02 January 2010

Coffee Bowl Browsing (Remembering the '00's Edition)

Apologies for the sparse posting over the last few days. . .around 11.2o p.m. New Year's Eve, lightening knocked our internet connection out.  It wasn't restored until 11 a.m. New Year's Day.  Then last night around 7.15 we were knocked off-line again.  Connection restored about an hour ago.

Anyway. . .on with Coffee Bowl Browsing!

The 100 Most Iconic Internet Vids of the '00's.

100 Best Movies. . .how many have you seen?

10 Best Debut Novels. . .I've read only three of them.

50 Best Albums of the Decade. . .I'm not a music fan, so I'll just take their word for it.

10 Most corrupt politicians from Judicial Watch

01 January 2010

Happy 2010!

Felice Anno Nuovo!

Thank you all for your support:  the hits, the comments, the emails, the books!

Happy 2010. . .!

30 December 2009

Stories aren't enough!

As noted in a post below, there are some contemporary theologians and philosophers of religion who are challenging the dominance of what they call "onto-theological thinking," that is, following Nietzsche and Heidegger, these folks argue that it was a big mistake for the Church's earliest theologians to translate the Biblical witness of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob into the Greek language of substance metaphysics:  "Yahweh" becomes "Being Itself."

The identification of Abraham's God with Plato's One seems natural enough when you consider Exodus 3.14, "I AM that I AM" (or any of the dozens of renditions).  With a name like "I AM," you are inviting metaphysical speculation on the nature of existence and your place in the scheme of things.  If God is not a being like all the others in the world, and yet He somehow manages to exist . . .how exactly are we supposed to understand what it means to exist but not as an existing thing?  Aquinas' answer:  God is not a being; He is Being.  He doesn't exists; He is existence.

Now, we could interpret the last two sentences above in purely metaphysical terms.  "God" and "Being" are two names we give to the persistence of existing.  No bible necessary here.  We could also interpret those same two sentences in a purely Biblical sense, using Exo 3.14 as our text and show that "I AM" is a religious and not a philosophical concept.  But as Gilson argues in the post below, this sort of splitting your worldview up into separate parts in order to keep them compartmentalized is dishonest.  So, an honest believer's religious, philosophical, theological, etc. worldviews need to be consistent with one another.

Aquinas, wanting to be consistent, uses the first part of his Summa to address the question of who and what God is.  To keep this post within a reasonable word count, I will simply quote Brian Davies on Aquinas' notion of God:  "God. . .is the beginning and end of all thing, the Creator of the world which depends on him for its existence. . .Aquinas also holds that God is alive, perfect, good, eternal, omnipresent, omnipotent, and omniscient. . ."(129).*  Taking up the characteristics usually assigned to The One of Platonic metaphysics, Aquinas attributes them to God and then argues that though we can have some limited knowledge of God, we cannot know God perfectly this side of heaven.**

Skipping over a couple of centuries of development in philosophical theology, we arrive at what is usually called "the Problem of Evil."  In the past this argument has been more or less used by religious skeptics and atheists to poke holes in theism.  For some, it's THE argument against theism and moves them to quit religion entirely.  The classical form of the argument goes something like this:

1. God is omnipresent, omnipotent, and omniscient.
2. Evil exists.
3. Therefore, one or more of the "omni" attributions in #1 must be false.

#3 here is usually taken to mean that God cannot be all-knowing, all-powerful, and everywhere present if evil exists.  He could be a combination of any of the two but not all three.

There are hundreds of different reasonable responses to the Problem of Evil.  I'm keen on the Free Will Defense myself:  evil is allowed by God so that human freedom may be maximized; or since God wills that human freedom be maximized, He allows evil, which inevitably results from the abuse of human freedom.  This is basically Aquinas' response, so we know it's the correct one.  :-)

This is an example of philosophy helping theology untangle a problem.  However, couldn't we say that philosophy caused this problem in the first place?  There would be no Problem of Evil if we had resisted the temptation to translate Yahweh into Being Itself.  Yahweh is not presented in scripture as possessing the three-omni's of Plato's One.  When Yahweh is addressed as "All-powerful Lord," He is being praised in emotive language and not assigned the philosophical label "omnipotent."  Etc. for the other two-omni's. 

