Archive for December, 2009

Betz on Przywara

December 19, 2009 Leave a comment

I’ve just finished reading John Betz’s two-part article called “Beyond the Sublime: The Aesthetics of the Analogy of Being” (Modern Theology 21.3 [2005]: 367-411 and 22.1 [2006]: 1-50).  Although it’s long for an article, it’s impressively short given what it accomplishes.  In the first place, Betz provides one of the clearest, most concise, and in my opinion most accurate interpretations and defenses of Erich Przywara’s Analogia Entis (1932) that I have encountered.  Although Betz is perhaps a little more unsympathetic to Barth and Heidegger than one might hope (if one wants the most balanced possible assessment), nevertheless I think he does show clearly that Przywara’s position is much more subtle than these influential critics allow.

Secondly, Betz demonstrates Przywara’s relevance for today by deploying his theory of analogy in an argument against the (post-Kantian) conflict between the beautiful and the sublime and the totalizing (post-Heideggerian)  preference for the latter.  Essentially, Betz suggests that Przywara teaches us to see two things: (1) the analogical relationship between beauty and sublimity, in such a way that both are preserved, and (2) the greater theological analogy between the beauty/sublimity of the ever-greater God and the beauty/sublimity of creation.  In these two ways, Przywara corrects the modern and postmodern aesthetic preference for purely immanent secular sublimity which has excluded both beauty and transcendence.

Betz’s aesthetic reading of Przywara is an innovation, but one consistent with Przywara’s doctrine regarding the unity of the transcendentals (truth, goodness, and beauty).  The creativity of the argument does not, then, entail any eisegetical missteps.  On the contrary, it seems to attest to the astonishing pliability and yet usefulness of Przywara’s original concept, which he would have tended to express more generally in terms of (1) an inner-creaturely analogy in which essence is to be sought in-and-beyond existence and (2) a vertical analogy from God to creation (and only thereafter back to God) in which the divine mystery lives above-and-within creaturely being.  The only step that Betz needs to make is an interpretation of essence as sublime (precisely insofar as it remains beyond us) and existence as beautiful (precisely insofar as its essence really does become manifest within the particular forms of our experience).

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Even philosophers

December 16, 2009 2 comments

I’m dipping into Althusser for the first time, and discovering that he’s far more compelling than the incessant, unqualified criticisms of him would lead one to think. I’m even finding myself somewhat taken by his case for an important break between the young and the mature Marx, despite the fact that disproving him on this point seems to have become the fundamental agenda of all the secondary literature after him. As he sums it up, “even philosophers must be young men for a time.” A fair point to keep in mind.

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Hypotheses about truth/power

December 11, 2009 Leave a comment

1. Foucault’s elision of truth/power is irrefutable.  And yet, his approach is one-sided.  He thinks of truth as power (which, one can agree, it is).  But he does not think of power as truth (that is, real power as stemming from what is actually true, truly true).  Foucault’s proposition of identity, then, must be embraced.  But its significance, its power, its truth, depends on our ability to interpret it in both directions.

2. Charles Taylor restores a classical sense of the interchangeability of the transcendentals of truth and goodness, but he does so within a hermeneutical (as opposed to a metaphysical) framework.  The best possible interpretation of our existence as a whole (i.e., the truest one) will also essentially include those ethical and social features that powerfully shape it (i.e., an articulation and practice of the good).  The fact/value distinction thus becomes irrelevant, inasmuch as our facticity, taken holisitically, is value-laden.  Likewise, the sharp divide between a substantialist and a functionalist account of religion falls into obscurity: for the understanding of transcendence which “functions” for us will work only because it seems true to our experience and it will seem true (i.e., to be of “substance”) only in light of its apparently salutary effects (which may be provisionally “apparent” in the mode of hope or belief even if they remain invisible or are perpetually deferred).

3. Had Pontius Pilate been sincere, he would have been right to ask, “What is truth?”  Had Jesus said immediately and with great authority and reassurance, “I AM,” Pilate would have needed to ask the quesiton again.  The drama of salvation is this: to grasp Jesus as the truth answers, at once, everything and nothing.

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Things to consider in Rousseau

December 11, 2009 Leave a comment

In no particular order, and with no particular theme:

  • Humanity defined as pure potentiality, ateleological perfectibilité.
  • The absolute interdependence of morality and immorality, freedom and slavery, etc.
  • Psychology replaces history—genealogy of morals performed psychologically.
  • Accumulation is self-inflicted suffering, self-inflicted bondage.
  • “Locke’s was the individualism of the strong, Rousseau’s the individualism of the weak” (Judith Shklar, Men and Citizens, p. 41).
  • Real equality never exists, since as soon as people stand in relation to each other, there is already inequality.

Posted by Brian Hamilton

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Kant on prayer

December 6, 2009 Leave a comment

Does Kant have anything to teach us about the unity of contemplation and action?  One might doubt it, given the wedge which he drives between theoretical and practical reason.  And yet, within the practical domain, he m have some important things to say.  In particular, I’m concerned with his account of contemplative prayer and how it relates to his theory of moral agency.

