundamental shift and break between the late and early Wittgensteins.

What we have in the Investigations is the articulation of an entire bastard language. The halfway language, neither sense nor quite what we would typically call nonsense, which the non-therapists attempt to rehabilitate in the Tractatus suddenly becomes all of language. Language guesses/plays/sings/solves (§23) but no longer does it mean in the Tractarian sense. Instead, questions of ontology drop out altogether.
For this is what disputes between Idealists, Solipsists, and Realists look like. The one party attack the normal form of expression as if they were attacking a statement; the others defend it, as if they were stating facts recognized by every reasonable human being. (§402)
Language is described; the world―the mystical―is experienced.

But this recognition only pushes back the demand for explanations, which (we have argued) neither the austere readers nor the ineffabilists nor the non-therapists could quite provide, one step further, so that it now engulfs the Investigations as well as the Tractatus. The non-therapist's reading of the Tractatus is dependent on the premise that nonsense sentences can have “performative significance” (Brand 332), that we can articulate grammatical rules (Moyal-Sharrock 162) or make “purely linguistic proposals” (Matthew B. Ostrow, Wittgenstein's Tractatus. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge U P, 2002: 4, describing Carnap) or use our language “intransitively”—in short, that some nonsense is desirable (Philip M. Hallie, “Wittgenstein's Exclusion of Metaphysical Nonsense.” The Philosophical Quarterly16 [1966]: 101-104).

The Investigations does not defend any of these premises. Wittgenstein does not argue that meaning is use—indeed, he explicitly recognizes that for some ways we use the word “meaning,” meaning is not use:
For a large class of cases—though not for all—in which we employ the word “meaning” it can be defined thus: the meaning of a word is its use in the language. (§43)
Instead he simply demonstrates—makes manifest—the manifold of ways that language can function. If some set of analytic philosophers wish to exclude the mystical from their language game, then they are free to do so—or at least to try. And, Wittgenstein recognizes, often it is best to do so. We cannot always live in an ecstatic state in which things are and are not true, do and do not exist. For science, law, and many other language games, trying to grasp what is—the mystical—that is, to theorize—would be a grave mistake: a confusion, an illness, a disease.

Having grown out of the mystical which, resisting language, both is and is not, Wittgenstein's anti/theory similarly both is and is not a theory. This is not a naïve positivism, in which comprehension is confused for apprehension and the theoretical structures used to understand the world are rendered invisible. That would be the position he attacks, that of the Saint Augustine and the picture theory, when he exposes the insidious assumptions which underly our ways of talking about language: “How does one know?” is the constant refrain throughout the first hundred sections of the Investigations, giving the lie to the idea that our language games are transparent or immediate. Wittgenstein recognizes and accepts the deeply theoretical nature (by which we mean, based on unquestioned rules) of every game, including Wittgensteinian therapy. Wittgenstein's anti/theory (like Foucault's, ultimately) is descriptive, not destructive.
cjbanning: (Symposium)
The Tractatus opens with what appears to be a description of an ideal language of a vaguely logical positivist character, but which by the end of the work has revealed itself to have taken a strange—and, to many philosophers, even alarming—turn: it announces that everything it has been saying (and continues to say) has been (and is) nonsense, espouses the mystical character of not only ethics and religion but also grammar, and then concludes with a quietist call to silence.

Most troubling has been the first claim, that the Tractatus itself is nonsensical. Wittgenstein's exact words are:
6.54  My propositions serve as elucidations in the following way: anyone who understands me eventually recognizes them as nonsensical, when he [sic] used them—as steps—to climb up beyond them. (He must, so to speak, throw away the ladder after he has climbed up it.)

He must transcend these propositions, and then he will see the world aright.
Interpretations of this passage in the Tractatus (at least, those which do not simply assume he was wrong and move on) can be said to fall into three groups: the austere reading (emerging, as Danièle Moyal-Sherrock not incorrectly notes, “not accidentally in the wake of Deconstruction” [“Good Sense of Nonsense: A Reading of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus as Nonself-Repudiating.” Philosophy 82 (2007): 147]), which claims that Tractarian nonsense must be rejected completely; the ineffable reading, which argues that Tractarian nonsense gestures towards ineffable truths which cannot be put into words; and non-therapeutic readings which claim that by nonsense Wittgenstein meant something quite technical and limited and which should not, properly understood, bother us. 

As Roy Brand has argued in his essay “Making Sense Speaking Nonsense" (The Philosophical Forum 35.3 [2004]: 311-339), the three positions are actually in substantial agreement with each other, with most of their apparent differences being the result of different emphasis and terminology (331-333). After all, all three schools of interpretation agree that Tractarian sentences are, by the standards of the Tractatus, nonsensical. (They hardly could deny it without departing from Wittgenstein at the start.) And all three acknowledge also that those sentences nonetheless have a specific function which they can play, at least sometimes do play, and which Wittgenstein seemed to want them to play, in the natural history of human beings. Even in early Wittgenstein, then, we have the conception of sentences which function without signifying, of (what Wittgenstein does not yet call) meaning as use, which will go on to become the main impetus of Wittgenstein's discussions in the Investigations. The disagreement, then, is over exactly what words we should use to describe these sentences.

