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Some visceral reactions to “analytic theology”

October 22, 2009 21 comments

I recently picked up the new volume Analytic Theology: New Essays in the Philosophy of Theology, edited by Oliver Crisp and Michael Rea and I have to say I am kind of stumped by what exactly the book is all about. As far as I can tell, for Crisp, the proposal of “analytic theology” is basically a plea to contemporary theologians to give analytic philosophy, and in particular, analytic philosophy of religion, another chance. In his essay Crisp fields a number of expected objections to the use of analytic philosophy in theology. He anticipates, for instance, the objection that “‘analytic theology’ might look like a Trojan horse,” an attempt to smuggle into “the citadel of theology potentially destructive alien ideas” (34). In response, Crisp reminds us that theology has always used the best available philosophical insights of the day (e.g., the patristics employed Greek philosophy, Thomas used Aristotle, etc.). Theology, in other words, has always employed philosophy as a “handmaid,” that is, theology has always made some “instrumental use of reason” for explicitly theological ends. Certainly this type of objection will be made, but it certainly strikes me as a strange one, for it seems more than obvious that theology never has nor can it escape or adequately avoid properly philosophical problems.

The real objections most theologians will have with this project will have little to do with the question of the use of reason in the theological task. Instead, it seems to me the objections will stem mostly from visceral reactions depending on how one feels about the current state of analytic philosophy in general and analytic philosophy of religion in particular. Although Crisp does not want to debate the merits or demerits of continental philosophy, this is unfortunately the central issue as far as I’m concerned. Most theologians have no real problems with drawing from philosophy for theological ends, but by and large theologians in recent times it seems have tended to find the “continental approach” to be more amenable to the theological task than the “analytic approach.” For whatever reason, this has been the case. Whether this is on account of the perceived “dry” nature of analytic philosophy or real objections to the starting point and methods of the “analytic approach,” this is just the reality of things.

Crisp tries to unpack a bit of what he thinks to be the “virtues” of the so-called “analytic approach,” but I’m simply not convinced that these virtues are somehow unique to analytic philosophy. Crisp doesn’t say that the named virtues of analytic philosophy, such as, “logical rigor, clarity, and parsimony of expression,” are somehow absent from continental philosophy but this seems to be what in the end is implicitly suggested. Let me just say that I am all ears here–I am open to hearing Crisp out. But, I have to be honest: all I can glean from Crisp’s proposal is the basic suggestion that theologians should actually read Swinburne even though he might be a little more boring than Zizek! Perhaps I am being totally unfair here. For the record, I read Crisp’s book on Christology and if it is any indication of what “analytic theology” is like than I am more than open to exploring the possibilities.

Zizek on capitalism and new age spirituality

May 27, 2009 9 comments

I recently acquired Creston Davis’ The Monstrosity of Christ: Paradox or Dialectic, which features articles by Slavoj Zizek and John Milbank and contains an introduction by Creston. If you’ve ever read Zizek you know how much he loves to rip into New Age spirituality. Here’s a gem from his article in the volume:

Postcolonial critics like to dismiss Christianity as the “whiteness” of religions: the presupposed zero level of normality, of the “true” religion, with regard to which all other religions are distortions or variations. However, when today’s New Age ideologists insist on the distinction between religion and spirituality (the perceive themselves as spiritual, not part of any organizationed religion), they (often no so) silently impose a “pure” procedure of Zen-like spiritual meditation as the “whiteness” of religion. The idea is that all religions presuppose, rely on, exploit, manipulate, etc., the same core of mystical experience, and that it is only “pure” forms of meditation like Zen Buddhism that exemplify this core directly, bypassing institutional and dogmatic mediations. Spiritual meditation, in its abstraction from institutionalized religion, appears today as the zero-level undistorted core of religion: the complex institutional and dogmatic edifice which sustains every particular religion is dismissed as a contingent secondary coating of this core. The reason for this shift of accent from religious institution to the intimacy of spiritual experience is that such a meditation is the ideological form that best fits today’s global capitalism.

Slavoj Zizek, “The Fear of Four Words: A Modest Plea for the Hegelian Reading of Christianity,” in The Monstrosity of Christ: Paradox or Dialectic, ed. Creston Davis (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009) 27-28.

Person and Being: Key Points

March 5, 2009 Leave a comment

On the basis of the majority of my posts, it might come as a surprise to hear that I actually spend a great deal of time studying Thomistic metaphysics. After all, as I’ve mentioned before, I attend one of the most Thomistic divinity schools in the country. Anyway, I’ve been reading Person and Being written by the late Thomistic philosopher theologian and Jesuit W. Norris Clarke, SJ. and I’ve decided to post his key points as I read through it.

1. One theme that is overlooked in Aquinas, but is nonetheless central to his ontology is that being is “intrinsically active and self-communicating” (6). Furthermore, for Aquinas, the telos, the natural goal of being itself is dynamic self-expression and self-communication. Being through action is oriented toward communicating itself to others.

