Sunday, 23 December 2012

Christianity without philosophy: what would it look like?


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'.


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.


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').


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.


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.


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. 


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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).


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.





deconstructingleftism said...

Couple of things- it's often not appreciated that the NT is meaningless without the OT, which typically leads to a "philosophical" reading of the NT, which leads to complete incoherence.

A book which combines philosophy and the kind of historical thinking you speak of is "Lila", the follow up to "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" by Robert M. Pirsig. It's not Christian but has interesting ideas about the moral evolution of society.

Bruce Charlton said...

I never much liked Lila (or liked just parts of it) - but was very keen on Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance - even published an essay about it:

abstract said...

For me it was the opposite. I was drawn to Christianity specifically by the philosophy. Until I started reading serious works of Christian theology the random stories from a long time ago meant nothing to me. Wasn't it just a bunch of primitives living in different circumstances that no longer apply.

Had I never picked up Christian theology I don't think I ever would have converted. In fact its that theology that allows me to separate the earthly church from the religion, which is a practical necessity given how far the church has fallen. Otherwise I would think Christianity is whatever I saw and was told.

Sylvie D. Rousseau said...

Thanks for that very interesting essay.

Forgive the nitpicking, but the black thing caught my eye.

There are a other things to address as well, but this is, I believe, the basic one:
“What will happen is fixed … by the nature of things which isthe will of God…”

The unfolding of events through second causes does not have its origin in the will of God, for it would be arbitrary. God wills creatures' existence, out of love, but purpose and potentialities, and the action of second causes, particularly free willed agents, are determined by the nature of things. Nature/essence is NOT arbitrary but has its origin in God’s self-knowledge, that is, in his intellect. It is a reflection in contingent things of God’s necessary and eternal perfections.

Jacques Maritain demonstrates that voluntarism is at the source of major errors in modern philosophy. It came to us from nominalism through Luther’s positions, basically anti-intellectualist and voluntarist.

You remarked below that philosophy create problems and prevents us from recovering “the historical way of thinking and living.” I agree wholeheartedly that erroneous philosophies do that. But there is a true and good philosophy that helped the Church build the rational mind while doing its religious work, and which gave birth to modern science. Maybe you should take a serious look at it. I suggest Jacques Maritain’s works, among others. Also, the book on Aquinas by Chesterton is a lively introduction to the spirit of Thomism. As I wrote in previous comments, Thomism is not exactly easy – it is science – but not so difficult to understand, most of all when it is presented by saintly and savant men who are also good writers.

Bruce Charlton said...

@SDR - A few years ago I spent about six months reading a lot of Aquinas/ Thomism - including Maritain. I think Aquinas is the summit of philosophy qua philosophy (in terms of completeness and coherence) - but it does not overcome the intrinsic limitations of philosophy, and I can't really *use* it myself, can't live by it.

FHL said...

I'm just dropping by to say that I really like this post. I mean I REALLY like it. This is something I've thought about for a long, long, long time. I'll try to write a more substantial comment on it later today if I get the chance. But even if I don't, know that this post describes something that I'm sure many have felt and known in their hearts and minds but have never been able to express; pure truth. At least that is how I feel about it.

In the meantime, here's a relevant quote that greatly affected me when I when I was first returning to the church after many wasted years of careless hedonism.

Paraphrased from memory, perhaps incorrectly, from the recently departed Pope Shenouda III, His Holiness of the Coptic Church:

(speaking on the first encounter between God and Moses at the burning bush)
"And you will notice that God did not say to Moses 'I am the omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent creator,' but rather, He said 'I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.'"

Wm Jas said...

Walter Kaufmann makes a similar point in his Critique of Religion and Philosophy, contrasting the non-theological Old Testament with the theological New. Christianity made the mistake of including theology/metaphysics in the canon (in the fourth gospel and several of the epistles), a choice which has proved to be a perpetual source of problems for that religion.

Sylvie D. Rousseau said...

"...I can't really *use* [philosophy] myself, can't live by it..."

It goes without saying that nobody can live by speculative thought, but it is indispensable to explain the why of practical things, for example, why good acts are rational and evil acts are not, why certain intellectual positions are good or wrong (ex.: relativism pretending truth evolves, changes, or that it does not exist).

Speculative thought descends in life without most people noticing, and sometimes with considerable delays, but it does influence practical life, like voluntarism influenced the lives of hundreds of millions of people over more than a dozen generations.

To transpose in the scientific domain, you are doing something of the sort in your research and teaching on theoretical medicine: I believe the aim is to explain why and how certain ways of practicing medicine are good and others should be avoided. The way you speak about evidence-based medicine makes me think you consider medicine as an art in the traditional (medieval) sense, which is a very good thing from the point of view of traditional philosophy.

