Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Caught Up in the Mystery

This is my third post on the book Discerning the Mystery, by Andrew Louth. The first post can be found here.

After establishing that theology is much closer to the humanities than the sciences, arguing that the subjectivity this implies is not necessarily a bad thing, and introducing the elements of tradition and bildung (or paideia) in the place of a sought-after theological method (the application of which is an example of Steiner's "fallacy of imitative form"), Louth tries to describe more positively the relationship he sees between theology and the sciences. He briefly reminisces on the drift in the meaning of the word "science" that has taken place since theology was considered the "queen of the sciences" in the Middle Ages.

Scientia, in this usage, simply meant "knowledge" with few of its modern connotations. Following Aristotle, theoretical or speculative sciences (what we might think of as philosophy) was considered higher than practical sciences, since they dealt with necessary rather than incidental realities; of these, theology was considered the highest since it studied the highest reality of all, the source of all the other sciences. The humanities, ironically, were barely considered sciences at all in this scheme. Two things have conspired to remove theology from this position. First is the obvious shift in the meaning of "science" to its present meaning, brought about by the rise of the experimental sciences. Science was realigned in a new hierarchy according to "hardness", the degree to which the scientific method is strictly applicable, and theology was banished from this ordering. But besides this, Louth argues there has always been a tension between Aristotle's dualism, which sought knowledge of God through ascent in the scale of being away from temporal reality, and the Judeo-Christian belief in a God who reveals himself and acts within history, in particular ways.

However it came about, in the modern usage we see that theology is something much closer to the humanities than to science. Louth next asks: do we lose something through this distinction? Does abandoning the concept of theology as science perpetuate the "dissociation of sensibility" in our modern culture and the privileged epistemological position held by science within it? Theology and the humanities have a radically different modus operandi than the sciences, one characterized (as he explained last chapter) by tradition and the concept of bildung rather than method and technique, but simply leaving it at that would be settling for a "fundamental divide in our way of apprehending the truth" (54) He wonders if, in rehabilitating the humanities and their place in human knowing, we may be settling for a caricature of the scientific method that perpetuates the "dissociation of sensibility".

The scientific method, we remember, seeks truth by breaking with tradition and prejudice, starting from ignorance, and building up a body of objective knowledge through observation, experiment, and reason. It is "a confessedly iconoclastic method", he says; we pull down the edifice of knowledge we have received from tradition and replace it with what we have learned for ourselves. We avoid the possibility of subjectivity in this by insisting that our way of gathering knowledge is independently repeatable, independent of the one observing it; that is, that it is objective. This methodology has undeniably been successful in many areas, but it is a complete way of developing knowledge? In particular, does this success mean that "tradition" in its many forms has no place in our knowing?

New Testament scholar and church historian F.J.A. Hort would say no. Beginning from the assumption that truth is one, not two, he warns that rejecting tradition in favor of only what we can establish for ourselves is not only impossible; the attitude behind this impulse is self-defeating. "In knowledge," Hort say, "as in all else he labours in vain to be independent; he is most himself when he receives most, and most freely acknowledges that he receives." (56) Indeed, he argues that it is tradition that frees us to know in a rightly ordered way, and the rejection of tradition (which is really opening oneself to "bastard traditions" which take us captive unawares) that is confining and stultifying. The goal is not freedom from tradition, but freedom within and by way of tradition. Echoing Gadamer, he describes the increase in knowledge as a process of undeception and highlights the importance of virtuous discipline and learning, previously summarized using the concept of bildung.

This is important because the right perception of truth, nowhere more than in theology, does not simply depend on the application of the right method, but on the state of the perceiver. "The more we know of truth, the more we come to see how manifold is the operation by which we come to take hold of it," says Hort. (57) We do not perceive rightly if one of our faculties dominates and shuts out others (as can happen when we try to do theology "scientifically"), or if we are disordered on the whole by moral corruption. For "the stedfast [sic] and prescient pursuit of truth is therefore a moral and spiritual discipline." In tradition there is no method to lead one to the truth that makes no demands or claims on the one being led.

Thus in Hort we see a positive attitude towards the sciences, as engaged in the same pursuit of truth as the humanities, albeit by different means that are appropriate in its field, but should not be applied universally. Building on this, Louth next brings up Michael Polanyi, who has a similarly positive outlook on science but again opposes attempts to make the scientific method a "privileged way of knowing, utterly different from and more reliable than other human ways of understanding." (59)

Louth focuses on an element of Polanyi's thought that he calls the "tacit dimension". This refers to the fact that much of how we perceive the external world, though it seems clear and not mysterious to us, is "often unspecifiable in detail". For example we easily recognize one anothers' faces, yet are often unable to specify exact what it is in the face that we are recognizing. (We are even worse at describing smells, yet have little trouble perceiving them, sometimes strongly) All of our perception happens within one interpretive framework or another, and most of the time this framework is tacit, not consciously though of or experienced. Generalizing, Polanyi believes all knowledge is either tacit or rooted in tacit knowledge; "it is not simply objective, but knowledge which has been grasped and understood by a person." (62) This acknowledges man's ability to gain knowledge without necessarily being able to specify the grounds of his knowing; this knowing is exercised within a received framework which is usually unspecifiable. Knowledge, Polanyi argues, must become tacit to be truly fruitful; the goal is not simply an objective description of reality but a "personal orientation towards reality", toward which objective knowledge is merely a means to an end.

