Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Impersonal Order: on the Excarnate God

Student Presentation by Matt Dodrill

Subtraction Stories as Inadequate

• The process of determinative negation (or subtraction stories) does not adequately explain the ways in which the modern self-understanding has been constructed throughout history.
o Deism is not merely the “next layer” on the continuum of subtraction stories. The temptation for an “impersonal order” was present during the Patristic era. However the Patristics were able to tame Greek philosophy and bring it into harmony with Christian orthodoxy.

Strands of Deism

• 1. Disenchantment -- the mother of “causal laws”: Disenchantment leads to perceiving the world as mechanization. Aristotelian teleology is replaced by the causal explanations of science. Spirits and demons are no longer extracted from matter.
• 2. The disappearance of legend and the homogenizing of “profane time”: History excludes the stories of heroes and legends. Time is homogenized into profanity.
o Hence moral therapeutic deism (a term borrowed from Christian Smith)
o Hence the loss of the liturgy and sacred time (and watching Charles Stanley on television instead).
o Biblical criticism: if heroes and legends are excluded from history, how shall we read Scripture? This strand subjects Scripture to Cartesian (and Lockean) epistemology.

Plausibility Conditions: a Reminder

• Taylor reminds us that deism never sees the world as it is "given" to us.
o 274: “That their paradigm of ‘religion’ is a negative one is not the result of empirical discovery, but of their pre-existing framework.”
o 275: “…their stance is not forced on them by the ‘facts’, but flows from a certain interpretive grid.”

Some Pre-Modern Points of Tension in the Patristic Church

• 1. Platonic subordination of the body
• 2. The re-entry of the body and a new significance of history
• 3. Gathered stories and individuation
• 4. New significance of contingency
• 5. The emotions
• 6. God as a personal and communal being
o This (6) is the context in which 1-5 are set. Modern deism integrated 1-5, but not 6. Thus, the deistic grid is pretty different. What is missing in the deistic account is a personal God/personal order.

What Made the Deistic Grid so Powerful?

Latitudinarians and Categorical Societies

• Latitudinarians are an affinity to disenchantment and “authoritative” causal laws.
o 282: …”Latitudinarian clergy deployed a public version of Isaac Newton to promote a separation of creation from its Creator in order the better to ensure that rationality ruled both the natural and the social universes.”
 This contrasts with communion and agape, which are not based on by the “rules” or “codes” that categorical societies are bound by.
• Autonomous reason and dignity vs. subjection and mercy: Even the "boundary" ethics of modern societies was birthed out of autonomous reason. The law constraints of the categorical societies are based on what humans want, not on demands imposed from without. Thus, humans are not constrained by authority. Law is self-imposed -- it's impersonal. By contrast, Christians see their highest mode of being arising out of relation that is not equal. There is a hierarchical authority retained. We need grace, and grace trumps the "supremecy of a high code" (p. 283).

Disengagement and Objectification

• 283: “Disengagement is correlative to what I have called ‘objectification’. To objectify a given domain is to deprive it of normative force for us, or at least to bracket the meanings it has for us in our lives. If we take a domain of being in which hitherto the way things are has defined meanings or set standards for us, and we now take a new stance towards it as neutral, without meaning or normative force, we can speak of objectifying it.”
• Mechanization neutralizes the whole domain.

Excarnation and “Embodiment within the Bounds of Reason”

• Deism excarnates the Scripture narrative. That is, the tensions described above are explained in terms of reason (disembodied minds, in contrast to incarnation).
o Two consequences:
 1. Factor out embodied feeling (Kant)
 2. Base morality on emotions (Hume)

Modern Reflections of Deism

• Commercial society’s rejection of communion-defined Christianity.
• Unitarianism
• Christianity as “right belief”; theology as “correct description.”

What’s next? Unbelief? (See La Mettrie’s quote, p. 293).


• What role would Taylor say science should play? He has shown how the scientific revolution helped drive the excessive emphasis on causal law, but what is a corrective?
• We do not want our apologetic approach to (perhaps unwittingly) carry deistic assumptions. However, how should we defend against the charge of fideism?

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this! There are some really interesting things happening here.

    Regarding your first question, I like what Terry Eagleton has to say about the role of science and logic in response to strident New Atheists like Dawkins and Hitchens (or, collapsing the two names, he refers to them endearingly as "Ditchkins" -- ha!), where he says, and I am roughly paraphrasing here, that reason/logic plays a crucial role in culture and society but it "only goes down so far," whereby imagination/faith then takes the reigns. And so, the hierarchy goes: reason unto faith. So, with imagination and faith comes embodied, particular culture, which skirts utter objectivity. In a clever way, one might reverse the Cartesian project here and say not "I think, therefore I am" but "I am, therefore I think." Thus Taylor's point about the homogenization of "profane" time according to the disenchanted paradigm is worthy of note; if we start or begin from within the singular frame of a muddling particularity manifested in story and legend, then we resign ourselves to a state where we color the crisp timeless truths of rigid causation.

    -- Just as a side note: I am not sure the Patristics "tamed" Greek thought, as you put it, but rather integrated it into their own belief system. The concept and eventual canonization of the Trinity owes a great deal to the Greek's idea of the world being undergirded by a pervasive substance (ouisa); aka, lit. cosmos. This is really just a matter of style and semantics, but "tame" suggests a disordered thing that needs to be domesticated for it to work.

    Thanks for this,