With the arrogance of youth, I determined to do no less than to transform the world with Beauty. If I have succeeded in some small way, if only in one small corner of the world, amongst the men and women I love, then I shall count myself blessed, and blessed, and blessed, and the work goes on. -- William Morris

Monday, January 10, 2011

"Let the dead bury the dead"

When I was an undergraduate, studying philosophy at Notre Dame meant studying philosophy in the shadow of Plantinga. While there was (and still is) a strong atheist/agnostic presence in the department, Plantinga's reputation served to drown out the other voices for many of the students already sympathetic to his cause. The Philosophy of Religion classes filled up well in advance of others (not much of a shocker for a school with a roughly 80% Catholic student body and a philosophy requirement for all undergraduates). This meant, however, that I was receiving a steady dose of Analytic philosophy of religion; and ever since my first encounter with it, I've had the unsettling feeling that the game is rigged within the confines of this tradition.

Take philosopher Keith Parson's recent departure from the game and his revelation that "the case for theism" simply doesn't cut it as a respectable philosophical position: it is to philosophy what intelligent design is to biology. In other words, it represents frauduent theory. Richard Amesbury has a nice post on Julia Galef's report on Parson's change of heart (yes, this is a thoroughly recycled piece). Somehow I doubt that this is an altogether unusual occurrence. Indeed, in a tradition in which over 70% of thinkers identify as atheist (and God knows how many identify as agnostic), the serious philosophers of religion seem to me like a sleeper cell that we theists have managed to embed behind enemy lines. In general, I think this a good thing. Yet while I have a profound respect for Plantinga and his kin, and some Analytic philosophers of religion have even convinced me that my innate biases against the Analytic tradition are unfounded (see for instance the interesting work of Michael Rea and Oliver Crisp), I am still plagued with doubts. I still suspect that too many bad genes from "post-metaphysical" Positivism have somehow reproduced their way into the DNA of contemporary discourse and deformed it, if ever so subtly. I suspect that there is something profoundly important lost in translation when this tradition attempts to conform the treasures of the Christian past to its strictures. In short, I worry that what these thinkers most often talk about has at best an ambiguous resemblance to what the Catholic tradition calls "God"; and if in fact it produces what Desmond calls a "counterfeit double," then it is little wonder that Analytic philosophers stop taking God and religion seriously.

I recall a haunting impression that the "versions" of Anselm's and Aquinas's arguments presented to us in their "translated" forms simply missed the point. I read Anthony Kenny on Aquinas and wondered if he was not rather writing about someone entirely different and had simply confused the names. I recall being amazed that my first philosophy teacher (a student of Plantinga's) deemed the arguments for God's simplicity (a Scholastic staple in the West) to be little more than nonsense, no longer philosophically meaningful: God must not only be ontologically distinct from and co-eternal with all his ideas, but he must be bound by them. No voluntarist, I; but I couldn't help thinking the alternatives were the result of conceptual gerrymandering. Once I discovered that the fate of the ontological argument was being decided in a debate about a Great Pumpkin, the whole enterprise of philosophy seemed a banal shade of what it once was.

The small contingent of Thomist philosophers at Notre Dame actually reinforced my suspicions. They spent a great deal of time deciphering for us some of the ways in which contemporary Analytic appropriations were re-constructing a Thomas (and an Anselm) that Thomas himself wouldn't recognize. It became apparent that the Catholic philosophical tradition in general, and Thomism in particular, continued without bowing to the many of the presuppositions that structured contemporary Analytic discourse (the growing project of "Analytical Thomism" being a notable exception). Catholic thinkers seemed either to ignore many of the restrictions set by Analytic orthodoxy, or simply deny its dichotomies; the majority refuse to play by its rules. They have generally resisted the limitations of what counts as philosophy in the Anglo-American scene. Further, Catholic philosophers should (and I think often do) harbor some healthy suspicion of the major current of Analytic philosophy of religion because of its Protestant lineage: "Reformed epistemology" does pay homage to an understanding of faith and reason growing out of Calvin. Some of its foundational principles (like granting God's existence the status of "basic belief") stand in serious tension with the teachings of the most influential Catholic thinkers. Catholics should at least ask about the extent to which one must be committed to fundamentally non-Catholic conceptions of reason in order to fruitfully engage with this strand of Analytic thought.

Simply put, there is always the danger that what these philosophers are talking about is something radically foreign to what the Catholic philosophical tradition is talking about, precisely because the former presupposes judgments on a number of philosophical debates that, for Catholics, are either answered differently or remain open questions. The timeline of conceptual moves that leads to the contemporary Analytic scene is a loaded history, and it is certainly possible that a number of its commitments contribute to an account of God that Catholics would deem "a counterfeit double:" a "God" that inevitably gets confused with one being among beings, constrained by a fundamentally univocal gaze. So I find it difficult to give my blessing to the enterprise of Analytic philosophy of religion as a whole, without doing the painstaking work of genealogy, to determine what in its philosophical history does and does not contribute to a meager and conceptually idolatrous "God." Katherine Keller's comment is one with which, in its general contours, Catholics can certainly agree:

Parsons is making an honorable choice. I just want to whisper, for readers who may feel their hearts sink at the difficulty of persisting these days, so long after "the death of God," as non-atheist thinkers: don't get trapped in the drab premises of this debate! Any theist worth her salt should relinquish "God," if that overwrought monosyllable signifies nothing but the boiled down, literalized, formalized, dogmatically tight and dreary little notion presumed by both the philosophers of religion and by the philosophical atheists alluded to in the article. "All-knowing, all-powerful, all-good", "existing" like some thing among things. Or not. Take heart! Theology is replete with livelier options, all different from each other but all free of that deadening either/or: theopoetic, Tillichian, Whiteheadian, feminist, ecological, relational, deconstructive, postsecular, polydox--even biblical! Not just middle ground, but open terrain! Let the dead bury the dead.

Pax Christi,


  • At 1/19/2012 1:19 AM, Blogger lynch-patrick said…

    This is a great post. I felt and feel the same way about it - unsettled, and for the very same reasons. Thanks for writing this.


Post a Comment

<< Home