Last year, while London suffered under terror bombings and insurgency continued in Iraq, a local UCC minister wrote in my hometown newspaper that the violence we are experiencing is caused by the spirit of religious exclusivity. Universal claims on behalf of faith (the minister was scrupulous to include in this camp claims about salvation in Christ alone) lead to hatred, bigotry, and oppression. Dogmatism and the dogmatic personality are at the root of our problems. The way toward peace and cooperation, he concluded, requires us to realize that our religious faith is culturally conditioned and relative to our unique personal needs.
Such treason of the clerics provides the context and urgency for Thomas Guarino’s book Foundations of Systematic Theology. A professor of theology at Seton Hall University, Guarino begins with what would seem obvious: Christianity has long had a penchant for proclaiming doctrines about Jesus and salvation, the Trinity and the Church, as true, and not just true for certain cultures, certain personality types, and at certain times, but universally and enduringly true. The core teachings of the faith are asserted and affirmed “with a certain dimension of clarity, objectivity, and perpetuity.” This may offend UCC ministers and grate against liberal sensibilities, but the fact remains. Christian faith is dogmatic and its claims to truth red-blooded.
Guarino structures his study to bring into view and analyze the problems facing the truth-affirming character of Christian teaching. These problems can be divided roughly in half.
The first concerns contemporary postmodern philosophical trends that support the antidogmatic prejudice. By and large, the work of postmodern philosophers cuts against “clarity, objectivity, and perpetuity.”
The second half of Foundations considers more narrowly theological issues. To what degree and how can finite human language convey knowledge of the transcendent Creator? How should theology use philosophical conceptions of God or the Absolute? To what extent must theology accept norms of argument and reason from contemporary intellectual life? What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem? The tenor of our answers to these questions will influence the ways in which we think and talk about the truth of Christian doctrine.
Being by training a theologian, I am best prepared to analyze the second part. It would be pleasant to discuss why I think Balthasar got the best of Barth in their mid-twentieth century debate about nature, grace, and the so-called analogia entis. I would like to correct Guarino’s misuse (which is widespread) of the term “fideism” and discuss his rejection of postliberalism as “anti-metaphysical.” His nuanced and sympathetic discussions of Rahner and Lonergan provide opportunity for reassessing their legacies. But what one might pleasantly undertake is not necessarily what one ought to do.
In Fides et Ratio, the encyclical devoted to encouraging a renewal of reason, John Paul II observes that philosophy has two roles, both of which are dear to the Church. Philosophy has a broadly humanizing role to encourage and express “reason’s drive to attain goals which render people’s lives more worthy”: The health of philosophy directly influences the health of culture. But philosophy also has another role, involving theology, as “an indispensable help for a deeper understanding of faith and for communicating the truth of the gospel.”
Guarino asks, “To what extent can some current modes of secular thought serve as a medium for theological reflection?” Given the dual role and importance of philosophy identified by John Paul II, formulating a satisfactory answer is imperative.
Guarino’s question about the value of current modes of secular thought is posed against the background of post-Vatican II misgivings about the present age that have shifted from worry about human creativity run wild to concern about a retreating renunciation of human dignity. To a large degree, Catholicism after the French Revolution was defined by its resistance to an aggressive humanism that imagined itself all-sufficient. This changed in the twentieth century. At the outset of his pontificate, John Paul II did not urge, “Be not arrogant and overconfident.” He read the signs of the times differently, and his motto was “Be not afraid.” With its strong defense of philosophical ambition, Fides et Ratio illustrates this shift. Where the old Syllabus of Errors in the nineteenth century warned against the danger of rationalism and rejected attempts to build an empire of reason, John Paul II observes in contemporary culture a “widespread skepticism,” an “undifferentiated pluralism,” and a “lack of confidence in truth” that encourages us to think that “everything is reduced to opinion.” In a word, we seem not smugly certain about our possession of truth; we are instead afraid of truth.
This atmosphere has not come upon us from without. It is the program of a significant segment of contemporary intellectual life. The contemporary Italian philosopher Gianni Vattimo, for instance, argues that the present lack of confidence in truth, far from a problem for Christianity, is a sign of the millennial triumph of the gospel. The faithful must resist the “metaphysical temptation” and “authoritarian interpretation” of the Bible.