Bruce Charlton said...

@FHL - Thanks!

Pascal's life transforming religious experience had the same content, the same phrase.

This may suggest that 'philosophy' blocks Christian living for intellectuals; to be born again entails a recovery of this personal relationship with a personal God.

@WmJas - I guess Kauffman (as a Nietzschian) was explaining this from the outside - indeed I have long been familiar with the description from the outside; but only recently do I begin to see how it works in practice (mostly through the lives of people more devout and stronger than mine).

But you will be familiar with this from when you were an active Mormon. Indeed, this post was stimulated by a short passage in this piece by Orson Scott Card:

"(Please don't write in with all the sophistries designed to explain the "timeless" God, or with "higher" math invoking multiple dimensions — trust me, I've heard them all, and they still come down to the nonexistence of a God who is actively involved in the universe of causation.)"

I was struck by the way that Card stubbornly refused to (pretend to) be satisfied by abstract philosophical explanations that instead of answering the question as it was felt, pushed the question into the realm of non-feeling.

As I have indicated previously, I (broadly) regard the 'restoration' aspect of Mormonism in this light; a regrounding of Christianity in the personal, experiential, and narrative.

In this respect, there is an affinity with Eastern Orthodoxy, which has in some traditions (as FHL implies) remained stubbornly unphilosophical - indeed un-theological - more a matter of a life and relationships - however (in complete contrast with Mormonism) focused on monasticism and liturgy.

FHL said...

post 1 of 2

Hello again. I have so much to say but I have always had troubles commenting on this issue. So I'm going to have to be erratic. Maybe I'll comment some more, maybe not. I'll see what comes to me. Sorry for any confusion.

It's something I can only speak about with metaphors. Plain words evade me. My thoughts on this are always shifting; it's like trying to catch a wave.

Yes, I do agree that there is a severe problem with philosophy, something that could hinder someone's relationship with God... there is even something, an occasional feeling I get deep in my heart concerning philosophy, that sometimes registers as something sinister, some sort of evil that hangs about it. Like I've been diverted onto a detour that actually doesn't connect with anything, but just goes in circles, but the circles are so large that the seasons change whenever I complete a full loop, so I never actually realize that I'm going in circles. Like I've been lured into some sort of trap. Like all I am doing is participating in some extremely elaborate form of sophistry.

And I say this quite seriously; I'm not some guy who has no patience for philosophy or intellectual thought- I graduated this month (Dec 15th) with a bachelor's degree in Philosophy. But there's always been something about it I could never pin down, something that has always bothered me, but I've never found any way to describe my problem with philosophy without somehow engaging in philosophy.

So I'm just going to drop a large quote by Soren Kierkegaard. I know that you've posted before that Kierkegaard has caused more harm than good. I don't know if that's true. But I do know that I doubted Kierkegaard at first because of what I'd heard about him (relativist, doesn't believe in objective truth, doesn't think it matters what you believe about God, etc.) but I think it safe to say that I was wrong, that stuff isn't true, and I regret I doubted him. He is extremely Christian, and extremely wise, but he is not for everyone. Not only do you have to read almost all of his works (in order, as well) for them to begin making sense, but you have to read them in the right state of mind, or the right place in life...

FHL said...

post 2 of 2

From Either/Or, under the pseudonym 'A':

(FHL: I have placed the most important part in uppercase type)

"Marry, and you will regret it. Do not marry, and you will also regret it. Marry or do not marry, you will regret it either way. Whether you marry or you do not marry, you will regret it either way. Laugh at the stupidities of the world, and you will regret it; weep over them, and you will also regret it. Laugh at the stupidities of the world or weep over them, you will regret it either way. Whether you laugh at the stupidities of the world or you weep over them, you will regret it either way. Trust a girl, and you will regret it. Do not trust her, and you will also regret it. Trust a girl or do not trust her, you will regret it either way. Whether you trust a girl or do not trust her, you will regret it either way. Hang yourself, and you will regret it. Do not hang yourself, and you will also regret it. Hang yourself or do not hang yourself, you will regret it either way. Whether you hang yourself or do not hang yourself, you will regret it either way. This, gentlemen, is the quintessence of all the wisdom of life. It is not merely in isolated moments that I, as Spinoza says, view everything aeterno modo [in the mode of eternity], but I am continually aeterno modo. Many believe they, too, are this when after doing one thing or another they unite or mediate these opposites. But this is a misunderstanding, for the true eternity does not lie behind either/or but before it. Their eternity will therefore also be a painful temporal sequence, since they will have a double regret on which to live. My wisdom is easy to grasp, for I have only one maxim, and even that is not a point of departure for me. One must differentiate between the subsequent dialectic in either/or and the eternal one suggested here. So when I say that my maxim is not a point of departure for me, this does not have the opposite of being a point of departure but is merely the negative expression of my maxim, that by which it comprehends itself in contrast to being a point of departure or not being a point of departure.

