Wednesday, July 11, 2012

"...and all we can do is keep repeating these antitheses...."

I listened to this very interesting conversation the other night on the way back into town (radio captive, IOW, and fortunate it was, too).  Simon Critchley described himself as a man who wants to believe, a man who has his nose pressed against the windowglass of religious faith, but can't join them on the other side.  He meant, though neither Smiley nor West identified it, that all he lacked was a confession.  But he discussed faith in much the same terms RKC did below:

To have a real faith (not one someone chooses to believe, but exists in the warp and weave of their life) means to have responsibility for all the consequences.
I found myself wanting to join the conversation last night, one in which all the major philosophers were invoked (from Rousseau to Hobbes, Socrates to Santayana to Niebuhr (West is a Niebuhr scholar, and a good one), but sadly no mention of Derrida or Kierkegaard), by raising Derrida's excellent insight:  "Religion is responsibility, or it is nothing at all."  Interestingly, I think Critchley was all for taking on the responsibility of religion, with the exception of taking on the responsibility of the confession of religion.

"Confession" is a difficult term to get a handle on.  If you go to New Advent, you will get "Confession, Sacrament of," "Confessor, Seal of," and "Confessor."  If you go to Wikipedia, you can find "confession of faith," but that is about doctrine.  It is also described as "a Christian practice," but that seems to mean the doctrinal arena.    "Confession" otherwise is considered by Wiki to be "an admission of guilt."  Militant atheists might think that definition would suit my purposes; but it doesn't.  Confession is an admission, but it is not a statement against interest (which is ultimately what a confession is, under the law; and why it is generally taken as valid).  But the confession I mean is closer to the admission of guilt than it is to a commitment to a doctrine.

This is where it gets tricky.

But it shouldn't; not really.  The heart of Christian religious faith in the post-Enlightenment era is the confession of faith.  Again, not confession in the doctrinal sense of "I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ, his only son, our Lord...."  I mean confession in the sense of a confession of faith, of trust, of belief.  An admission, on other words, that one is religious.  Gallons of ink have been spilled on the question of God's existence (as if that mattered or was of first importance) and whole forests laid waste on what it means to live a Christian life, especially in a post-Christendom world; but on the central issue of the confession, there seems to be no general consensus at all; not even much interest in the issue.  Churches have riven and splintered and been torn asunder or had their ground metaphorically sown with doctrinal salt over questions of what one actually believes in.  But to confess one's religious belief (and render the concept a verb, rather than a noun) is the act of Stephen, even as he is stoned to death.  It is the act of Mother Teresa, living out her faith even as she admits she feels abandoned by God.  To confess, then, is to act, and the action is beyond merely "to say."  But that doesn't get us any closer to understanding what it means to confess one's faith.

Basically, of course, to confess one's faith is to admit one's faith.  That admission can be public, as when one confesses faith in order to be baptized or to join a Christian church.  But it means a bit more than that, because the heart is devious, beyond reckoning; and the public act can be merely words, a collection of sounds, and mean nothing more than noises.  Just as with an admission of guilt, there is always the question:  when is a confession true?

There are two concepts which often appear alike, although we recognize them as different (without ever really being able to explain the difference:  profession, and confession.  The latter has been reduced to more of a label for labour, for how one earns one's pay: the distinction we used to call "white collar" v. "blue collar," although in the "service economy" almost everyone who doesn't do manual labor regards themselves as a "professional."  But to turn the word back into a verb for a moment, "to profess" was, until the 1500's the OED tells me, limited to its religious meaning, i.e., to take holy orders.  One made a profession (the verb, not the noun) by becoming a member of a religious order.  To "confess," the OED again tells me, is to reveal or to disclose something, which brings it closer to the nature of a revelation, except the revelation is disclosed to you, not by you.  To confess, then, in this context, is to disclose your religious beliefs or, to get away from the vexed issue of "believe", to disclose your adherence to religious tenets.  What's interesting is that, getting any closer than that seems only to be possible through confessions of faith, which aren't really quite confessions in the same sense.

