Monday, May 25, 2015

The Dialectic of Western Development

Following up today on a post from Saturday on theories of Western decline.

I remain unsure about the word, "decline." There are aspects of American culture right now that I consider in decline. I thus wouldn't at all want to say that we are on some trajectory of progress. On the one hand it feels like we are declining or on the verge of decline. But, on the other hand, there are some areas where it seems like we are better than seventy or eighty years ago.

So let me do a little back and forth. Then next I may post on the extent to which America was founded with Judeo-Christian values.

1. The Christian philosopher of history that I find most profoud in this area is Charles Taylor. Taylor is attractive because he clearly believes that the West has lost much of its sense of the world as an "enchanted" place, a place where there is an interplay of more than the material in the world we see around us. He is a firm believer in God. Yet he is not like those who seem to think we can go back to pre-Reformation, pre-modern times in our thinking.

2. I do have a hunch that Aquinas does represent some sort of a turning point in Western thinking. Perhaps he does reflect some kind of "medieval synthesis" between faith and reason. But if so, it was a tremendously good thing, contrary to Francis Schaeffer. Could it be that it is here that we find the seeds of the scientific revolution, in this rise of a version of Christianity that was open to observation of the world around us?

Aquinas was not the first Christian to interact again with Aristotle. Indeed, he began to engage Aristotle because there were those in his day who were engaging Aristotle in an extreme form. Aquinas entered the discussion to steer the discussion in a more positive direction.

The subtlety that Aristotle brings into Christian thought is the sense that we can observe universals in the world. The Platonists are all about truths of thought to which our clearest access is the mind. The world around us is only a shadowy reflection of those truths. The various escapist tactics of modern theology all have this Platonic dimension to them:
  • We are asked to believe Barth's theology on the basis of certain presuppositions he just expects us to buy without any clear sense of why we should buy them other than some neo-orthodox sentimentality. His theology pretends to stand on nothing.
  • The Reformed and post-liberal presuppositionalists again expect us just to believe without any reason to do so. It is impossible to talk to a disciple of Kuyper or van Til unless you share their fideist assumptions. Otherwise you are clearly just predestined to be damned and can't see the starting points of the truth without which no discussion can be had.
These versions of faith are very popular right now because they seem to provide an escape to the modernist crisis by disallowing a faith that integrates strongly with observation. By contrast, Aristotle opened the door to observation as a path to truth, and this is the ultimate foundation of the modern world with all its discoveries and material blessings.

3. I do not think the nominalists are not the fathers of modern thinking, whatever Weaver might have argued. They merely represent an important element in the epistemological equation. They are a balance to the recurring Platonists of history who can't tell the difference between the world and their ideas of the world.

4. When we get to the scientific revolution, it is important to recognize that the key ingredient was the sense that there are truths about the world that are inherent in the world. This is the key Aristotelian ingredient that facilitates knowledge.

Certainly Newton believed in God and believed that God had created the world with a certain order inherent in it. But it is this last point that facilitated his discoveries. Augustine and the Platonists of the early Middle Ages believed in God and discovered nothing of this sort. Nor would we have any scientific discovery if it were up to the Barthians or van Tillians.

It is only the slight shift of Aquinas--that the truth exists in things apart from the direct action of God that facilitates the scientific revolution. Thus, while Newton's faith in God fit completely with his discoveries, it was not the driving force behind them. Indeed, Newton himself was a Deist or almost a Deist.

5. I believe that God has created order in the world that can be discovered. This belief is as compatible with Christianity as the perspective of any fideist. However, the belief that there is an order intrinsic to the world also opens the door to Deism, the belief that God created the world but is no longer involved with it.

And if the world appears to run largely on its own, then it is inevitable that some would suggest we do not need to posit a creator in the first place--thus naturalism. But if there is no God, then eventually we will sense the meaninglessness of it all. Why shouldn't I kill you, if I can get away with it? Thus nihilism.

Then existentialism is a clever thought--why be sad that everything is meaningless? That's glass is half empty thinking. Think of it the other way. We can invent any meaning to the world we want!

6. So it seems to me that there is a great deal of truth to Sire's sense of this progression. From a Christian perspective, we have to see this as a decline. But, in my opinion, it would be wrong to go back and suggest that the drive to observation and natural law was wrong in the first place. The abuse of a truth does not negate the truth. All truths can be twisted.

Sire may also be right that many people intuitively sense that something spiritual is missing, a loss of what Taylor calls "enchantment." The new age movement, the drive to a kind of impersonal spirituality--these may indeed reflect an intution by many that the world is something more than material.

In their own way, the rise of Heidegger and European phenomenologists like Gadamer are a philosophical expression of this sense that the modernist world itself is a pretend world to some extent. The observer can never become disentangled from the world that he or she is observing.

7. But do they truly undo modernism? If so, then our cell phones and satellites are pretend too. These phenomenologists are rather a clear warning that modernism has boasted too much and gone too far. Observation is never objective. It never can be fully outside the things it is observing. All our explanations and interpretations are ultimately laced with self-expression. They are all ultimately "myths"--stories that express mysteries.

But again, it is silly to think that this poetic footnote, no matter how profoundly it is expressed, undoes the juggernaut that is the developments of the last four hundred years. Poetry, art, and music are far more human than science, but they do not negate science any more than biology undermines physics or chemistry. They are just truth on a different level.

So science is myth in its most detailed sense, and poetry is science in its broadest sense.

8. Synthesis is indeed the word. Presupposition and observation. Faith and reason. You can't put the modernist genie in the bottle. Observation wins over fideism every time except in those rare cases where massive brainwashing has steeled a person against the onslaught of what is in front of them.

Nor can one put historical consciousness back in the bottle once a person has truly been bitten by history. One can only ignore history as unimportant, as the post-liberals do. But that is just a stall tactic that only endures for the lifetime of the individual thinker.

I believe there is room for enchantment amid observation. The world is full of wonder beyond Newton. The quantum and relativistic worlds are indeed full of wonder.

I therefore reject the notion that we must try get back to before Aquinas or Descartes. Indeed, we cannot get back before Kant or Gadamer once we have understood them. Each represents a truth we cannot avoid. For Aquinas, it was the power of observation. Descartes gave us the goal of objectivity in its starkest form ever. Kant inevitably dashed that dream, although it took some time for history to realize it. Gadamer put an exclamation mark on this situation when it comes to interpretation.

So I do think we are in a better situation to talk about the world than ever. Have the last two centuries provided us with some extremes to which the trajectory can go? Certainly. But the fundamental trajectory is one of progress in understanding, not deterioriation.

9. What then of Protestantism and Catholicism? Could it be that a synthesis is also called for here? I certainly think so. Both extremes deconstruct. The authority of the temporal church cannot stand as self-sufficient any more than truth is merely some fideist content we must simply force ourselves to believe. On the other hand, we are not sufficient as individual interpreters to use the biblical texts in themselves as objects of our understanding.

True Christianity will always be a subset of whatever group to which we happen to belong.

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