As I mentioned yesterday, I recently read Alasdair MacIntyre’s God, Philosophy, Universities: A Selective History of the Catholic Philosophical Tradition. I noted then how I found several points from the book helpful and engaging, particularly as he questions some of the post-Enlightenment formulations on which modern research universities are based.

A few things seemed puzzling to me, however, in that he seems to play right into the Enlightenment inspired problems that he decries. For instance, by only preferencing a generic theism, I felt his call for a distinctively Catholic voice in the conversation was muted and even deficient. That is, if you almost never talk about specifically Christian doctrine, then how can you contribute a Christian voice to this open conversation? Let me offer a few examples:

  • Key Christian ideas are ignored or only barely mentioned. Based on my e-search through the book, the most distinctive claims of Christianity–Jesus’ death and/or resurrection–are never mentioned. The Trinity as essential to historic Christian faith and philosophy or the role of Jesus as fundamental for forming a Christian anthropology are briefly mentioned in passing, only a couple of times, throughout the whole historical section, which takes up over two-thirds of the book. Yet, Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, et al. would have never conceived of metaphysics, epistemology, etc. without reference to the specifically Christian claims and debates related to the Trinity, incarnation and atonement. The generic recourse to “theism” without specific Christian content therefore appears to reflect a post-Enlightenment, least-common-denominator God.
  • MacIntyre regularly speaks of the “secular” world when speaking of patristic and medieval Catholic philosopher-theologians, and this appears to betray a post-Enlightenment dichotomy between sacred and secular. Of course, Augustine can speak of the City of God vs the City of Man, which might seem to allow this, but he and other pre-modern thinkers would have placed all this in an ordered cosmos rather than a flat secular universe (I’m thinking of Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, one of my current favorite books). Thus, to separate philosophy into the secular and theology into the sacred would be to demonstrate a post-Enlightenment separation rather than a pre-modern ordered hierarchy of ontology, epistemology, etc.
  • Though he mentions three big issues, he only focus on the second. Thus, the human (rather than God) takes center stage in his discussion. He essentially leaves behind the problem of evil, which would provide a obvious lens on the specifically Christian perspective on this discussion, and he repeatedly returns to the question of human composition, of the relationship of body and soul. This not an unimportant question, but the Christological debates about Jesus’ humanity radically shaped these discussions in the history of Catholic thought. At the same time, the anthropological focus rather than a theological focus reflects a post-Enlightenment perspective rather than one shaped by the Catholic tradition.

Though he regularly notes how the tradition sees philosophy or reason as inadequate on its own, and therefore in need of revelation, his consistent lack of any engagement with what revelation actually has to say (or with how the tradition engages the content of revelation) appears to show that revelation has little or no place in the actual practice of philosophy. That might be true for contemporary post-Enlightenment “Christian” philosophy, but it surely isn’t for Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, et al. who spent as much and even more time writing commentary on scripture as doing philosophy. (This is the exact kind of separation that led Karl Barth to reject a natural theology.)

My critique of MacIntyre is not based on my desire to have one, right, Orthodox Christian voice that only coheres with certain interpretations of special revelation. But to ignore the most foundational tenets of Christianity, much less the specific contribution Catholic Christianity makes, leaves me wondering what contribution does Christianity actually make other than providing some key figures in the history of ideas. I contend that the best conversations arise out of robust discussions, where particularities don’t have to be erased. Thus, a distinctively Catholic Christian voice should have a seat at the table of ecumenical and inter-faith dialogue, and it need not denude itself of anything distinctly Catholic or Christian. If our post-Modern context has shown us anything, it is that our particularities make us unique. So, while we can and should have robust conversations with a variety of partners, it need not be based on a bland, least-common-denominator basis, but one that is honest about the history and current position from which one comes. This includes highlighting points of commonality with others, but is therefore not limited to it.

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