The domain of Truth – Jacques Ellul

Before this summer I knew nothing of Jacques Ellul.  I discovered the late French theologian and social critic almost by accident, when I glanced into his book, The Humiliation of the Word, and heard a voice that, as they say, “spoke to my condition” (La Parole humiliée, 1981; ET Erdmans, 1985).

Jacques Ellul (1912-1994)

It’s no secret that philosophy adores the supreme importance of language.  But Ellul takes this principle much more seriously than most philosophers. For him the Word has become the sole provenance of Truth. Which means that Truth must be considered independently of all images and sense data.

“language … permits us to go beyond the reality of mere existence to… something different from the sensually verifiable universe.  Language is not bound to reality, but to its capacity to create this different universe, which you may call surreal, meta-real, or metaphysical. For the sake of convenience we will call it the order of truth. The word is the creator, founder, and producer of truth.” (1.2)

Ellul compensates for this wholesale dethronement of images and other sense data from the court of Truth by readily conceding to them the illustrious name ‘Reality.’

By differentiating Truth from Reality – and by relegating so much interesting stuff to ‘Reality,’ Ellul makes it clear he does not aim to dismiss the significance of images and sense data.  He is determined only to prevent all such categorically foreign elements from obscuring the search for Truth.

I don’t know if Ellul’s generous concession can appease the most shrill acolytes of science, who – unlike actual scientists – believe scientific method to be the universal solvent of all really tough human problems.  But we are probably not equipped for understanding Ellul if we do not thoroughly understand that accuracy is an epistemological value existing on a lower moral level than veracity.

Theologians, too, may find it hard to give up words like ‘image’ and ‘reality’ in honor of Truth – until they remember that this concession is at least in keeping with teachings that have never equated truth-seeking with pursuit of images or of the data of the five senses.

When Ellul differentiates Word from Image, he does not separate language from ‘reality’ – he merely assigns it a certain dominance.  In one example, language shows its power over images and sense data by the fact that the race of speakers hold a distinct evolutionary advantage over non-speaking predators (though we are less endowed with speed, strength, endurance, intuition, reflex, etc.). But Ellul does not view evolutionary advantage as a standard of Truth – in fact he views the evolutionary gains of language as only an epiphenomenon of the Word. While he would admit that language is the secret of material mastery, he would insist that its real essence as the Word unlocks higher attainments that utterly transcend all material forms of success.

“What is Truth?”  Ellul hears the question being asked, but wisely avoids definitions of Truth in terms of observable or identifiable content. Instead he recommends we discover what belongs to the domain of Truth ourselves, by seeking to understand it as the object of our highest human endeavor.

“Anything concerned with the ultimate destination of a human being belongs to the domain of Truth.  And by ‘destination’ in this sense I mean ‘meaning and direction in life’. We can add to this everything that refers to the establishment of a scale of values which allows a person to make significant personal decisions, and everything related to the debate over Justice and Love and their definition.” (1.3)

I’m not sure I have ever underlined a book more often than I did this one.  Jacques Ellul makes me want to go back to Kant’s epoch-making arguments for the primacy of Practical Reason (First and Second Critiques) and reopen the whole discussion on behalf of religion that Fichte more or less fumbled, and that Schleiermacher seems only to have made ambiguous to modern minds.

Albert C. Knudson – American theologian

The school of “Boston Personalism” which flourished in the first half of the twentieth century deserves a higher public awareness – their relative obscurity is significant for my thesis that Christianity’s best modern minds have been undeservedly “submerged” by historical forces which favored less worthy ideas.

Gary Dorrien (Union Theol. Sem.) brings this sunken strand of personalist theology and philosophy closer to the surface in Vol. 3 of his history of liberal theology.

The most coherent school of American liberal theology took its inspiration from the personalistic idealism of a single thinker. Borden Parker Bowne [1847-1910]. (Gary Dorrien, The Making of American Liberal Theology, Vol. 3, Idealism, Realism, and Modernity, p. 286)

Albert Cornelius Knudson (1873-1953) earned his Ph.D. under B.P. Bowne in 1900 and eventually became dean of the Boston University School of Theology and the premier theologian of the Boston Personalists.

