Sunday, March 18, 2012

Hamann on Language and Reason.

I've been reading Oswald Bayer's book on Hamann and anticipating with great interest the talk by him coming up at Ft. Wayne in a week and a half.  One theme in Hamann that Bayer appreciates and which I think is relevant to the discussions of faith and reason we've been having on this website is Hamann's understanding of reason and its relationship to language.

Hamann had two separate occasions to debate the issue.  First with Herder and the second with Kant.  When theorizing about the origins of language, Herder posited that reason proceeded language.  Humans, he claimed, were smart animals who did not have the advantages of other species.  In order to make up for their deficiencies, they invented language to symbolize what they could already discern with their reason and consciousness.  The major difficulty here is that it is hard to see how one's cognition could even function apart from language.  For example, how could one decide that they were going to use a series of sounds to represent a "tree" when one does not have language within which one can cogitate about the concepts of "symbol" or "sound" and half a dozen other things that one would need to make that move.  Kant argued similarly.  He claimed that philosophical language could express pure rationality through its purification from irrational and mythological forms of speech.  We see something similar to this in the tradition of 20th-century analytic philosophy.  This posits a language above language, which is impossible.

Hamann's answer was that language was of divine origin and that it was the result of God's address.  God creates humans by his Word, as he did with the rest of creation.  Humans are God's image and therefore can use language.  Subsequently, (after Adam and Eve) human beings learn language through their parents, who are for them (in the vein of Luther) masks of God.  God is the poet of the world.  He is constantly addressing us as his creatures through other creatures.  

Reason therefore proceeds from language and functions through language.  When reason functions correctly, it is the discerning of God's speech in the structures of creation.  Since reason function through language and language through tradition, there are a multitude of manifestations of reason through a multitude of traditions of rationality.  The unity of reason will be revealed to us (much like the inner unity of God's works) at the eschaton.  For now, the unity of reason can only be glimpsed.  Therefore, this does not mean that differ languages and traditions of rationality are hermetically sealed from one another.  There is a unity of reason which makes translation between different forms of rationality possible.  Even speaking, comments Hamann, is a form of translation.  Nevertheless, there is no pure reason, functioning apart from historical forms.  Put in Lutheran terms, God and his truth can only be discerned through means.

I think that this is extremely good way of thinking about things and that it helps us clarify some issues relating to faith and reason.  First, it shows, in my thinking, the failure of post-Enlightenment theology.  If rationality is something traditionary, then there is no universal reason which can tell Christian theology what it can and cannot say.  What there is are various forms of rationality operating within certain worldviews and traditions which intersect with one another.  Some non-Christian forms of rationality may share overlap with or analogical similarity with Christian truth claims and consequently can be used in a modified form within Christian discourse.  A good example of this might be the structural similarities between aspects of the ancient Greek philosophical traditions and Christians accounts of God.  Early Christian theologians took these over to help clarify biblical truth claims to a Greek audience.  The point is though, that such philosophical claims were not the result of a universal and neutral rationality which Christian theology was bound to respect- rather they were simply another form of tradition bound rationality.  In the contemporary scheme, one can see something similar in our acceptance of the rationality of the natural sciences, which are not explicitly Christian, but share the structural similarity to Christian thought in that they posit a rationally understandable creation.  A rational God who designs creation can make sense of the claim of the natural sciences that creation exists as such.  

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Empiricist vs. Presuppositionist Views of Christian Apologetics.

Here's a John Warwick Montgomery article from CTQ back in the 70s:

In it, he argues that the Lutheran Confessions are inherently oriented towards empiricist apologetics, rather than a presuppositionalist ones (the later he of course associates with Calvinism). Montgomery makes a number of errors throughout the article regarding his interpretation of the Lutheran Confessions. Notably, he fails to distinguish between reason's use in things below us (which is valid) and things above us (where it is not). Secondly, he also dismisses Edmund Schlink's perfectly valid claim that the Scriptures are not (in an ultimate sense) understandable apart from the center of the gospel. Again, he fails to distinguish between the inner and outer clarity as described by Luther, which forms the background and presupposition of Confessors' interpretation of the Scriptures.