My maxim is not a point of departure for me, because if I made it a point of departure, I would regret it, and if I did not make it a point of departure, I would also regret it. If one or another of my esteemed listeners thinks there is anything to what I have said, he merely demonstrates that he has no head for philosophy. If he thinks there is any movement in what has been said, this demonstrates the same thing. But for those listeners who are able to follow me, although I do not move, I shall now elucidate the eternal truth by which this philosophy is self-contained and does not concede anything higher. That is, if I made my maxim a point of departure, then I would be unable to stop, for if I did not stop, I would regret it, and if I did stop, I would also regret it, etc. But if I never start, then I can always stop, for my eternal starting is my eternal stopping. EXPERIENCE SHOWS THAT IT IS NOT AT ALL DIFFICULT FOR PHILOSOPHY TO BEGIN. FAR FROM IT. IT BEGINS, IN FACT, WITH NOTHING AND THEREFORE CAN ALWAYS BEGIN. BUT IT IS ALWAYS DIFFICULT FOR PHILOSOPHY AND PHILOSOPHERS TO STOP. This difficulty, too, I have avoided, for if anyone thinks that I, in stopping now, actually stop, he demonstrates that he does not have speculative comprehension. THE POINT IS THAT I DO NOT STOP NOW, BUT I STOPPED WHEN I BEGAN.

My philosophy, therefore, has the advantageous characteristic of being brief and of being irrefutable, for if anyone disputes me, I daresay I have the right to declare him mad. The philosopher, then, is continually aeterno modo and does not have, as did the blessed Sintenis, only specific hours that are lived for eternity."

Oh, and before I forget, Merry Christmas!

Bruce Charlton said...

@ FHL "I know that you've posted before that Kierkegaard has caused more harm than good."

Errr no! That wasn't me. I've never succeeded in reading K, and I've never written anything about him - I don't think.

Simon said...

There is something very odd about the timing of this post. May I enquire as to why you've been pondering this? What has brought this up?

For I am at this stage also: but in the past I've followed your line of thought - much like you and Moldbug. It is quite disconcerting to see us at the same stage. I am used to your being far ahead of me.

I find myself being as nearly as lost as I was before I found Christ. I simply do not know what to do. This post represents part of what I so crave.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Simon - the specific impetus to write this post now was related to my current looking again at Mormonism (an interest which goes back about 5 years) - and the comment by Orson Scott Card I mentioned in my reply to WmJas above.

I am enormously impressed by the way that Mormons talk about their faith, and also by the way that Mormon leaders address their flock - it is clear that many Mormons are far more advanced in personal religiousness than mainstream Christians.

And this goes with an almost non-theological approach as described in the main post.

Thus Mormons seems to have retained, or renewed, or made anew, the type of Historical (ancient Hebrew) religiousness which is probably how Christians of all denominations are *meant* to live.

But my skepticism of philosophy goes back to early 2010 after I had been reading deeply (as deeply as I could) in Thomism - then discovered Eastern Orthodoxy.

More recently I have engaged (for the first time) with Calvinism - and felt its strengths, while also gradually feeling its limitations. This included thinking about the 'predestination' problem and its suggested philosophical solutions; and the inadequacy (one way or another) of all of these - and then considering that such philosophical problems simply do not make any difference to devoutly Christian livers.

They are not a problem in life, they lead to no paradoxes, they do not weaken faith nor paralyse action.

Thus I infer that the problem is an artefact of the mode of analysis; and that the mode of analysis renders the problem insoluble (except at such a level of abstraction that it is rendered irrelevant to life, merely by its abstraction).

FHL said...

Sorry! I was certain that you had said something to the effect of: "when I think of philosophers such as [such-and-such] and [so-and-so] (FHL: and Kierkegaard was included in this list), I think their overall effect was bad, and they have caused more harm and confusion than good."

But looking back at your posts, I have found this post:

-which must be the post I am thinking of, but there is no mention of Kierkegaard. I must have gotten confused. My apologies.

Bruce Charlton said...

@FHL - on a tangent, it was Charles Williams (Inkling friend of Lewis and Tolkien) who introduced K. to a British audience, as he arranged for the books to be published in his job at the Oxford University Press. I have a book of Christian readings for each day of the liturgical year compiled by Williams, and there is a lot of K.