It is quite easy to recite a confession of faith in a worship service and not even really pay attention to what you are saying.  I spoke the words of the Apostle's Creed, and sang those of the Nicene Creed (more than I recited it) all through my childhood, without really thinking very hard about what I was saying.  It was a "confession of faith" only in the sense that the act in worship bore that label; but it wasn't my confession, in any real sense of the word.  I wasn't disclosing anything; I was just reading along.  A true confession discloses something; but what does it disclose?

At this point I usually leave the conversation dangling, thinking it clever to ask questions that don't have obvious answers.  But I was just re-reading Wittgenstein, some of his collected statements rather than his attempts to actually put something down; and I was struck by what an ultimately bootless exercise philosophy can be, and why, after all these years, I still prefer theology.   Why I prefer it, I mean; not just that I prefer it.

Wittgenstein is, let us say in the wake of Socrates (invoking the spirit of S.K.), struggling like all philosophers to shore up some fragments against his ruin.  He admitted the problem himself:

"If I am not quite sure how I should start a book, this is because I am still unclear about something.  For I should like to start with the original data of philosophy, written and spoken sentences, with books as it were.

And here we come upon the difficulty of "all is in flux".  Perhaps that is the very point at which to start.
 He means to start with Heraclitus, one of the pre-Socratics, in other words, and perhaps iron out the difficulties Socrates left us with.  Easier said than done, of course:

People say again and again that philosophy doesn't really progress, that we are still occupied with the same philosophical problems as were the Greeks.  But the people who say this don't understand why it has to be so.  It is because our language has remained the same and keeps seducing us into asking the same questions.  As long as there continues to be a verb "to be" that look as if it functions the same was as "to eat" and "to drink", as long as we still have the adjectives "identical," "true", "false", "possible", as long as we continue to talk of a river of time, of an expanse of space, etc., etc., people will keep stumbling over the same puzzling difficulties and find themselves staring at something which no explanation seems capable of clearing up.
 And so Wittgenstein, like all philosophers before him and after him, is always trying to understand and think in contrast, that is to say against, all the other philosophers:

In the course of our conversations Russell would often exclaim:  "Logic's hell!"--And this perfectly expresses the feeling we had when we were thinking about the problem of logic; that is to say, their immense difficulty, their hard and slippery texture.

I believer our main reason for feeling like this was the following fact:  that every time some new linguistic phenomenon occurred to us, it could retrospectively show that our previous explanation was unworkable.  (We felt that language could always make new, and impossible, demands; and that this made all explanation futile.)

But that is the difficulty Socrates gets into in trying to give the definition of a concept.  Again and again a use of the word emerges that seems not to be compatible with the concept that other uses have led us to form.  We say:  but that isn't how it is!--it is like that though!  and all we can do is keep repeating these antitheses.
  "...and all we can do is keep repeating these antitheses."  What fresh hell is this?

Kierkegaard points out that Socrates' use of "the Socratic method" doesn't create the difficulty Wittgenstein identifies for the reasons Wittgenstein identifies, but because it is Socrates' purpose to create that difficulty.  Sort of like the guy who asks smart-alec questions he knows you can't answer, and then leaves you with them.  But Kierkegaard's analysis is essentially theological (it was his thesis for his Master's of Divinity, or the equivalent), not philosophical; and therein lies the distinction.

Theology, to make it short and sweet, is ultimately bounded.  That seems obvious, especially when one considers there are topics theology cannot consider, such as the lack of God (let's stay away from basically meaningless concepts like "non-existence" of God).  That is a topic in philosophy of religion; but not in theology.  So there are limits, boundaries, points beyond which theology simply cannot go, because to speak of them is to leave theology behind.  In the same way, of course, physics uses the language of mathematics to explain the importance and even necessity of the Higgs boson; but physics does not explain the importance, or even the necessity, of love.  Limitations are not necessarily weaknesses, in other words.

