Wednesday, December 16, 2009

A Gift of Heaven

This is about the last part of Pieper's section on The Philosophical Act -- chapter IV. In this conclusion, Pieper talks about the relationship of philosophy to theology. I'll put the questions that come up during the chapter in bold font to make it easier to read, since this is looonnng...

Can you have philosophy without religion or at least a theology?

A gift of heaven, which, as I conceive, the gods tossed among men by the hands of a new Prometheus, and therewith a blaze of light; and the ancients, who were our betters and nearer the gods than we are, handed down the tradition...Plato, Philebus

Pieper makes a case in the last chapter of The Philosophical Act that philosophy can't properly get its start without something that has gone before already; theology, defined as the "fund of revelation", "always already" precedes philosophy.

That doesn't mean that philosophy is simply an adjunct to religion, though; or that theology "has" what philosophy "wants" . Like all "human" sciences Philosophy has its own autonomy in that it starts from below, from what is around us, and THEN reaches up, or perhaps down, into the truth of things:

The "autonomy" of philosophy with respect to the "always already" given fund of tradition that results from divine revelation consists in the fact that the philosophical act begins with the investigation of the visible, concrete world of experience lying before one's eyes, that philosophy begins "from below" in questioning the experience of things encountered every day, a questioning which opens up ever newer, more "astounding" depths in the one who searches.
Theologians are "custodians and interpreters of revelation", while philosophers have a different, though complementary calling. This gives philosophy the freedom not to have to grasp, to "work", to be an achievement or a power trip. It gives it a humility, a consciousness of ignorance and lack of utility, which seems essential to the thing, as Pieper pointed out earlier and Plato pointed out long before him. Going back to the essays about Leisure, we see that religion -- revelation -- is something that is given.

Pieper points out that even the slightly grotesque and erroneous theology of the pre-Platonics gave Plato a starting point to consider; and that this starting point is necessary. If one is enquiring into the "roots" of things, one can't reject what one has been given.

The question then naturally arises, where nowadays the legitimate pre-philosophical tradition is to be found. What is the present-day form of what Plato calls 'the gift of the Gods, brought down to us by some unknown Prometheus'?
Pieper's answer is Christianity.

Here it would be easy to say so much! I have been reading Sheldon Vanauken's book A Severe Mercy; he quotes CS Lewis making the point that only two religions (Hinduism and Christianity) combined mystery and morality and in effect comprised a whole world view; that Buddhism was a simplification of Hinduism and Islam a simplification of Christianity (Chesterton and Belloc say something of the same thing). All others are basically offshoots. (He doesn't mention Judaism in this context). He says that simple materialism is logically insufficient, and of the other religions, there are those and versions of those, and nothing else, really. Now this could be arguable, perhaps; I haven't thought it through yet. But it reminded me of what Pieper says here that of all the world systems only Christianity fits the bill as far as revelation as "gift" goes.

If this is accepted, some questions might remain. Pieper addresses a few:

Does this mean that if you are a Christian you will necessarily be a philosopher.

No, not at all. Many Christians aren't.

Does it mean that you have to be a Christian to be a philosopher?

No, not that either. He said there have been many vigorous philosophies that are founded on critique of Christianity or on denial of it. In that sense, they are informed by Christianity, even in counterpoint.

To be vital and true, philosophy must be the counterpoint to a true theology, and that,post Christum natum, means Christian theology.
Christianity can only be replaced or supplanted, in this respect, by another belief, however carefully it may be decked out as purely 'rational', for rationalism has its own creed. And in that case, the structure of philosophy, as Plato understood it, as the counterpoint to faith, is still retained.
I think the basic point here is that philosophy, in order not to be a "closed system" or loop, has to reach beyond itself, and that means theology in some form -- even a negative form of denial of Theos. To do otherwise, to refer merely to what is inside the loop, is something like seeing without acknowledging the existence of the sun.

So -- philosophy needs Christianity, in a sense, at least post-Incarnation. But philosophers don't have to be Christian to philosophize. Almost by default, they have to consider the claims of Christianity, but they don't necessarily have to accept them.

(I would think personally that it would be sad to have to waste time going consciously "away" from revelation, but maybe it could be a long indirect journey towards Truth. I hope so, anyway).

