Archive for October 31, 2007

Faith and Philosophy

October 31, 2007

It’s been a while since I’ve written anything.  I’ve been swamped with my school work because it’s about time to get started on my papers.  Not only that, but I still have some midterms left to do.  However, enough about that.

I had a thought a few months ago, and I’ve been toying around with it on and off ever since.  I want to explore the theological commitments of the Orthodox and see if I can understand why Orthodox hold the view that there is a uniform theology underlying apparent differences among the Church Fathers.  As a Catholic, such a position seems absolutely foreign.  However, I do think that there is an important reason for this commitment on the part of the Orthodox (at least the ones I’ve talked to), one stemming from other theological commitments. 

Take the question:  is it possible for reason to examine the content of faith?  Catholics have always said that in some way it is possible.  True philosophy is the handmaiden of theology.  There are truths we can know about God through natural reason alone, and some even think we can say at least some things univocally about God and man, e.g. God and man both exist.  Even if philosophy must stay within certain limits i.e. it cannot declare some dogma of the Church false, there are many different methodologies that we can use to investigate the faith.  While there is tension between the two, ultimately there is a symbiotic relationship between the two.   

However, the entire way we view our theology depends on our philosophical assumptions.  Even though Scotists and Thomists agree on many things, they disagree heatedly on several important issues which I will not enumerate here.  Because the philosophies are different, the theologies come out very different as well.  The reasons are obvious:  if you view nature in two different ways, and you believe that nature reflects the God whose essence it imitates, then the way we view God will differ between the two theologies. 

Potentially, this can create a problem:  there is no singular philosophical framework that we can adopt, and hence any dogma can be read differently depending on what set of metaphysical glasses one is wearing (of course, this shows the importance of interpreting dogmas within their historical contexts to determine exactly what is being rejected or affirmed).  When the Church decides to intervene to settle a particular argument, she does; if she doesn’t decide to intervene, the question is fair game.  Dogmas become like boundary lines:  they tell philosophers and theologians where they cannot go while giving them ample freedom to explore new territory.  The Church Fathers are read with great respect, but theologians and philosophers can affirm what they teach while tweaking their metaphysical assumptions, and hence affirm the dogmas they developed without excepting the metaphysical baggage that they used to compose their arguments towards the dogma.

So that’s a very brief summary of the way Catholics (read:  me) views the relation between theology and philosophy in the Catholic Church.  But there are some people who seem opposed to the Catholic way of doing things.  The strong formulation might go something like this: natural theology is not possible.  We cannot discover truths about nature, and then use those truths to make claims about God.  Everything we know about God comes through revelation.  Obviously, this view differs greatly from the view presented above.  There is no symbiotic relationship between faith and reason.  Even though both this view and the former one would affirm that what is declared dogma ultimately trumps philosophy (because one is fallible and the other isn’t), under this view philosophy is incredibly limited in how it can clarify the content of faith.   

But this raises an interesting question:  as I pointed out above, differing philosophical assumptions produce differing theologies.  But if this is the case, then how is it possible to say that theology holds the trump cards over reason?  For whose theology are we talking about:  person x, who holds philosophical assumptions a,b,c, or person y, who holds philosophical assumptions A, B, and C?  Here’s the point I’ve been driving at:  the more strictly you adhere to the idea that faith trumps reason, the narrower the wiggle room is for philosophical variances.  The more you want to assert the dominance of theology over philosophy, the more you must moderate philosophical variances. 

Now I don’t want to claim to be an expert on Orthodox theology, but from what I gather they adhere more closely to the latter view than the former.  I haven’t met too many Orthodox, but every one that I have met has much distain for philosophy, seeing it as a skirge to be eliminated from theology instead of a complementary way of seeking Truth.  As Tertullian famously said, what does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?  Several other Church fathers share the same sentiment.

And yet, every Orthodox I have met holds a pretty strong version of the latter thesis.  If this thesis is true, then there is very little room for philosophy being able to investigate theology.  What essentially happens is that a unified philosophical framework must be posited through which we view dogma:  the stricter the latter thesis is, the less freedom philosophy has.  I think my account explains something which I had always found a bit confusing:  why do the Orthodox whose debates I have read attentively keep insisting that the Church Fathers shared a very unified theology, including implicit essence energies distinctions, etc?  I think that this project of unifying the Church Fathers is a direct result of holding the latter thesis.  Such a program cannot tolerate large philosophical variances; the more such variances are tolerated, the more room there is to interpret dogmas differently, and thus philosophy slowly makes itself a sort of “equal” to theology. 

At least, that’s my take on things.  Any thoughts?