Monday, November 9, 2015

The Dissociation of Sensibility

I recently finished one of those books that is so thought-provoking and engrossing that you feel compelled to reread it again immediately after finishing. The book is Discerning the Mystery, by Andrew Louth; if I had to summarize it briefly, I would describe it as an assessment of the effects (particularly on theology) of the Enlightenment on how we "modern" people define, think about and look for truth, and a philosophical defense of the importance and role of tradition in Christian theology and the humanities in general. In other words, it's a book that makes extremely explicit the reasons why tradition is such a central and valuable part of the Orthodox Christian faith, the kinds of reasons that many Orthodox hold implicitly or only describe less discursively, which makes it extremely helpful to me as a curious convert-in-the-making. So as I read through it again, I'll be blogging through it, both to create a handy reference to Louth's main points both for myself and others and to help myself remember and meditate on his thoughts, which I think have far-reaching implications for how I approach my faith.

Our modern culture and society, Louth begins, are deeply affected by what he (quoting T.S. Eliot) calls a "dissociation of sensibility": a division between thought and feeling, or between mind and heart. He doesn't give specific examples, but I am sure you can supply your own; the only reason this divide may be hard to notice is precisely because it is so ingrained in our way of being-in-the-world that we may not notice how it affects us. It has undeniably been characteristic of my own life for as long as I can remember.

Being so pervasive in our culture, the dissociation has affected theology as much as anything else. It manifests in the degree of separation of theologians both from the churches they purportedly serve (the church-academia, or pastor-theologian, divide) as well as from each other (you have your specialized field of study, I have mine, we hardly interact except maybe in special collaborations). It manifests in the division between theology and spirituality, between "thought about God and movement of the heart towards God." (2) Such a division, Louth says, is contrary to the spirit of patristic theology, which would consider the limits of rationality to which much modern theology confines itself to be undue restraints placed on the heart's innate longing for God. To the church father Evagrius of Pontus, "if you are a theologian, you pray truly, and if you pray truly, you are a theologian." (4) Then there was no division between theology and spirituality; now it seems inescapable, the climate we find ourselves brought up into; if we feel that they belong together, we now have to consciously relate them to one another.

Whence this division? Louth lists a few possibilities. A common view among eastern Christians is that it is simply evidence of a growing faithlessness in theology, first seen among the early heretics and continued especially in the post-schism west. More common among western Christians is that this division happened during the development of western theology, a product of Scholasticisim and the growing distinction between monasteries and universities, but that it is not a bad thing in itself; it represents the beginning of modern, rational theology and freedom from the irrational allegorization and suffocating tradition of the earlier middle ages. A third view, to which Louth seems to be most sympathetic, is that early Scholasticism was not the demise of the patristic unity, but its final expression; the division came with later Scholastic philosophers like Scotus and Occam, who opened the door wide to purely theoretical speculation about God.

Whatever its origins, it is easier to see how this division became what we now think of as modern thought. The Renaissance (with its call to rediscover and study classic texts anew) opened the door to questioning traditional ways of doing or believing things, learning things oneself through investigation, and—crucially for what would come next—the idea of a method for finding truth. In this case it was a return to the sources, but the Enlightenment would generalize this into the concept, the hope, of a general method by which any subject must be a approached, a method which, if applied correctly, would reliably lead one from prejudice (often implanted by outmoded traditions) to ignorance to knowledge. Such an idea was hostile to tradition insofar as it supplanted it as a way to know the truth; truth is no longer simply known from tradition, but must be tested, subjected to the method, to be considered justified.

There is no doubt that the discovery of truth through the application of a method has undoubtedly met with resounding success in the natural sciences, where the scientific method is justly seen as responsible for the advances in science and technology that have shaped the face of the modern world as we know it. Knowledge is acquired through experiments, which are repeatable, which in turn makes this knowledge objective, that is, true independently of the one perceiving it (since anyone can, in theory, repeat the experiment and confirm it). Mathematics has supplanted natural speech as the language in which this objective truth is to grasped and expressed. Again, the successes of this project and manifold and undeniable, which in turn makes the value of a method for finding truth seem all the greater.

In the humanities, this has given rise to what George Steiner calls "a fallacy of imitative form" (10), in which academics in fields traditionally dominated by "word-language" attempt to infuse them with mathematical rigor and scientific objectivity. This carries the assumption that for a field of study to be "true" is for it to be "scientific" or "objective".  Louth calls it a relinquishment to the "scientific method, dependent upon the non-verbal, non-human language of mathematics, concern for what is true." Of course, finding a "scientific method" for the humanities to call their own is not easy, but perhaps we have found on in the method of "historical consciousness" (13), i.e. historical criticism. By placing past thinkers, authors, and their texts in their proper historical context, it is thought, we can approach these texts "scientifically", with a sufficient degree of objectivity to understand them in a subject-independent way analogous to how scientists conduct experiments.

