Posted on: July 4th, 2020 Redeeming the Modern Myth of Progress

What if the progress myth of secular modernity is correct, at least in large part?

I’m now wondering if, entertaining the possibility that, after the advent of the Gospel, there is something inevitable about the development of history, about the “rational” unfolding of historical progress.

Not inevitably in the sense of the absolutely necessary, but rather in the sense of an implicit logic. If one were to develop this claim, one would need to articulate an appropriate understanding of the following three dynamics:

  • The propaedeutic of the Gospel, or the legacy of classical Greek thought as the handmaiden (ancilla) of philosophy. The idea here is that the relationship between Greek philosophy (especially that of the logos) and the early (that is, apostolic and patristic) interpretation of the events of Jesus of Nazareth is not random or aleatory. Rather the former sets the stage for the latter; the latter fulfills the former in an analogous way that it fulfills the Hebrew scriptures of (what Christians call) the Old Testament, to wit:
  • The nature of the progress from Old Covenant (in Israel) to New Covenant (in Christ). Of course, this is what the New Testament is about in its fundamental nature. It grapples with the question, “How can we, members of the community constituted by Jesus Christ, remain in continuity with the Hebrew Scriptures, or the religious traditions of our ancestors (the Torah, circumcision, Temple worship, etc.)? How can we follow Jesus of Nazareth, and, at the same time, maintain our identity as faithful Jews? In the teachings of Jesus (e.g., the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s Gospel), in Paul’s letters (his privileging of spirit over letter), and in the book of Hebrews we find a clear insistence that, while the New is faithful to the Old, it is, at the same time and in some sense, better.
  • The outgrowth of (what I will call) universal spirit from the seeds of Christian theology/culture. This is the most difficult claim to develop of the three, and yet it is nonnegotiable. For when it comes to the rise of modern science, the distinction between church and state, the ideal of self-governance rooted in individual freedom, and the respect for human rights, in every case it is clear that these developments grow out of the soil of Christianity. Not, admittedly, Christianity in the abstract or in pristine isolation. We should fully concede that in the West Christianity is “corrupted”: by influences of the Roman empire, by pagan thought, by heresies, etc. And yet, the soil is Christian soil. The growth of these institutions and ideals would not exist but for the prior historical condition of Christianity. Christianity implies modern science, for creation links up with our rational minds (given the imago dei). It leads to the ideal of a state which is not simply identical to or a container for the church, for the latter is born from the soil of martyrdom at the hands of coercive power. It leads to self-rule, for the Holy Spirit leads God’s people into all truth, baptism is the great equalizer, and the Gospel is “no respecter of persons.” It implies the respect for human rights, because each person has dignity, being created in the image of God, as well as being the object of the sacrificial love of Christ in his crucifixion.

The point is that, in light of these three dymanics (perhaps there are additional ones), one can affirm a kind of intelligible development in the history of Western civilization, given the advent of the Gospel. This is the fundamentally valid insight of Hegel (and Joachim of Fiori), and it has led to the modern notion of the myth of progress.

Yet while I’m arguing that the myth of progress is (in some sense) correct and valid, nevertheless it must be drastically emended in one particular regard: the relationship between Christianity and secular modernity. For centuries the common assumption has been that secularism will win out over Christianity. This, precisely, is the one false tenant of the modern progress myth, for what has become evident in our time is that secular modernity (in its current iteration) cannot resist the temptation to eat itself, to self-destruct. One need only to point to the incommensurate agendas of identity politics (the outgrowth of liberal political theory cum late capitalism), to the destruction of our natural habitat globally, to the futility of technological innovation devoid of meaning. Of course, this self-destructive tendency, too, grows out of Christian soil. Indeed it may be the case that Christianity also eats itself; but if so it does so in a fecund way that is ultimately life-giving.

Yet what is far from clear is that secular modernity will, in the end, triumphantly root out the Christian religion or the Eucharistic community. While the counter claim is beyond the scope of this present essay, at the very least one can see that Christianity’s demise at the hands of secularism is far less certain than the three developments sketched above. (Appeal to the owl of Minerva here might be an appropriate riposte.) The claim, in the end, relies upon the self-destruction of secular modernity: who can possibly doubt that? And after its demise? What then? Surely the continued presence of the Christian church in its wake does not unduly tax the imagination.

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Posted on: July 24th, 2018 How Hegel’s Wrong

In the oral component of my comprehensive exams in my PhD program (about 15 months ago), one of my examiners (in fact, my dissertation advisor, a man who cares deeply about theology) asked me if I regard Hegel as a heretic, and if so, why.

I said yes, but stammered out some half-baked reason as to why (something about hubris).

Thanks to some recent reading, however, in connection with my dissertation, I have identified two ways in which Hegel errs (nevermind, for now, the language of heresy).

First, something about Hegel’s God. William Desmond and Joseph Ratzinger have provided (or help me to come up with) some good wording. Hegel’s thinking about God leaves no room for overdetermination. That is, Hegel’s God is not truly an “other,” much less a sovereign, supernatural, totally transcendent other. He is totally grasped by Geist. Now, we must remember that the Geist which grasps God is God … but it is also human Geist, and so Hegel does think, at the end of the day, that man / human being / Hegel himself can grasp the concept of God, without remainder, that Geist’s concept of God fully captures the reality that is God.

And, as Desmond says in his book Hegel’s God, if that is how Hegel thinks of God, then it is not God (the God of Christianity) that he is thinking about.

Second, Hans Georg Gadamer, a thinker I’m finally getting around to appreciating (again, through dissertation research). Now Gadamer thinks–and I totally agree–that everything a particular person thinks is historically conditioned. That is, all of our thought takes place within a historical horizon. Further, even though much of the philosophical or hermeneutic task is to “lay bare” the features of this horizon of thought, we can nevertheless never fully do so. Hence, “our hermeneutic situation can never be made completely transparent to us.” Amen.

