Wednesday, May 09, 2012
Phenomenology and Theological Method
Frederick Schleiermacher 1768-1834
Atheists are hung up on empirical knowledge. That's why so many of them (not all by many) insist that we have no info about God, you can't verify God and so forth. They also go on and on about how stupid theology is, even though most of them have never read a single page of it. So this is my attempt to communicate some basics about the nature of theology and types of knowledge other than science.
God cannot be the subject of empirical data because the divine not given in sense data. That's because God is not just another object along side objects in creation. God is not just another thing, God is the basis of reality. That's like a fish scientist saying "they assigned me to study this thing called 'water' but I can't find any water." he says that because it never dawns on him that its' all around him, the medium in which he lives and he's always looking through it. he can't see the water because he's looking through it.
That's sort of the case with God because God is the basis of reality, the ground of Being. "in him we live and move and have our being." When we try to look at God and see him directly we look through him because in a sense he's the medium in which we live.
The only answer to this is to search for something else. We don't look for empirical evidence of God, we look for a "co-determinate." That is, we look for the signature of God, or to use a Derridian term the "trace of God." Like the aura of a neutrino. We can't photograph neutrinos directly but we have photographed their auras that are the reaction of Neutrinos with other partials. When you see that aura you know you have one.
But the trace of God has to be the result of a subjective or intersubjective understanding. So rather than subject it to empirical means, we need allow the sense data to determine the categories under which we organize our thinking about God.
Schleiermacher was the originator of this kind of thinking (prior to Brentano who is attributed to be the inventor of Phenomenology). Here is Schleiermacher's take on God consciousness. We don't search for God in objective terms we search for "God consciousness."
Phenomenology is very important because it is the alternative way of thinking to either empirical science and hangs ups on inductive data, or deductive reasoning and hang ups on the a priori. When I say "allow the sense data to determine the categories," what do I mean? (this is very crucial to understanding every point I make on message boards):
What that means is, you have a bit of qualia, an impression of the say sense data strikes us,the way something appears to us. Let's say the desk my computer sits upon. Our tendency is to tuck it away into a neat category based upon our preconceived notions of desks. This is a bit of wooden furniture, it's function is proving a surface for writing and bit of storage for what we write. We plug in the label "made in Hong Kong" and we say "it's a cheap desk." Now we have a sub category. all that is pre set in our minds based upon our understanding of the universe vis a vie witting surfaces. But if we approach the desk phenomenologically, we don't say "o a cheap piece of furniture for holding my computer--manufactured in formerly British colony, the home of Jackie Chan, thus a Kung fu capitalist cheap desk. but we just say "there is this object that appears in my sense data, and it seems to provide uses x,y,z. So it may not be a desk at all in terms of its functionality, perhaps it would work better as a door stop. Or perhaps this door put across two saw horses would make a better desk. That's not part of my preconceived notion because it's not made to be a desk, but it might work better."
Ok that's a trivial example, so much for my understanding of desks and their place in the universe. But, when we consider other thins, things of more gravity such as empirical science and religion, or religious belief and experience, the nature of myth and religious texts, you can see how the outcome might might be a lot more significant if we do it one way as opposed to another.
The way the atheists want to to it is to demand certain things, and those things require sense data and that sense data is preconceived to belong in certain categories and to rule out other sense data. Thus they wind up asking for probability of miracles when in fact by definition a miracle cannot be probable. So they rule out any kind of miracle based upon the pre conceived category of "things that do no happen because we don't observe them so they are too improbable." Whereas in reality, since miracles are things that are impossible, but happen anyway because some higher law overrides that of probability, they are just arbitrarily crossing out the category of the possible and arbitrarily arranging their understanding of the universe to exclude the SN, then demanding that, well there's no evidence for it (because we have filed all the evidence under the preconceived category of "that which does not happen.").
Religion not Reducible to Knowledge
Frederick Schleiermacher, (1768-1834) in On Religion: Speeches to it's Cultured Dispisers, and The Christian Faith,sets forth the view that religion is not reducible to knowledge or ethical systems. It is primarily a phenomenological apprehension of God consciousness through means of religious affections. Affections is a term not used much anymore, and it is easily confused with mere emotion. Sometimes Schleiermacher is understood as saying that "I become emotional when I pay and thus there must be an object of my emotional feelings." Though he does venture close to this position in one form of the argument, this is not exactly what he's saying.
In the earlier form of his argument he was saying that affections were indicative of a sense of God, but in the Christian Faith he argues that there is a greater sense of unity in the life world and a sense of the dependence of all things in the life world upon something higher.