However, there are several ways in which acceptance of revelation is valuable in the philosophical endeavor. By the "light" of the revealed Word, the philosopher is able to see what would otherwise remain hidden, yet his knowledge is not a theological way of knowing, but is "demonstrated in the things themselves".

In regard to this, another question comes:

CAN there be a Christian philosophy?

That is, isn't revelation like a cheat sheet -- you already have the answers, so you don't have to work out the problems?

Pieper's answer is No.

the truths of Christianity are in a very special way inconceivable ; the truths of reason are generally inconceivable; but the distinguishing mark of the truths of Christianity is that in spite of being revealed, they still remain hidden'.
The blind men with regard to the elephant, though prevented from gross error if their blindness was healed, would still have a lot to investigate before they comprehended the elephant -- and in fact, as Aquinas says, no man has really even comprehended a fly wholly.

Christian philosophy is not, in fact, less intellectually arduous because, as one might be tempted to think,faith 'illumines'' reason.

If it reaches back to theological arguments (as it does in the philosophy of Aquinas for example), that is not a way of making ready answers possible but a way of breaking down methodological barriers in order to give the most genuine philosophical impulse, the loving search for wisdom, a wider field a way of introducing it into the realm of mystery, a realm which is by definition boundless, and to enter into that infinite realm is to enter on a path along which one can continue for ever without coming to an end.
Christianity is not just a set of doctrines, though. It is a manner of living, and in fact, a relationship. It involves the whole person:

to say that a man is Christian in the act of philosophizing does not mean that his point of view is that of Christianity considered as doctrine. For Christianity is essentially reality and not merely doctrine. The problem before a Christian philosophy does not therefore lie in harmonizing natural and supernatural knowledge theoretically; nor does it consist in the choice of the method to be adopted to that end. The point is that a man's existence should be so deeply rooted in the Christian reality, that his philosophy, too, should become, as a result, Christian
Even where natural knowledge is concerned, the discovery of the truth is not merely a matter of hard thinking, and when the truth concerns the meaning of the world, a good brain is not enough: the whole human personality is involved.

There is a participatory, "connatural" aspect to Christianity -- you become wise as a fruit of becoming closer to the divine Source of Wisdom.

Perhaps it is in that respect, through relationship, that in the beatific vision our questions will be resolved even though we will still remain finite. "We see now through a glass darkly".

A final question, then:

Do Christians "need" philosophy?

Again, he answers No.

only one thing is necessary, and it is certainly not philosophy. The Christian does not and cannot await an answer from philosophy on the subject of his salvation, nor, of course, salvation itself.And so he cannot philosophize as though his salvation depended upon his understanding of the world.
He doesn't say much more about this except this:

It sometimes seems as though Aquinas's conviction that such a thing as 'a comprehensive understanding' of anything in the world is impossible, were tinged with delight and almost with humour.

Philosophy is as necessary and as superfluous as the natural perfection of the human being. As we saw, to philosophize is to realize the natural bent of the human mind and spirit towards the whole. But who could possibly calculate the precise degree of that necessity in individual cases ?
That leaves me some things to ponder. Sure, it's obvious that salvation does not depend in any way upon philosophy. It seems to me that a denial of the value of philosophy would be destructive of the Christian endeavour, however.

When Pieper talks about Aquinas' conviction as being "tinged with delight and almost with humor" I somehow think of his earlier reference to Wisdom as "playing before Him" from the beginning of time:

22 The Lord possessed me in the beginning of his ways, before he made any thing from the beginning. 23 I was set up from eternity, and of old before the earth was made. ....I was with him forming all things: and was delighted every day, playing before him at all times;

31 Playing in the world: and my delights were to be with the children of men.32 Now therefore, ye children, hear me: Blessed are they that keep my ways. 33 Hear instruction and be wise, and refuse it not.
Wisdom's delight is to play before Him, and to be with the children of men; and would think it sad to ignore her to chase shadows and contingent things, when she is ancient and beautiful.

I can't help thinking that Martha's sister Mary's "one needful thing" of sitting at His feet and listening had a bit of the loving search for Wisdom, but perhaps I am failing to make a distinction that needs to be made. Maybe it goes back to the distinction between a "gift" freely given and gratefully received, and something slightly different, a "search", even if loving and receptive. Anyway, I am reserving that for future pondering.

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