Wittgenstein's description, such as it is, of the mystical is found in the following Tractarian proposition:
6.522 There are, indeed, things that cannot be put into words. They make themselves manifest. They are what is mystical.
This seems to result only in meaningless mystery-mongering. (I am indebted to Paul Horwich for the term "mystery-mongering.") If the mystical cannot be put into words, how can we say it exists? Obviously, we cannot; therefore we require the elucidatory nonsense of the Tractatus to gesture towards it. But how can we say that the nonsense of Tractatus gestures towards it—remember we cannot speak of it at all. So we are left not being able to say that we can't say that we can't say that we can't say . . . that we can't say, an infinite regress of meaningless sounds following meaningless sounds of which we seem we will never, ever, be able to escape. Even the suggestion that we should not talk about the mystical lest we be trapped in this infinite regress—the Tractatus' quietist conclusion—manages to fall within it. Thus the implicit ineffablism of even the austere reading:
It is a feature of the austere reading that these propositions mean nothing, but they must somehow succeed in attracting our metaphysical urge to go beyond what can be said and this illusion to be nothing more than nonsense. [. . .] But for this to be successful, so the austere reading claims, we must attribute some transitory sense to the propositions of the book or, alternatively, go beyond those and understand the author the book in some ineffable way. (Brand 333)
Similarly, even the non-therapists, who attempt to preserve the say/show distinction in order to hold off this ineffability, are nonetheless left with sentences halfway between sense and nonsense which we are nonetheless able to understand.

It is understandable, then, why it is tempting for philosophers to want to view Wittgenstein's early mysticism as a mistake—or, for the austere reading, something which he is even then rejecting—and to see his later philosophy as a break away from and a rejection of this mysticism. However, there are two reasons why this view of Wittgenstein's development is unsatisfactory. The first is that Wittgenstein's critiques of the Tractatus—for example, as found in the Investigations at §23, §97, and §114, and by implication spread liberally throughout §§1 to 120 seem not to focus, or even touch, on the mysticism of the Tractatus but on the positivistic characteristics of the work, the so-called "picture-theory of language" which many non-therapists understand it to be espousing (wrongly, I would argue--for any non-austere, non-ineffable understanding of nonsense, the existence of ethics and the truth of the picture theory are in fact incommensurate.). Furthermore, there are statements in the Investigations which Wittgenstein seems to endorse and which thus reaffirm the Tractatus' mystical vision:
The results of philosophy are the uncovering of one or another piece of pure nonsense [. . .] that the understanding has got by running its head up against the limits of language. (§119)
Here is where the accusation of reading postmodernism into Wittgenstein will begin. But if we are to take Wittgenstein seriously, then we must turn to as guides those thinkers who do, as he does, take mysticism seriously—and these are not to be found (at least not in any great number) within the analytic tradition. In my next post I'll compare Wittgenstein's mysticism with the thought of two French post-structuralists, Derrida and Kristeva.


cjbanning: (Trinity)
Wittgenstein's metaphilosophy is, throughout his philosophical career(s) but perhaps most strikingly in the Philosophical Investigations, characterized by its deflationary nature, and by its resistance to theory. To a Wittgensteinian, philosophical theories do not provide the answer to philosophical questions; instead, the urge to theorize is the source of philosophical questions. We as philosophers strive for “something like a final analysis of our forms of language,” but to the Wittgensteinian this is little more than a pipe dream (Investigations §91). Philosophical “therapy” is thus necessary to “uncover [. . .] one or another piece of plain nonsense” (§119).

Theorists, understandably, are not sure what to make of these claims. Is Wittgenstein advancing a theory about theories—a self-contradicting one, in that case? A meta-theory (but what would such a thing be)? An empirical observation (how is it falsified)? Something he just thinks is true (for what value of truth)? Wishes were true? Is amused (or disturbed) that people treat seriously?

I will not respond at length to each of the possibilities that have been put forth here, but I will say that none of them seem, to me, to be satisfactory. Wittgenstein does seem to be making serious, normative claims about how we should and should not talk about and perform philosophy, and seems to make meaty theoretical claims about what we are doing and how we are doing it when we philosophize—that there really are “bumps that the understanding has got by running its head up against the limits of language” that we need to get rid of (§119).

The therapist can get around these questions, of course, dissolving each one of them in turn; when Wittgenstein's intelocutor asks what is the essence of a language game, Wittgenstein responds with a rumination on the multiplicitous nature of various types of games (§§65-66). But at some point this pas de deux will seem less like a reasoned conversation and more like something out of Monty Python's famous "Argument Clinic" sketch: the Wittgensteinian always has an answer, but it's never the type of answer a traditional analytic philosopher can accept or respect; leaving both the skeptic and the foundationalist with the feeling that they simply have not been addressed and so that they, along with their claims, have simply been arbitrarily rejected (see Gaile Pohlhaus and John R. Wright, “Using Wittgenstein Critically: A Politcal Approach to Philosophy,” in Political Theory 30.6 [2002]: 802.)

These questions centering on Wittgenstein's metaphilosophy will be recognizable to any student of twentieth- and twenty-first century thought, from the Frankfurt School through contemporary queer theory: it is the question of soi-disant “critical” theory, theory which attacks, deconstructs, turns upon itself. Jana Sawicki, in discussing French theorist Michel Foucault in her book Disciplining Foucault (London: Routledge, 1991), calls this impulse “anti-theory”: “not a theory, but an instrument for criticizing theories” (53). The problem with this analysis is that an instrument needs a wielder to use it, and she must use it with a purpose. What is Wittgenstein's purpose?