Against this “fanaticism and intolerance” (which Vattimo associates with John Paul II), we should embrace “the weakening of the idea of truth,” for it leads to the freedom to live in tolerant harmony with others. “Christian existence,” Vattimo sums up in anti-dogmatic flourish, does not “allow itself to be defined by any positive content on the plane of faith or by any positive obligation on the moral plane (this too would be a form of idolatry, of Antichrist).” The evaporation of visible Christian belief and practice constitutes the final triumph of charity. To assert nothing as true is the great kenosis Christ came to teach us. If this sounds like a highbrow version of the editorial written by my local UCC minister, that’s because it is.
By Guarino’s analysis, Vattimo, along with such figures as Derrida, Foucault, Lyotard, Baudrillard, Rorty, and others reflect what he takes to be the defining feature of contemporary philosophy: nonfoundationalism. These figures may differ widely on particulars, but they are unified in their rejection of “metanarratives” and the “tyranny of globalizing presence.” In the more sober vocabulary of Richard Bernstein, among postmodernists “there has been a prevailing suspicion that the appeal to reason functions as a deceptive mask for ruthless power; that all appeals to universality are disguises for violently suppressing cultural, ethnic, and religious differences.”
To be a nonfoundationalist, then, is to defend humanity by denying truth. The position may be accompanied by obscure literary-theoretical vocabulary, but the underlying logic is not that difficult to discern. As my local UCC pastor suggested in his editorial, we overcome violence by eliminating appeals to universality. We resist ruthless power by pulling off the deceptive mask of reason. We blunt oppressive claims by criticizing the idea of objective truth. We encourage tolerance and cooperation by affirming that all are entitled to their own truths. Everybody can live together in peace if nobody insists too strongly on anything in particular.
It is clear from the title of his book that Guarino thinks Christian faith antithetical to nonfoundationalism, and he argues that the Christian intellectual should seek foundations. At minimum, affirming the Nicene Creed entails at least tacit commitments to truths both universal (“for us and for our salvation”) and particular (“crucified under Pontius Pilate”).
These commitments have, as he puts it, “certain theoretical exigencies.” A person who believes Christian doctrine may not have a theory of truth, a metaphysical account, or a theory of language, but the substance of faith points in the direction of a “strengthening” of the idea of truth, and not, as Vattimo endorses, a “weakening.” In its largest sense, then, Guarino’s affirmation of foundations amounts to encouraging philosophical inquiries that explain and encourage the truth-asserting dynamic of Christian doctrine.
Guarino is certainly right about the “theoretical exigencies” of Christian faith, and he is not alone. In Fides et Ratio, John Paul II consistently emphasizes the “universal elements of knowledge,” “the truth of being,” and “the search for ultimate truth,” and he encourages the renewal of the perennial philosophy that seeks to discern the “fundamental truths about human life.” Each phrase can be associated with the basic vocation of the intellect: to found or base human life in the goodness and beauty of truth rather than fantasy, self-deception, or lazy presumption. The strengthening of foundations does not entail loyalty to a particular philosophical system. “The Church has no philosophy of her own,” John Paul II writes, “nor does she canonize any one particular philosophy in preference to others.” However, Christian faith does endorse a philosophical optimism and ambition on behalf of truth. The exhortation “Be not afraid!” includes shedding the postmodern fear of the power of truth.
Thus, when Guarino engages postmodern thinkers such as Derrida or Vattimo, the issue is straightforward. The classical Christian approach treats the perennial quest for foundations or basic truths as a project both intrinsically humanizing and broadly supportive of the life of faith. In contrast, the postmodern project sees the desire for foundations as a terrible impulse that encourages power seeking, leads to social conformity, and culminates in violence. “Such an approach,” writes Guarino, “can only with difficulty be reconciled to an understanding of Christian doctrine that is, in some significant measure, enduring, universal, and normative.” Difficult, I would say, to the point of impossible.
If we go back to the crucial question of what current philosophy has to offer, it seems our answer must be largely negative. This is bad news. Not only do the prophets of difference and the end-of-metaphysics crowd seem to contribute to the dehumanizing nihilism of contemporary culture, they also provide little other than resistance to the work of any theology committed to the truth of doctrine. But do Hegel and Heidegger, Derrida and Deleuze, Vico and Vattimo, exhaust the options? Are there currents of modern philosophy that affirm the power of reason, support the universality of truth, and defend the objectivity of knowledge? Or, to use Guarino’s term, is there a form of contemporary philosophy that seeks foundations?
