08 January 2010

Fr. Bob's Philosophy Problem

So, you go to Fr. Bob with marital (!) problems and he reads the Wedding at Cana story to you.  And even though you ask him good questions about how this story to relevant to your difficulties, all Fr. Bob will do is re-read the story. . .again and again.

Is Fr. Bob stupid?  Is he being coy?  Zen-like?  What!?

None of the above.  Fr. Bob is an extreme practitioner of a PoMo theological innovation called "narrative theology" (NT).   Since modern science has eliminated metaphysical problems, we can leave aside all that medieval mumbo-jumbo about cause, being, essence, nature, etc.  But leaving aside metaphysical questions in philosophy means leaving aside all of the theology that this sort of philosophy supported, that is, centuries of traditional Roman Catholic theology.

No problem.  Modernism has us covered.  Well, except that postmodernist philosophies have weakened the modernist's strangle on claims to rational truth by pointing out that all truth claims are made within an interpretative field; therefore, truth can never be evaluated from a non-interpretative framework, including the rationalism.  IOW, logic/science/reason are not privileged means of examining the truth claims of other human ways of knowing; they themselves are subject to evaluation.

If Catholic theologians "forget being" and "go beyond metaphysics" AND abandon the modernist grand narrative of Logic and Science, where does this leave them?

Telling stories.  The basic (very, very basic) premise of NT is that all the metaphysical speculation of scholastic theology and all the high-minded rationalism of modernism obscure the gospel story by loading it down with the yoke of post-testament philosophical problems, problems not found in the stories themselves, problems not even implied by the stories.  The way out of this mess is to simply return to the narratives of the gospels and connect them up with the everyday lives of real Christians. 

So, rather than spending a great deal of time worrying about the metaphysical problems of the resurrection or proving within scientific probabilities that the resurrection occurred, narrative theologians simply say, "Here's the resurrection story. . .what did it mean then, now, and for the future?"  Their concern is that we choose the gospel narratives as true descriptions of how our ancestors in the faith understood their relationship to God and how the gospel story shaped their lives.  Having chosen these narratives, we make them our own.  NT does not claim that the gospel stories are merely stories meant to inspire good moral behavior--that's just early 20th-century Protestant liberalism, the social gospel.  By making the gospel narrative "our own," we adopt the worldview of the narratives as our primary interpretative lens for seeing and understanding the world.

This approach poses no great difficulties for Catholic theologians until we start to ask philosophical questions about the narratives.  Now, narrative theologians will cry foul and assert that getting away from philosophical questions is exactly what they are trying to do.  But here's my point about Fr. Bob's pastoral counseling method:  you can't just tell a story and wait for enlightenment to strike.  Stories provoke questions within a context.  The storyteller needs to be able to understand the questions and apply the story accordingly.  This doesn't mean that the storyteller has to adopt complex neo-Platonic metaphysical categories to do his job, but he cannot avoid philosophizing if he is to do his job.  If we take philosophy to be the love of wisdom, then the pastor confronted with a difficult pastoral situation will need to love wisdom in order to be of assistance!  Wisdom is exactly what's call for here.

In order to make a point, I've done a poor job of describing NT.  Narrative theologians do not reject all philosophy as pointless.  However, you will find some in the Catholic world who use a bastardized form of NT to undermine our philosophical tradition in order to arrive at theological conclusions more in line with their reforming ideologies.  I've seen the pattern over and over again:

Complex theological system taught at elite theological school --> system filters down through journals, popular accounts in books, etc. --> enterprising individual simplifies the system and gives it a "sexy spin" (e.g., links to eco-concerns, etc,) and offers workshops --> religious, priests, DRE's, etc. attend workshops --> return to convent/priory/parish --> offer classes to those interested, etc.

What happens at each stage of this process is that complications and nuances are dropped off for the sake of simplicity.  Arguments are replaces by slogans.  And the original intent of the system is reduced to a trendy way of exercising one's will over some problem in theology.  I've seen this sort of thing happen with the Myers-Briggs, the Ennegram, eco-theology, process theology, men's theology, ritual studies, and on and on.

What shortcuts this sort of devolution is a healthy does of philosophical inquiry!


  1. I'm no classically-trained philosopher (or theologian, for that matter), but reading your explanation, fr. Philip, brought up some images/ideas about this approach ...

    1. The methodology sounds a lot like sola scriptura, in that a) the answer/truth is to be found in AND ONLY IN what is written and b) the truth is self evident (perspicuous, in sola-scriptura-speak). Problem seems to me, that if Truth is One/Unity, but different lessons ('truths') are gleaned by individual readers, then it really isn't reflective of Truth, right?

    2. This approach also sounds philosophically materialistic at its base (?a vestige of its PoMo ancestry) -- that narrative in its written words, plus our current, sense-ible experience are the only valid tools with which to glean ultimate truth and reality. But again, this seems philosophically disingenuous as there is no recognition of the philosophical construct (ie, materialism) -- or any philosophical construct -- that led to this assertion in the first place.

    [did I just write that in a pseudo-Thomistic argument form?? You Dominicans are rubbing off on me]

    So ... 'philo-sophy', love of wisdom, is the underlying principle/framework by which we all seek to understand anything, and that it would behoove every person to 1. recognize there is always an underlying philosophy in our thinking, and 2. make sure it is the right one??? Is that anywhere near reality or is my view obscured/filtered by my own philosophical lens, whatever it may be?

    Please help before I descend into perpetual optimistic skepticism! (I don't know how you philosophy types do this day-in and day-out...)

  2. Anonymous9:35 AM

    The mistake behind NT (as well as behind the science versus religion debate) is the belief that there is anything beyond Divine Providence: that the wisdom of the world (philosophy/science) is opposed to the wisdom of God. The Church, at least since Justin Martyr, knows that Wisdom is One -- He is the Word (Logos) expressed in the Sacred Page and the text of the world. Wisdom all belongs to God and can/should be put to divine purposes.

  3. Tom in NJ12:50 PM

    The "joy" of PoMo is that all knowledge can be reinterpreted. Therefore, PoMo can afford academics infinite opportunities to publish. The second appeal is that article writers need not learn any objective facts.
    The Reverend has learned what studying objective facts means, especially at the school named after his fellow religious, the Angelic Doctor. He also knows now how hard it can be. Ad astra per aspera!

  4. "You go to Fr. Bob with MARTIAL problems?"

    A little down on the holy sacrament of marriage, are we, or just thinking of Fr. Tharp the Kung Fu master? :)

  5. I really appreciate your blog, but this post is a masterpiece of posting good theology.
    May I translate your post in Italian, in order to publish it on my blog "Vitaefratrum"?
    Of course I'll link to your blog the quotation.
    Thank you, Luca Gili.

  6. Luca, sure...go for it! And thanks for linking.

  7. Here's a nice philosophy cartoon (not too many of those)...