Anti-theory, it seems, can be a useful critical tool in service of an independently held philosophical position but not a fully-realized, coherent method of living in the world on its own; in many ways, this is the argument I made in The Eschatology of Radical Negativity. Unable to recognize even temporary, strategic, or contingent foundations, it can only blunder on, destructively tearing theoretical structures down for no reason it can articulate. As far as illnesses go, this can seem far more terminally cancerous than any philosophical theory!

Instead of trying to resolve these contradictions, however, I would suggest that Wittgenstein would have us embrace them: he is advocating not “anti-theory” but anti/theory, something which at once both is and is not a theory. This is not merely reading poststructuralism and deconstruction back into Wittgenstein in an eisegetical manner, as some have suggested of far more modest readings than this one (although of course one's reading of poststructuralism and deconstruction will of course influence the exegesis she performs), writing Derrida (for example) “on top of” Wittgenstein.  Instead, I'll demonstrate in a future post how recognizing Wittgenstein's use of this vital contradiction allows us to see the answer to one of the vexed questions of Wittgenstein scholarship—the interpretation of Wittgenstein's other great philosophical treatise, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, and its relation to Wittgenstein's later philosophy—by recognizing the strand of mysticism which persists from the Tractatus into Wittgenstein's later work.

Heresy, Cont'd

Thursday, 25 August 2011 03:48 pm
cjbanning: (Bowed Head)

If there are different brands of Christian orthodoxy, then there are competing standards against which heresy can be judged. I think that's what is going on in a recent post of mine, when I spoke of "the Protestant heresy of the 'perspicuity of the Scriptures,' which implies that the Bible has one true meaning and that any seeming deviations from it (whatever it might be) are in fact distortions." Obviously, in speaking of a "Protestant heresy" I was quite clearly positioning myself as an Anglo-Catholic, and from a broadly Catholic perspective that claim of Protestantism is indeed heretical.

At the same time, I think there's a very real sense in which I gave into a temptation I probably should have resisted. Taken to the extreme, the charge of heresy becomes indistinguishable from simple disagreement with the accuser; as Robin Parry notes, "More often than not those making such claims simply mean that the doctrine is, in their opinion, both wrong and dangerous." Such is the case when Robert Sanders writes about "the ecstatic heresy" in Christianity Today.

Simply put, there is no such thing as the ecstatic heresy. He made it up. Indeed, the claim that Sanders is interested in positioning as heretical--"that God can only be known in feeling, in ways that transcend the language of God or about God"--is actually one that is well-attested throughout Christian tradition, in apophatic theology and Christian mysticism, and developed in both Protestant and Catholic (and Eastern Orthodox) theology.

What then, about ++Katharine Jefferts Schori's controversial accusation of heresy made at the 2009 General Convention, which I quoted in my recent sermon preached before the Church of the Ascension in Gloucester City:
Katharine Jefferts Schori, our Presiding Bishop here in the Episcopal Church, has spoken of what she calls “the great Western heresy - that we can be saved as individuals, that any of us alone can be in right relationship with God. It's caricatured in some quarters by insisting that salvation depends on reciting a specific verbal formula about Jesus. That individualist focus is a form of idolatry, for it puts me and my words in the place that only God can occupy, at the center of existence, as the ground of all being.”

Jefferts Schori later clarified her remarks by noting, “If salvation is understood only as ‘getting right with God’ without considering ‘getting right with all our neighbors,’ then we've got a heresy on our hands.”
As evidenced by her later need to clarify her meaning, Jefforts Schori clearly was not sufficiently clear or politic in her original statements opening the Convention. Now, I agree completely with her insistence that the understanding of salvation she calls out is a theological error, and perhaps would even go farther than her in my own critique of individual salvation. But--especially in the context of a church which, once upon a time, used to have "Protestant" in its title--"heresy" might be going too far. Indeed, I'm not even quite sure what it means for the U.S.-ian primate of a church founded in Philadelphia to speak of the "great Western heresy," as great rhetoric as it may be. Is she positioning herself with the perspective of Eastern Orthodoxy? The Early Church, pre-Westernization?

ETA: Then again, the Wikipedia articles on antinomianism does say "there is wide agreement within Christianity that 'antinomianism' is heresy," but it doesn't provide a citation, and since that term wasn't coined until Martin Luther, it's hard to view that sentiment as an expression of the universal Church. The 1913 Catholic Encyclopedia is more useful, although not exactly objective or unbiased:
Although the term designating this error came into use only in the sixteenth century, the doctrine itself can be traced in the teaching of the earlier heresies. Certain of the Gnostic sect — possibly, for example, Marcion and his followers, in their antithesis of the Old and New Testament, or the Carpoeratians, in their doctrine of the indifference of good works and their contempt for all human laws — held Antinomian or quasi-Antinomian views. In any case, it is generally understood that Antinomianism was professed by more than one of the Gnostic schools. Several passages of the New Testament writings are quoted in support of the contention that even as early as Apostolic times it was found necessary to single out and combat this heresy in its theoretical or dogmatic as well as in its grosser and practical form. The indignant words of St. Paul in his Epistles to the Romans and to the Ephesians (Romans 3:8, 31; 6:1; Ephesians 5:6), as well as those of St. Peter, the Second Epistle (2 Peter 2:18, 19), seem to lend direct evidence in favour of this view.
cjbanning: (Symposium)
This is the first of what will presumably be several posts on Kendra  Creasy Dean's Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers Is Telling the American Church, which is being read throughout the Episcopal Diocese of New Jersey this January through June as part of its One Book program.