The answer is, I think, yes. It is called analytic philosophy, and it dominates the English-speaking world. Yet it seems invisible. For all his welcome defense of doctrinal truth, on this point Guarino is typical. He mentions some analytic philosophers, but only to drop them immediately. Like so much of contemporary theology, a great deal of effort is spent reading and analyzing the tradition of thought that informs Vattimo, while the analytic philosophers whose work is filled with foundational words such as “real” and “universal” and “fact” and “true” go unnoticed. The blindness begs for explanation.
In the first place, the language of foundations can certainly create confusion. Most analytic philosophers would describe themselves as nonfoundationalists, but they would also be amused by the postmodern description of reason and argument as a mask for power. Totalitarian governments tend to silence reasoned arguments, not encourage them as tools for domination. The equation of universal truth with violence would strike them as absurd. In what sense does the principle of noncontradiction lead to colonialism or gender inequality? How does 2 + 2 = 4 suppress religious differences? In Guarino’s terms, the analytic philosophers seem to be self-described nonfoundationalists who fall into the foundationalist camp.
The apparent contradiction comes about because, for mainstream English-speaking philosophy, foundationalism and nonfoundationalism do not have a large-scale, metaphysical meaning. The narrower meaning of foundationalism stems from the work of W.V. Quine, perhaps the most important figure in twentieth-century English-speaking philosophy.
Quine was trained in a school of philosophy called Logical Positivism. That school set about to vindicate the authority of modern scientific dogma by demonstrating that scientific dogma could be grounded in (or “founded upon”) logical truths and experimentally verifiable facts. It is not just that the Logical Positivists believed in and sought truth. They had a specific theory, a foundationalist theory, about what allows us to be confident or certain that our beliefs are true. By the 1950s, however, Quine had become convinced that the foundationalist project of Logical Positivism was misguided.
His insights were roughly as follows. First, Quine came to see that we convey material claims about the world in human language that participates in the complexities of human cultures. For this reason, it is very difficult to move from timeless logical formulae to ordinary sentences without a great deal of slippage. This was his critique of the direct extension of analytic truth into ordinary language. Second, like many others working on the philosophical question of experimental verification (the so-called problem of induction), Quine came to see that the fixed facts in syllogisms are not the same as the flux of phenomena. This undermined the empiricist notion of synthetic truth.
Quine’s demolition of what he called “the two dogmas of empiricism” made him a nonfoundationalist in epistemology. He did not think merely that Logical Positivism is mistaken in certain technical ways. His analysis convinced him that we cannot explain the truthfulness of our scientific teachings (or any other teachings) by reducing them to something more foundational. We cannot test or verify beliefs by breaking them down into more-primitive pieces such as logical truths and sense experiences.
For some casual readers of Quine, this conclusion is equivalent to saying that truth does not exist. There are obvious overlaps between Quine’s thinking and Heidegger’s to encourage this reading. The criticism of analytic truth amounts to a recognition of the historicity of language. The criticism of synthetic truth roughly follows Heidegger’s gnomic descriptions of the way in which “onto-theology” leads to a “forgetfulness of being” through a false formalizing of particularity. So we might conclude (as Richard Rorty has done) that truth is a fiction and that claims of universality and truth function only to “stop the conversation.”
But neither Quine nor the mainstream of American philosophy that was so influenced by his work agrees. It is a fallacy to say that because we cannot prove our beliefs by way of the twin foundations of analytic truth and synthetic truth, we therefore cannot know truth at all. It is even more foolish to say that only what we can prove or explain exerts influence in our lives. Our inability to understand how the mind comes to know things no more makes truth vacuous and empty than the ancient inability to explain gravity rendered it inoperative.
Quine made neither mistake. He distinguished between epistemology and ontology. How we can verify or prove what we know is different from what we can with confidence say about the nature of mind, the world, and truth. This allowed Quine to be modestly skeptical about the capacity of philosophy to say helpful things about how we know. But in the realm of ontology (broadly understood as inquiry into the way things are) he went on to initiate an extraordinary period of creativity.
In fact, the two are linked, for the foundationalist project in epistemology (of which Logical Positivism was but one particularly vigorous form) had a tendency to confuse truth with certainty, and this greatly constrained the scope of philosophy. Thus, Quine was a nonfoundationalist with respect to epistemology, but he certainly did not think that truth was socially constructed, or that the universality of scientific teaching entails an oppressive suppression of difference, or that logic is an expression of the will-to-power. In Guarino’s terms, Quine was an unrepentant foundationalist. He thought that good arguments should compel the mind and that a responsible intellectual should set out to discern what is and is not true about the world.
