Saturday, April 23, 2016

Waffle irons

Some young Calvinists become very enamored with Thomism. What makes Thomism so appealing? 

1. One motivation is the appeal of social media. A virtual community in which you can achieve social status by making comments that mark your territory. How to be an intellectual showoff on social media. 

2. On a different front, Thomism is so appealing to some because it's so encyclopedic. It has ready-made answers on a whole raft of issues from metaphysics and epistemology to ethics. Calvinism hasn't developed anything equivalent. 

Thomism has these nifty categories, slots that you can put things into, and out pops the answer, viz. form/matter, essence/existence, substance/accident, efficient/formal/material, final causes. 

Like a waffle-iron. Pour in the batter, and out come waffles. The waffle-iron determines what shape the batter will take. 

Of course, that's only a virtue if reality is waffle-shaped.  

3. Aquinas was a great philosophical theologian, a great systematic theologian, as well as an influential ethicist, political theorist, &c. So there's some justification for their interest. That said, the interest in Aquinas often becomes myopic. And there are problems with that. For instance:

i) Philosophy and philosophical theology didn't end with Aquinas, so there's no good reason why he should be the default paradigm. This leads to the neglect of later philosophers and philosophical theologians outside the Thomistic tradition. Especially for Protestants, there should be no presumption that Thomistic ethics, metaphysics, and epistemology are the best framework. For instance, philosophy often uses models and analogies drawn from logic, math, and science. Advances in logic, math, and science can lead to advances in philosophical analysis. In that respect, Thomism has antiquated conceptual resources.

Of course, Thomism has been updated, but like retrofitting an old car, there comes a point when you should stop tweaking carburetor technology and come up with something from scratch. 

ii) Left to his own devices, Aquinas is a very clear thinker. However, he's a loyal churchman first and last. His duty is to defend Medieval Catholic dogma.

That means he's stuck defending things that are hard to defend. He must come up with ingenious defenses of received dogma. That results in lack of clarity. He's unclear, in part, because he's drawing ad hoc distinctions to defend whatever happens to be dogma. He's not the dealer. He plays the hand he was dealt. 

iii) Another problem concerns time management: life is short, books are expensive, there's only 24 hours in a day. Time invested in Thomism is time taken away from other studies. That doesn't mean the philosophically inclined should ignore Thomism, but by the same token, there are other things they shouldn't ignore. It becomes a question of priorities. 

For instance, someone recently asked about some good works on Christology, besides Aquinas and Garrigou-Lagrange. Recommendations included The Metaphysics of the Incarnation: Thomas Aquinas to Duns Scotus (Oxford, 2002), by Richard Cross; The Incarnate Lord: A Thomistic Study of Christology (CUA, 2015) by Thomas Joseph White; Trinity in Aquinas (Sapientia, 2003) & The Trinitarian Theology of St. Thomas Aquinas (Oxford, 2007), by Gilles Emery.

Now, there's an important place for philosophical Christology. But that's not the proper starting point. What we know about Jesus is based on historic revelation. The proper starting point is exegetical theology, not philosophical theology or historical theology. Put another way, philosophical theology should take its point of departure from exegetical theology. In the case of Christology, NT Christology is the foundation. 

If you're going to read high-level works on Christology, begin with exegetical monographs by scholars like Richard Bauckham, Gordon Fee, Simon Gathercole, Larry Hurtado, and Sigurd Grindheim. That supplies the raw material for philosophical analysis and modeling. 

Philosophical Christology that's not firmly grounded in NT Christology is just an exercise in the history of ideas, toying with ideas, how some ideas relate to other ideas. None of this has any basis in the reality of who Jesus actually is. It becomes intellectual idolatry: worshiping our own minds. 

4. It makes sense for a pious Catholic to begin with church dogma. He thinks Mother Church has the correct interpretation of the NT vis-a-vis the person and work of Christ. So that's his starting point. And that's logical, given the faulty premise.

But that's not a premise for Protestants. Unless we begin with revealed truths about Jesus, what we believe is just playacting. 