What is this feeling of utter dependence? It is the sense of the unity in the life world and it's greater reliance upon a higher reality. It is not to be confused with the stary sky at night in the desert feeling, but is akin to it. I like to think about the feeling of being in my backyard late on a summer night, listening to the sounds of the freeway dying out and realizing a certain harmony in the life world and the sense that all of this exists because it stems form a higher thing. There is more to it than that but I don't have time to go into it. That's just a short hand for those of us to whom this is a new concept to get some sort of handle on it. Nor does"feeling" here mean "emotion" but it is connected to the religious affections. In the early version S. thought it was a correlate between the religious affections and God; God must be there because I can feel love for him when I pray to him. But that's not what it's saying in the better version.
The basic assumptions Schleiermacher is making are Platonic. He believes that the feeling of utter dependence is the backdrop, the pre-given, pre-cognitive notion behind the ontological argument. IN other words, what Anselm tried to capture in his logical argument is felt by everyone, if they were honest, in a pre-cognitive way. In other words, before one thinks about it, it is this "feeling" of utter dependence. After one thinks it out and makes it into a logical argument it is the ontological argument.
Unity in the Life world.
"Life world," or Labeinswelt is a term used in German philosophy. It implies the world of one's culturally constructed life, the "world" we 'live in.' Life as we experience it on a daily basis. The unity one senses in the life world is intuitive and unites the experiences and aspirations of the individual in a sense of integration and belonging in in the world. As Heidegger says "a being in the world." Schleiermacher is saying that there is a special intuitive sense that everyone can grasp of this whole, this unity, being bound up with a higher reality, being dependent upon a higher unity. In other words, the "feeling" can be understood as an intuitive sense of "radical contingency" (int he sense of the above ontological arguments).
He goes on to say that the feeling is based upon the ontological principle as its theoretical background, but doesn't' depend on the argument because it proceeds the argument as the pre-given pre-theoretical pre-cognitive realization of what Anslem sat down and thought about and turned into a rational argument: why has the fools said in his heart 'there is no God?' Why a fool? Because in the heart we know God. To deny this is to deny the most basic realization about reality.
All religions seek to do three things:
a) to identify the human problematic, b) to identify an ultimate transformative experience (UTE) which resolves the problematic, and c) to mediate between the two.
But not all religions are equal. All are relative to the truth but not all are equal. Some mediate the UTE better than others, or in a more accessible way than others. Given the foregoing, my criteria are that:
1) a religious tradition reflect a human problematic which is meaningful in terms of the what we find in the world.
2) the UTE be found to really resolve the problematic.
3) it mediates the UTE in such a way as to be effective and accessible. 4) its putative and crucial historical claims be historically probable given the ontological and epistemological assumptions that are required within the inner logic of that belief system.
5) it be consistent with itself and with the external world in a way that touches these factors.
These mean that I am not interested in piddling Biblical contradictions such as how many women went to the tomb, ect. but in terms of the major claims of the faith as they touch the human problematic and its resolution.
A religious tradition is like a language, and theology is a conversation. Since God is mystical reality, beyond words, to speak of our experiences of God one must encode those experiences into cultural constructs, that makes for the differences in different religions. Traditions are like languages in that they furnish a vocabulary for dealing with such experiences based upon past experiences in an inter-subjective fashion. The point of the discussion is to mediate transformation. One moves into mediation through the conversation of theology. One is then able to come terms with mediation on a personal and experiential level as is still able to relate intersubjectively with others who have similar experiences.
The question then,is not which religion is "true," but which one best mediates transformation. For the individual who answers that question, and comes to identify with a tradition, that is the conversation to take up; join that tradition. For me its Christianity. As part of the conversation one can set up criteria for understanding the conversation, criteria such as those listed above.
How Does the Bible fulfill these criteria? First, what is the Bible? Is it a rule book? Is it a manual of discipline? Is it a science textbook? A history book? No it is none of these. The Bible, the Canon, the NT in particular, is a means of bestowing Grace. What does that mean? It means first, it is not an epistemology! It is not a method of knowing how we know, nor is it a history book. It is a means of coming into contact with the UTE mentioned above. This means that the primary thing it has to do to demonstrate its veracity is not be accurate historically, although it is that in the main; but rather, its task is to connect one to the depository of truth in the teachings of Jesus such that one is made open to the ultimate transformative experience. Thus the main thing the Bible has to do to fulfill these criteria is to communicate this transformation. This can only be judged phenomenologically. It is not a matter of proving that the events are true, although there are ensconces where that becomes important.
Thus the main problem is not the existence of these piddling so-called contradictions (and my experience is 90% of them stem from not knowing how to read a text), but rather the extent to which the world and life stack up to the picture presented as a fallen world, engaged in the human problematic and transformed by the light of Christ. Now that means that the extent to which the problematic is adequately reflected, that being sin, separation from God, meaninglessness, the wages of sin, the dregs of life, and so forth, vs. the saving power of God's grace to transform life and change the direction in which one lives to face God and to hope and future. This is something that cannot be decided by the historical aspects or by any objective account. It is merely the individual's problem to understand and to experience. That is the nature of what religion does and the extent to which Christianity does it more accessibly and more efficaciously is the extent to which it should be seen as valid.