A loyal Quinean might find the confusion created by the different uses of foundationalism and nonfoundationalism a frustrating example of theologians neglecting proper use of terms, but Guarino is in good company. In Fides et Ratio, John Paul II treats foundations in the same robust, metaphysical fashion. And in any event, the confusion created by such terms as foundationalism and nonfoundationalism is not that great. We can sort out the issues and see that Quine was skeptical about the ability of philosophy to explain why particular beliefs are justly held as true (thus nonfoundational in epistemology)—while, at the same time, he did not think that truth and the human ability to know truth are illusory or sources of violence and oppression (thus foundational in the more robust, metaphysical sense). Guarino says as much in a very brief digression of his own.
So why then does Guarino neglect Quine and the analytic tradition? The neglect is even more striking when we think about what is actually going on in the academy. Aren’t the governing sentiment and thrust of analytic philosophy—its logic-chopping, its punctiliousness about argument, and its tireless defense of reason—obvious to even the most casual observer? The opposition to the spirit of postmodern philosophy is evident.
Consider, further, Guarino’s reiteration of John Paul II’s call for a prima philosophia with “metaphysical ‘range’ or ‘horizon.’” We are living in a period when continental philosophers and literary critics are proclaiming the death of metaphysics. Yet the American Philosophical Association sponsors sessions on metaphysics at its annual meetings.
Still further, Guarino follows John Paul II in calling for a restored confidence in truth. While it is a dogma of postmodernism that truth is socially constructed, nearly all contemporary Americans who do analytic philosophy hold a realist view of truth. Relativists are nearly impossible to find in American departments of philosophy—unless, of course, those departments are recusant and organize themselves around such continental figures as Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Derrida. So, again, why the neglect?
I do not mean to single out Guarino. Foundations of Systematic Theology is, I think, typical of contemporary theology. Catholic or not, in the main it cannot see the apparent renewal of philosophy in the English-speaking world. Alvin Plantinga, Peter van Inwagen, William Alston, and the rest of the Society of Christian Philosophers can meet for twenty years, but theology remains blind to ways in which analytic philosophy can contribute to the “evangelization of culture” and renewal of theology that John Paul II—and now Benedict XVI—identify as singular imperatives in the West.
There are exceptions. Bruce Marshall’s Trinity and Truth assesses and reformulates the remarkable new philosophical resources developed since Quine lead analytic philosophy out of its epistemological captivity. Marshall’s colleague, William Abraham, works out of the analytic tradition. There are self-described analytic Thomists. The late Donald Mackinnon helped his theological students see the value of analytic philosophy. But by and large, these figures and trends are eccentric to the main body of contemporary theology. The overwhelming majority of theologians today sift through Heidegger and his philosophical children and grandchildren to try to find useable material.
This impulse is understandable but misguided. Heidegger and his progeny have developed into a tradition unsuited to the traditional role of philosophy has played in Christian intellectual life. It has little to offer for the task John Paul II thought so pressing, to renew confidence in reason, and it does more harm than good in the technical work of systematic theology.
What explains the peculiar loyalty of contemporary theology to inauspicious postmodern trends? Here we need to think clearly about how and why Western philosophy broke into two very distinct streams: the continental and the analytic. In antiquity, philosophy was a form of theology, or, to use Pierre Hadot’s phrase, philosophy was a way of life, organized around doctrines about ultimate truth coordinated with moral and spiritual disciplines of the soul.
After the triumph of Christianity in late antiquity, the meaning of philosophy changed. The proclamation of Christ provided Christendom with “the Way.” The Church supplied the crucial doctrines about ultimate truth, as well as disciplines to cure the soul. In this context, philosophy took on a more modest role. It provided logical training and a conceptually precise vocabulary for Christian thought, expressed the perennial longing of the human heart for the infinite, and served as a clearinghouse for natural knowledge. This subordinate role is the essence of scholasticism.
St. Thomas described scholastic philosophy with the analogy of the handmaiden. Its key feature is not a commitment to Platonism, Aristotelianism, or any other set of positions. Nor is scholasticism simply a technical or formalized system of thought. Modern science is both, but it is not a form of scholasticism. Instead, a philosophy “of the schools” is a way of thinking about logic, language, metaphysics, and morals that helps the scholar with his basic task: to understand and expound material truths discerned by other means. A scholastic philosophy does not so much sing about the meaning of life as prepare for, clarify, order, support, and clear away interruptions to the song sung according to another score.
