Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The Condemnation of Philosophy

Thomas Aquinas was without question the most important Christian philosopher of the Middle Ages. Drawing from the best of classical thought, he wrote vast tomes of Christian philosophy on every intellectual and theological question imaginable. His clear thinking and careful reasoning was foundational to the scholarship of centuries to come. Read far and wide even today, his works have stood the test of time.

Yet a strange event happened near the end of his life that caused him to stop writing altogether. Aquinas had a mystical vision of God, the God whom he had written and reasoned so much about in works that are still world classics, and concluded:
All that I have written appears to be as much straw after the things that have been revealed to me.
I thought of this after being interviewed again by Emery on the A Christian and an Atheist Podcast (download the mp3 here). This conversation, on Genesis, was a bit more confrontational and argumentative than before, but we covered some interesting ground. However, the mystic in me kept running into trouble with the more philosophical questions. There's no getting around it: I'm starting to get awfully suspicious of the philosophical approach to God.

Oh, not philosophy in the broader sense. The love of wisdom is absolutely essential to knowing God. No, I'm talking about the descriptions of God we get based on reason from first principles. We know, for instance, that God is the unmoved mover, that of which greater could not be conceived, the omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, omnibenevolent, immutable, impassive, eternal being above all. This is God as Plato could conceive him.

Now, on the face of it, this is good stuff. My trouble isn't any sort of logical problem with any specific attribute, or really with the classical philosophers who espouse them, but rather with the overall picture of God that emerges in my own mind. Strangely, when I speak of God with such words, I somehow make him out to be rather...small.

I think of something we know, for instance - say a man. Then I need to alter the picture to fit the philosophical data. Men are moved by other things they interact with in their lives; take away every experience man has by being affected by something else. Men have certain strengths and weaknesses that define them; take away all the weaknesses, and magnify the strengths to infinity. Men often stand in various places - in a building, on a mountaintop, under a bridge; take this away so that the being exists everywhere at once. Men have certain things they know and think about; take away this small subset and replace it with infinity.

What image am I left with? A man standing in a bare white room. Infinity is utterly incomprehensible to me, and so my mind replaces it with the nearest thing we know of: nothing.

Could anything be less like the picture we find in scripture? Take the first ten chapters of Genesis. Here we have a story of God hovering over chaos, making the world, and filling it with life. He makes man to be his stamp on creation, to love him, walk with him, wrestle with him, and represent him to the rest of the world. He becomes angry with man, curses his creation, and prepares to destroy it with a burning anger that only an artist can understand for a work gone bad. He then sees a glimpse of what the work was meant to be in one of his human creatures, and decides to salvage the work after all. He soberly assesses the damage in man, and decides to hold uphold the creation while he begins a great effort to bring man to glory.

Now, an impatient philosopher, armed with his omnimax cannon, can blow the above picture to bits. God is perfect - how can he make something that goes wrong? How can he hover over chaos - he is everywhere? How can man interact with God except as a total puppet, when man is finite? How can man adequately represent God, who is infinite? Why would a perfect God curse his creation - wouldn't he know ahead of time it would go wrong? Why would a perfect artist ever have to be frustrated with his work? Why would God ever change his mind - how could omniscience see new information? How can an immutable God be angry one minute and sober the next? How is it that an impassive God lets man get under his skin?

The questions seem logically decisive, and yet I can't hep but make a qualitative objection. The details may clash with these grandiose terms, and yet the scriptural picture is far grander than my philosophical one. The subject is infinite, and yet the finite model of the scripture comes far closer than the vapid model I receive from the philosopher. For "something" is as many times greater than "nothing" as infinity is greater than "something". We worship a God who is.

In our conversation, Emery remarked that the infinite God could never know the joy of victory or the agony of defeat. For defeat must come from a desire or effort thwarted, and joy of victory comes from overcoming something truly challenging. Yet the scriptures show God as experiencing both time and time again - defeat in the frustration of man's sinfulness, of Israel's unfaithfulness, of Christ's death - and victory in creation's glory, of Israel's redemption, of Christ's resurrection. In reply, one might ask why an infinite God might not know infinite agonies of defeat, and infinite joys of victory, all wound up in the cosmic whirlwind that is his being? But the deeper answer is that, when we use these terms, we mostly don't know what on Earth (or in Heaven) we are talking about.

There seems something analogous here to the physical sciences. Whether it is the wave-particle duality of light, or the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, we have seen how simplistic models and absolute claims must sometimes give way to paradox in understanding deeper realities. Holding two vastly different pictures in tension is often the closest way for us to get at the truth.

And so with God. In scripture we are given a gift beyond measure. We are given something far deeper than a series of abstract statements. We are given a story. We are given a drama that unfolds and expands and progresses, until we find ourselves even now taking part in it. As Chesterton said, it opens to us not only incredible heavens, but what seems to some an equally incredible earth, and makes it credible. We accept it; and the ground is solid under our feet and the road is open before us. For the story fits the lock - it is like life.

