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Monday, August 27, 2007

I draw my distinction between theology and philosophy from Jean-Luc Marion

larvalsubjects Says: August 25, 2007 at 4:23 pm
Whooeeee that is one of the sharpest distinctions between theology and philosophy that I have read for some time. So philosophy is understood as that search for “truth” that excludes the poetic and theological (sorry that may not be a helpful can of worms to try and open). Was Kierkegaard a philosopher?
In a number of respects, I draw my distinction between theology and philosophy from Jean-Luc Marion who rigorously tries to define the limit of philosophy. I differ from Marion in holding that theologies that posit transcendence ought to be left behind. I read the history of philosophy as the history of attempts to think immanence. These attempts can be deployed in a variety of ways, can be more or less successful, and the question of whether or not immanence has ever been fully thought is entirely open. By immanence I understand the thesis that we don’t need to refer to anything beyond, or to any intervention outside the world, to explain the world or to account for value. Consequently, when Thales says “all is water”, he is appealing to a principle of explanation that is strictly immanent to the world and is breaking with mythos or narrative explanations of the world such as those found in Greek mythology. To complicate matters more, we can have ontological forms of immanence and epistemological forms of immanence, and various combinations of the two. An account is epistemically immanent if it rejects any form of appeal in establishing a conclusion that cannot be arrived at through reason or some form of experience. That is, epistemological immanence rejects any appeals to privileged esoteric experiences, revelation, etc. Ontological immanence would be the principle that there are no causes outside of natural causes.
I don’t think I’m so much excluding poetry from this project (though philosophy and poetry are distinct), as questioning your characterization of poetry as the articulation of the sacred. Certainly a number of poets would themselves take issue with being characterized as Rilkean. The case of theology is complex. Professional theologians mean so many different things by theology, that it’s difficult to make generalizations. Descartes, for example, would fit the criteria of epistemological immanence in his proofs for the existence of God as his conception of God and proof for the existence of God is not premised on any revelation or esoteric experience, but proceeds through reason in a way that all can repeat. His position does not meet the criteria of ontological immanence, as he conceives God as being outside nature or transcendent to being. Spinoza, and Whitehead’s conception of God as I understand it, do meet the ontological forms of immanence. If these are theologies then they fall within the scope of philosophy. The moment a theology appeals to revelation, whether in the form of sacred texts, the authority of a prophet or man in the form of God, or esoteric, non-repeatable experiences, that theology is no longer in the domain of philosophy, though it can certainly remain of interest as a phenomenon to be studied by the psychoanalyst, sociologist, or the anthropologist.
Taking a text like The Sickness Unto Death, I would argue that Kierkegaard is a philosopher up to that precise point where he unfolds the “knight of faith” and speaks of the leap. Prior to this point Kierkegaard is more or less giving a series of phenomenological descriptions describing various forms of lived experience or psychological types. Kierkegaard is quite clear on this himself, and treats his work as a critique of the philosophers. Likewise, I would argue that Plato crosses out of philosophy when, in Book VI of The Republic, he speaks of a Good so transcendent that it is otherwise than being and transcendent to being, and cannot itself be thought. In my view, theologies that are premised on transcendence only become interesting to the philosopher when they carefully demonstrate that, when immanence is carried through, we are still led to posit and irreducible transcendence. This, for instance, is what Marion attempts to do with his “saturated phenomenon”, or what Derrida strives to do sometimes in his discussions of language. Philosophy then comes back and tries to show how this isn’t the case, and so it goes.
I find it interesting that the term “pious” kept coming up in your reply. Is this your formulation or Badiou’s? How is it that this would function as such a compromising element as your comments would imply?