In the Christian tradition scholastic philosophy has flourished. The Cappadocians in the fourth century turned Platonism into a scholastic philosophy in order to develop their theological synthesis. St. Anselm in the late eleventh century had a different style, but he too was a Platonist, though in an even more formal, deracinated sense. Aristotle looms large in later scholasticism, perhaps because so much of his work was already highly formal and suited for scholastic use and because the material elements of his thought were congenial to the emerging observational and descriptive ethos of medieval natural philosophy. Yet, there was never just one scholastic philosophy: Scholars debated; new resources were adopted; systems were developed. What remained constant and what made all this work “of the schools” was its function or role. Philosophy operated as a supporting intellectual practice within a settled consensus about the truth of Christian doctrine.
What makes modern philosophy modern has been its response to the collapse of the Christian consensus among European elites. In the wake of that collapse, the philosophes of the Enlightenment were forced toward new conceptions of philosophy and its practice. Philosophy could no longer work out problems and develop avenues of speculation under the umbrella of doctrinal truth.
As Descartes observed in his Discourse on Method, the old systems had become intellectually ineffective. “I firmly believed,” he confessed of his decision to break with inherited methods, “that in this way I should better succeed in the conduct of my life, than if I built only upon the old foundations.” Extending the metaphor of foundations, Descartes wrote that we need to “pull down the house of knowledge that, upon closer inspection, is structurally unsound and at the point of collapse.” In its place philosophy was to construct a new and better house of knowledge on firm foundations.
Textbooks often divide the new initiative of modern philosophy into two streams: British Empiricism (Locke, Berkeley, Hume) and Continental Rationalism (Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz). There was a division in the development of modern philosophy, but this textbook distinction is jejune. The real difference concerns the practice of philosophy, not its empiricist or rationalist doctrines. We need to understand this difference if we are to understand and assess the philosophical preferences and blindnesses of modern theology.
For one half of the modern tradition, the fundamental scholastic role was retained. What changed was the queen that it served. For figures such as Locke and Hume, the emergence of modern science allowed it to rotate into the position once held by theology. The same holds for most of the subsequent English-speaking tradition of philosophy. Quine was a scholastic philosopher in precisely this sense. He accepted the authority of modern scientific inquiry, and, to use Guarino’s terminology, he explored the “theoretical exigencies” of the scientific project, not the least of which are the universality and objectivity of its teachings.
This scholastic form is not limited to the English-speaking world. Edmund Husserl’s phenomenological project is highly formal and lends itself to scholastic applications, as Robert Sokolowski demonstrates. John Paul II championed the potential of personalism in his career as a philosopher. The school of Logical Positivism that so influenced the young Quine emerged out of the so-called Vienna Circle.
In fact, the history of modern philosophy is so interesting and complex because it contains figures who have tried to take various modern doctrines and methods and return them to the older scholastic role. Malebranche attempted as much with Cartesianism, which was why he and Antoine Arnauld could conduct a voluminous debate about the operation of grace in the form of detailed treatises on ideas, perception, and mental representation. Berkeley advanced a strikingly counterintuitive thesis about reality (the “immaterialist hypothesis,” as he called it) in order to pull early modern analysis of knowledge back into a theological orbit.
The early-twentieth-century Belgian Jesuit Joseph Maréchal developed what was called “transcendental Thomism,” and he convinced a generation of Catholic theologians, most notably Karl Rahner, that modern philosophical analysis of human subjectivity could function in the place of Aristotelian metaphysics as the scholastic idiom for modern theology.
All these complexities and exceptions duly noted, the cultural fact remains fairly simple and clear. The main form of contemporary philosophical scholasticism is analytic philosophy, and it is almost entirely written in English. It announces by its name the secondary or handmaidenly role it is to play: not revealing or disclosing truth but analyzing the exigencies of what is taught or disclosed.
Indeed, not a few undergraduates become disappointed by this basic and defining characteristic. They want revelations and epiphanies, but analytic philosophers seem always to be operating in the shadows, not saying immediately what is right or wrong but discussing the concepts of right and wrong so that one might approach moral questions with clarity and responsibility, not announcing what is true but investigating the nature of truth. One hears a common complaint, “empty formalism,” and it makes my point. Second-order technical discussions are the bread and butter of scholasticism, and students have complained of the apparent existential dryness since the days of Plato’s Academy.