But that’s also precisely the problem with Hegel: he thinks that he has so risen above his historical thought horizon that it is completely transparent to him.

So, on these two fronts–one theological, one philosophical or hermeneutic–Hegel is “zero for two.”

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Posted on: February 18th, 2017 Hegel & Theology

What is the relationship between philosophy and theology? In a very real sense, the burning desire to answer this question for myself was one of my primary motivations for entering a PhD program in philosophy at a Catholic institution, studying under a renowned thinker who, sometimes I am tempted to think, is a theologian posing as a philosopher. To my mind such an academic posture is perfectly suited for our contemporary cultural moment in the West.

However before one can answer this question, one must first be as clear as possible on the meaning of the terms “philosophy” and “theology.” Here’s my stab at such requisite clarity. Theology is the rational interpretation and development of the content of revelation; philosophy is the ordered system of sciences, in both its Aristotelian and Hegelian incarnations, extending from the supreme principle of theos / Geist on the one hand, to the most propaeduetically incipient or elementary principle(s) of logic on the other. (Note: God / theos / Geist is a constitutent element for both ancient thought [Aristotle]  and (post)modern thought [Hegel].)

In the third part of his “system” entitled “The Philosophy of Geist,” Hegel writes:

In order to elucidate for ordinary thinking this unity of form and content present in the mind, the unity of manifestation and what is manifested, we can refer to the teaching of the Christian religion. Christianity says: God has revealed himself through Christ, his only begotten son. Ordinary thinking straightway interprets this statement to mean that Christ is only [ital. mine] the organ of this revelation, as if what is revealed in this manner were something other than the source of the revelation. But in truth this statement properly means that God has revealed that his nature consists in having a Son, i.e., in making a distinction within himself, making himself finite, but in his difference remaining in communion with himself, beholding and revealing himself in the Son, and that by this unity with the Son, by his being for himself in the other, he is absolute mind or spirit, so that the Son is not the mere organ of the revelation, but is himself the content of the revelation. (Hegel, Philosophy of Spirit, tr. Wallace & Miller, 1971, §383)

Preliminary construal of the relationship between philosophy and theology (as defined above and to be developed later): they are symbiotically or reflexively related, such that each is the condition of possibility for the other.

That is, there neither is nor can be philosophy without theology, nor theology without philosophy.

(Note: this view, it seems to me right now, requires that we regard Aristotle as a recipient of revelation. Kinda crazy.)

 

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Posted on: July 18th, 2015 Peregrination, Friendship, & Subjectivity

Warning: this post is intended only for philosophy geeks, or those who’d like to become philosophy geeks.

A dear friend, with whom I have been traveling the Christian journey of faith seeking understanding for two decades, asked me to explain how I understand what Kierkegaard means when he says that the human subject is infinitely negative. So here goes:

Hegel writes, “[t]his Substance is, as Subject, pure, simple negativity.” (Preface to the Phenomenology of Spirit, § 18)

Twenty years ago in a course on Kierkegaard and Derrida, I was deeply struck by the phrase, in connection with Kierkegaard, “infinite, negative subjectivity.” Turns out, however, I had no idea, metaphysically speaking, what it actually meant.

But I think I’m getting it now.

It is helpful for me to start with a Parmenidean insight. Parmenides, in absolute denial of the meaningfulness or the value of sense experience, states that being must necessarily be one, since nonbeing is not able to be countenanced. That is, it is not the case that multiple object exists, since in this case a kind of nonbeing would obtain: the A is not B. The horse is not the giraffe, and so on.

The cup on my desk is not the same as the pen on my desk. As cup, it is not pen. That is to say, with respect to the (essence of the) pen, the cup is not. It is “negative” with respect to the pen.

But as Dr. Wood said in class recently, it is not of the cup’s essence that it be “negative” with respect to every other object. (That is, the cup has a definite, individuated determination.) However, for “human awareness” (Dr. Wood’s words), this negativity is of its essence. That is, subjective consciousness has no essence other than it is not this or that or the pen or the cup or Socrates. (Unlike the cup, it has no definite, individuated determination.) It has no essence in this sense. It is empty. And yet, we deny that it does not exist. It does exist, also that it has no essence other than infinite negation.

One last note: this is (the logical outworking of) Cartesian subjectivity; it is the subjectivity which Foucault (along with Nietzsche) rejects.

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Posted on: March 21st, 2014 Dissertation Idea 1.1 (Ratzinger, Bonaventure, & History)

Given a hearty “thumb up” by my academic director. Any comments, please send them my way!

I.               The philosophical explananda: why certain prominent thinkers (modern and postmodern) articulate a philosophy of history that is fundamentally theological in form. Possible “exhibits” to include:

A.   Hegel

B.    Badiou (Saint Paul: the Foundation of Universalism)

C.    Zizek (The Fragile Absolute)

D.   Agamben (The Kingdom and the Glory: for a Theological Genealogy of Economy and Government)

II.             The theological explanans: Ratzinger’s Bonaventurian theology of history as expressed in his interpretation of the Hexaemeron and other of the Seraphic Doctor’s works, as a pathway into the inherently and unavoidable theological structure of (all?) western historiography and philosophy of history (with special attention given to the role of revelation and eschatology in Ratzinger’s thought, especially as situated in their thirteenth century milieu).

III.           The statements made by the above thinkers about this genealogical state of affairs. Are such statements adequate? Can they be supplemented by Ratzinger’s account of the nature and character of historical thought?

 

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