Monday, November 01, 2004

We Kant Go On Like This

In this exchange about the epicopagans, Fr. Jake says:

"Where we differ is your assumption that you believe that 'absolute truth' can be perceived by a human being. It is your perception of the truth, as any first year philosophy student would tell you."

I'm going to object to this claim, because I think it is a rationalization of the real difference.

In looking at the differences and trying to prune away enough jargon to be able to explain it to my 11-year-old, I quickly come upon an obvious result: two straightforward statements about what the numinous is like-- and I don't need the word "numinous" to explain either of them. One side says that God has a specific nature which is adequately spelled out in the Bible, and that other deities aren't if fact really God, and that discriptions of God which disagree with the Bible are, well, wrong. To get the fundamentalist boogeyman out of here, I need to add that disclaimers about accuracy for transmission apply. I'm saying the bible is essentially accurate, not absolutely accurate.

The other side says that most religions, if not all, do describe the same divinity, but all are basically flawed because God doesn't really intervene directly in the world, is not really incarnate in a specific historic person, doesn't specify acts of worship, and doesn't have any specific name. And one can pretty much focus it all down to one question: Is the doctrine of the Virgin Birth true?

On the crucial level, there's no religious language at all. "Mary gave birth to a male child even though she had never had sex with anyone." In the ordinary sense that we judge statements of ordinary fact, this is such a statement. And it gets an ordinary answer from either side. Traditionalists say yes, pretty much everyone else says no. (Some people try to claim "it doesn't matter", but I've never found a case where this isn't either an excessively qualified "yes" or a baldly gutless "no".) From "yes", it's a short trip to "If Christ were not arisen, our faith would be in vain"; but the dissent is working from "Since Christ is not arisen,...." And furthermore, for the most part they will provide a baldly ordinary assertion that Mary was made pregnant by some ordinary human male.

In other words, I don't buy the assertion that the supposed change in paradigm is the cause of this. I think that it is the conclusion of it, because it is the resolution of the dissonance between skepticism about Catholic factual claims and commitment to a belief in the numinous.

And what's more, there's nothing novel here. One gets tired of talking about the Gnostics, but the parallels are obvious. The neo-whatever way of talking about sacred story, far from being more modern, is actually one of the oldest ways of talking about myth. Indeed, in the Graeco-Roman world it could be argued that everything we know about mythology is colored by this attitude towards it; it accounts for the decided comic-book quality of Greek myth as we have it.

And beyond that, the picture of traditionalists as unsophisticates is dubious to the point of misrepresentation. C.S.Lewis, for one, is someone whom I would count reasonably learned on the subject of reading mythological texts. And when I read Til We Have Faces I see many, many passages which address these issues.

The bottom line: "it's all perception anyway" is taking the same place in theological rationalization as "it's all relative" did for an earlier generation's capitulation to moral indifference. The first owes no more to Kant than the second does to Einstein.


John said...

There is the other half of the equation - truth. We can perceive things, but they may or may not exist. What is relevant is that we perceive God, and God exists. There is something quite trinitarian about the way this happens.

But to say it's "only" perception assumes a moral standpoint. Perception is important. Imagine perceiving, but only perceiving the wrong thing.

C. Wingate said...

There are problems with the word "perceive" in this anyway because it tends to bias us towards an active agent-- us theologians-- and a passive numinous. To that degree there is something of a paradigm difference, because traditionally Christianity has denied a passive deity. I'm going to chalk this up to the Enlightenment and reject the emphasis on perception as a mistake. Many slight choices in words open this up quite a bit, so that substituting "can be shown truth" for "can perceive truth" for instance largely nullifies the bias (admittedly, by tilting in favor of revelation).

But that said, it still comes back to theories about the numinous per se. The bias against personal gods is interesting but yet can be talked about quite ordinarily in terms of God's nature. And it is not an innovation, but rather an ordinary feature of human consideration of the divine.

At the same time, there's an obvious heresy-- if not blasphemy-- hidden it here. Let me call it "specimization": the reduction of the divine to a thing to be studied. It is all too easy for theologians to substitute talking about for talking to God.

John said...

I think that God is supremely active, but I also think tha God responds. Unless we are marionettes, I don't see why the activity of perception is a problem. Unless, it is our own image of god perceiving God, which is another way of saying like knows like, or that by knowing the holy spirit one can then read God.

I think that some theologians do know how to talk to God, but then, we'd be talking about experiencing God, and that seems to be a big Orthodox bugaboo - that experiencing God is, perhaps, mildly blasphemous. Liberals, after all, "experience" God.