Sunday, 23 December 2012

Christianity without philosophy: what would it look like?

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The answer is: pretty much like the Old Testament.

I am not excluding the New Testament here - so the proper answer is 'The Bible' - but a focus on the OT emphasizes that the ancient Jews has a non-philosophical way of living, of thinking; which is the main... well it could be called 'rival' or 'complement' to the Greek style of thinking we call 'philosophy' and which tends to be the basis of what we call 'theology'.

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For modern intellectuals it is difficult not to be philosophical.

Which is not to say we do philosophy well; of course we don't!

But, our first 'move' is usually to make a metaphysical assumption and proceed from there.

The basic metaphysical assumption used by the Greeks was (I think) to distinguish time/ change from eternity/ stasis.

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But what does an intelligent, complex mode of thought without any such assumption look like? The answer is given by the OT.

 But if not metaphysical, not abstractly philosophical; then what is it?

Well it could be called historical, if history is seen as a very 'thick' and rich term, including what we might term myth, and purpose, and meaning.

So another word might be narrative: that life is conceptualized in terms of a story, and a story is a matter of persons, agents, individuals (such that some persons may be nations, or lands, or animals - the point that all significant actors in the drama of history are person-like - or as we dismissively put it 'anthropomorphized').

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So for the ancient Hebrews there was a beginning and an end, and a lot of stuff happening in between.

So, life was framed by revelations and prophecies of what we (as individuals, families, races, peoples) came from and where we are going, and why, and how we personally fit into this.

And revelations (often in the form of promises, covenants and the like) told that God (and angels; and Satan and fallen angels) were engaged with the lives of each person and peoples, moment by moment, in fulfillment of prophetic destiny.

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Destiny would happen, but by free will individuals could resist this, and delay the coming to pass (for good or ill; by repentance or sinning) - for a while.

What will happen is fixed (and known) by the nature of things which is the will of God; when it happens (and what that happening is actually like when experienced) is subject to choice.

Order is certain, timescale is contingent.

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That would, in itself, perhaps be abstract; except that there was no space between the story and the self.

This is hard for us moderns to grasp: we set the individual against the rest of the world; but for an Old Testament character like David, there was both an intense individualism and a sense of being inextricably part of his people's destiny, and expression of his people in history.

Well, David was a King, it might be said; but what of ordinary people?

There is a circularity to the question, since there are no ordinary people recorded in this kind of mythic history (being recorded makes you a part of the myth). And that is the point. David began ordinary, became a king - but we get the sense of what it was to be ordinary from the earlier part - and it wasn't qualitatively different from being a King.

The book of Ruth shows another slice of ordinary life, and how is could be taken up into 'history'.

We can at least glimpse from such stories what it is to live in awareness that one is inside history, destiny, prophecy. 

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Let's briefly consider an example of the difference between philosophical and historical modes: the problem of free will in the context of an omniscient God. i.e. if God knows the future how can we be free; but if we are free how can God know the future?

Philosophically, this is a version of the problem of how to understand the relationship between time and eternity, change and stasis. This history of philosophy up to Aquinas provides a variety of solutions (after which the problem was progressively swept aside and ignored).

It all seems impossible - or rather, any apparently satisfying answer (such as provided by Boethius in Consolation of Philosophy) is so abstract as to be un-understandable - less understandable that the problem was in the first place; and impossible to live-by.

And yet, the Old Testament demonstrates what it is like to live in a (non-philosophical) world where God is omniscient, where prophecies and promises always come to pass, and yet where the agents have free will and make real choices.

In the Old Testament world as we share in its lived quality, there is no 'as yet', there is no paradox (either real or perceived), there is no incoherence between God's foreknowledge and the freedom of the human actors.

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Thus (by identifying with the OT, by living vicariously in its narrative) we seen that although Philosophically the problem seems insoluble; in practice - when there is a people living in an historical mode - it is not a problem, but in fact the answer is a matter of everyday experience.

And yet, precisely because the historical mode of thinking and living is essentially different from the philosophical mode; there is no philosophical explanation for how it works: we perceive how it works, we cannot philosophically explain its coherence - indeed, philosophically it seems incoherent.

We cannot capture mythic history in philosophy - we can only live it (whether in reality or imagination, whether permanently or temporarily), or not live it - maintain distance, regard history through the lens of philosophy.

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But all religions (or at least, all strong and living and enduring religions) are and always have been philosophically incoherent; thus it is trivially easy to look at someone else's religion and demonstrate that it is nonsense, paradoxical, and (philosophically speaking)'makes no sense'. And yet the actual lived existence of that religion refutes all the philosophy!

(Or, at least, it may do - some religions really do not work, they do not make any significant difference to life. An 'Old Testament' of modern 'Liberal Christianity' or secular Leftism is unimaginable - except as a satire or warning, embedded in a genuine religious narrative.)

Yet of the same philosophical and analytic tools were turned back on the religion (or ideology) from which this destructive critique has emerged, then they would be revealed as self-dismantling.

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Ordinary people cannot do philosophy - they have no need or interest to think in that kind of way.

But ordinary people can live historically; indeed it is the norm - and we are the weird ones.

Indeed, this has changed during my life. England certainly had an element of the mythic-historic when I was a child; and so did social roles such as being a doctor, an academic, a scientist (from my experience) and apparently also being a joiner/ carpenter, or coal miner - or a mother.

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So we get two styles of Hebrew/ historical and Greek/ philosophical; and both present in Christianity from the beginning.

But we find it hard, nowadays, to stop being philosophical even though we are so inept at it; perhaps because we are so inept.

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I find, recurrently, that the philosophical style tends to get out of hand; and that it inserts a gap between myself and my religion.

Indeed, 'gap' is hardly the word for what it does!

Whether I am reading Aristotelian scholasticism, mystical Platonism, or the tight legalism of the Reformation-influenced thinkers; again and again I will suddenly awaken from my intellectual fascination to find that Christianity is something ever there and I am standing over here, alone, looking at it.

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Attempts to recover the historical way of thinking and living are attacked - and often demolished - by the power and status of philosophical questioning - since philosophy is able to make distinctions, and create problems, even or especially when it is unable to answer the questions raised by its own analysis.

That is, indeed, the history of philosophy, its driving dynamic - continual questioning, subversion.

Or, at least. the proportion of philosophers who have found a way of living from philosophy is very small in comparison with those who were absorbed (distracted) by the intellectual activity of demolishing ways of living (including previous philosophies).

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This is what troubles me about all specific attempts to formulate Christianity in terms of beliefs. It seems wrong to express Christianity as a list of beliefs; and also it seems wrong (and indeed even more wrong) to debate, modify or demolish lists of beliefs.

There is, it seems, no substitute for the historical sense of life; and if this is absent, then there can be no effective replacement; and this applies to Christianity as well as other religions.

Strong religion seems, indeed, to be characterized by precisely this historical sense; the sense of destiny - of living inside myth.

With this, all falls into place; without it, nothing else really matters.

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