Polanyi's understanding of knowledge allows us to see how all knowledge and truth can be one, as Hort assumed. Tacit knowledge can also be thought of as the "indwelling" that Dilthey described, as both internalizing the object of knowing and making ourselves dwell in it, in some capacity. The kind of knowing we see in the sciences is only different from that of the humanities in degree, not in kind; the indwelling is less deep when studying social phenomena than when seeking to understand particular people or works of art; shallower still when studying a star. If this understanding is accurate, then we see that it is needless for theology to look to the methodology of the sciences for inspiration; they both use the same kind of understanding, theology arguably more deeply even if the sciences have had more overt success in recent centuries.

Louth also observes, strikingly, that this pattern of knowing is the one we find at work in the theological writings of classical Christianity, in the period of the ecumenical councils and Church Fathers. "For the Fathers knowledge of God, and of his love for us in Jesus Christ, could only be found within the Tradition of the Church." (64) Participation in the Church and Holy Tradition came hand-in-hand with the "rule of faith", the framework of presuppositions (or worldview) within which Scripture and one's own Christian experience could be rightly interpreted. This tradition is "non-specifiable" as a series of doctrines, only only as a bond of love and unity that must be partaken in to be understood. "The Patristic doctrine of tradition might well be paraphrased in the language of Polanyi by saying that all knowledge of God in Christ is either the tacit knowledge of tradition"—meaning something like the "mind of the Church"—"or rooted in such tacit knowledge." (65) The Fathers understood clearly the importance of what we have been calling bildung or paideia in shaping us into people capable of knowing God rightly, in making us properly receptive to him.

Finally, Louth turns to the namesake of the book: the role of mystery in theology. The progress of science is marked by the isolation and solving of problems that are reachable with current knowledge, in order to advance that knowledge and tackle more problems. Once a problem has been solved, it is of no further interest except perhaps for inspiration in solving future problems. But the humanities (including theology) are not like that, at all, as shown by the fact that there is little to no notion of "progress" there. It is much rarer to "solve" a author or work and be able to "move on" from it (as shown by how we still seem to be stuck on Plato, among others), and while there is a place for systematic problem-solving, this is not the real challenge but more a work of ground-clearing preceding it. The real work of the humanities is not a restless march around or through numerous obstacles, but more like a conversation, an engagement with past minds. Understanding is more elusive and less decisive; what is understood, precisely, is sometimes hard to define. "It is not a matter of facts, but a matter of reality: the reality of human life, its engagement with others, its engagement with God." (68)

Louth summarizes the approach of the humanities and its differences from that of the sciences using Gabriel Marcel's distinction between mystery and problem. This can be stated in a variety of ways. A problem is like an obstacle before me, barring my passage which I must try to remove or get around; a mystery is something I am caught up in, which is not just before me but in me; with a mystery the difference between the two begins to lose its meaning. A mystery is not a temporary barrier, but a more of less permanent focus of attention. Problems can be solved in a detached way, by applying the proper technique; a mystery, by definition, transcends every technique and demands our personal engagement. A problem can conceal or lead us into a mystery, and it is possible to short-circuit our engagement with a mystery by degrading it into a problem, which Marcel calls a "fundamentally vicious proceeding" and which Louth equates with  Steiner's "fallacy of imitative form". Because science is primarily concerned with problems and the humanities with mysteries, we should not be surprised or made jealous by the humanities' lack of visible progress compared to the sciences.

Louth names a few twentieth-century theologians who have sought to relocate mystery at the heart of Christian theology. Karl Barth wrote of a God who "reveals himself as mystery, who makes himself known as the One who is Unknowable" (70), yet unveils himself to us by veiling himself in flesh in the Incarnation. Karl Rahner stated that "Theology is not concerned with the elucidation of mysteries which will eventually be revealed in the beatific vision—mysteries reduced to what one might call eschatological problems", but with three more fundamental mysteries: the Trinity, the Incarnation, and the divinization of man in grace and glory. Louth agrees that Christian theology should concern itself with the mystery of God, not least in these three forms, and supposes that its purpose is not so much to explain anything as it is to prevent us from dissolving the mystery at its heart or missing it altogether, as historical heresies both ancient and modern have been seen to do. "The heart of the matter is sharing in the mystery of love which God is." (71)

There is a lot that is really good and interesting in this chapter. Louth's distinction between problem and mystery is one of the most helpful parts of the book for me so far; it seems intuitively obvious that theology should concern itself with mystery, and as Louth will later write, one role of theology is to hold before us (or hold us before) the mysteries at the center of the faith. Polanyi's understanding of the "tacit dimension" is also enlightening, both for closing the gap between head and heart and for relating the spoken and unspoken parts of faith.

