Saturday, March 12, 2011

Philosophy in Conversation with Theology

Building on what was said in my last post, I think hermeneutics provides us the key for understanding how philosophy and theology interact with one another.

There are two ways, I think, to try and do theology.  The first has often been termed "natural theology," and it goes about its work by attempting to argue from our experience of the world to a particular understanding of God.  The inherent problem, I think, for natural theology is that it will always be conducted from a particular point of view- it will always be subjective.  My critique of many of the classical arguments regarding Theism, for instance, has been that they assume too much- the cosmological argument, to take one example, assumes that since I cannot fathom an absolute infinite progression of past events, it cannot exist and there must be a first cause of everything.  Further, many presentations of that argument assume that we can draw certain conclusions about the "cause-without-a-cause": that it is a thinking, exceedingly powerful, being, for instance.  How we move from "a" to "b" in these instances will, I think, largely depend on the worldview from which we start assessing these arguments.  We interpret the information subjectively, in other words, based on our predisposition to believe one way or another.  My conclusion, at the end of the day, is that the most that "natural theology" can accomplish for us is to show that our beliefs are rational- they make sense, they are coherent with other parts of our experience.  We cannot make the further claim that they are "true" based on such arguments.

The other approach takes its starting point in revelation.  This approach takes on the image of the conversation we left off with last time.  Something or someone beyond us is saying something to us, is projecting an experience onto us, that we take in and "read" and then make part of our experience.  Revelation is an act of communication, not simply observation as in the case of "natural theology," and the process by which we receive and are affected by revelation is a hermeneutical process.  This means that how we walk away from such a revelatory encounter will be largely determined by our subjective perspective, by our point of view, by our presuppositions, etc.  Largely, it will be a result of these things, but not entirely.  Revelation starts beyond us and we encounter it.  How we "read" that encounter is I think constrained, at least in part, by the object itself.  It cannot be completely a product of our own minds because the object is not a product of our minds, it’s a medium of communication between one person and another.  Theology, on this approach then, is entirely dependent on the third axiom and everything we have said about it.

In more practical terms very briefly:

I think the problem of fundamentalism, whether it be on the right or on the left end of the political spectrum, is that it takes too much of the first approach to theology.  This often means reducing the "text" of revelation (whether it be in scripture, tradition, philosophy, or experience) to an artifact which we observe and thereby draw conclusions from.  As I have said above, whenever we do this we arrive at interpretations that are derived from the presuppositions we started with.  In any such case, what is lacking is a conversation.  This conversation does not require total objectivity in reading the "text"- total objectivity is a myth.  But it does require the recognition of the voice from beyond that is speaking to us through the medium of the "text."  We are resisting the urge to create God in our own image.  And while I will never have a fully objective view of God, in the same way that when I approach another human there will always be a hint of what I wish they were in my perception of them, by opening ourselves up to the idea that this conversation involves another person we open ourselves up to the idea that the conversation can change us.  Our ideas can be put to the test, we can have true dialogue about what we believe  and why that allows for constructive theology that is more than just a projection of our wishes onto God.

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