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.


  1. Didn't God reveal himself to us in the person of Jesus Christ, so that we may know him? Or am I missing the point?

  2. Felix sit annus novus

  3. Anonymous4:47 PM

    I suggest you recall the passage in Aquinas wherein he discusses his EXPERIENCE of God and says all of his work "is as straw."

    Pray more.

  4. I know it is off topic, but you being a former Anglican are you going to be involved with the new Anglican Ordinate

  5. Anonymous5:47 PM

    Stories ARE enough. Jesus did not speak in syllogisms.

    He spoke in parables. You think he just didn't know any better?


  6. Anonymous12:12 AM

    Did you know that ONLY in the West is it deemed appropriate to approach fundamental questions via philosophy? It's true. There is a tremendous amount of Wisdom in NARRATIVE that is recognized in the East. They think our way of "thinking" about the deepest questions is essentially beside the point.

    Now let's break into the song, "Why Can't We be Friends?" and hold hands and smooch.

    I realize as a Catholic metaphysician, you have no use for the East. They on the other hand sorta keep to themselves.

    Ha Ha Ha

    Happy new year.

    Grace L. Jones

  7. "Grace,"

    I am actually more sympathetic with the narrative theologians than you might imagine. Remember: my background is literary! My point in the this post is to remind us that though narrative is essential to the faith...it cannot replace or dislodge philosophical discourse.

    Also, though I am thoroughly orthodox theologically, I am all in favor of philosophical plurality.

  8. "C'mon",

    Jesus was a trained rabbi, so he knew his logic, rhetoric, etc. Just b/c he used parables to teach the disciples doesn't mean he disparaged other methods. Do a word search on this blog for "parable" and you will find several homilies of where I preach explicitly against the notion that we arrive at faith by reason/argument/experiment alone.

  9. Jason,

    I don't have any plans to be involved in the A.O....but God might.

  10. Ah yes...the fav argument of the Franciscans among us..."We can forget all that philosophical stuff b/c Aquinas had a vision and said all his work was just straw in comparison!"

    This is nothing new for Thomas. He said at the very beginning of the ST that we cannot know God fully, so anything we say about God will always be partial, i.e., "like straw," perhaps?

    B/c Thomas never told anyone what his experience was about, or the content of his experience, we have no way of drawing any conclusions from his exclamation. Why, in other words, would we give tremendous authority to his experiential exclamation, which we know nothing about, dismissing his philosophy; and at the same, suddenly decide that some obscure vision of his has the authority to trump all his well-reasoned work?

    If Thomas is an authority, then both his philosophy and his "vision" have to be evaluated for what we actually know about each, and not according to a preordained conclusion given our ideological preferences.

  11. Anonymous7:17 AM

    my n y resolution: not to look at your site.

    you are a fatuous, surly bugger.

    i've had far better teachers than ;you and THEY contradict you. STRICT Thomists.

    you need humble pills. doctor's orders.

    happy 2010

  12. Anon., following in the great tradition of Catholic saints over the centuries...when someone tells me that I am not being very humble, I generally take that to mean that my accuser is upset b/c I'm not agreeing with her prejudices and ideological preferences.

    So, my question to you: how can I help you keep your NY resolution?

  13. "Stories ARE enough. Jesus did not speak in syllogisms.

    He spoke in parables. You think he just didn't know any better?"

    So let's see, your ARGUMENTS are:

    (M) One should avoid what Jesus did not speak in. (Hidden assumption.)
    (m) Jesus did not speak in syllogisms.
    .: One should avoid syllogisms. (Hidden conclusion.)

    (M) One should imitate how Jesus did speak. (Hidden assumption.)
    (m) Jesus spoke in parables.
    .: One should ONLY speak in parables. (Hidden conclusion.)

    In both cases, fallacies of over-generalization.

    Yeah, we don't need no stinkin' logic. (sarcasm)

  14. Anonymous5:44 PM

    I don't visit your blogsite often. However, I've done so often enough to see behavior on both sides of the "court" that is shameful. I assume most of your "fans" are college students. I can excuse them for youth and inexperience.

    On the other hand, you are as sorry excuse for a gentleman as I've ever seen in or out of Roman collar. I would never send my son or daughter to the institution where you teach. I am "old school" and I intend to see my children are taught by example as well as instructed in a classroom.

    Your behavior smack of coarseness and you should no better. You, sir, are a person who is petty, ill-tempered and disgraceful to the people you represent.

    James Callohan

  15. James,

    So, let me get this straight: I'm not a gentleman for. . .whatever reason. . .and you wouldn't allow your children to be instructed by me. Fine. Certainly your choice.

    Do you expect that your children would take your behavior on this blog as an example of gentlemanly behavior?

    Do you, IOW, think that it is gentlemanly to accuse a priest in public of being ill-tempered and petty? Is it gentlemanly to make these public accusations based on nothing more than your occasional visits to a blog? Have you ever met me? Talked to me?

    Exactly how are you demonstrating gentlemanly behavior in your comment above? If I'm to improve my own behavior I will need an example. Am I to take your uncharitable, sneering condemnation as exemplary of how a Christian gentleman behaves?

  16. Tom in NJ8:52 AM

    An easy way to aproach your "on-tology" about the Deity (from the present participle of Greek "einai" (to be)could be as follows. Take the forms of Hb "to be" and link it to ayeh-asher-ayeh and the tetragrammaton. That's a far different power than Plato's nature gods.
    Best wishes on learning German. When you're finished, you'll finally understand all the footnotes in Heschel's The Prophets. It's important for you to do it. Lay scholars need foreign languages too.
    All the best.

  17. Anonymous11:25 PM


    I have seen you perform mass at a University near Dallas. You had multiple fans blowing to cool yourself down. However, you still perspired amply and, by the way, you sorely needed a haircut.

    Those a basic things. Hygiene and simple aesthetics.

    On one occasion when I visited your site your "followers" were ridiculing a young man who had been abused by a priest. You let it pass.

    That is not being wise or properly attuned to the tenor of the SOMETIMES apologetic nature of the Church and the Holy Father. If you found my comment inordinately offensive, you could have requested that I contact you via email.

    You have that option. I do not.

    I stand by my previous note and I sent my eldest to Stanford. Partially due to YOU.

    You can sway children. But you have some growing up to do yourself.

    James Callohan

  18. James, are you serious? I mean, really...serious? You're telling me that you decided not to send your child to UD b/c I sweat a lot and needed a haircut? THAT's your reason for sending your child to a bastion of left-liberal-Marxist groupthink? You would rather your child be indoctrinated into every kind of anti-Christian nutroot ideology rather than risk having him attend a Mass "performed" by a long-haired, sweaty priest? Really?

    C'mon, James, what's your real beef with me?

    I doubt very seriously anyone commenting on this blog was ridiculing a young man who had been abused by a priest. Please point out these comments.

  19. Anonymous8:23 AM

    I assume most of your "fans" are college students.

    42 with beautiful wife and 3 children and a Fr. Philip "fan".

    Please point out these comments.

    Indeed. Fr. P and the regulars here are usually fair enough to recognize the plight of a genuine victim while at the same time not allowing any mendacious attacks on the Church or the clergy. Point it out, and if it is indeed ridicule of a personal-attack nature, I'll join James in condemning it.

    Scott W.

  20. Anonymous3:34 AM

    I agree that "forgetting metaphysics" is a bad idea; but there is a long Christian tradition of "overcoming metaphysics" -- that is, accepting the truth of metaphysics but stepping back to a prior truth that comes closer to the phenomenality of the biblical God (and to the phenomenality of Being -- in Heidegger's repristination of this tradition).