Philosophy & Religion

After reading through a good bit of Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, I’ve assigned my students to read Jamie Smith’s How (Not) To Be Secular, a summary and exposition of Taylor’s work, so they can benefit from the fruit of this important piece. Smith’s account of how (some forms of) modern apologetics “diminishes Christianity” (p. 51) reminds me of MacIntyre’s treatment of God in God, Philosophy, Universities. Smith summarizing and quoting Taylor writes:

What [Taylor] finds [in modern apologetics] is that the responses themselves have already conceded the game; that is the reponses to this diminishment of transcendence already accede to it in important ways…. As he notes, ‘ the great apologetic effort called forth by this disaffection itself narrowed its focus so drastically. It barely invoked the saving action of Christ, nor did it dwell on the life of devotion and prayer, although the seventeenth century was rich in this. The arguments turned exclusively on demonstrating God as Creator, and showing his Providence’ (p. 225). What we get in the name of ‘Christian’ defenses of transcendence, then, is ‘a less theologically elaborate faith’ that, ironically, paves the way for exclusive humanism. God is reduced to Creator and religion is reduced to morality (p. 225). The ‘deism’ of providential deism bears many marks of the ‘theism’ that is often defended in contemporary apologetics. The particularities of specifically Christian belief are diminished to try to secure a more generic deity–as if saving some sort of transcendence will suffice. (Smith, 51)

MacIntyre’s lack of specificity about distinctly Christian claims appears to fall into this trap. I’m not arguing that any specific interpretation of these Christian claims should dominate, but if they are not even raised, then what warrants the adjective ‘Christian’ to describe terms like philosophy, theology, etc.?

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.

One very enjoyable aspect of my work at HBU is a reading group that I participate in. It draws primarily from other faculty in other arts and humanities disciplines: history, government, classics, music, honors college, philosophy, etc. We read a variety of texts drawing from diverse genres and time periods–Gilead, Thomas Nagel, King Lear, etc. Tonight we discussed Alasdair MacIntyre’s God, Philosophy, Universities: A Selective History of the Catholic Philosophical Tradition.

In this short and engaging book, he gives a history of the Catholic philosophical tradition and then proposes a way forward for situating Catholic philosophy in the context of modern universities. The survey of the philosophical quest is appropriately selective, as he explains several of the key figures in the history of western philosophy (including Muslim and Jewish ones) and their contributions. One key theme is the question of the relationship of theology to philosophy, or we might say special and general revelation. He also notes three key issues that will serve as a delimiting lens on the discussion: the problem of evil, the independence of finite beings, and how to speak meaningfully about God. It is the second question that gets most attention as he returns to the question of the relationship to soul and body and to the question of the temporal vs eternal existence of the world.

As a positive contribution, I thought the summary of philosophical history served as a nice refresher on the historical progression. Integral to his argument is that (mono)theistic faith traditions share central common foundations and questions. This, therefore, helps foster conversations between Christians, Jews, and Muslims since we have common concerns. He also rightly argued that religion does not need to be minimized in the questions and research of a modern university. Accordingly, he questions some of the post-Enlightenment formulations on which modern research universities are based.

I’ll comment on my critiques tomorrow.


One of the hottest theological topics is Calvinism and Arminianism. The debate divides churches, and denominations like the Southern Baptists have been at odds over it for some time. One thing that bothers me about this whole discussion is that it seems to operate from a mistaken understanding of divine and human agency.

In his excellent introduction to the volume Divine and Human Agency in Paul and His Cultural Environment, John Barclay outlines three models of divine and human agency, two of which are relevant to this issue:

1) Competitive: In this model divine and human action negate each other. When God acts the human is passive; when the human acts God is passive. Barclay writes, ‘Divine sovereignty and human freedom are mutually exclusive; human freedom must be understood as freedom from God’ (p.6).

2) Non-contrastive transcendence: According to this model, divine sovereignty indicates that God works outside the realm of the human agent. Humans act out of their own freedom. The two agents do not negate each other since they operate on different levels. Barclay writes, ‘The two agencies stand in direct, and not inverse proportion: the more the human agent is operative, the more (not the less) may be attributed to God’ (p.7).

The debate about Calvinism and Arminianism operates in the first model. Both views treat the two agents as opposing agents. Calvinists stress divine agency, not only because humans are sinners, but because any action that is attributed to humans impinges on God’s sovereignty. Arminianists emphasise the human agent in order to uphold human freedom. In both views the actions of one agent impinge on the other. True human freedom is only established and maintained in the absence of divine action. Conversely, divine freedom and sovereignty is only established and maintained in the absence of human action.

I wonder, though, if this competitive understanding of divine and human agency is right. Paul’s view seems more in line with the ‘non-contrastive transcendence’ perspective when he writes of grace (1 Cor 15.10) or the Spirit (Rom 8.4-13) working in him and believers in general. Paul holds that human action is established and maintained precisely because God is at work in believers. It is not an either-or, but a both-and. In his book Faith and Perseverance Berkouwer writes,

Preserving ourselves is not an independent thing that is added paradoxically to the divine preservation. God’s preservation and our self-preservation do not stand in mere coordination, but in a marvellous way they are in correlation. One can formulate it best in this way: our preservation of ourselves is entirely oriented to God’s preservation of us. (p.104)

If we shifted the philosophical model behind the Calvinist-Arminian debate, I wonder if it could bring about different conclusions and clarify how the salvation process works and the place of the divine and human agents in it.

I’ve been poking around recently in Greco-Roman philosophy and found this website as a quick resource for looking up stuff: The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.  While it’s not much more detailed than wikipedia, it is ‘professionally peer-reviewed’ (at least it says it is).

I’m sure we’re all still trying to get over the Judaism-Hellenism divide, so this detailed and extensive annotated bibliography by Greg Boyd concerning the possible influence of Hellenistic philosophy on Christian theology will be helpful.  It ranges from NT to patristic and includes a wide variety of views.  One can’t miss his emphasis on the free will/determinism issue.

My esteemed collegue John Goodrich, recently pointed me to this collection of Greek and Latin classical texts online, along with a collection of other helpful items.  Many are old Loeb translations that have gone out of copyright.  They include: Dio Chrysostom, Plutarch, and many more.  Enjoy.


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