These criticisms are issues for another blog post though, and I'd like deal with the question of presuppositionalist vs. empiricist Christian apologetics. Just to define our terms, presuppositionalist apologetics tends to be the position of Calvinists. According to Calvin, human beings all have a sense of divinity (sensus divinitatis) present within them, which therefore forms their view of the world. For this reason, Calvin notes, even when people are skeptical about the existence of divinity, they will act as if God exists. They will cry out to him in a storm or appeal to morality. Cornelius Van Til and some other modern Calvinists took this a step further. Van Til noted that when a Christian argues with a modern Atheist, the Atheist will inevitably say something like "Christianity is bad because it claims miracles, which violate the laws of nature. Also, Christians have done things (like burning witches and persecuting heretics) which are immoral!" The problem here, Van Til points out, is that the Atheist has just contradicted himself. He has posited both rational laws of nature and morality, which presupposes a rational creator God as their author. Christians can therefore argue with Atheists by showing them that there worldview is irrational, because he makes theistic presuppositions while having eliminated the existence of God.

Montgomery (along with a number of Evangelical philosophers) takes an opposite tack. They believe in empiricist apologetics. According to this way of thinking, Christianity is most credibly presented when the empirical evidence in its favor is mustered. Montgomery therefore makes arguments to show that the NT documents are credible and reliable. (As a side note: many of his arguments, I do not personally find very convincing- namely because I believe that he often times relies on conjecture or irrelevant facts that do not support his conclusions. Moreover, people like NT Wright, Kenneth Bailey, and Richard Bauckham have made considered better arguments in recent publications). When Montgomery is most convincing (in my opinion) is when he argues that the resurrection is the key to rationally validating Christianity. I've made the same argument myself: Jesus made certain claims about himself, the authority of the apostles, and the OT prophets. When he rose from the dead (a fact with a rather massive amount of evidence supporting it), he validated these claims of authority. Hence, one can (so to speak), take his claims about his own personal authority and that of the Bible to the theological bank.

What are we to make of this? If we examine the approaches carefully, what I would suggest is that they are not necessarily contradictory, but simply deal with different aspects of the Christian faith. First, the presuppositionalist perspective works best when applied to first article issues. Is there a creator God? Yes, of course, people act like there is one even when they deny it. This is an especially important argument to make in a post-Kantian, post-modern context. With the turn to the subject (in Kant) and the linguistic turn (after Wittgenstein) the entire unity between word and world, perception and reality have come undone. Ultimately, the only thing that could theoretically bring together our perceptions of morality, the laws of nature, and the relationship between word/world is the existence of a creator God who has created these things in harmony. Moreover, even secular people (who have no theoretical reason to believe in these harmonies) acts as if they exist. In fact, people literally could not get through their day if these presuppositions were wrong. This means, I believe, that Calvin and Van Til are essentially correct: people know God is the author of the laws of morality and nature, but ignore him. Unbelievers are therefore irrational in their unbelief. Paul makes the same argument in Romans 1.

This nevertheless does not take one very far. Ultimately, all we really get out of this is a kind of fuzzy theism. The Calvin and Van Til would of course admit this. Therefore, here, particularly with second article issues, the empiricist apologetic works best. It can be shown, for example, that Sodom and Gomorrah burned up around the time of Abraham. It can also be shown that the walls of Jericho fell at the time of Joshua- it can even be shown that it was harvest time, as the Bible clearly states that it was. Most importantly, the authority of the NT and OT are validated by Jesus' resurrection. Even if there are holes in our knowledge regarding the verifiability of certain events in salvation history (we cannot demonstrate, for example, that Abraham had two sons or that Sarah laughed when she heard that they would give birth to a child), the reliability of the Bible's reports of these events can be deduced as being inerrant from the fact of Jesus' own objectively valid claims about his own authority and about the authority of the Scriptures. Herein, I would claim, lies the value of Montgomery's approach.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Being, Becoming, and the Trinity.

The problem of being and becoming has long plagued philosophers.  The existence of both being and becoming is obvious in the world around us.  Things change.  Things get better, things get worse, and things grow old and die.  Nevertheless, their existence persists, as does existence in general.  So, how is it that things both change and remain the same?  Moreover, if things are ever in flux, how can there be any stability of moral value and meaning?  Lastly, since being and becoming are the opposites of one another, how is it possible to relate them to one another?