Philosophy is bounded, too.  What human discourse isn't?  But the boundaries on theology are different, because they are related to an accepted set of ideas; at least, a centrally accepted set of ideas, which is a bit more than can be said for philosophy (the distinctions between theologians is almost slight compared to the distinctions between Continental philosophers and Anglo-American philosophers.  Wittgenstein touches on the point when he discusses the problem with the verb "to be."  Continental philosophy is almost entirely concerned with the question of being; Anglo-American philosophy regards the question, by and large, as a chimera.  Theologians, be they liberal or conservative, fundamentalist or process, are all at least talking about God and the nature of Christ or of soteriology, for example).  This distinction came clearest to me in reviewing the equally gnomic and brief notes of Reinhold Niebuhr:

The excitement about the Federation of Labor convention in Detroit has subsided, but there are echoes of the event in various magazines.  Several ministers have been commended for "courage" because they permitted labor leaders to speak in their churches who represented pretty much their own convictions and pretty much what they had been saying for years.

It does seem pretty bad to have the churches lined up so solidly against labor and for the open shop policy of the town....The idea that these A.F. of L. leaders are dangerous heretics is itself a rather illuminating clue to the mind of Detroit.  I attended several sessions of the convention and the men impressed me as having about the same amount of daring and imagination as a group of village bankers.

....Detroit produces automobiles and is not yet willing to admit that the poor automata who are geared in on the production lines have any human problems.
Reinhold Niebuhr, in 1926.

Wittgenstein and Niebuhr are both addressing human problems; but how different the problems are!  No surprise, since Neibuhr is writing as a pulpit minister, Wittgenstein as a professor at Oxford.  But consider this, from 1927, which is astonishingly relevant 85 years later:

Perhaps there is no better illustration of the ethical impotence of the modern church than its failure to deal with the evils and the ethical problems of stock manipulation.  Millions in property values are created by pure legerdemain.  Stock dividends, watered stock and excessive rise in stock values due to the productivity of th modern machine, are accepted by the church without a murmur if only a slight return is made by the beneficiaries through church philanthropies.

Here is C---- recapitalizing his business and adding six million dollars in stock.  At least five of these millions will not be invested in physical expansion but pocketed by the owners.  They simply represent capitalization of expected profits.  Once this added burden has been placed upon the industry any demands by the workers for a larger share in the profits will be met by conclusive proof that that stock is earning only a small dividend and that further increase in wages would be "suicidal" to the business.
Again, a problem grounded in a very real situation, but one put in the context of a much larger discussion.  But to really get at the distinction, consider a longer example:

While it is possible for intelligence to increase the range of benevolent impulse, and thus prompt a human being to consider the needs and rights of other than those to whom he is bound by organic and physical relationship, there are definite limits in the capacity of ordinary mortals which makes it impossible for them to grant to others what they claim for themselves. Though educators ever since the eighteenth century have given themselves to the fond illusion that justice through voluntary co-operation waited only upon a more universal or a more adequate educational enterprise, there is good reason to believe that the sentiments of benevolence and social goodwill will never be so pure or powerful, and the rational capacity to consider the rights and needs of others in fair competition with our own will never be so fully developed as to create the possibility for the anarchistic millennium which is the social utopia, either explicit or implicit, of all intellectual or religious moralists.

All social co-operation on a larger scale than the most intimate social group requires a measure of coercion. While no state can maintain its unity purely by coercion neither can it preserve itself without coercion. Where the factor of mutual consent is strongly developed, and where standardised and approximately fair methods of adjudicating and resolving conflicting interests within an organised group have been established, the coercive factor in social life is frequently covert, and becomes apparent only in moments of crisis and in the group's policy toward recalcitrant individuals. Yet it is never absent. Divergence of interest, based upon geographic and functional differences within a society, is bound to create different social philosophies and political attitudes which goodwill and intelligence may partly, but never completely, harmonise. Ultimately, unity within an organised social group, or within a federation of such groups, is created by the ability of a dominant group to impose its will.


