Wednesday, January 18, 2012

How Modern Thinking about God Went Wrong


Book Review:
The Domestication of Transcendence: How Modern Thinking about God Went Wrong. by
by William C. Placher, John Knox Press, 1996.
This is a ground breaking book. I would not be surprised to learn that it was ignored for the most part. I read part of it in the 90s and forgot all about until recently when my old professor form Perkins, William S. Babcock, recommended it for something things I am studying at present. This book brought back for me some of my former quests as a beginning and pre seminarian and observations I made by then, late 80s and wanted to make good on and was side tracked from. This book is ground breaking and deserves to be seen as the seminal literary event in theology for that 90s. I'm sure it wasn't seen that way by the theological community.

Placher was writting mid 90s and begins his work discussing how theology in that decade was laced with either talk of postmodenism and atteapts to expalin what "modern" is, or attacks upon "classical theism" which focus on "static" notions of a remote God distantly orchastrating hierarchies and all the other bad things Derridians feared. These were the classic signs of the times in '96. These concerns promped Placher to seek the divide that separates seventeenth century form per seventeenth century Christianity. That there is a divide is seperated by the distinction bewteen the Luther talks about God and the way those arguign against Deism in the time of Tillotson and Stillingfleet argued about God. They God seem like a thing in creation. Here one will recognize a great deal of the terminology I use which I find all over this book. I didn't read it that much I don't think I got it form the book. Yet he definitely has the same concerns and use many of the phrases I thought were my own. Some of these concerns cross paths with Tillich. So how did we go from Augustine's "God who is closer to me than my inmost being" to God as an efficient cause for things that happen in the world?

Placher focuses on seventeenth century divines who were no longer content to experience a reality beyond our understanding, but wanted to think it out to the level of obliterating all problems of understanding. For theologians before the seventeenth century God's transcendence was not "contrastive." Talk about transcendence did not make God less immanent. The mystics of the mid dark ages (Dionysus 500AD) spoke of God as totally remote in some vastly far flung realm, but didn't make God non participatory or absent from the world. It was becasue God was transcendent (transcendence also includes immanence) that God could be immanent in all of creation (Placher, 128).

Since God was not one agent among others, but operated at a different level of agency it made no sense to ask which things had been done by God or which things has been done by someone or something else.AT the begining of the modern era, however,theologians and philosophers began to worry about just where to put God in the universe. Debates about miracles and about Grace and free will dominated the theology of seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and both of those debates involved asking which things God, as oppossed to someone or something else, did.(ibid)
The nature of thought about the world at that time creates forces that influenced theologians to seek to explain God's place in the world in such a way as to locate him in the world alongside things. Placher talks about language growing in univocity, that means stripping it of indications of higher realms. Also the turn away from viewing reality as a hierarchy of levels made up of remote realms (ibid). This all goes hand in hand with what Fairweather says in his essay on "Christianity and the Supernatural" (New Theology No 1, circa 1964, ed. Martin E. Marty). He traces the bifurcation of immanence and transcendence to enlightenment univocity and Reformation equivocity. In other words, the enlightenment became reductionist and grounding everything in phsyical scinece sought immediate and visible sense data oriented explaitions for psychical reality alone. While the Calvinist severed the relation between the world and the spirit, the immanent and transcendent, the harmonious relation between the two facets of the one reality that Fairweather talks about and put emphasis upon the "other worldly." Then becuase the two (immanent and transcendent, nature and super nature) are not harmoionous anymore to bind them together a phony supernaturalism that magnifies some aspect of nature (the will) and places it over against the rest of nature as a false transcendent based upon something we know and can understand.

This is all Fariweather's notion form the article in the anthology edited by Marty but Placher follows along those same lines. He goes into much greater detail in his book than Fairweather did in an article. These are also the ideas behind my essay on Supernature on Doxa. Placher's work is invaluable for understanding the SN and for answering the problematic questions raised by atheists in their desire to disprove concept of alternative realms. The athist oncept of SN as a realm beyond the natural is an extension of both tendencies form the enlightenment and from the Calvinists. It's an attempt to put God on a level with things in creation while denouncing the concept of God as 'removed' or 'unnecessary' or 'something beyond the realm we can control.'

Placher provides a complex and nuanced understanding of the thinking which created the divide between a world charged by supernatural and world forever collapsed into one dimension of nature, one voice (univocal).This has to be understood if we are going to re-claim historical Christianity and move beyond the reductionism that currently threatens the very possibility of belief. It's a powerful weapon in my arsenal to wave about in the face of those who butcher the meaning of supernatural. It belongs up there with books like Nature and Grace by Mathias Joseph Scheeben which explicated the meaning of the Supernatural.

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