Yet Louth believes this approach has numerous problems. In effect, it treats the entire past as false or provisional, and past authors and texts as reflections of their historical context rather than true in the same way as the present, which becomes a privileged yardstick by which to evaluate them. It also opens a division between the study of a subject itself and the study of its history. This division makes sense for the sciences, but not the humanities; there, it frees, say, philosophers from having to pay attention to the history of their subject, and historians of philosophers from having to actually be philosophers. If we are more confident in our subject, this can lead to treating past sources as a sort of rough, unfinished version of what we now know; it becomes hard to see what we can learn from the past if we are effectively sitting in judgment over it. If confidence is lacking, we can become more aware that we ourselves are always on the verge of passing into history, that we are just as much a product of the flow of history as the past authors we study.

This, Louth argues, is the "crisis of confidence" in which modern theology finds itself. He quotes the late Professor Lampe to describe it:
No one can entirely extricate himself from the complex tradition to which he belongs. He cannot clear the ground and build a new system of belief, using the primary data of revelation as its sole foundation. The believer's exploration into truth cannot set out into uncharted territory. It consists not so much in pioneering as in attempting to analyse, criticize, and evaluate a set of beliefs and attitudes toward belief, which he has derived from a long stream of tradition, and, where they seem inadequate or misleading as expressions of the faith to which he finds himself committed, to restate, modify, or replace them. (15-16)
Louth describes this as a kind of historical fatalism: tradition, the weight of our past, has become a chain which binds us to subjectivism, from which we long to escape but cannot. He calls this a legacy of theology which follows the path laid by the Enlightenment, "a path which leads theology away from the heart of the subject, and is meant to." Traditional Christianity, founded as it is on specific events it teaches took place in the past, cannot survive in such an environment. If its past is rendered inaccessible to historical criticism, Christianity "will have to change pretty radically in order to survive."

Already in his first chapter, Louth makes one of the main themes of the essay clear. He is resisting the colonization of the humanities by the epistemology and methodology of science—the "fallacy of imitative form", driven by the assumption that knowledge, insofar as it is true or "real", must conform to the epistemology and methodology of the sciences, must be "scientific" and "objective" rather than "subjective" or "relative". I think this idea is very much present in modern theology; for example Millard Erickson, the author of the systematic theology text I studied for my Master's, writes (stating an opinion that I do not think is at all uncommon) that for theology to surrender its claim to being a science of some kind is also to "virtually surrender the claim to being knowledge in the sense of involving true propositions about objective realities (i.e. realities existing independently of the knower)." (Systematic Theology 19-20) Louth addresses the assumptions behind this claim (I wonder what Erickson meant by his word "virtually") in the next chapter.

I have studied the question, "Is theology a science?" approach in one of my papers. As a correlating example, I have written how of the more common responses among Protestants to overcome the confessional divisions brought about by divergent interpretations of Scripture has been the search for a correct hermeneutical method of interpreting Scripture that everyone can agree on, and that will in turn produce greater doctrinal agreement.

I resonate with Louth's idea of a "crisis of confidence" in modern theology brought about by this fallacy. I was struggling against the kind of fatalism expressed by Lampe before making my peace with theological tradition via Orthodoxy. I didn't at all like feeling as though I was striking out on my own in a search for truth independently of any established tradition, and it did seem kind of like a hopeless venture, but I felt I had no choice, that no tradition had all the answers I sought. This was partly due to ignorance on my part, and partly to arrogance (i.e. my strong instinct to seek answers in myself first of all). I never linked my unrest with the "dissociation of sensibility" Louth describes; in hindsight I see how I stopped living my faith (or trying to) the more I stepped outside to critique and correct it. I was very much aware of this division, but didn't realize how interlinked the two problems—wrong/confused teaching and the split between theology and spirituality—were. The negation of both is summed up in the word "Orthodox", which means both "right belief" and "right worship".

I admit that the Orthodox faith hasn't provided answers to all the questions I wrestled with. And yet I am at peace, free from the doubt that I almost thought would come to define me. It is more true to say that the Church itself came as the answer—still more to say it showed me, provided the context in which I could see, how Christ himself is the answer. Through a process Louth describes later in the book, it helped me to stop asking (i.e. feeling I need to ask) my questions.

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