Incommensurability and Religious Belief

EDIT:  This post is a bit rough, and I need to polish it up a little more.  I am using this post just as much to make an argument as I am to try to collect my thoughts on paper for the first time.  If I show myself ignorant of anything important regarding Orthodox theology, please tell me.  I speak only as a humble outsider looking in.

Roughly stated, ‘incommensurable’ means that two things cannot be compared with one another.  As a philosophical thesis, it is the belief that philosophical systems e.g. Platonism and Aristotelianism, cannot even speak to each other.  To give an example that a professor once gave me, let’s assume that there is an atheist and a Christian.  Both agree that murder is wrong; so far, so good:  it seems like there is some room to speak to each other about the immorality of murder.  Dig a little deeper:  why is murder wrong?  The further we dig, the more we see that the Christian thinks murder is wrong because people have inherent dignity due to their being created in the image and likeness of God.  Atheists, on the other hand, must come up with a different solution.  Men have no inherent dignity, but our morality is an invention to keep society running properly, etc. 

The incommensurability thesis points at examples like this and states that even though the atheist and Christian both understand that murder is wrong, they mean entirely different things by the proposition, ‘murder is wrong.’  No fact or statement is an uninterpretted fact or statement:  it is always filtered through the intellectual paradigm in which a person is operating.  In conjunction, no proposition is isolated from another proposition or belief in a system.  If an atheist suddenly thinks that people have inherent dignity, or that there is order in nature in the classic sense of the word, then the rest of his system must change to accomodate that change. 

Incommensurability theses are very popular nowadays, and as far as this amateur philosopher is concerned some sort of incommensurability thesis is true.  Of course, this raises a big problem:  if different philosophical traditions do not even mean the same things when they use certain words, how can they even communicate in a meaningful way with each other?  How can one philosophical system triumph over another?  Alisdair MacIntyre addresses these questions and more in his writings, in case anyone is interested.

This problem creates an interesting one for religious dialogue.  Even within the Catholic Church, there are several different philosophical systems existing side by side.  In what way can Catholics be said to share the same faith if they interpret that faith in different philosophical systems?  As big as this problem may seem at first glance, I have not seen it cause any problems yet.  I’ve seen Scotists and Thomists duke it out, in some cases over a course of several years, learning each other’s systems and testing the cogency of each other’s arguments, all the while admiring the value of their interlocutor’s position.  

I also think that Catholics have a big advantage over other religions.  Although there are Catholic Aristotelians and Catholic Platonists, we are first bound to be Catholic.  If the Immaculate Conception does not fit into the Thomistic framework, he had better MAKE it fit into his framework.  Also, it has been my experience that Catholic Platonists have great respect for Catholic Aristotelians, etc, because they realize the value of the other systems, acknowledging those alternative philosophical approaches as holding weight in the Tradition of the Church.  The genuine spirit of the philosopher lives on in the Church, in which individuals can acknowledge that only the Church led by Christ has all the answers, and our feeble philosophical systems only brush the surface of the dogmas which point to the mysterious realities of the faith.  Philosophical debates within the Church are allowed to end in a healthy philosophical manner:  in aporia, with all sides acknowledging the limitations of their own systems in a common pursuit of Truth.  We acknowledge that Tradition is broader than our personal philosophy.  The Church thus holds up as great saints those men who have synthesized different philosophical traditions into a greater whole, such as St. Thomas, St. Bonaventure, and Bl. Duns Scotus.  Catholics, while realizing intellectual differences, find our unity in Christ first, and we believe that the philosophical details will be hashed out in God’s time.  The philosophical is only accidental to the real paradigm that unites us:  unity in a common faith and belonging to the same body of Christ.

However, without mentioning names, there are some Orthodox (and Catholics, usually in the form of “Thomas-only” Catholics) on the internet who are not satisfied with this answer, for there still seems to be as many ways of interpreting Catholic and Orthodox dogmas as there are philosophical systems.  They see philosophical differences as threatening to Church unity, whereas I do not.  Here’s the problem:  in what way can Orthodox be said to share a common faith if no common philosophy unites them?

The answer is unsurprising:  they claim that there is only one philosophical system (although they do not call it a philosophical system, that’s what it is!) in Orthodoxy.  Those who do not share in this system i.e. Palamism, are not really Orthodox, for Palamism as a philosophical system was dogmatized at such and such a council.  Since these people believe in such a strong incommensurability thesis, they start to do silly things, such as trying to read Palamism back onto the Church Fathers, claiming that even the Latin Fathers were openly Palamists.  They want to claim that there is a substantial, overarching philosophical unity among the Fathers, that they not only shared the same faith, but the same philosophy: there can be no fundamental difference between the two.

Again, I want to take a moment to point out that not all Orthodox think this way, but only a few.  However, as fascinating as I find this revelation–which is to understand what exactly motivates these attempts to unite the Fathers unders a common philosophy–I ultimately don’t find it convincing.  If they expect to make a clean-and-pristine picture out of a very messy history of theological questioning and answers, then IMHO they are going to be largely disappointed.  What I find even more fascinating is the fact that this uncompromising incommensurability winds up making many faithful Orthodox (who are not Palamites) into heretics for denying the common philosophy faith.  I will be interested to see how long this pop-apologetic lasts, and how embarrased Orthodox 100 years from now will be at this unfortunate intellectual program.  Catholics still are quite embarassed about the Thomism-only years of the early 20th century; I hope the neo-Palamites don’t make the same mistake.   

Now, being the philosopher that I am, I realize that this is no reason to dismiss these Orthodox’s arguments a priori because I know what motivates their attempts.  However, the philosopher in me does laugh whenever he sees people trying to concoct overly-simplified answers to difficult questions.  Their arguments need to be addressed like any other thesis, by an evaluation by means of reason. 

Now those Orthodox (and conservative Catholics) who support a strong incommensurability thesis may challenge me to give an intellectual account of how Catholics and Orthodox of different philosophical persuations can claim to share a common faith.  My rudimentary answer is this:  the proof is in the pudding.  Our unity comes from Christ and Christ alone, not from a mere philosophical unity.  Maybe it’s just a miracle that Christ has been able to keep so many philosophical systems united in Himself.  Ironically enough, I see the incommensurability problem to be problematic only for those who over-intellectualize their faith, creating problems where no problems existed for two millenia.  Which is ironic, considering that those same Orthodox accuse Catholics of over-intellectualizing their faith.  But I digress.  

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