I blame Rod Dreher.

Rod Dreher was a blogger at Beliefnet.com, where he consistently provided a voice which was theologically, politically, and culturally conservative. Dreher was the sort of guy I would read in order to stay fluent in the best arguments in favor of those positions with which I disagreed, in service of trying to be someone who was a) generally well-read and b) intellectually honest. I didn't read his blog religiously, but I would stop by sometimes when I was in a particularly strong mood to disagree with someone, and some of the bloggers I prefered reading (Ross Douthat and Andrew Sullivan in particular) would also link to him from time to time.

Rod Dreher's blog is, I think, the first place (or at least the most memorable place) I heard of "moralistic therapeutic deism" (MTD), the "benign whatever-ism" which Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton identified as the dominant faith of U.S. teenagers in their book Soul Searching, the end result of the "National Study of Youth and Religion." According to Smith and Denton, MTD has five main tenets:
  1. A god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth.
  2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
  3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
  4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one's life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.
  5. Good people go to heaven when they die.
Dreher consistently saw MTD as a pervasive, corrupting influence polluting Christianity. Of course, that is also how he views liberal Christian theology, so there was always a part of me, reading his thoughts on MTD, that figured that anything which Rod Dreher detested so passionately couldn't be all that bad.

Looking back, I realize I foolishly and without realizing it bought into the implicit etiological narrative I was reading out of Dreher's posts that MTD was sort of a natural endpoint of the slippery slope of liberal theology started by Friedrich Schleiermacher, and continuing through Paul Tillich. Dreher says outright that MTD "is what I believe progressive religion generally is" and makes the link more or less explicit in, for example, this critique of "[p]ost-boomer Christians (PBCs) -- which is to say, young adult Christians":
a majority of PBCs -- 56 percent -- lean towards liberal Christianity. Only 38 percent call themselves conservative-leaning. But does that mean that tomorrow's Christianity will be more liberal? By no means: more than half of religious conservatives attend church weekly, while only 14 percent of religious liberals do. It doesn't take a genius to figure out which demographic is more likely to pass on faith to their children. Then again, perhaps they will pass along a kind of faith -- hello, Moralistic Therapeutic Deism -- just not a faith that would be recognizable by any meaningful historical standard.
More or less accepting this framing of MTD by Dreher led me to conclude that while MTD went much further than I would have preferred in discarding traditional Christian orthodoxy (cf. my statements in Theology and Emergence: "We [. . .] don’t talk enough anymore about the Trinity, about the Holy Eucharist, etc. [. . .] As Christians, we need to talk about these things much more, although probably as well as rather than instead of the more sexy culture war issues"), it was still far preferable to fundamentalism and conservative envangelicalism. As Ross Douthat notes in his response to a defense of MTD by Damon Linker, "The more you fear the theocon menace, the more you'll welcome the Oprahfication of Christianity - since the steady spread of a mushy, muddle-headed theology is as good a way as any of inoculating the country and its politics against, say, Richard John Neuhaus's views on natural law." (Let me note en passant that Linker is absolutely right in viewing those views on natural law as both philosophically untenable and socially damaging.)

After all, MTD wasn't sexist or homophobic. It didn't encourage to reject the findings of modern (secular) history or science, or to embrace supernaturalism. It didn't oppose the reproductive freedoms of women. It was tolerant of other religions. I found myself sympathetic to the teenagers who, in Almost Christian,
defended Moralistic Therapeutic Deism as a worldview they were proud to own, a fair representation of what Jesus intended, if not what he actually said. Tom, a seventeen-year-old lifelong Presbyterian, wondered: "Doesn't the church want us to treat people fairly, be happy, solve our own problems, and get along?" Some considered Moralistic Therapeutic Deism an improvement over what Christianity has come to symbolize in much of the world, as people identify "Christian" with "American." Shawn, a sophomore on the church youth council, exclaimed: "Do I believe that God wants people to be nice and fair to each other? Yeah, I'd stake my life on that!" (27)
Looking at the five tenets of MTD,
  • #1 should be non-controversial to the vast majority of Christians (at least outside the fairly esoteric area of apophatic a/theology).
  • #2 should be as well, as much as the behavior of some Christians might lead one to think otherwise.
  • #3's egoism admittedly falls short of the altruism most Christians (myself included) see as being central to the faith (although it has much in common with those churches which teach a gospel of prosperity).
  • #4 loses the experiential dimension which is at the heart of Christianity's mystic core (as I un/preach in sermons here and here), but also tends to avoid supernaturalism.
  • #5, while simplistic as far as soteriologies go (and clearly bordering on works-salvationism), is also still far preferable to a Calvinism in which people in their total depravity are damned to eternal torment because God capriciously neglects to extend grace to them for what can only seem to be utterly arbitrary reasons, or an Arminianism which understands the acceptance of grace solely in terms of holding a certain set of propositional beliefs as true. Admittedly, it does, in positing a literal and non-mystical heaven, seem to assert some type of realist metaphysics which may not be philosophically tenable.
I entered Almost Christian with this almost knee-jerk reaction of wanting to defend MTD--not as ideal, but as a lesser evil compared to much of American religiosity--against the claims of heterodoxy. However, having finished the first chapter and half of the second, I've found myself pleasantly surprised. Dean primarily locates her critique (so far, at least) of MTD in #3 and #4, exactly where my own critique would rest, arguing not so much for a return to an ungenerous orthodoxy as for a new liberal orthopraxy. (Orthodoxy denotes "right belief"; orthopraxy, "right action.")