In Eastern philosophies, as well as the pre-Socratics, essentially took the position that either being or becoming was an illusion.  For the Vedanta school of Hinduism, Atman (the self) is Brahman (being/God).  Consequently, becoming is unreal and an illusion (Maya), and only being is real.  Within the Hellenic world, Parmenides essentially took the same position.  In Buddhism, and the Greek Milesians speculators, the opposite was the case: There was no stable ground of being, only becoming.  For Buddhists, the whole empirical world is nothing but an illusion of stability.  Everything is empty, everything is a grey "suchness."  For the Milesians, as well as for the later Epicureans and Atomists, everything was the flux of a certain "Ur-stuff" of reality- water, earth, atoms, etc. 

The difficulty with either of these approach is obvious.  First, they have a tendency of accounting only for some datum of reality (namely either the phenomenon of being or becoming) and not the other.  They simply dismiss being or becoming as illusion when it does not fit into their comprehensive description of reality.  Secondly, either solution logically collapses into a form of nihilism.  If all temporality is illusion, and there is nothing but undifferentiated being, then nothing I do in my temporal life is meaningful- since flux and the becoming (within which the moral life is lived) is illusory.  Conversely, if I posit that all is mere temporality, then there is nothing but the flux of my becoming.  Therefore my existence lacks an eternal and stable meaning.  Stability of truth and meaning can only be an actuality with reference to an eternal and unchanging reality.

Plato and Aristotle were in many ways able to improve on this.  For Plato, being and becoming are both realities.  The "Good" and the realm of the forms, exists as a stable ground of all reality.  Temporal reality echoes the eternal realm.  Becoming gains meaning by imaging being.  In the case of Aristotle, the form/matter distinction help relate being and becoming to one another in temporal objects.  The form exists as the stable reality at core of individually subsisting things.  It represents the unchanging inner reality which actuates itself through the becoming of change and growth of the individually subsisting thing.  Matter of course accounts for the individuation and change in the object, which form (the organizing principle) utilizes.  

Nevertheless, the difficulty with both these approaches is that they still operated within the assumption that being is more real than becoming.  Moreover, they relate being and becoming to one another in the most tenuous of fashions.  For Plato, temporality was an unreal shadow of being.  The individual soul's goal was to escape the unreality of becoming for the reality of being.  Beyond this, he posits that the realms of being and becoming were both eternal and utterly separate.  The only thing which related them was the existence of the Demiurge who fashioned eternal matter into objects resembling the eternal forms.  In Aristotle, God who is "pure act" and the "prime mover," simply moves eternal matter in an eternal process.  Becoming is therefore subsumed into an eternal process of "pure actuality" (God) actualizing temporal potency into act.  In this sense, becoming is less real than being in that it is an eternal and unending effect of being.  

The Christian account of the Trinity is able to overcome this aporia between being and becoming.  In that God is eternal and immutable, he is the stable ground of all reality.  Nevertheless, he also contains the reality of becoming within himself.  The Father is ever begetting the Son, and the Father and the Son are ever breathing forth the Spirit.  Neither does the fact that God exists through his act of becoming mean that the divine being collapses into becoming (the fallacy of Hegel, German Idealism, Jungel, Moltmann, etc.).  Rather, in becoming, God eternally corresponds to himself without growth or flux.  The Son and the Spirit are the perfect images of the Father, the font of divinity.  Paradoxically, God eternally corresponds to himself in his act of becoming.

In that God is an eternal being subsisting in the event of becoming, he is both capable of providing a stable meaning and goal of temporality, while at the same time containing within himself the already existing exemplary reality of becoming.  As the exemplary reality of becoming, he can communicate both being and becoming to his creature through his act of creation ex nihilo.  Becoming is not merely a derivative effect of being, or perhaps the manifestation of the instability and unreality of all that is not being.  Rather, possessing an exemplary reality in God himself, it is just as real and meaningful as being.  

For this reason, the meaning of temporality is always ecstatic, and never self-contained- just as God himself subsists through ecstatic relationships of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  The meaning of temporality subsists in its relationship to its source in the eternal Word of God.  The eternal Word of God is both the source and transcendent horizon within which temporal reality is lived out.  The Incarnation is the fulfillment of this truth.  The eternal and universal God subsumes into his being temporality (i.e., Christ's human nature) and therefore bestows on a series of temporal event (the life of Christ) universal significance.  Christ (we are told by the NT documents), represents the future of creation.  In this, the eschatological horizon of being is therefore opened up for temporal creatures, in that their lives possess an eternal meaning insofar as they are subsumed into the historical reality of the person of Christ: "Your life is hidden in God in Christ."