16 September 2010

The Desk Chair Review of Books

Philosophy and Theology
by John Caputo

In an effort to renew the relationship between philosophy and theology, John Caputo traces the relationship between these rivals back to the source of the conflict between them. In the present day, philosophy and theology are commonly understood as different perspectives on the same set of questions. Philosophy is understood as driven exclusively by reason from its principles to conclusions, without reference to any external authority and universally accessible (at least in principle). Theology, on the other hand, makes use of rationality, but derives its foundational content from revelation, and is conducted by people already invested in the community defined by its belief. Attitudes about philosophy and theology are largely determined by whether they are seen as two modes of thinking that are mutually complementary and capable of coexisting “in the same head” or as defining two entirely different types of worldviews that are fundamentally at odds with one another.

The latter view being the more common, Caputo takes up the history of the conflict to discover its contours. In the Middle Ages, figures such as St. Anselm and St. Thomas exemplified harmony between reason and faith. Anselm proposed his ontological argument not so much as a proof for God but a way of “clarifying something intuitively obvious to all those who experience God in their daily lives.” Thomas was disposed to seek God more in outward, tangible manifestation. Under both accounts, faith sought understanding by way of the gift of reason. However, in this synthesis reason was subordinate to faith, and the rise of modern science in some sense proceeded as a backlash against faith’s supremacy.

According to Caputo, the development of modern thought allowed natural science to displace philosophy and enthrone itself in the cathedra once occupied by theology. Descartes severed the link between faith and reason with his foundationalist approach, building all knowledge on the certainty of the dubito and undermining the longstanding authority of theology to arbitrate valid insight. Reason was thereby elevated to unprecedented levels of independence and universality. Kant took this a step further by regarding philosophy as a mere “second order reflective science” that contributed nothing to the enterprise of reason; theology was to abandon historically mediated dogma and be constrained to the limits of reason alone. Finally, the atheist critiques of Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche pushed theology into a romanticized interiority based primarily on feeling.

Caputo values the tutelage modernity offered to human reason, seeing the period as a traumatic transition to maturity. Nonetheless, he takes up Kierkegaard’s insistence that the overreaching scope of reason which sought to construct a totalizing system was faulty. Postmodernity emerged out of skepticism toward the Enlightenment project that arose from a recognition of the historically conditioned presuppositions of all reasoning. The paradigms of human knowledge, postmodernists insist, are not purely objective, but demand that facts be incorporated within plausible yet necessarily provisional accounts of reality. The effect of this awareness is to engender skepticism towards all-encompassing narratives.

The transition to postmodernity weakened the barriers behind which modernity had walled up philosophy and theology, giving them the chance to once again “assert their rights.” Wittgenstein saw each rational discipline as carried out according to its own proper rules that cannot be simply translated into some supreme way of knowing. Theology is just such a discipline, and the postmodern turn has given theology a credible voice again. The relationship theology has to philosophy is no longer one of hierarchy, with one exercising authority over the other, but of commonality, such that knowing and believing look more similar than ever before. For reasoning involves a reliance upon a kind of faith in the presuppositions of all thinking—such as the reigning paradigms of knowledge—while faith permits one to assume the pivotal interpretive “as” that bestows a perspective and a vocabulary with which to carry out the pursuit of insight. Philosophy and theology’s relationship isn’t so much “reason versus faith” as “philosophical faith along with confessional faith.”

The point is driven home with the example of Derrida. An Augustinian autobiographer who nonetheless “quite rightly passes for an atheist,” he refused to lay to rest the play between confident reason and inquiring faith. Caputo sees in this painful straddle a source of vital tension that nourishes a more vigorous and satisfying existence where philosophy and theology go hand in hand, as “fellow travelers” who “are not opponents but companions on dangerous seas, attempting to make their way through life’s riddles.”

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