Knudson was the product of Midwest Methodist piety and a graduate school conversion… Though he came late to his theological calling [note: he began his career teaching Old and New Testament criticism], it was Knudson especially who made Bowne-style personalism a significant theological school   (Dorrien, p. 286)

And, in honor of Father’s Day:

His father Asle was a distinguished and impeccably orthodox Methodist pastor… Knudson later recalled that the sanctificationist Wesleyan piety of his parents was “all very simple, but it was intensely real and vivid.” It remained vitally real to him long after he discarded much of his father’s theology. “I was allowed to go my own way, and no regret was expressed at my later departure from some of the tenets of the traditional evangelicalism in which I had been brought up. Whatever may have been my father’s feelings about the matter, he had an instinctive reverence for the honest convictions of others and was quite willing that I should work out my own intellectual salvation.” (Ibid, 286-7)

Knudson’s parents were immigrants from Norway and “their home life and Asle Knudson’s preaching emphasized the centrality of spiritual experience.“ (p. 286)

A second important theological and practical influence in Boston personalistic theology came from Methodist bishop Francis J. McConnell, also with a Ph.D. under Bowne.

The philosopher of the school was Edgar Sheffield Brightman, a late student of Bowne’s and a professor of philosophy at Boston U.

The rise of personalism at Boston ought to have been an inspiration for a generation of liberals, whose optimism was badly stunned by the intransigence of the corporate barons and the horrors of WWI.

“Boston Personalism” acquired school status in the very years that liberal self-confidence began to erode.” (p. 286)

American theology has always been limited by its division between competing sects. I think the Methodist antecedents of the Boston school probably created a certain indifference on the part of non-Methodist religious thinkers. Many Methodists themselves disliked the Boston school’s more liberal approach to theology and scripture.

I think a perverse sectarianism infects much of American religious thought even today.  Each denomination has always had its own seminaries and its own journals – filled with opinionated criticism of new developments in their own and in all other denominations.  Although each sect had in every generation at least one thinker of unusual caliber, there were no ‘schools’ formed beyond the pale of a given denomination. I think the lack of community among different types of religious genius in this country has thwarted progressive Christianity.  Not until the rise of non-sectarian universities in the late 19th century did the American mind finally bear the fruit of its diverse genius – unfortunately by that time the advances were chiefly limited to non-religious concerns.

Personal knowledge and the worldview of Personalism

Michael Polanyi was an internationally regarded Professor of Physical Chemistry at Manchester University when he was selected to deliver the 1951-52 Gifford Lectures at the University of Aberdeen.

I start by rejecting the ideal of scientific detachment. In the exact sciences this false ideal is perhaps harmless, for it is in fact disregarded there by scientists. But we shall see that it exercises a destructive influence in biology, psychology and sociology, and falsifies our whole outlook far beyond the domain of science. – published as Personal Knowledge, U. Chicago, 1957, vii

The Manchester academic Senate and Council judged the invitation and resulting lectures important enough to allow Dr. Polanyi to exchange his Chair of Physical Chemistry for a Professorial appointment without lecturing duties; an arrangement lasting 9 years, which enabled him to both prepare the lectures and write the ensuing book

“The personal participation of the knower in all acts of understanding does not make our understanding subjective. Comprehension is neither an arbitrary act nor a passive experience, but a responsible act claiming universal validity. Such knowing is indeed objective in the sense of establishing contact with a hidden reality; a contact that is defined as the condition for anticipating an indeterminate range of yet unknown (and perhaps yet inconceivable) true implications. It seems reasonable to describe this fusion of the personal and the objective as Personal Knowledge.”

I’ve owned Polanyi’s books for years, and read a good deal of his writing years ago. I was glad to get back to it this week after a fresh jolt of inspiration from the blog of Swedish philosopher Jan Olof Bengtsson, who has been posting his notes on American philosopher and Personalist Borden Parker Bowne (1847-1910) – material not included in Bengtsson’s 2006 book, The Worldview of Personalism: origins and early development.

B. P. Bowne is another old interest of mine, and I own old used copies of nearly all of his books. Thanks to Jan Olof, I am currently re-reading Personalism (1908), containing the substance of the 1907 Harris Lectures at Northwestern University, Chicago.

From Bowne’s 1908 preface: “The aim of these lectures is to show that critical reflection brings us back again to the personal metaphysics which Comte rejected. We agree with him that abstract and impersonal metaphysics is a mirage of formal ideas, and even largely of words which begin, continue, and end in abstraction and confusion. … Causal explanation must always be in terms of personality, or it must vanish altogether.”

It was Bowne’s contention that the only formal setting of experience able to give a concrete knowledge of causation (after Hume’s destructive analysis) is derived from our personal experience as agents of stasis and change. Thus all knowledge of effects requires the primacy of what I would call the Form of the Personal.