This is my formulation, not Badiou’s (though I suspect he’d be sympathetic). I see the experience of the sacred, as I understand it, as identical to the sort of hypnotic adoration we see in fascist movements or the hypnotic mass group phenomena described by Freud in Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego, and as turning us away from the world and the project of improving our conditions in the world. I associate the sacred with the phenomenon of the sublime and an experience of the transcendent. Large swaths of American Christians are obsessed with the issue of abortion, teen sex, evolution, and gay marriage, and end up voting for a party that exploits them through the way it relates to the interests of large corporations and the environment. These same groups seem to tie their religious beliefs to militaristic, nationalistic, racist, misogynistic, homophobic, authoritarian, anti-intellectual, anti-scientific agendas. Those ministers who have risen up trying to preach a social gospel (devotion to issues of poverty and liberation, rather than primarily the sexual issues which, incidentally, always seems to be about someone else), or stewardship to the environment, or peace, etc., have often been denounced as heretics and received tremendous pressure from the evangelical organizations (as in the case of the current president of the NEA). It seems clear, then, that in many instances, perhaps the majority of instances, these religious groups are intent on maintaining a certain dominant ideology tied in with current structures of capitalism and exploitation.
Are you making a clear distinction between “this path or . . . a pious cryto-theology.”
No, I’m treating them as synonyms, although it is appropriate to speak of “crypto-theologies” where there isn’t an explicit religious discourse arising out of a sacred text, but a structure of thought that posits privileged esoteric experiences and revelations. Much of Derrida’s later work, for instance, could be characterized as “crypto-theological”.
Is the notion of the sacred always obfuscatory and hypnotic.
Yes, I believe so, though it can take more and less dangerous forms.
IndieFaith Says: August 25, 2007 at 6:26 pm
Thanks for your thorough response. I can’t say that I have the stamina to respond to all that right now, much appreciated though.In time I can hopefully do some more work on addressing the potential poverty of categories such as transcendence and immanence (though you did a great job making some important distinctions) for what I am trying to address. My concern with the sacred arises from my reflection on language and beauty and the issue of “presence” (and yes of course flows from confessional commitments).Here is my most substantial piece on language, aesthetics and the sacred.
I would have to put more thought into whether I fall into either of your categories of transcendence. I of course believe in God and God as a relational reality but I don’t find these philosophical categories helpful to speak of this.Thanks again.
larvalsubjects Says: August 25, 2007 at 7:36 pm
Thanks for the link to the fascinating paper. I would fall squarely in some variation of the Douglas camp and have often argued along these lines on this blog. I see no reason that Christianity or any other religion should be treated any differently than Clendinnen treats the Aztecs or Vernant and Detienne approach Greek mythology. Milbank’s argument that such theorist presuppose the social precedes the religious strike me as a misconstrual of what the anthropologist is claiming (the anthropologist and sociologist seeing all these relations bound up with one another in a whole). Not having read his work, however, it’s entirely possible I’m misconstruing his claims or simplifying them.
larvalsubjects Says: August 25, 2007 at 7:40 pm
McCutcheon’s Critics not Caretakers is an excellent read on these issues as well. I would see these anthropological and sociological forms of analysis as a form of critique, showing how apparently religious phenomena can be explained on immanent grounds, thereby allowing us to reject any ontological claims of transcendence.
IndieFaith Says: August 26, 2007 at 2:59 am
I suppose this is where things come to an impasse. Both theology and sociology assume the ability to correctly read and position the other. Milbank was essentially saying that in sociology’s critique of (policing) the sublime that they claim to have seen the “other side” and that there is nothing. Sociology is in no such position or should be more forthright in declaring such assumptions.
This returns us in some respect to your initial quotation in this post. Which narrative is authoritative and on what grounds? I am not sure that the two of us could agree on a mediating third discourse of shared ontology and epistemology. To be a little non-philosophical we are in some ways reduced to the primacy (and hope) of language as the place (perhaps neither the beginning nor the end) of possibility and relationship.
On one other note: “Yet I have to use my lips, teeth, tongue, and ears as well, but I do not treat these as conditions in this way.” Graham Ward (I will have to get the specifics later) writes a great article on the condition of “touch” as all of our senses are also ultimately fields of touch (i.e. the surface of the tongue, ears, eyes, etc.)
N Pepperell Says: August 26, 2007 at 5:28 am
IF - Just a quick and inadequate note, as I’m a bit fuzzy today :-) The sort of critique that Milbank makes - of a form of sociological theory that operates (tacitly or explicitly) from a claim to its own objective or “God’s eye” point of view - would probably seem to many of us to address a form of sociological or anthropological theory that itself contravenes the notion of immanence. The fact that something claims to be sociological, rather than theological, doesn’t necessarily mean that it is immanent - no matter how vociferously it may claim to reject transcendence...

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