The discussion of the awkward fit between Aristotelian dualism in the sciences and Christian theology reminds me of myself, especially when Louth writes, "Certainly this challenge to the Aristotelian idea of theology as the highest science could be disguised by those who saw revelation in history as the revelation of absolutely certain propositions, which are gathered together in the Scriptures and provide the axiomatic basis for the science of Christian theology, the study of the Christian revelation." This describes my old default attitude towards Christian belief; when I was fighting against doubt, it was a system of truth, explanations, and answers that I was trying to preserve. I had little comprehension of the concept of "mystery"; all these apparent contradictions in the Bible and theology were nothing but problems to be overcome via a suitable explanation. Giving up my expectation of being able to rationally understand everything I believed (as we expect in the sciences) was essential both for dealing with my doubt and for opening me up to the kind of theology Louth describes.

Marcel's concept of mystery is very reminiscent of the Patristic tradition of apophatic theology, the "way of negation" which radically acknowledges the incomprehensibility of God in his essence, denying the sufficiency of all our attempts to describe him in order to guard against overconfidence in our positive statements of theology. Yet there is a positive purpose to this denial: the freedom to know God as deeply as is possible for created beings, in a way that transcends anything we can say or conceptualize about him. As Vladimir Lossky writes in The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, sounding very much like Louth:
As we have seen, the negations which draw attention to the divine incomprehensibility are not prohibitions upon knowledge: apophaticism, so far from being a limitation, enables us to transcend all concepts, every sphere of philosophical speculation. It is a tendency towards an ever-greater plenitude, in which knowledge is transformed into ignorance, the theology of concepts into contemplation, dogmas into experience of ineffable mysteries. It is, moreover, an existential theology involving man's entire being, which sets him upon the way of union, to transform his nature that he may attain to the true gnosis which is the contemplation of the Holy Trinity. Now, this 'change of heart', this metanoia, means repentance. The apophatic way of Eastern theology is the repentance of the human person before the face of the living God. (238)
The apophatic way is the way of contemplation of the mysteries which Louth has described in this chapter. The highest purpose of theology is to guide us on this way as much as is possible, to lead us to the mysteries and to shape us to see in them the God whose face cannot be seen.

This idea of mystery is very helpful in light of the ways in which others (myself included) can misunderstand it. I used to think "mystery" denoted some kind of unresolvable tension in Scripture, or more crudely, an apparently contradictory or impossible teaching you must accept as true anyway—the three-in-oneness of the Trinity, Christ's full humanity and divinity, the coexistence of human free will and divine sovereignty (these correspond to the three central mysteries listed by Rahner), or perhaps more recently God's immanence and transcendence. The problem with defining mystery in such a way is that, at least for me, it made immensely tempting to try to do what Marcel says you absolutely must not do: try and "solve" (or dissolve) the mystery, reconcile the conflicting polarities. I attempted this repeatedly, even earlier in this blog's existence, thinking I was promoting the "unity of the church" in doing so. Such a definition of mystery makes mysteries look dangerously like problems, unfinished theological quests, standing to be improved if we can figure out a way to reconcile these two seemingly conflicting sets of passages.

But it isn't like this at all. Yes, theological mysteries can manifest in apparent biblical tensions, but this is not what they really are. Marcel gives a far better definition, making clear that mysteries are realities we cannot comprehend not because they are simply obscure and logically contradictory on their face, but because they are simply too big, too far beyond our capacity to comprehend—so big that, like four-dimensional objects, they show up in strange ways in our scope of perception. The point, as Louth argues, is not to "explain" or "solve" the mystery, but to participate in it, contemplate it, be confronted by it. A bad analogy from physics: if the "EmDrive" is eventually shown to work beyond reasonable doubt, this would not do away with the conservation of momentum altogether but relativize it, contextualize it within a larger, seemingly contradictory reality—a scientific mystery of sorts (albeit a finite one, which might eventually dissolve into a problem). The apparent contradiction is only the outward effects of a reality too big to see, at least right now. Much the same thing has already happened with Newtonian mechanics, once seen as the very thoughts of God governing the cosmos, with the advent of relativity and quantum mechanics.

Louth's idea (following Polanyi) that the tradition of the early Church was "essentially non-specifiable", or if specifiable only as "the bond of unity, the bond of love, which established the Church as the body of Christ" (64-65) is also insightful. I think it is why evangelism in Orthodoxy never takes place outside of or alongside the Church, but within it. The best way to understand is to follow Philip's invitation: "come and see" (Jhn 1:46). As they say, no one is argued into believing; our knowing is not merely a matter of discerning "objective truth", but personal engagement with that truth, into which tradition (not least the tradition of the Church) is meant to initiate and form us. If, as Hort says, the perception of truth depends as much on the (moral) state of the perceiver as much as the object of perception, then very little in the truth of the Christian faith is truly "objective", i.e. equally true for all observers, equally visible from everywhere. Tradition, rather, is meant to lead us to the place from which our knowledge of truth comes alive.

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