Back to Polanyi: “Into every act of knowing there enters a passionate contribution of the person knowing what is being known, and this coefficient is no mere imperfection but a vital component of his knowledge. And around this central fact I have tried to construct a system of correlative beliefs which I can sincerely hold, and to which I can see no acceptable alternatives.”

I think these two personalists would characterize today’s materialist schools in psychology and the humanities as monuments to intellectual cowardice; a surrender of moral insight and creative power to the human need for authority conceived as objective and detached – but not at all proper to the advance of knowledge in those particular fields.

Bowne: “Some harmless-looking doctrine is put forth in epistemology, and soon there is an agnostic chill in the air that is fatal to the highest spiritual faiths of the soul.”

Polanyi: “Personal Knowledge is an intellectual commitment, and as such inherently hazardous. Only affirmations that could be false can be said to convey objective knowledge of this kind.”

The Kantian philosophy as handmaid of religion and science

In my recent criticism of John Milbank’s frequent dissing of Immanuel Kant I forgot to say that I am completely sympathetic with the professor’s desire to embarrass the sloppy metaphysics of atheism.  I applaud Milbank’s aim to discomfit our current secular dogmatists who presume the model of ‘science’ is on the side of their own uncritical metaphysical materialisms.

But again, Kant has already shown – over 200 years ago – that the authority of the scientific method doesn’t carry over to the solution of the ‘hard problems’ of metaphysics.  True, the critical philosophy rejects apodictic certainty in theology’s intellectual determinations of its object .  But it also demolished the scientific basis of all claims that theology has no meaningful object.

I’m guessing Prof. Milbank has rejected Kant’s help against scientific materialism because he desires to do metaphysics himself in the grand style of Aquinas, which he knows is also disallowed by Kant.

But a part of Kant’s great service to philosophy makes it also a service to truth in science and religion – he never made the mistake of equating the method of philosophy with the method of science.  His ‘charter of autonomy’ for philosophy gave it independence from both science and religion, and this dual independence actually suits the role of ancilla (handmaiden) required by any theology worthy of a living faith – and by any science worthy of its name and methodology.

The impression I got from reading Milbank last year is that his criticism of Kant cites the Religion book much more than the Critiques.  This I think is the source of his negativity – and I will say I have never been satisfied with the grasp of religion shown by Kant in Religion within the Limits of Pure Reason (although I saw more than I had seen before in a recent reading of that book, remarked last month).

I don’t blame Milbank for seeing Kant’s specifically religious writing as too much akin to the old failed Natural Theology.  But Kant’s criticism of religion’s clerical and popular superstitions and fanaticisms is more cogent and cleansing than any that can be raised by the atheist.

I think a philosophy inspired by the three Critiques can certainly offer an ancillary role in the exploration of the relations of the object of faith to the real world – particularly its moral relations.  But again the one condition – perhaps hardest for Milbank to accept – is that the theologian who makes Kant his handmaiden must give up the attempt to construct a final metaphysics.

Theology and Philosophy – Milbank or Kant?

I hope that friends of the next theology will join me in welcoming the recent remark by John Milbank, in his 2011 Stanton Lectures, that the truer legacy of Thomas Aquinas is better sought “in the current of German Dominican mysticism and its Renaissance heirs” than in the soi-disant “Thomists” of a later day.

However, I cannot square this much-needed tip of the hat in the direction of religious experience with prof. Milbank’s later dismissal of Kant and the post-critical philosophy in the same lecture.  I’m wondering if he has any idea – since he doesn’t mention their names – that a very interesting turn to the subject characterized the work of some post-critical theologians – for example in the very adequate theologies of experience offered by Friedrich Schleiermacher and urged by Soren Kierkegaard.

Here I only wonder out loud about why it seems so important for Milbank to corral and brand Kant as of the herd of Duns Scotus, alleging that “an entire double current of both possibilism and transcendentalism flows from Scotus through Suarez through Wolff to Kant himself.”

Kantian Possibilism?  I have seen this argument in the secondary literature of the Analytical school, but I think they and Prof. Milbank will both miss the key to understanding Kant’s service to theology if they emphasize a single phrase like “Condition of possibility” with a view toward selling this as the sine qua non of a Kantian metaphysics that is all downstream from Scotus.