2. All beings possess intrinsic dynamism toward self-communicative action because “they are all diverse modes of participation in the infinite goodness of the one Source, whose very being is self-communicative love” (11). In Clarke’s view, this is grounded in the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. The Father communicates and gives his whole being to the Son and in an act of mutual love the Father and Son bring forth the Spirit. The inner life of God as self-communicative love flows into creation.

3. Relationality is “a primordial dimension” of being that is inseparable from the substance of being. Although they are distinct from one another, relationality and substantiality “go together.” Just as being is intrinsically oriented toward self-communicating activity, so is being as substantiality oriented toward relationality.

4. Although substance and relation are both primordial to being, substance is nevertheless logically prior to relationality. As Clarke notes, “the very meaning of relation implies that it is between two terms that it is connecting, between two relateds” (16). Substance is the in-itself of being and is logically necessary for any conception of relationality—for it is substance that is in relation.

5. If being is intrinsically self-communicative, then it must also be intrinsically receptive. If being is communicative there must be a receiver, a listener, for it to be meaningful at all. In Clarke’s view, this is evident especially in the persons of the Trinity. The Father is the giver and the Son is the receiver. The receptive nature of the Son does not signal anything lesser about the Son. The notion of receptivity as essentially a passive and negative attribute must be rejected. All being-in-relation involves a complex dynamic of self-communication and reception in order for it to be meaningful.

Philosophy’s Service to Theology: Bonhoeffer’s Use of Philosophy

February 23, 2009 5 comments

Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s first two works Sanctorum Communio and Act and Being represent a remarkable attempt to bring philosophy into the service of theology. Although Bonhoeffer’s thought can be distinguished from Karl Barth in other ways, it becomes especially evident in the former’s employment of philosophical thought. What I love about Bonhoeffer’s use of philosophy is how unabashedly theological he is about it. Bonhoeffer’s use of philosophy does not reveal a thinker who is more “open” to the “world” than Barth, that is to say, Bonhoeffer is no more confident in humanity’s ability to comprehend God than Barth. Rather, Bonhoeffer is keenly aware that all human thinking remains just that, human thinking. The I remains always within itself and for precisely this reason it fails to understand even itself. The I is inverted into itself or with Luther, cor curvum in se (the heart turned in on itself). He asserts, “Thinking is as little able as good works to deliver the cor curvum in se from itself” (Act and Being 80). For Bonhoeffer, in order for the I to begin to understand itself it must be encountered and overwhelmed in its existence by an other. To be “in the truth” is not a human initiative, but God’s initiative. Even this, the idea that human beings cannot place themselves into the truth, is not a “self-evident proposition.” Rather, the very knowledge of our “untruth” is revealed to us in revelation in the way of judgment.

Bonhoeffer’s use of philosophy is, therefore, both critical and always within the context of revelation. The purpose of a Christian philosophy can never be the attempt to establish “first principles” or the nature of “being” as such. Philosophy, even a “critical” philosophy, cannot adequately describe reality independently and without reference to Christ. This is not to say that philosophy is not finally useful–it in fact is. Philosophical categories are helpful and indeed crucial to understanding the character of human existence, particularly the sociality of our existence, in light of revelation. As I mentioned above, Bonhoeffer is not afraid to show his cards early on–philosophy must be in service to theology–it cannot adequately stand alone. But, neither can theology. Theology needs to seek forms of thinking that are appropriate to the character of revelation; theology needs to make fundamental philosophical decisions. In reflecting on revelation and the church, theology must utilize philosophical and sociological categories that are appropriate. Indeed, revelation yields its own epistemology, anthrolopology, and social ontology. To the extent that theology remains faithful to the new reality opened up in Christ, it should be free to utilize philosophical catergories in a disciplined manner.

On the financial crisis

October 14, 2008 Leave a comment

A couple interesting articles on the current financial crisis: “Welcome to the faith-based economy” by Arjun Appadurai and Slavoj Zizek’s “Don’t Just Do Something, Talk”

Liberalism’s project of universal redemption

June 10, 2008 1 comment

“The violence at the heart of liberal political doctrine makes this clear: the right to self-defense eventually calls for a project of universal redemption. Another way of putting this is to say that some humans have to be treated violently in order that humanity can be redeemed.”

Talal Asad, On Suicide Bombing (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007) 62-63.

Zizek on Democracy Now!

May 21, 2008 2 comments

One of the best journalists in the U.S. Amy Goodman recently interviewed the so-called “intellectual rock star” Slavoj Zizek on Iraq, Bush, and the War on Terror. You can watch, listen, or read the transcript of Part I and Part II.
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Zizek on Denkverbot

February 28, 2008 2 comments

This is sort of a long quote to post, but I thought it was worth posting. Zizek does a good job of articulating the real obstacles revolutionary thought faces today. I think these are also the very obstacles that an articulation of a truly public theology faces in liberal democracies.