Our Nietzschean and Heideggerian theologians/philosophers would have us abandon the God of Plato's metaphysics and simply stick with the Biblical God of Abraham, etc.  This notion of "forgetting metaphysics" has a number of different names in the academy, but the most common is "narrative theology."  Generally associated with the Yale Divinity School, narrative theologians are impatient with complex metaphysical problems and all the messy philosophical waste that seems to be secreted from the history of onto-theological discourse.  Their goal is to rescue biblical revelation from the clutches of onto-theological-philosophical obfuscation and return it to the center of the Church's communal life.  This strikes me as a important consideration for the development of a Catholic theology of preaching. 

However, in theology more generally, how we go about separating out philosophy from narrative in the biblical witness is beyond me.  We could, I suppose, focus only on metaphysical language (being, cause, essence, etc) and remove it from our theologizing about revelation.  But then that leaves us unable to ask epistemological questions (i.e., how do we know?).  We could just say that philosophy is really about wisdom and telling stories is the best way to disseminate and promote wisdom.  I wouldn't disagree entirely with this, but we are still left with deciding what counts as wisdom and what doesn't.  We also have the problem of interpreting and applying a story's wisdom to concrete situations.  That's called hermeneutics.  And it comes with a whole mule-load of philosophical considerations. . .and so on.

So, our theological enterprise is not doable without philosophy.  We might disagree about which philosophical approach to take, but philosophy as a way of thinking and talking about problems in human discourse is a non-negotiable.  It's here to stay.  To paraphrase an old prof of mine:  "Philosophy always seems to be its own undertaker!"

*"Aquinas on What God is Not," in Aquinas's Summa Theologiae:  Critical Essays, ed. Brian Davies, Rowan and Littlefield, 2006, 129-144.

**It is this "divine hiddenness" that causes some sceptical philosophers and theologians to question the possibility of knowing anything at all about God.  Some go so far as to argue that the obscurity of God--intended or not--is sufficient reason to withhold belief in His existence.  The argument goes, if God loves me and wants me to be saved; and if believing in God is all-important to my eternal salvation; then revealing Himself to me would be an act of salvific love, while remaining hidden is an act of cruelty.  I'm skipping over several crucial steps in the argument, of course, but you get the idea:  divine hiddenness is an epistemological nightmare.

29 December 2009

Without philosophy, all we have is story. . .

Let's say you are having martial problems.  Being a good Catholic, you go to your pastor for some advice on how to improve communication.  You patiently tell Fr. Bob what you see as the problem.  Fr. Bob nods and reaches for his bible.  He flips it open to John 2.1-11 and reads to you the story of Jesus' first miracle at the wedding in Cana. 

When he finishes the story, he snaps the book closed and looks at you as if all your problems have been solved.  It takes you a moment to realize that Fr. Bob believes that he has addressed your problems.  You have a few questions about how the story applies to your situation.  When you are done asking your questions, Fr. Bob gives a slightly annoyed look, opens his bible, and re-reads John 2.1-11. 

OK, at this point you are starting to feel as though Fr. Bob is trying to teach you some sort of Kung-fu-Zen-Master-Grasshopper-Wax-on-Wax-off-lesson about listening or sitting quietly or something like this. . .who knows?!  Anyway,  try one more time. 

You reel off several very reasonable questions about applying the Wedding at Cana story to your particular situation.  There's a pleading tone in your voice and you throw in a dash of desperation to help convince Fr. Bob to help.  And to your horror, all he is does is re-read the Wedding at Cana story to you!

Assuming that violence is not an option, what should you do at this point?  Why is Fr. Bob behaving this way?  What are you expecting from Father that he is apparently unwilling or incapable of giving? 

The title of this post gives a hint at the direction of my thinking here. . .


If I end up in Vienna next semester studying German. . .I'm still going to need English-language philosophy books in order to finish the dissertation!

Even though WVO Quine convincingly argues that all languages are ultimately translated into one another in an indeterminate fashion, German/French is still required for the PhL/PhD. 

Hoops, hoops. @#$% hoops.

Coffee Bowl Browsing

This is why you got no presents from Santa. . .

Ten cases of Liberal Hypocrisy

Ten cases of Conservative Hypocrisy (really, just nine cases:  David Cameron is no conservative)

Polyphasic sleep. . .I've always wanted to try this. . .they say it's particularly helpful for insomniacs.

Urban Dictionary. . .so you know what your kids/students/grandkids are talking about

Recycled credit cards

How to write and speak Postmodern Gibberish. . .this is one language I am fluent in.  Maybe I should write a PoMo homily?

I wrote papers just like this in grad school. . .what unmitigated @#$%!