Dean takes the title of her book (about which I will no doubt have much more to say, but this post is already overlong) from a quote by John Wesley (she is a pastor in the United Methodist Church, which was founded by Wesley). According to Wesley, the difference between an "almost Christian" and an "altogether Christian" was not belief in the Trinity or the two natures of Christ or the Real Presence or any other dogma, but an action: love (5). The problem with MTD, according to Dean, is "that in fact [it] lacks the holy desire and missional clarity necessary for Christian discipleship" (6) and is "so devoid of God's self-giving love in Jesus Christ, so immune to the sending love of the Holy Spirit" (12)..

Dean echoes one of my most persistent themes by making this lack of love the result of a pietistic Protestantism which focuses on beliefs rather than experience )

For Dean, then, the problem of MTD is that it is loveless (taking on #3) and that it is non-experential (#4): a critique which is firmly rooted in a position liberal mainline Protestant theology, as befits her UMC affiliation. Liberal theology then, rather than being the cause of MTD, is actually the antidote--but of course, it must be a liberal theology which is effectively articulated and communicated. And this, quite obviously, is not happening.

MTD's failure is that it seeks to deal with conservative theology (both Protestant and Catholic) not by engaging with it but by ignoring it. Its critics are right that that type of approach can result only in a weak, passive faith that is unable to stand up for what it claims to believe in (goodness, fairness, justice, liberation). The solution to the rise of MTD is for the mainline churches to be more boldly prophetic in asserting a liberal orthodoxy, drawing on the insights of Protestants like Schleiermacher and Tilich (and their 21st-century heirs, like emergent Tony Jones or feminist Rebecca S. Chopp) and on Catholics like liberation theologian Leonardo Boff and feminist Rosemary Radford Ruether.

And yes, that involves being aggressive about teaching doctrine: that the relational nature of a Triune God models for us how to live our lives in loving community and how Scripture, Tradition, and Reason speak to us through a perichoretic dialectic of conversation. That the Incarnation informs our understanding of the goodness of the body, including sexuality. That the imago dei tells us that gender is irrelevant in the face of our common reflectiveness of the divine. We need to be much, much better catechists, and we cannot fool ourselves that that catechism does not come with a social and political agenda (centered on the liberation of the oppressed).

And so I find myself forced to do what I dislike the most, agreeing with Rod Dreher, if only on this specific lament:
the mixed blessing of unity )
a final thought )
cjbanning: (The Bishop)
"[Tolstoy] is not a mystic; and therefore he has a tendency to go mad. Men [sic] talk of the extravagances and frenzies that have been produced by mysticism; they are a mere drop in the bucket. In the main, and from the beginning of time, mysticism has kept men [sic] sane." -- Chesterton, quoted here
The subtitle to Tolstoy's The Kingdom of God Is Within You, our book club book and the subject of a couple of recent posts, is Christianity Not As a Mystic Religion But As a New Theory of Life. Implicit in this title seems to be a conflation of mysticism and supernaturalism which is endemic throughout the text and seriously weakens Tolstoy's ability to engage with the religion, for it causes Tolstoy in his quite correct (in my opinion) resistance to supernaturalism to throw the baby out with the bathwater and also reject the core of Christian mysticism which runs throughout Scripture and Tradition, leaving him only with a weakly modernist set of humanist ethics.

Tolstoy's version of Christianity, then, falls into a type of angel worship by de-throning the mystic, living, Risen Christ who works in history via the Spirit. Tolstoy writes in the third chapter, "The Church as a church, whatever it may be--Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, Presbyterian--every church, in so far as it is a church, cannot but strive [. . .] to conceal the real meaning of Christ's teaching and to replace it by their own, which lays no obligation on them, [and] excludes the possibility of understanding the true teaching of Christ." By asserting a "true teaching of Christ" Tolstoy thus limits Christ to a human doctrine, trying to place God within the categories of human beings.

Tolstoy thinks he does so in the name of reason and science, but it is not Christian mysticism which lies in contradiction thereto, but Christian supernaturalism. Supernaturalism represents the claim that some set of empirical phenomena operate in a manner which is, in the words of St. Thomas Aquinas, "beyond the order or laws of the whole created nature" (ST I:102:4). (For further thoughts on the supernatural, see my post here.) Mysticism, on the other hand, makes no falsifiable claims about creation, and thus cannot find itself in tension with science. Instead it attempts to provide insight into that which cannot be said when we have come up against the limits of our language, and attempt to perceive that which is made manifest in experience. The Trinity, the Real Presence, and the Unity of the Church are examples of mystical doctrines, not supernatural claims.

Tolstoy joyfully skewers those who place their faith solely in tradition (his caricature of Roman Catholocism and Eastern Orthodoxy) or in scripture (his caricature of Protestantism)--and of course he is right to do so (for there are of course Christians of all brands who do indeed live up to the caricatures). But his own modernist account of what Christianity ought to teach similarly elevates reason as its sole authority. There's nothing wrong with this, per se: certainly being reliant on reason is far superior to a slavish, unthinking devotion to either scripture or tradition alone, and I don't have any real argument, yet alone a proof, that scripture and tradition represent legitimate sources of revelation when used in moderation, or that Tolstoy should recognize them as such, anymore than I have an argument against sola scriptura (well, other than that the doctrine of sola scriptura is nowhere to be found in the Bible).