This gets complicated.  But for the blog, I’m only going to begin the argument with a statement of what I think the definition of philosophy must be if we are going to come to a satisfactory idea of its true relation to theology.

Philosophy’s task is to provide the intellectual methodology by which a person can be capable of simultaneously possessing both a genuine knowledge and a genuine faith.

By this I mean to cover a situation in which (a) the religious method of faith (whatever that turns out to be) cannot rule out-of-hand against the objective data of relations in and with the finite world and (b) the scientific method cannot rule out-of-hand against the subjective data of relationship with God.  As my definition implies, I’m actually talking about one and the same philosophical person using a pure philosophy to negotiate these two sides of the coin of real experience.

A careful reader should see Kant’s name written all over this definition of mine.  But metaphysics?  Not so much that can ‘go forward as science,’ as Kant would say.  Negatives aside, I think the positives in the Kantian program should be seen as good for theology.

I find one other Kantian sympathizer has blogged her misgivings of the lecture’s approach to the Critical Philosophy – Crystal also includes a clip of a Kant lecture by Keith Ward.

HT to Lee for the link to Crystal

And to Marc Cortez for the link to Milbank’s lecture.

Kant’s Religion and Schleiermacher’s Faith

I am inspired (again) by the mind of Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) – the occasion this time being my third trip through Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone (1793, 2nd 1794 – ET 1934).  I’ve read and re-read a lot of Kant’s books since making my first attempt at the Critique of Pure Reason in 1975.  When my wife saw me paging through the Critique again about 7 years ago she asked, “Weren’t you reading that book when we first met?” (like, haven’t you finished that yet?).  But in my view Kant merits (and rewards) re-reading above all other philosophers.

My second solo study of the Religion was only five years ago (margin notes – no paper).  But this week I benefitted a lot from the discipline of a 25-page per day format and the knowledge that I was accompanied by three other students.   Before the new year started I found this very interesting 2011 reading plan in theology so attractive that I’m going to try to keep up with Jeremy and bloggers Wes Hargrove , and A.J. Smith  at least through April, catching the ‘Liberal’ works on his list.  A.J. will lead off the commentary on Jeremy’s blog soon, and I hope to add comments to their posts.

I think my old T.M. Greene translation served me well once again, but I found Werner Pluhar’s 2009 translation, which has some improvements – including an introduction by Steven Palmquist (which amounts to saying I’m bound to read this great work a fourth time someday and am actually looking forward to it).

Meanwhile I’m already embarked on the plan’s second volume, Schleiermacher’s The Christian Faith (1820/31 – ET 1928).  You think you know what he meant by Absolute Dependence and God-consciousness?  Think again – and join us if you can for 25-pages a day (just started) in this classic work of theology (I haven’t read this one myself except for scattered parts of the text).

The advance of philosophy – one mind at a time

The most vital and powerful young minds, if not blessed by adequate guidance in philosophy, will often show evidence of their native ability by devouring and mastering any system which presents itself in an attractively wrapped package of reasoning, no matter how fatally flawed it may be. 

With the shortage in our society of good philosophical mentoring at the secondary school level, many young thinkers today discover Ayn Rand for themselves in such isolated circumstances.  The real test of their acumen, then, is whether they can – in honest companionship with deeper and more difficult writing in college and beyond – liberate themselves from Rand’s triumphal oratory.

I like to think that a mind of sufficient strength and reflective power will always eventually take down the mental scaffolding of early ideologies and take up instead the enduring company of genuine thinkers.  This morning I found a post by a philosophy student unknown to me, whose blogging notes on Max Scheler’s philosophy I have occasionally noticed from the sidelines.  The post, “leaving rand,” reveals an interesting story of this student’s breakthrough to true philosophy with the help of Scheler and Kant, and Levinas and others.  I pass it on as rare evidence of the kind of reflective power and mental flexibility which I think is in precious short supply among the youth of our very unphilosophical age.

Nurturing my philosophical side: Reading event for Kant

In the next few weeks I hope to be participating in the discussion of Kant with Robert Minto and friends at the Anti-Moderate.  I would call  The Critique of Pure Reason the most important single work in modern philosophy, although it points to the second Critique with enough persistence to be called half of a double work.

Unlike some, I view this book as more of a help to theism than a threat.  Granted, it’s tough on metaphysics and the alleged philosophical ‘proofs’ of God and the soul’s immortality which some theists depend upon.  But my metaphysics does not depend wholly on reason; it looks to subjectivity, value, wisdom, faith, and revelation for the total picture.