27 December 2009

God beyond Being?

In a post on the Incarnation below, I note that our ancestors in the faith struggled to express the Christian revelation in Greek philosophical terms.  Having no non-pagan theological language of their own, the Church Fathers borrowed and adapted the terms and methods of the Platonism of their day.  Our creeds are the best examples we have of how the marriage of Platonism and Biblical revelation can be worked out.

Many contemporary philosophical theologians, following Nietzsche and Heidegger, reject this Greek philosophizing and challenge us to begin a long journey back to the Patristic period to start over with nothing but the Biblical story: the older and newer testaments of our faith.   They argue that our journey back must begin by "forgetting metaphysics" and accepting that God is "beyond being."  But we might wonder why Greek philosophy (esp., metaphysics) poses such a problem for the Biblical witness of faith. 

Etienne Gilson, in his highly accessible book, God and Philosophy, lays out the problem of thinking philosophically about God:

The first character of the Jewish God was his unicity:  "Here, O Israel:  the Lord our God is one Lord."  Impossible to achieve a more far-reaching revolution in fewer words or in a simpler way.  When Moses made this statement, he was not formulating any metaphysical principle to be later supported by rational justification.  Moses was simply speaking as an inspired prophet and defining for the benefit of the Jews what was henceforth to be the sole object of their worship.  Yet, essentially religious as it was, this statement contained the seed of a momentous philosophical revolution, in this sense at least, that should any philosopher, speculating at any time about the first principle and cause of the world, hold the Jewish God to be the true God, he would be necessarily driven to identify his supreme philosophical cause with God.  In other words, whereas the difficulty was, for a Greek philosopher, to fit a plurality of god in a reality which he conceived to be one, any follower of the Jewish God would know at once that, whatever the nature of reality itself may be said to be, its religious principle must of necessity coincide with the its philosophical principle. . .When the existence of this one true God was proclaimed by Moses to the Jews, they never thought for a moment that their Lord could be some thing.  Obviously, their Lord was somebody. . .Hence the universally known name of the Jewish God--Yahweh, for Yahweh means "He who is" (38-40, emphasis added).

Essentially, what Gilson is saying here is that those trained in Greek philosophy who later became Christians in the early Church would find it very difficult to separate their philosophical ideas from their religious commitments.  They had not yet learned the art of Cafeteria Catholicism! At some point, these folks, being consistent philosophers and faithful Christians, would have to find a way to reconcile the God of Biblical revelation with the metaphysics they had found to be true. 

Gilson continues on this very point:  Now, as has been pointed by the unknown author of the Hortatory Address to the Greeks as early as the third century A.D. what Plato had said [about the ultimate nature of reality] was almost exactly what the Christians themselves were saying, "saving only the difference of the article.  For Moses said:  He who is, and Plato: That which is."  And it is quite true that "either of the expressions seems to apply to the existence of God."  If God is "He who is," he also is "that which is," because to be somebody is also to be something.  Yet the converse is not true, for to be somebody is much more than to be something (42).

According to the contemporary theologians who would teach us to forget metaphysics and find God beyond being, the problem with traditional theological thinking is that traditional theologians forgot (sometime after Aquinas) that God is Somebody before He is "something."  Their complaint is that traditional theology (called "onto-theology" by Heidegger) is really just a dressed-up Greek metaphysics with the occasional Biblical touch thrown in for decoration.  So, rather than Christians adopting Greek philosophy for their own theological ends, Greek philosophers adopted Christianity for their philosophical ends. 

You might be wondering at this point:  so what?  What does it matter that we have identified the God of Biblical revelation with the Greek concept of Being?

That is the question for tomorrow's post!  (Hint:  it's evil).

Meditation on the Holy Families

Something to think about on this Holy Family Sunday. . .

Trinitarian Family:  Father, Son, Holy Spirit

Holy Family:  Jesus, Mary, Joseph

Eschatological Family:  Christ & Church

Ecclesial Family:  Bishop, priest, deacon, laity

Domestic Family:  Mom, Dad, kids, etc.

Individual Family:  body, soul, spirit

Now, starting at the top with the Trinitarian Family, move down the list of families and mediate on how each familial relationship is a more perfect relationship than the one below it.

Then, starting at the bottom with the Individual Family, move up the list of families and mediate on how each familial relationship is an imperfect reflection of the one above it.

How does the more perfect familial relationships help perfect/complete the imperfect/incomplete familial relationships?

Report your findings.