And yet the truly catholic option is to allow scripture, tradition, and reason to enter into dialogue with each other--the "three-legged stool" of Anglicanism. (Add in experience and you get the Wesleyan Quadrilateral.) And it is precisely this sort of relationality which lies at the very heart of Trinitarian Christianity.
cjbanning: (Trinity)
1. Godhead. The apophatic denial of God's non-existence.
2. Trinity. God is one Being in three Persons.
3. Chalcedonian Christology. Hypostatic union: Jesus Christ is two natures, one human and one divine, united into one Person.
4. Wesleyan Quadrilateral. Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience as complementary sources of revelation.
5. The Sacraments. The seven sacraments (baptism, Eucharist, confirmation, reconciliation, ordination, marriage, healing) are the means of sanctifying grace, rites in which God is uniquely active, visible signs of an invisible reality.
6. Ex opere operato. The seven sacraments are efficacious in and of themselves, by the very fact of the actions’ being performed, because Christ is at work in them in order to communicate the grace that each sacrament signifies.
7. Baptismal Regeneration. The salvation of baptized persons (including those baptized by blood or desire, as well as by water) is uniquely mediated through the sacrament.
8. Real Presence. Jesus Christ is really present in the Eucharist. (Radical transignification.)
9. Perseverance of Eucharistic Presence. Real Presence is not dependent on the act of drinking or eating and continues in the consecrated hosts beyond the celebration of the Eucharist.
10. Adorableness of the Eucharist. Worship may be properly rendered to the Blessed Sacrament.
11. One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. The unity, holiness, catholicity, and apostolicity of the Church of Jesus Christ.
12. Apostolic Succession. The spiritual authority placed on the apostles by Christ is passed through history via the institutional rites of the Church, i.e. the consecration of bishops. The one Church of Christ subsists in the apostolic churches as governed by the historic episcopate.
13. Ordained Presbyterate. God specially calls some people (of all genders, races, and sexualities) to undergo the sacrament of ordination; to represent Christ and the Church of Christ, particularly as pastor to the people; to share with the bishop in the overseeing of the Church; to proclaim the Gospel; to administer the sacraments; and to bless and declare pardon in the name of God.
14. Free Will. God has willed that human persons remain under the control of their own decisions. For its part, authentic freedom is an exceptional sign of the divine image within a human being.
15. Sin. The existence of corporate evil—sexism and racism, transphobia and homophobia; poverty and hunger; totalitarianism and fascism—such that human freedom is curtailed and diminished.
16. Sola gratia. Since human freedom has been damaged by sin, only by the aid of God's grace can the Church bring the relationship between God and human beings into full flower.
17. Resistability of Grace. The free wills of human beings may cooperate with God so as to prepare and dispose themselves for the attainment of salvation; human wills can also refuse complying, if they please.
18. Universal Potential for Redemption. The birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ are for the benefit of all humankind, not just an elect.
19. Kingdom of Heaven. Through grace, humans are called to use their free will to pray for peace, fight for justice, and build God’s Kin(g)dom on Earth.
20. Intercession of Saints. It is proper to pray to the Saints and ask for their intercessions.

On Ineffability

Monday, 8 November 2010 08:05 pm
cjbanning: (Bowed Head)
"It's true that I can't directly tell you what it is that can't be said." -- André Kukla
The ineffability thesis, when construed as a thesis, is of course self-refuting: it contends to possess knowledge about the ineffable which under its own rules is impossible. Of course, the natural thing for the ineffabilist is to deny that she is asserting a thesis; the so-called ineffability thesis is simply a bastard sentence, leading to a throwing-away of the ladder, and that claim about the ineffability thesis is also a bastard sentence, and so on unto infinite regress.

At this point the pure philosopher is liable to, understandably, throw up her hands. The ineffabilist has admitted to speaking nonsense, and while she may claim that nonsense may somehow point the way to a higher truth, she has admitted also that even that claim is nonsense! Why should the philosopher take her at all seriously?

At this point, the ineffabilist puts forth both a positive and a negative claim: no one has put forth a claim about truth that does make sense (she would argue), and furthermore by the logic of the pure philosopher, they cannot.

The pure philosopher will no doubt fear that the ineffabilist has introduced an irrational element which threatens to undermine philosophy. The ineffabilist has abandoned any requirement for intellectual rigor, the pure philosopher will argue, by referring everything to an ineffable standard.

This is, of course, true, at least in a sense. But the truth is also that the ineffabilist can assume the standards of intellectual rigor proposed by the pure philosopher, if only deconstructively. She can demonstrate that the philosopher's claims to intellectual rigor are themselves exaggerated. This motivates a deflationaryism towards metaphysics, but this is nothing new.

What separates the ineffabilist from the pragmatist (or more specifically, the neopragmatist) is that the pragmatist, to some degree or other, is a quietist and the ineffabilist is not. By the pragmatist's account, there should be no such thing as pragmatism, or at least no such thing as an overarching thesis of pragmatism. To be sure, she can be involved in specific deconstructive attempts to show a certain way of talking about X has fallen into error by the standards of those doing the talking, but she cannot make the claim that we should stop talking about X. Any coordinated effort to stop talking about X represents a betrayal of pragmatist principles.