Of course any real philosopher will protest loudly that what I really take issue with isn't philosophy at all - but sophistry. He'd surely be right. A disciplined, humble philosophy is an invaluable tool, and I'd hate to genuinely lose all the treasures of classical thought. But then Socrates himself said that the greatest knowledge he had gained was the scope of his own ignorance. And so the glory of God must shatter our models and our philosophies, and show us something far grander than we'd ever thought possible.

From a Christian majoring in philosophy, excellent thoughts.


WFO: here's my first paper assignment in NT intro; I give a similar task in OT intro:

1. Israel’s God and the God of the Philosophers

In the Western intellectual tradition, we tend to conceive of God in abstract, universal categories. In Plato, the “heavenly” world of “forms” contains the ethical ideals which we see realized in particular acts of goodness on earth. In Aristotle, God is the “unmoved mover”—the being who sets in motion the infinite series of cause and effect which we see unfolding in the world around us. In the Christian tradition of the Middle Ages, Anselm sought to prove the existence of God as “that being greater than which cannot be conceived.” In each of these philosophers, God’s existence and attributes are seen as timeless connections to the universe as a whole rather than connections to one people’s story.
From your reading in early Jewish literature (including the Hebrew scriptures), your textbook, and class lectures, write a paper in which you answer the following questions: Who is the God of Israel? How are the identities of God and Israel tied together? What is “good” for this God to do? What is “good” for Israel to do, and how do they know? How does this Jewish conception of God differ from the God of the Western philosophical tradition (outlined above)? Having answered these questions, spend at least one (1) page reflecting on the following: which God more closely matches to your conception of who God is (or who God would be if you believed in God) and why? Which God do you find more compelling and why?

My only problem with your question is the implication that you must absolutely choose between the two.

Yes. I've written about this from a different perspective recently as well:

Ok, let's try that again: here

Ok, now for my third comment. You know how your kids will do things in their childishness that is absolutely hysterical, and when they're in bed you'll share the story with your wife or close friend and just laugh and laugh?

I think God must spend a great deal of time just doubled over in laughter .

46 comments!? Good Lord, girl! That's more than I've ever had on any post!

Me too.

I went out and told a lot of bloggers I was hosting this discussion and gave them the link to get back.

But the deeper answer is that, when we use these terms, we mostly don't know what on Earth (or in Heaven) we are talking about.

And so with God. In scripture we are given a gift beyond measure. We are given something far deeper than a series of philosophical statements. We are given a story. We are given a drama that unfolds and expands and progresses, until we find ourselves even now taking part in it.

Wonders, don't you see that your second statement carries along with it the same errors as the first? You acknowledge that thinking of God and infinity in terms familiar to men trapped in time and space is a categorical error, yet the Scriptures merely spin a narrative out of that very error. Just as the Taoist would say that the Tao that can be named is not the real Tao, then the God that can be envisioned as a man cannot be the real God.

You acknowledge that thinking of God and infinity in terms familiar to men trapped in time and space is a categorical error, yet the Scriptures merely spin a narrative out of that very error.

No, I don't acknowledge that at all, actually - you're misreading my essay (which may well be my fault for poor writing). I do think we can know real things about God, not least because we are actually built to image God. I don't think the philosophical approach to God is trash - I just want to caution against its misuse and recognize its limitations.

Here is a problem that extends beyond Philosphical Theology. Often the academic agenda is very different from the agenda of the church. the questions are different. Academic disciplines are powerful tools, but they are not the driving force. The text is for the readers and the faith community as people who have to decide, believe, live and love. Academic disciplines are powerful but limited in scope - your Philosophy Prof is not your spiritual guide. (Well, the one I had who liked to dress like Castro certainly wasn't for me!)
The greatest commandment is not to "think rigorously" but to love God. The second should include the first, but the first does not quite include the second.

In the poetic interlude in Job 28, where the question is twice asked "where is wisdom to be found", and explores human ability to dig for treasure, but our inabilty to discover wisdom, the conclusion is:
Job 28:28
And he said to man,
'Behold, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom,
and to turn away from evil is understanding.' "

Philosophy is the "love of wisdom."

Beautifully put, WFO. I like the veiled reference to Boethius...

By nature I am partial to the "God of the philosophers," as the reasoning which leads to Him is so compelling. However, I believe in the God of Christian revelation, and what He has chosen to make known through Scripture (and Tradition...) must be held, as you said, in tension with what we know from reason.

I don't know that we will ever be able to resolve that tension on this side of Heaven, and that is not a bad thing. In fact, it engenders humility like little else.

On a different note, what role do you think apophatic theology plays in this debate?

Oh, water to a dry and parched field! We are to love wisdom, to humbly, feebly be beggards for it. To delight in it and crave it like food to a hungry stomach. But instead we have discarded the innards, cast them as waste and all we have left is the empty shell: words and sentences-letters organized into sentences. Modern wisdom delights in air tight arguments and categories. And this is not the ancient path. All that is missing is humility, the very antithesis of air tight arguments. Pascal says it best, "The eternal silence of these infinite spaces fills me with dread."

hey, i had a question for all you philosophers, could some one explane why in 2 samuel 24:9 the number of censed people is diferent than in 1 cronicals 21:1-5. thanke you all

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