In the fourth “General Observation” of his Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone (Harper, 1960; originally 1793), Kant briefly discusses prayer as one of four “means of grace” (the others are church-going, initiation, and communion).  Means of grace are, in turn, one of three kinds of “illusory faith that involve the possibility of our overstepping the bounds of our reason in the direction of the supernatural” (the others are beliefs in miracles and mysteries) (182).

In view of these categorizations, one might expect Kant to say that prayer as such is an action pointing beyond the realm of pure reason and therefore wholly illusory.  Interestingly, this is not what he says.  Rather, he distinguishes two sorts of prayer.  One sort, which Kant calls “verbal prayer,” can be a dangerous “superstitious illusion (a fetish-making); for it is no more than a stated wish directed to a Being who needs no such information regarding the inner disposition of the wisher; therefore, nothing is accomplished by it, and it discharges none of the duties to which, as commands of God, we are obligated” (183).  And yet, even this dangerous form of prayer as verbal address is good for children who need it to acquire an idea of God (186) and for some adults who need the spoken word as a kind of temporary crutch, helping them to reach the true moral disposition (185).

The other sort of prayer is something occuring within.  Kant calls it “the spirit of prayer, which can, and should, be present in us ‘without ceasing'” (183).  This spirit of prayer captures the core experience of reflective faith which Kant believes is the basis for moral religion.  One finds in this form of inner prayer, for which Jesus’ teaching provides the model, “nothing but the resolution to good life-conduct which, taken with the consciousness of our frailty, carries with it the persistent desire to be a worthy member in the kingdom of God” (183).  Such prayer contains “no actual request for something which God in His wisdom might well refuse us” (183).  Even when the “Our Father” asks God for daily or superessential bread, this, in Kant’s eyes, is “more a confession of what nature in us demands than a special deliberate request for what the man [in us] wills” (184).  Moreover, there is nothing in the spirit of prayer which addresses God, attempts to work upon God, or even presupposes God’s existence or presence; rather “the man” [sic] who abides in the spirit of prayer only “adopts an attitude (even inwardly) as though he were convinced of [God’s] presence” (183).

My take on this is mixed.  On the one hand, there are many things to critique: (1) the false separation of verbal and spiritual prayer, which no serious thinker today could formulate so dichotomously; (2) the regulative “as though,” which disallows, it would seem, sincere faith in the presence of God, and for what reason?; and (3) the flimsy rejection of prayer in the mode of address based upon a doctrine of divine omniscience, which overlooks the consensus in the Christian tradition that prayer is not meant to give God information.  On the other hand, despite the rationalism of his age (which he fosters and exemplifies) and the correlative suspicion of pietism, Kant nevertheless manages to distill a certain essential connection not only between contemplation and action (taken abstractly) but more specifically between contemplative prayer and the moral disposition which leads to good action grounded in good reasoning.  The other problems aside, Kant may actually be a resource for thinking through the idea that the spirit of prayer–more adequately conceived (1) as inclusive of voice, (2) as sincerely affirming the mysterious presence of God, and (3) as a real address whose goal is nevertheless not to give information–has a lot to do with the struggle for moral agency in the modern world (for which Kant, despite–or rather because of the endless criticism–remains a touchstone).

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Analogy universalized

December 5, 2009 3 comments

I have just finished reading one of the best books I have read in a long while: Hans Urs von Balthasar’s The Theology of Karl Barth (Ignatius, 1992; originally 1951).  What makes this book so enjoyable and intellectually satisfying?  A number of things.  First there is the treatment of Barth’s theology, which is sympathetic and yet not uncritical.  Second, there is Balthasar’s equally charitable and yet scrutinizing summary of the prevailing trends in Catholic theology at the time.  Finally, there is the brilliant rapprochement which he achieves between the two, without settling for easy irenicism.

Balthasar begins with Barth’s early “dialectical” period–focusing primarily on the first and second editions of the Letter to the Romans.  On the one hand, Balthasar respects Barth’s use of dialectics as a “corrective to remind theology that it is speaking of God in Christ” (76).  On the other hand, Balthasar worries that the dialectical approach, when taken as a comprehensive theological strategy, and hence as more than a corrective, may actually obscure the real content of Christian theology by unwittingly superimposing “a very unbiblical philosophical pantheism (or more precisely, theopanism)” (84).  Theopanism is a theory in which the whole of things are seen as constituted by means of an identity with God and anything that is not unified absolutely with God is understood strictly to be nothing, pure contradiction.  Barth’s dialectical phase tends in this direction by emphasising both that creaturely existence is dominated by the nothingness of sin and that grace means a return to union with God.