For instance, if you begin with Aquinas, you must cash out the two natures in terms of Thomistic anthropology (e.g. hylomorphism) and Thomistic theology (e.g. divine simplicity, actus purus, Latin Trinitarianism). You're replacing NT Christology with a simulacrum. 

Ironically, some young Calvinists are more Catholic than Catholicism. There are Catholic philosophers like Nicholas Rescher, Bas van Fraassen, Michael Dummett, and Dagfinn Føllesdal who don't share their infatuation with Thomism. Not to mention entire religious orders (Jesuit, Franciscan) which are at odds with Thomism.

Cardinal Newman took a very different approach to religious epistemology than Aquinas. Likewise, Benedict XVI is, to my knowledge, much more in tune with his favorite church fathers than he is to Aquinas. For that matter, how central was Aquinas to the philosophy/theology of John-Paul II? Wasn't Urs von Balthasar his favorite theologian?

By the same token you have Catholic philosophers like Alexander Pruss who are quite eclectic. He defends the Leibnizian cosmological argument, and has no problem combining Aristotelian and Leibnizian insights on possible worlds. 

Aquinas purist Ed Feser has an amusing taxonomy. Thing is, real philosophers bring some independent judgment to their assessment of Thomism. That's what makes them critical thinkers. Even when they appropriate Thomism, they sift and sort:

Elizabeth Anscombe (1919-2001) and her husband Peter Geach are sometimes considered the first “analytical Thomists,” though (like most writers to whom this label has been applied) they did not describe themselves in these terms, and as Haldane’s somewhat vague expression “mutual relationship” indicates, there does not seem to be any set of doctrines held in common by all so-called analytical Thomists. What they do have in common seems to be that they are philosophers trained in the analytic tradition who happen to be interested in Aquinas in some way; and the character of their “analytical Thomism” is determined by whether it tends to stress the “analytical” side of analytical Thomism, or the “Thomism” side, or, alternatively, attempts to emphasize both sides equally. 
We might tentatively distinguish, then, between three subcategories within the group of contemporary analytic philosophers who have been described as “analytical Thomists.” The first category comprises analytic philosophers who are interested in Aquinas and would defend some of his ideas, but who would also reject certain other key Thomistic claims (perhaps precisely because of their perceived conflict with assumptions prevalent among analytic philosophers) and thus fail to count (or even to count themselves) as “Thomists” in any strict sense. This sort of “analytical Thomism” might be said to emphasize the “analytical” element at the expense of the “Thomism.” Anthony Kenny (who rejects Aquinas’s doctrine of being) and Robert Pasnau (who rejects certain aspects of his account of human nature) would seem to exemplify this first tendency. A second category within analytical Thomism would comprise thinkers who do see themselves as Thomists in some sense, and who would argue that those aspects of Aquinas’s thought which seem to conflict with assumptions common among analytical philosophers can be interpreted or reinterpreted so that there is no conflict. This approach might be said to give both the “analytical” and the “Thomistic” elements of analytical Thomism equal emphasis, and is represented by thinkers like Geach, Brian Davies, and C. F. J. Martin (all of whom would attempt to harmonize Aquinas’s doctrine of being with Frege’s understanding of existence) and Germain Grisez and John Finnis (who would reinterpret Aquinas’s ethics so as to avoid what Moore called the “naturalistic fallacy”). The work of Norman Kretzmann and Eleonore Stump also possibly falls into this second category, though since it is often interpretative and scholarly rather than programmatic, it is harder to say. 
Thomists of other schools have been very critical of both of these strains within analytical Thomism, sometimes to the extent of dismissing the very idea of analytical Thomism as being no more coherent than (in their view) “transcendental Thomism” is. But there is a third possible category of “analytical Thomists,” namely those whose training was in the analytic tradition and whose modes of argument and choice of topics reflects this background, but whose philosophical views are in substance basically just traditional Thomistic ones, without qualification or reinterpretation. Here the “Thomism” would be in the driver’s seat and the “analytical” modifier would reflect not so much the content of the views defended but rather the style in which they are defended.