Because analytic philosophy is a scholasticism that has shifted loyalties from theology to science, most modern theologians have thought it a godless antagonist. One needs to read only a little of Bertrand Russell to see that he was both very smart and very opposed to Christian doctrines. A.J. Ayer serenely dismissed metaphysics, ethics, and religion as sentiments wrongly retailed as propositions. I do not know what Quine’s religious views were, but he certainly had no more place for God in his philosophy than does modern science. Add the verbal aggressiveness characteristic of analytic philosophers, an intellectual arrogance that quickly dismisses as fools those uninitiated into the specialized vocabulary, and, let’s be honest, the natural human impatience with technical arguments (that old “empty formalism” complaint), and it is easy to see why modern theology would turn elsewhere.
But how has the other tradition of modern philosophy developed? By and large, the so-called continental tradition takes the cultural decline of theology not as occasion to find another source of truth to serve but as warrant for shedding the scholastic role altogether. By the time Hegel wrote at the beginning of the nineteenth century, the new role of the philosopher had become clear: He is to recover his original, pre-Christian vocation as oracle and prophet.
In The Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel provides an account of the “genius of Spirit.” Spirit, says Hegel, alienated itself into the division of labor characteristic of Christendom: formal scholastic philosophy in its “abstract universality” as against the “picture-thinking” of the Bible. The collapse of Christendom is thus a dialectical necessity, and the new, synthetic work of philosophy is the “labor of the concept” that marries reason (the old formalism of scholastic argument) with reality (the “picture-thinking” concreteness of the religious imagination).
However one reads the details of Hegel’s notion of dialectical thinking, it is clear that philosophy is no longer a handmaiden. It must take responsibility for the act of creating the future for Western culture by thinking through its postclerical, postdoctrinal identity. Although Marx rebelled against Hegel’s intellectualism, his great dictum”that philosophy is no longer to understand the world but to change it”accords with the shift to the prophetic role. To use Heidegger’s later description, the philosopher is to be “a shepherd of being.”
This stream of modern philosophy is no more homogeneous in doctrine than the analytic tradition. Hegel, Marx, and Heidegger have different views on different topics. But if we step back and think about the role or function of philosophy, we can see the similarity. As an intellectual practice, this branch of modern philosophy organizes itself around the task of discerning and proclaiming the deep meaning that is necessary to breathe life into a Western culture that has lost its confidence in the power of Christian teaching. Such a role fundamentally differs from the development of so much of English-speaking philosophy, which agrees about the end of Christendom—but does not wish to link analysis with proclamation and thus does not ascend to the role of prophet and priest. This is why the most casual student of philosophy can recognize that Friedrich Nietzsche is doing something very different with his mind than is John Stuart Mill.
The prophetic trajectory of development intensifies in postmodern philosophy. The style of postmodern thought is given over to messianic projects of social and personal transformation that are based upon vatic formulas. Guarino recounts the stock phrases of critique: “theoretical coronation of the whole,” “tyranny of globalizing presence,” “release the truth police.” Postmodern prescriptions are less boldly enameled with metaphor: “apologetics of the accidental,” “present the absent,” “keep the conversation going.”
In all of this a student of the history of philosophy hears echoes of the aphoristic style of Parmenides and Heraclites. My point is not that Derrida and Lyotard are disciples of the pre-Socratics. I mean, rather, that the rhetoric of contemporary continental thought signals its return to the deeply religious and theological ambitions of ancient philosophy.
Like seeks like. Bertrand Russell repels contemporary theologians, not only in his atheism but also in his highly formal approach to intellectual problems. In contrast, those theologians gravitate to modern and postmodern continental philosophy, but not because it is particularly congenial or useful for expounding classical doctrine. (As Guarino’s sober assessment concludes, by and large it is not.) Rather, theology turns toward continental philosophy because it has become a form of theology. All too aware of the collapse of Christendom, contemporary Christian theologians are reassured by the familiarity of the idiom: “They are talking about the Big Questions, just like us.”