But insofar as the extrarationalism of the ineffabilist frees her to speek, it may seem to provide her what might look like an overbroad freedom: there is nothing she cannot say. Again, the pure philosopher finds it hard to take her seriously, to care what she has to say. But the ineffabilist does not expect to be taken seriously, except when she is deconstructively engaging in the language games of her peers. Otherwise, she simply wants to be able to be left to her extrarational appreciation and engagement in peace.

And that's where (transcendental) religion enters the picture. Ineffability, of course, lies at the center of the Christian faith. The Athanasian Creed lays out the Trinitarian doctrine of the Church thusly: "the Parent-God incomprehensible, the Child-God incomprehensible, and the Holy Spirit incomprehensible, and yet they are not three incomprehensibles, but one incomprehensible."

Yet transcendental religion is not irrational in the sense of requiring the religionist to hold propositions as true which reason requires her to reject as false. (Or vice versa.) In Christianity, after all, reason is traditionally regarded as one of the primary sources of authority, a leg not only of Anglican's three-legged stool but also of the Wesleyan quadrilateral. Instead, it is extrarational in that transcendental religion steps in with something to say at precisely those moments when reason's limits are themselves met.
cjbanning: (Bowed Head)
As preached to the congregation of the Episcopal Church of the Ascension in Gloucester City, at their Morning Prayer service on the 8th of August, 2010. . . .

Proper 14 (Sunday Closest to August 10), Year C

Isaiah 1:1, 10-20
Psalm 50:1-8, 23-24
Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16
Luke 12:32-40

Many of my friends, including all of my housemates, are members of a nearby congregation operating under the Brethren in Christ, so most Sunday evenings I find myself worshipping with them at their weekly Public Meeting. Their style of worship there is fairly different than ours here; sometimes it seems that they think it is more important for sacred music to be loud than pretty. It’s really not at all my style of worship at all, really, and at times I find myself more alienated than uplifted.

Back during Lent, I was at the public meeting, and I’m surrounded by these energetic figures, fellow twenty-somethings who are just exploding with their love for Christ, and I’m left completely cold. And then I was blessed to look over to my right and I see a married couple I know, about my age, and on the husband’s lap is their then-eight-month-old daughter, gleefully smiling and clapping.

Holy Scripture talks about the hardening and softening of hearts. I think that’s the best way of describing what happened: the Spirit softened my heart. Seeing that baby girl take such innocent joy in worshipping the Lord helped me recenter my focus away from my own own nitpicks about the theology of the lyrics or the aesthetics of the melody, and back towards God.

When I got home, I got on my computer and posted a status update to my Facebook: “Cole Banning has been inspired by the faith of a child.”

It got me thinking about what that means, the faith of a child. The phrase is of course biblical: Jesus tells us in Saint Matthew’s Gospel that it is a necessary condition for entering the Kingdom of Heaven. But what is it, exactly?

Often it seems we use it to mean a totally uncritical acceptance, belief without doubt, so-called “blind faith.” But that’s not what happened in the case of Baby Lydia. Her faith was far from blind. Instead, it was a response to what she saw and heard in front of her. Even as a baby, even prior to her acquisition of language, she was able to recognize the goodness of God’s creation and respond by giving praise to glory to God in the simple ways available to her, by participating in our worship, in what our Psalm today calls “the sacrifice of thanksgiving.”

I wonder sometimes where that notion of a child’s faith being blind or uncritical comes from. I’m not a parent, but one thing I know about children is that they’re constantly questioning. It’s an iconic image: the young child, incessantly asking “why?” Why this? Why that? And when given an answer, responding to that answer with the question “why?” and if one is willing to answer that too, once again meeting the answer with “why?” unto infinite regress. “Why?” “Why?” “Why?” This is not an uncritical faith but rather a faith which seeks to learn, to grow, to challenge what it is told.

In our epistle reading, the author of Hebrews talks about the great faith of Abraham and Sarah and their family. I think that Abraham had the faith of a child. When we think about Abraham, we tend to think about his obedience, obedience which was important and a right and goodful thing. But I think we can appreciate the passage from Hebrews best if we remember that Abraham’s faith was larger than just obedience, a relationship with God that consisted of more than just Abraham following commands.

In our reading from the Hebrew scriptures, there is a reference to Sodom and Gomorrah, the two cities which the Torah tells us God destroyed in a rain of fire and brimstone. The Torah also tells us that Abraham argued with God over the fates of Sodom and Gomorrah: he negotiated, bargained. “Will you save the cities if there are 50 righteous people to be found?” “Will you save the cities if there 45?” “What abouty forty?” Talk about the faith of a child! I’m reminded of a child at a cookie jar: “Can I have a cookie, Mommy? Can I have two cookies? Three? Three and a half?”

Abraham, while always remaining obedient to the will of God, was at the same time willing to challenge God, to question God, in his attempt to understand God’s will.

Jacob, Abraham and Sarah’s grandson whom Isaiah also mentions, wrestled with the angel of the LORD at Penuel. When God revealed Godself to Moses, the descendent of Abraham and Sarah and the great leader of Israel who only saw the promised kingdom from afar, Moses too argued. He said, “I don’t think I can do this, God.”

And God said, “Okay, I’ll send your sister and brother with you to help you.” That’s dialogue: a process which consists of both give and take for both persons involved.