The efficacy is not an objective issue either, but the fact that only a couple of religions in the world share the concept of Grace should be a clue. No other religion (save Pure Land Buddhism) have this notion. For all the others there is a problem of one's own efforts. The Grace mediates and administrates through *****ures is experienced in the life of the believer, and can be found also in prayer, in the sacraments and so forth.
Where the historical questions should enter into it are where the mediation of the UTE hedges upon these historical aspects. Obviously the existence of Jesus of Nazareth would be one, his death on the cross another. The Resurrection of course, doctrinally is also crucial, but since that cannot be established in an empirical sense, seeing as no historical question can be, we must use historical probability. That is not blunted by the minor discrepancies in the number of women at the tomb or who got there first. That sort of thinking is to think in terms of a video documentary. We expect the NT to have the sort of accuracy we find in a court room because we are moderns and we watch too much television. The number of women and when they got to the tomb etc. does not have a bearing on whether the tomb actually existed, was guarded and was found empty. Nor does it really change the fact that people claimed to have seen Jesus after his death alive and well and ascending into heaven. We can view the different strands of NT witness as separate sources, since they were not written as one book, but by different authors at different times and brought together later.
The historicity of the NT is a logical assumption given the nature of the works. We can expect that the Gospels will be polemical. We do not need to assume, however, that they will be fabricated from whole cloth. They are the product of the communities that redacted them. That is viewed as a fatal weakness in fundamentalist circles, tantamount to saying that they are lies. But that is silly. In reality there is no particular reason why the community cannot be a witness. The differences in the accounts are produced by either the ordering of periscopes to underscore various theological points or the use of witnesses who fanned out through the various communities and whose individual view points make up the variety of the text. This is not to be confused with contradiction simply because it reflects differences in individual's view points and distracts us from the more important points of agreement; the tomb was empty, the Lord was seen risen, there were people who put there hands in his nail prints, etc.
The overall question about Biblical contradiction goes back to the basic nature of the text. What sort of text is it? Is it a Sunday school book? A science text book? A history book? And how does inspiration work? The question about the nature of inspiration is the most crucial. This is because the basic notion of the fundamentalists is that of verbal plenary inspiration. If we assume that this is the only sort of inspiration than we have a problem. One mistake and verbal plenary inspiration is out the window. The assumption that every verse is inspired and every word is true comes not from the Church fathers or from the Christian tradition. It actually starts with Humanists in the Renaissance and finds its final development in the 19th century with people like J. N. Drably and Warfield. (see, Avery Dulles Models of Revelation).
One of my major reasons for rejecting this model of revelation is because it is not true to the nature of transformation. Verbal plenary inspiration assumes that God uses authors like we use pencils or like businessmen use secretaries, to take dictation (that is). But why should we assume that this is the only form of inspiration? Only because we have been conditioned by American Christianity to assume that this must be the case. This comes from the Reformation's tendency to see the Bible as epistemology rather than as a means of bestowing grace (see William Abraham, Canon and Criterion). Why should be approach the text with this kind of baggage? We should approach it, not assuming that Moses et al. were fundamentalist preachers, but that they experienced God in their lives through the transformative power of the Spirit and that their writings and redactions are a reflection of this experience. That is more in keeping with the nature of religion as we find it around the world. That being the case, we should have no problem with finding that mythology of Babylonian and Suzerain cultures are used in Genesis, with the view toward standing them on their heads, or that some passages are idealized history that reflect a nationalistic agenda. But the experiences of God come through in the text in spite of these problems because the text itself, when viewed in dialectical relation between reader and text (Barth/Dulles) does bestow grace and does enable transformation.
After all the Biblical texts were not written as "The Bible" but were complied from a huge voluminous body of works which were accepted as "holy books" for quite some time before they were collected and put in a single list and even longer before they were printed as one book: the Bible. Therefore, that this book may contradict itself on some points is of no consequence. Rather than reflecting dictation, or literal writing as though the author was merely a pencil in the hands of God, what they really reflect is the record of people's experiences of God in their lives and the way in which those experiences suggested their choice of material/redaction. In short, inspiration of text is a product of the transformation afore mentioned. It is the verbalization of inner-experience which mediates grace, and in turn it mediates grace itself.
The Bible is not the Perfect Revelation of God to humanity. Jesus is that perfect revelation. The Gospels are merely the record of Jesus' teachings, deposited with the communities and encoded for safe keeping in the list chosen through Apostolic backing to assure Christian identity. For that matter the Bible as a whole is a reflection of the experience of transformation and as such, since it was the product of human agents we can expect it to have human flaws. The extent to which those flaws are negligible can be judge the ability of that deposit of truth to adequately promote transformation. Christ authorizes the Apostles, the Apostles authorize the community, the community authorizes the tradition, and the tradition authorizes the canon.