Fidelity to the democratic consensus means the acceptance of the present liberal-parliamentary consensus, which precludes any serious questioning of how this liberal-democratic order is complicit in the phenomena it officially condemns and, of course, any serious attempt to imagine a society whose sociopolitical order would be different. In short, it means say and write whatever you want on the condition that what you do does not effectively question or disturb the predominant political consensus. So everything is allowed, solicited even, as a critical topic: the prospects of global ecological catastrophy, violations of human rights, sexism, homophobia, antifeminism, growing violence not only in faraway countries but also in our megalopolises, the gap between the First and the Third World, between the rich and the poor, the shattering impact of the digitalization of our daily lives, and so on. There is nothing easier today than to get international, state, or corporate funds for mulitdisciplinary research into how to fight new forms of ethnic, religious, or sexist violence. The problem is that all this occurs against the background of a fundamental Denkverbot, a prohibition against thinking. Today’s liberal-democratic hegemony is sustained by a kind of unwritten Denkverbot similar to the infamous Berufsverbot in Germany of the late sixties; the moment one shows a minimal sign of engaging in political projects that aim to seriously challenge the existing order, the answer is immediately: “Benevolent as it is, this will necessarily end in a new gulag!” And it is exactly the same thing that the demand for scientific objectivity means; the moment one seriously questions the existing liberal consensus, one is accused of abandoning scientific objectivity for the outdated ideological positions. This is the point that one cannot and should not concede: today, actual freedom of thought must mean the freedom to question the predominant liberal-democratic post-ideological consensus – or it means nothing.


Slavoj Zizek, “A Plea for Leninist Intolerance,” Critical Inquiry 28 (2002) 544-545.

Categories: Quotes, Slavoj Žižek

Foucault vs Chomsky 1971

February 23, 2008 11 comments

I just had to share this wonderful footage of a conversation between Michel Foucault and Noam Chomsky in 1971. Personally, I think Foucault is absolutely right. Chomsky seems quite naive in this video. Watch how nervous Foucault gets when Chomsky speaks of human nature.

Part One

Part Two

Hell and Enlightenment

February 21, 2008 6 comments

According to Immanuel Kant “Enlightenment is man’s release from his self-incurred tutelage” (Kant, 85). As he defines it, “Tutelage is man’s inability to make use of his understanding without direction from another. Self-incurred is this tutelage when its cause lies not in lack of reason but in lack of resolution and courage to use it without direction from another” (Kant, 85). Put negatively, Enlightenment for Kant is an event of revolt that occurs within the human subject and is directed against authority and tradition. It is, above all, the meaning of “human maturity,” for to be mature in Kant’s mind, is to be autonomous from all others. Put positively, for Kant Enlightenment is an event of freedom to seek knowledge and truth. Enlightenment opens up the individual to discover the world of ideas for oneself. The persistance of immaturity in human sociey is primarily to due to a “lack of resolution” and “courage,” which Kant attributes to “laziness” and “cowardice.” In this view, the reason why humans take orders from others or allow themselves to be dependent on others is by and large to due to slothfulness and reluctance to think for oneself.

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In his article “What is Enlightenment,” Kant understands Enlightenment to consist of both an event of revolt and an event of freedom, which is primarily a task of the individual for the sake of the individual. However, for Kant Enlightenment is also a broader socio-historical process towards which human history points. In other words, Enlightenment is the telos of human history. Enlightenment as an event of freedom is most especially “the freedom to make public use of one’s reason at every point.” In contrast, one’s private use of reason must inevitably resort to some submission to authority. To illustrate this point, Kant uses the example of an officer in the military in direct military service and an officer away from duty to distinguish between private and public reason. The officer should obey his superior while on duty (private reason) and make critical remarks in in public “as a scholar” (public reason).

Kant’s distinction is an important one to note because it illustrates the essentially bourgeois nature of Kant’s Enlightenment. The officer is charged to obey his authority in private lest he becomes a cog in the wheel, so to speak, while in public he is charged to articulate his criticisms in a scholarly form in order to advance the workings of the system itself, that is, improve the system. But public scholarly discourse is almost exclusively in the hands of the elite, the educated, and so Kant’s Enlightenment does not provide any resources for the lower rungs of society, those who are charged to obey orders daily. The hope is that Enlightenment will, in a sense, “trickle down.”

Kant’s hope for the Enlightenment of human society, which is nothing but the ability of a society and particularly an individual to critique, presupposes the possibility of a disembodied human existence free from the constraints of all power and authority. Even if such autonomy and freedom were possible in Kant’s sense of the word, this would surely leave the individual in total isolation from others. The rejection of any dependence on others or what is other, whether this be in the form of another person, tradition, authority, or God, is to isolate oneself from the other. In the Christian tradition we have a name for this: hell.

Categories: Kant
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