The limitations of the human mind and imagination, the inability of human beings to transcend their own interests sufficiently to envisage the interests of their fellowmen as clearly as they do their own makes force an inevitable part of the process of social cohesion. But the same force which guarantees peace also makes for injustice. "Power," said Henry Adams, "is poison"; and it is a poison which blinds the eyes of moral insight and lames the will of moral purpose. The individual or the group which organises any society, however social its intentions or pretensions, arrogates an inordinate portion of social privilege to itself.
What lies behind that analysis is the Christian concept of Original Sin.  The insight is, perhaps, possible without it (that is to say, you can understand Niebuhr without understanding Christian doctrine); but I'm not sure you can reach the same conclusion so clearly without appealing to a larger context, a realm outside the immediate topic which makes it easier to understand, although it is not itself necessary to understand the analysis.  Philosophy has a harder time doing that (though it's still possible, to be sure), because philosophy is always trying to both establish itself, and to prove itself against other philosophies.  At some point, theological analysis becomes a matter of assessment rather than, in whole or in part, a matter of establishing first principles.  Which doesn't make theology superior to philosophy, necessarily (or superior to any other system of thought); but it does make it more practical.

Unless, of course, you think every mention of "religion" or "theology" means you have to start over again on the argument about the existence of God, or where morality really comes from.  But the distinction is not merely that religion has certain concepts all worked out, and philosophy by its nature doesn't and never will (whether for Wittgenstein's reasons, or for other reasons).  The distinction is that religion, and so theology, is different:

Ancient Roman civilization, says Gibbon, was bound to reject Christianity just because Rome was tolerant. This culture, with its great diversity of customs and religions, could exist only if reverence and assent were granted to the many confused traditions and ceremonies of its constituent nations....But Christ and Christians threatened the unity of the culture...with their radical monotheism, a faith in the one God that was very different from the pagan universalism which sought to unify many deities and many cults under one earthly or heavenly framework....Divinity, it seems must not only hedge kings but also other symbols of political power, and monotheism deprives them of their sacred aura. The Christ who will not worship Satan to gain the world's kingdoms is followed by Christians who will worship only Christ in unity with the Lord whom he serves. And this is intolerable to all defenders of society who are content that many gods should be worshipped if only Democracy or America or Germany or the Empire receives its due, religious homage. The antagonism of modern, tolerant culture to Christ is of course often disguised because it does not call its religious practices religious...and also because it regards what it calls religious as one of the many interests which can be placed alongside economics, art, science, politics, and techniques. Hence the injunction it voices to Christian monotheism appears in such injunctions only as that religion should be kept out of politics and business, or that Christian faith must learn to get along with other religions. What is often meant is that not only the claims of Christ and God should be banished from the spheres where other gods, called values, reign. The implied charge against Christian faith is like the ancient one: it imperils society by its attack on its religious life; it deprives social institutions of their cultic, sacred character; by its refusal to condone the pious superstitions of tolerant polytheism it threatens social unity. The charge lies not only against Christian organizations which use coercive means against what they define as false religions, but against the faith itself.
H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture (New York: Harper & Row 1975), pp. 7-9

Different does not, as Gibbons thought, imply superiority.  Philosophy, of course, makes the same claim as theology or Christianity, in Niebuhr's terms:  it cannot be properly placed alongside economics, art, science, politics, and techniques, because philosophy subsumes and undergirds them:  it truly comes first, and explains, to some degree, all the others.  Theology once purported to do this, but it lost that throne centuries ago; and good riddance to it.  Still, theology has a similar (though, again, not superior) claim to philosophy:  it subsumes and, properly understood, undergirds, all other subjects.  And it can do so without having to reinvent the wheel, or still argue over what the original data of theology was.  Well, those discussions actually do bear very good fruit, but the discourse is actually more in the nature of re-considering the nature of God, not reconsidering yet again whether there is actually a nature of God to reconsider.

I should bring this to a ringing conclusion, but it's a blog post, not a scholarly essay.  Suffice to say there are virtues to theology which I'm belatedly realizing philosophy does not know; and that gives me new insight on how to read some philosophers, and some theologians; which might prove interesting.  And the concept of confessing one's faith presents a rather interesting lacunae in theological discussions that perhaps deserves a bit more attention.


  1. That is a topic in philosophy of religion; but not in theology. So there are limits, boundaries, points beyond which theology simply cannot go, because to speak of them is to leave theology behind. In the same way, of course, physics uses the language of mathematics to explain the importance and even necessity of the Higgs boson; but physics does not explain the importance, or even the necessity, of love. Limitations are not necessarily weaknesses, in other words.