Moses constantly negotiated with God on behalf of the people of Israel. Indeed, we think of Sinai as this place where God’s will was committed to human beings, but it’s instructive to remember that Moses spent forty days and forty nights on Sinai before he brought down the Decalogue: they had a lot to talk about up there.

Isaiah writes: “Come now, let us argue it out, says the LORD.” The underlying metaphor in the Hebrew is that of a law court: Israel is standing trial for its sins. But it presents us with a call to enter into dialogue with God. The Inclusive Bible translates the line as “Let’s look at the choices before you,” while it is rendered in the New American Bible as “let us set things right”: this dialogic encounter with God opens an opportunity for a process of self-discovery that allows us to set order to the way in which we live our lives.

This then is, I think, the picture of authentic Biblical faith which Scripture provides us: a relationship with God which is primarily experiential, rooted in our encounter with the divine: in prayer, in service, and of course in the Sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood -- back next week!

Thomas Merton reminds us that “faith is the door to the full inner life of the Church, a life which includes not only access to an authoritative teaching but above all to a deep personal experience which is at once unique and yet shared by the whole Body of Christ, in the Spirit of Christ.”

“Come now, let us argue it out, says the LORD.”

Liberation theologian Leonardo Boff makes a similar point when he writes that “[f]aith is not primarily adhesion to a teaching that gives access to revelation and the supernatural. Then faith would be tantamount to ideology, in the sense of an idea or belief inculcated in someone from the outside. This extrinsic character of so-called faith can give rise to various forms of fundamentalism and religious warfare. All groups tend to affirm their own truths to the exclusion of all others.

“Faith is meaningful and possesses truth only when it represents a response to an experience of God made personally and communally. Then faith is the expression of an encounter with God which embraces all existence and feeling -- the heart, the intellect, and the will.” “Close quote.”

I think this type of response, described by Boff, is the type of response which Jesus describes in our Gospel reading today, being “dressed for action” and having our “lamps lit,” making our treasure in heaven by our works of mercy and charity, through our voluntary poverty. So too in Isaiah when God tells Israel, and us, to cease evil and learn to do good; to seek justice and rescue the oppressed; to defend the orphan and plead for the widow.

This Wednesday is the feast day of Saint Clare of Assisi. Now, Clare is my favorite capital-S Saint because she’s the patron saint of television, which makes her in an indirect sort of way the patron saint of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. But Clare, who ran away from her aristocratic family to join Saint Francis in his example of God-devoted poverty, also models for us the Gospel call we’ve heard read today.

But let’s be frank: the type of response we hear called for in today’s readings, that we see in the life of Clare, is not one that can come out of obedience alone, a response only to the mere commands of a perceived spiritual authority. All the threats in the world will do no more than compel us to do -- reluctantly -- the very least of what is called of us.

And that’s not good enough. Isaiah tells how the Israelites’ offering of sacrifices and their keeping of festivals brought no delight in God, for the people had turned away from God’s will in spirit.

The radical commitment we’ve heard described is only possible through being transformed by the Spirt so that we may abide in the love of Christ Jesus. This transformation is the legacy of our baptism, but it is not a free ride. Neither is it some massive mystical revelatory encounter where Jesus appears and sets all our doubts to rest. God knows I wouldn’t mind one of those, but it’s not necessary.

No, instead it takes active participation, both by us and by God, in an authentic encounter grounded in the activities of our everyday lives: coming to church on Sunday, listening to Father and meditating on his words--without necessarily always having to agree with them; praying and reading Scripture throughout the week; performing service for all our sisters and brothers and siblings here on planet Earth through our works of mercy and justice-seeking social action; engaging in conversation and discussion with other members of the Body of Christ--a process which should begin at coffee hour but not end there.

“Come now, let us argue it out, says the LORD.”

We must work to develop our faith lives, to question why we believe what we say we believe and why we do what we do. We cannot be afraid of the difficult questions, or be ashamed of those doubts which are a natural element of a mature faith.

“Come now, let us argue it out, says the LORD.”

We are called to challenge too-simple truths, to reject fallacious authority, to argue with our God. God does not need or want yes-men and yes-women and yes-persons: God is God, omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent. God wants and needs a family of sisters and brothers and siblings in Christ--a communion of saints.

My hope and prayer for us, therefore, is that we may be inspired by the incredible faith of those who have gone before us that we may be empowered to follow the examples of the matriarchs, patriarchs, prophets, and saints: that of Abraham and Sarah, of Jacob, of Moses, Aaron, and Miriam, of Clare and Francis, and -- perhaps most of all -- of that annoying little child, incessantly asking . . . “Why?”


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.

On Atonement

Thursday, 15 April 2010 03:37 pm
cjbanning: (The Bishop)
There is indeed the inexpressible. This shows itself; it is the mystical. (Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus 6.522)
In Wittgensteinian terms, nonsense (unsinnig) is the mechanism by which (so to speak) God reconciles the world to Godself. For the Christian, the inescapable conclusion from this is that the Cross is an event which is, at its heart, fundamentally nonsensical: the primordial mysterium fidei.

If Wittgenstein is correct, the Cross was required for the world's redemption not because of God's bloodthirsty demand for a sacrifice but because of the transcendence of the very bounds of sense which the Cross represents: the death of the immortal, ever-living God; the helplessness of the omnipotent Ruler of the Universe while undergoing cruel torture; the questioning cry from the omniscient Overseer.
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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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