However, Balthasar is perceptive of the dynamism in Barth’s thought, which takes him beyond this early dialectical formula and ultimately (especially in the later volumes of the Church Dogmatics) to a comprehensive theological vision, in which dialectics remains as a corrective, but the overarching paradigm is analogical: analogia fidei.  This is a wholly theological and Christocentric understanding of analogy, for it is the graciously revealed and faithfully received knowledge of God in Christ that, in order to be expressed, must be expressed analogically.  Balthasar’s assessment of this mature Barthian position is twofold.

(1) Balthasar affirms Barth’s theological use of analogy and the importance of its Christological event-character, arguing, however, that many (though not all) Catholic theologians have formulated something similiar (e.g., Aquinas, Rahner, Guardini, and Balthasar himself).  Nevertheless, he thinks Barth’s insistence on this point is something valuable for Catholics and Protestants to reflect upon.  Balthasar also affirms that there is room within this theological analogy to speak of being, and hence of an authentically theological analogia entis. This speech will be determined from the beginning and finally by faith/revelation but nevertheless include the creaturely experience of being among its terms.

(2) Balthasar holds on to the Catholic tendency to think, in addition to this theological analogy there is a legitimate philosophical version which the encounter with God in Christ necessarily presupposes, if only as a formal possibility not necessarily realizable in the concrete.  Concretely, the created world of being which philosophers study is already shaped by God’s gracious activity in Christ; hence, de facto, a philosophical analogia entis will be, at some level, crypto-theological; and yet, de jure, its possibility must be presupposed because although grace is not something owed to nature it is nevertheless meant for it and makes no sense without it.  In Balthasar’s mind, this idea of a presupposed formal concept of nature (analogically related to God) is something which Barth accepts in his doctrine of creation but which he does not think through to its logical (philosophy-affirming) conclusions.

Balthasar’s chapter on “The Concept of Nature in Catholic Theology” is a tour de force, which should probably be required reading for anyone interested in questions of nature and grace.  Essentially, it shows how the disciples of Przywara and Marechal who have pursued a philosophical account of the analogia entis nevertheless did so with theological ends in mind; whereas Henri de Lubac and his intellectual inheritors authentically express a theological sense of analogy closely in line with what Barth proposes.  The chapter also includes a very helpful account of the context and significance of Vatican I’s use of the term “nature,” in its decree that God can be known by the natural light of reason.  Balthasar contends, once again, that this possibility must be held on faith as a formal possibility, which does not imply that in the concrete world of sin and grace it is permissible to abstract oneself absolutely from the event-character of the human encounter with God in Christ and seek satisfaction in a self-sufficient philosophical system.

All in all, I am rather impressed by this text.  I suggest that its subtitle could have been “analogia omnis“–in the sense that, what Balthasar attempts to affirm is a maximally inclusive use of analogical thinking with reference to God, which could proceed from being (in explicitly theological terms or crypto-theological philosophical terms) or from relationality or faith or–and this is the point–really anything.  After all, everything in the created world reflects the glory of the triune God who created it.  So long as a Barthian dialectical corrective is included as part of any of these reflections, bringing us back into a concrete relationship with Christ, then every analogy is formally permissible and God may be sought in all things (Ignatius of Loyola).

All of this, it would seem, is nothing other than another way of expressing the authentic doctrine of Dionysius the Areopagite–who, despite some problematic ideas about necessary mediation!–does pass onto the church a very clear sense that everything in the created world has some (let’s say, analogical) capacity to lead us back to God.

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The principle of necessary mediation

December 5, 2009 3 comments

One of the aspects of Dionysius’ system I’ve been trying to get handle on is what you can call the principle of necessary mediation: the lower ranks of the hierarchy can only receive the divinity through the higher ranks. The point of the principle, believe it or not, is not to absolutize the place of the bishop or any other church authority. Dionysius’ treatise on the ecclesiastical hierarchy assumes that some such principle is in effect, but it’s not a point of explicit insistence. The point of the principle, rather, is to say that the angels are absolutely necessary in relaying the divine word and the divine activity to human beings—that’s the reason that they, above all other creatures, are fittingly called angels or messengers. If the ecclesiastical hierarchy also works that way, it’s for the precise reason that the ecclesiastical hierarchy ought to be a perfect image of the celestial one.

That doesn’t rule out the possibility that this is all just ideological obfuscation, of course. And the fact that Dionysius offers literally no philosophical defense the principle might lend some credence to that interpretation. (The defense he does offer is scriptural: showing that Ezekiel, Moses, even Jesus only received the divine will through angelic intermediaries.) I’m inclined, though, to think Dionysius is being genuine here, especially since he’s creating this whole concept of hierarchy more or less ex nihilo, and affording himself a relatively low status. But then I’m just left baffled. Why insist on this principle at all? Even if there’s good reason to say that no one has gazed upon divinity directly, that there’s some necessary mediation there, what could possibly be the point of insisting that all communication from God be stepwise? And that not only knowledge of God is so mediated, but that the knowledge of the higher angels is as well?

Posted by Brian Hamilton

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