    I spent quite a while last week fighting with true believers of scientism about various aspects of this, that science trades a radically narrowed focus for enhanced reliability of what it can find out about what it focuses on, a limitation that other topics, history, the law, philosophy, religion, don't practice. One of the things that made them furious was having it pointed out that without the entirely non-scientific moral obligation to tell the truth instead of lying, science could have neither been invented or been sustained. It was quite amazing to have them assert that telling the truth was optional due to replication and review. Why the sci-guys doing that didn't have to tell the truth about it went unanswered.

    Philosophy was almost as much dissed as religion, even as another commentator pointed out that the sci-folk were making one philosophical statement after another.

    One of the motivations was the blog owner giving that silly quote from Bertie Russell about all knowledge being scientific knowledge. Of course, as was pointed out decades ago, that is a self-refuting statement which can't be verified by science. And Bertie's teapot was brought up, as clear a case of a famous logician resorting to a sly use of the false alternative fallacy as has ever happened.

    Summertime fun.

  2. Thanks for the reference to Russell's teapot. I'm not ashamed to admit I didn't recognize it, but the moment I looked it up I recognized the argument (if not the specifics).

    Reading the counter arguments (at Wiki)were interesting, but it made me once again realize how much energy is put into debating/discussing issues that really are of no import at all. Yeah, it's a false alternative, and yes, it's just a dumb rejoinder to begin with, a reductio ad absurdum to boot (how often the antagonists to religion first reduce religion to superstition, which they also don't understand, and so discard it like a used kleenex. Feh.).

    I wanted to point out Wittgenstein's consistency problem, complaining that metaphors like "expanse of time" create philosophical conundrums we can't get out of without escaping such metaphors, while later approvingly quoting Russell that "logic's hell!", which LW says "perfectly" expresses what he was...what? Feeling? Experiencing? And what is perfect for him is not necessarily for me, any more than "War is hell" is a perfect description of war.

    But that's being uncharitable. I understand LW's point, and yet Russell refuses to allow that I might have a point, especially if my point is based on my subjective experience. Oddly enough, LW wrote many interestingly approving things about Xianity, which drove Russell mad with disgust.

    LW almost himself confessed Xianity. Almost, and in a very restricted sense I would never consider a confession of faith. But it was way too close for Bertie.


  3. Anonymous4:27 AM

    Kierkegaard didn't get a Masters of Divinity, he worked for a Masters of Arts in Philosophy. He studied theology in his Bachelor days, but did philosophy for his Masters.

  4. Looking a bit at some of the things Russell was writing in the later 20s and early 30s, as the findings of quantum physics and Kurt Godel were shaking his world view to pieces, I've come to see his declaration of scientism c. 1935 as a rather bitter reassertion of a faith he knew wasn't supported by science or his own specialty. He was insisting on a certainty in his quite antiquated materialism that he knew wasn't sustainable by his own, stated standards. His reaction to Eddington in 1929 especially revealing.

    I've come to have decreasing respect for Russell who enjoyed one of those self-generated PR campaigns that the left seems to fall for, though I will grant his anti-nuclear activity. Though he hasn't fallen as far as Geo. B. Shaw, reading him more closely doesn't support the esteem I'd been taught to hold him in at college. In humanities courses, just to add to the irony of the situation.

  5. Kierkegaard didn't get a Masters of Divinity, he worked for a Masters of Arts in Philosophy. He studied theology in his Bachelor days, but did philosophy for his Masters.

    Strictly speaking, a "Magister Artium," more equivalent to a present-day Ph.D. than anything else.

    And he considered taking a church and retiring to the country at one point. He had received the training to be ordained, in other words, so the functional equivalent today would be an M.Div.

    A seminary education is the closest we come in the modern day to studying theology, at least in America. And it is pretty much the only course into a mainline denomination's pulpit (S.K. would have entered the pulpit of a state church, had he not chosen to take on Bishop Mynster's legacy).