Posted on: December 22nd, 2020 Ratzinger, Fichte, & the Rejection of Revelation

After I defended my dissertation (on Ratzinger’s Habilitationsschrift, the Theology of History in St. Bonaventure) in July of 2020, I began to see the need to situate the future Pontiff’s thought within deeper currents of German philosophy. It is extrememely plausible to see his defense of Bonaventure as motivated by the need to respond to contemporary developments about the nature of time and history (for example, the thought of Heidegger, which, one might say, conceives of being as something like Plato’s becoming), even though Ratzinger himself roots his concerns in the Protestant fascination (de riguer at the time) with Heilsgeschichte (e.g., Oscar Cullman’s Christ in Time).

That a central concern for Ratzinger in his Habilation research was Bonaventure’s surprising notion of revelation is an initial hint or suggestion that, indeed, Ratzinger is in some kind of dialogue with these antecedent currents of German thought of the early proponents of so-called German idealism.

In this post I want to rehearse a point about the Kantian (and Fichtean) rejection of revelation. On page 46, Kaplan quotes Fichte, who “raises the possibility that creation might be a revelation.”

“Indeed to the extent that [through such an empirical process] it were possible to have […] a knowledge of God, of our dependence upon him, and that certain duties resulted from this knowledge […] and to the extent that one could view God as the purpose of the creation of the world, one could believe for a moment that the entire system of appearances could be viewed as a revelation.”

But Fichte dismisses this possibility as soon as he raises it. Why? Because (as Kaplain states) “theoretical reason has no capacity to know the noumenal world.”

And why, in turn, is this?

It is because of the merely tangential role God plays in Kant’s and Fichte’s system. For Kant God is never evoked or even countenanced in the First Critique. That is, for Kant’s system of thoeretical reason, God is regarded as completely unnecessary. Kant’s theoretical system, then, assumes a methodological atheism.

God becomes a crucial plank in Kant’s thought, only with the moral philosophy of practical reason (the Second Critique). As Günter Meckenstock puts it (Kaplain 179 n 38) the concept of God is “bound to the apodictic validity of the moral and rational ethical law.” As Kaplain puts it on 44, “God is posulated as a being who makes the world of nature and of morality correspond.” You see, while the phenomenal world for Kant cannot affect the noumenal world (that is, the free will of the human person), the noumenal can and does affect the phenomenal. But in order for this to be compelling (since it cannot be observed), we need God to serve as a kind of placeholder or guarantor.

In other words, in his elaborate attempt to safeguard the freedom of the will (in the face of the Newtonian suggestion that all of nature follows fixed, mathematical laws), Kant must invoke the concept of God as a placeholder. For Kant the human will must be autonomous, following its own free choices and determinations, and in no way conditioned by external factors or laws. Heteronomy bad, autonomy good.

But this God, this role for God in human knowing or the grasp of truth about the world, is a far, far cry from God as creator, who has made a world which somehow reveals him (Ps 19:1). This “god” is a mere corollary of practical reason, since for Kant (and Fichte) theology is done only after practical philosophy (see Kaplan 47ff.).

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Posted on: December 12th, 2020 Milbank, Bonaventure, & History/Eschatology

“Thus time for Bonaventure … begins and ends in God.”—John Milbank, “There’s Always One Day,” in Theologies of Retrieval, ed. Darin Sarisky (New York: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2017), 24.

So claims John Milbank, and I agree with his read of Bonaventure here (despite my qualms with what I left out in the above ellipsis: the word “literally”). My dissertation is an sustained attempt, during which I stumble upon and share many epiphanies, to defend Bonaventure’s stance regarding temporality. I try, that is, to show how—given certain hermeneutical planks, ancient and modern, propounded by Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Heidegger, Ricœur, Gadamar, Péguy, and Pickstock—one needs to say that time begins and ends in God. If, that is, we are to make sense of history.

A fundamental premise, following Ricœur, Péguy, and Pickstock, is that history, pace Aristotle, must be regarded as a story or (to use the ancient Greek term) a mythos.

Why is this the case? It has something to do, among other reasons, with the structure of human mind, a structure which—as Augustine shows with his point about the Psalm in Confessions XI—is, in an important sense, irreducibly temporal.

Resisting, however, any hint of process theology, I deny that time is “in” God. Instead, as Plato has it in the Timaeus, time is a moving image of (God’s) eternity. Don’t forget: nothing is more real than an image. This created movement which is time, then, is really and truly a participation in God’s movement, “of one piece” with it.

Here, perhaps, is the beginning of a new and truly postmodern ontology: an ontology of fiction. Hence, regardless of Milbank’s take on Bonaventure’s alleged “literalism,” time’s beginning and end in God, while absolutely real, is anything but literal.

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Posted on: December 9th, 2020 Thoughts on Self-awareness

For my entire adult life, I have loved to run, mainly long distances. Currently I am running about 30 miles per week. 30 miles a week of prayer, silence, solitude, breathing, taking in the light, listening to and for God.

Especially for my long runs, I will occasionally drive to White Rock Lake in Dallas (about 75 miles away from my home in East Texas), where there is a lovely running path encircling the lake. On a cool winder day with blue skies and sunshine, it is truly glorious.

I’ve been running around the lake for about 7 or 8 years now … nowadays about once a month (but in a previous stage of life I’d do it more like once a week). Lately—the last five or six times—I have noticed a cyclist who whizzes past me (and every other runner and walker on the trail) who, near the top of his lungs, yells out, with loud Texas drawl “HOWDY! GOOD MORNIN’!” This is something I have “noticed”—how could one not notice?—or, rather, something with which I have been confronted, almost in the form of an audible assault.

I am sure that this man is well-intentioned. Yet his blaring, booming “greeting” is also, at least for me, somewhat irritating.

This man—I am confident in asserting—lacks self-awareness.

What is self-awareness?

I do not have a technical definition in mind to share with you. And yet, having thought about this for over a decade now, I believe that I do grasp the essence of it. Self-awareness is the sensitivity one develops, the ability to see that certain of their actions—actions which are purportedly for the benefit of another—are actually performed for their own benefit, in order somehow to make themselves feel better.

Conversely a lack of self-awareness manifests itself when one fails to see this, to perceive this, to appreciate this.

When I was a small boy my dad (whom I love dearly, beyond words) used to put his hand on my head and rub my hair, drastically re-arranging it. “Good boy,” he’d say, as he rocked my head back and forth, turning my blond locks into a tussle of messiness. Then, with a couple more pats on the head (as if I were a canine), he’d say again: “Good boy.”

Now, I love my dad! He (like the cyclist) was well-intentioned, in a way. And yet … as he expressed or emoted his feeling of affection for me, did he really have my own good in view?

Or the cyclist: as he whizzes past the runners and belts out his morning greeting for all of Dallas to hear, is he truly motivated by a desire for the good of his neighbor?

Or, rather, is he actually doing something, performing an action, somehow for the benefit on himself? (Perhaps to call attention to himself, perhaps to be able to think or feel better about himself?)

I see this same tendency in myself frequently. Even with my dog or my cat—to return to the issue of semi-fierce caressing of hair or fur—I sometimes think, “Am I doing this for their good, or is this supposed to make me feel better?”

Even if the latter is my true motivation, it is good, at least, to be aware of it.

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