The impulse is understandable but perilous, and not just because the evolution of continental thought, like the European culture it seeks to interpret and shape, is now accelerating in a more explicitly post-Christian direction. Ever since the collapse of Christendom among European elites, theology has found truth a site of intense contest. The critics of dogma have been fierce, and their arguments have drawn heavily (if not justly) on the authority of modern science. In this situation, the continental tradition’s prophetic structure can seem a safe refuge. Better to argue over what it means to be modern than to struggle over truth.
Modern liberal Protestant theology was shaped by the decision to shift from truth to meaning. Friedrich Schleiermacher effected the change with a theory of doctrine that turns on its ability to evoke a feeling of absolute dependence. Catholic theology fought over truth for most of the modern period (hence, a “Syllabus of Errors” rather than a “List of Unhelpful Theological Metaphors”), but most liberal Catholic theology since Vatican II has followed liberal Protestantism in the shift from truth to meaning.
And make no mistake, the kind of philosophy one adopts can help or hinder this shift. This is why traditional Thomism was rejected by the progressives, and why someone like Vattimo is not altogether unwelcome. The weakening of truth may seem attractive to theologians anxious about their status in today’s universities.
Because of its legacy as a scholastic philosophy in the service of modern science, the analytic tradition is foundational in the larger sense. Given the postmodern flight from truth, how much longer can theology ignore this resource?
This is not to say that the continental tradition is bereft of importance. All contemporary Western intellectuals should read Hegel, if only to know the source of so many of our distinctively modern mental habits. Nietzsche was a brilliant critic of the mediocre liberal humanism of his day. Heidegger’s distinction between Being and beings has paid dividends in Jean-Luc Marion’s analysis of philosophical idolatry and defense of divine transcendence. Guarino points out the ways in which the continental tradition has provided a disciplined vocabulary for talking about the historicity of the gospel.
Neither do I advocate neglecting the postmoderns. Paul Griffiths, in an essay in the June/July 2005 issue of First Things, demonstrates that a close reading of contemporary continental figures can help us read the signs of the times, and, as he argues, it may be the case that the dying words of modernity are an inchoate request for baptism. If so, Christian intellectuals have a religious duty to listen and respond.
Further, I do not want to give the impression that the great scholastic traditions that antedate modernity should be discarded. One need read only John Haldane and John O’Callaghan to see that the Thomist tradition both corrects and takes nourishment from contemporary analytic philosophy. Nor do I wish theologians to run to Hilary Putnam and Saul Kripke as oracles and sages. They, too, have their ignorances and prejudices. In any event, in relation to philosophy, theology should learn and discuss and correct, not subserve.
But I do think it crushingly obvious that in contemporary Western culture the English-speaking, analytic tradition in philosophy holds out the most promise as a suitable partner for theology in the crucial jobs of strengthening the doctrinal backbone of theology and restoring a culture of truth.
Today, postmodern continental philosophy is dominated by rhetoric that urges us not to make the move toward something so threatening as truth. All is to be kept plastic and open so that we might play on the surfaces. In the terminology of Guarino and John Paul II, postmodern philosophy is more than nonfoundational: It is antifoundational and antidogmatic at its core.
In contrast, analytic philosophers have produced a great body of literature about human identity, the nature of truth and the concept of knowledge, the good and the nature of evil, what counts as real and how consciousness is related to matter, and more. This literature is developed with extensive arguments and in a scholastic mode open to Christian use.
And not just open but positively congenial in its basic structure. Analytic philosophy has often been antagonistic toward the old queen of the sciences, theology. To this day, most who would fashion themselves analytic are also atheistic. Moreover, there can be little doubt that a long tradition of serving science has calcified the concepts and distorted the ontology of this modern scholasticism (a problem that has not been adequately addressed by Plantinga and the rest of the Society of Christian Philosophers). I do not doubt that there are many long, complex, and obscure arguments that must be made in order to shape analytic philosophy into a truly Christian project.
But the crucial point is not that analytic philosophy provides a useful array of doctrines and a handy set of principles for theology. What matters most is the underlying loyalty to truth that it encourages. No analytic philosopher, however antagonistic toward Christianity, wrote anything that provided support for the way of thinking that informs my local UCC pastor and his call for religion without dogma—indeed, for life without truth.
This is because analytic philosophy is unequivocally and fundamentally a force for the strengthening of truth, not its weakening. If John Paul II is right about the dangers of the postmodern fear of truth and the urgency of the Church’s need to contribute to restoring a culture of truth, this dynamic of strengthening is invaluable.
R.R. Reno is associate professor of theology at Creighton University.