Monday, March 04, 2013

"My death; is it possible?"

As usual, I start these things with high hopes and fully meaning to write a well-developed, carefully thought out, essy. And what I end up with is a blog post; which is to say, random jottings more or less around a topic, usually in the form of notes and a hurried first draft.

This is no exception.  It is an interlude to, but directly associated with, the discussion of Bultmann and mythology.  It is a slight divergence through the ideas of Karl Rahner, as represented by Thomas Sheehan.  The connection is Heidegger.  The rest, is just me blathering.

To really understand what I have to say, you need to at least read this 30 year old review by Sheehan.  Yes, I am in some sense that far behind the times.  Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.


Doing away with metaphysics, especially in religion, strikes me as the same effort as trying to imagine your own death.  Hard as you might try to do it, as much as you might accept your own mortality, you still can easily imagine your funeral, and who will be there, and what it will be like.  When, of course, you won't be there at all.

Especially if you've abandoned metaphysics.

In other words you can, on one hand, abandon metaphysics entirely, as Thomas Sheehan says Karl Rahner has done (and I'm embarrassed to say I'm more familiar with the work of Jacques Derrida, another student of Heidegger (his thought, though, not as an attendant at lectures), in philosophy of religion, than with Rahner's work.  Then again, seminaries aren't exactly focused solely on teaching theology, so my education there is more personal than institutional.  Still, I'll be catching up soon enough, but if this review is any indication, what Rahner discards with one hand, he hangs onto fiercely with the other.  It may be that Kant is right and metaphysics is "an illusory hope for 'news from nowhere,' " but it strikes me as a matter of how you define "metaphysics."  After all, any notion of God whatsoever is metaphysical and if the mind "cannot take a peek over its own shoulder at some higher spiritual realm" then it can't discuss God at all, without dealing in pure illusion.

If you aren't going to throw out the baby with the bathwater, what good does it do you to only keep the bathwater?

Part of my complaint with this kind of reasoning is that it always comes back to a critique of Plato (primarily a critique of the Phaedo, actually), but that critique never considers the topic of the Symposium.  What, after all, is love?  If it is physical, surely  we can learn to control it simply by altering brain chemistry.  And perhaps we can; it's as likely as never having learned enough about Rahner that I don't know enough about neurology to understand where "love" exists in the brain, and what chemicals create it.  Can we manipulate this in human beings the way we can evoke memories or even smells and tastes that aren't in the nose or on the tongue?  Can we even see love?  Is it only physical?

If so, why does it persist?  Why do I love my wife after knowing her for over 40 years?  Why do I love my child?  Selfish genes, even if it misrepresented in the popular press, is still a reductio ad absurdum argument that no more defines "love" in physical terms than it defines consciousness.  The greatest empiricist, David Hume, was still only able to explain consciousness as an illusion created by sensory impressions which somehow create the idea of a "knower" out of the clash of those impressions somewhere in the brain (or the mind, which isn't the brain at all, but a kind of metaphysical metaphor for the self, itself a construct of memory and...what else?),  It isn't an onion so much as turtles all the way down in these discussions, and the anchor is always thrown into the metaphysical realm because "consciousness" is finally just what meat does; or something.  And love is just what people "feel," although we don't mean the same kind of "feel" as fingertips do, or the tongue, or the teeth, or just the skin.

It all falls into quandary and metaphor rather rapidly, and while none of this establishes a metaphysical realm, neither does it make it impossible, either.  If love is simply a matter of chemistry, where is the test for it?  So far we prove love by acceptance:  if two people love each other, we accept that, even if we see no evidence for it.  What evidence would we look for?  Even an abusive relationship can be a kind of love; although we rightly call that misguided, but at one time we said the same for same-sex relationships.  We don't know, and it's a good thing; but only because we say so.  Which is not to equate the latter with the former, but at one time the former were widely accepted, the latter widely rejected.  It's not a question of social standards here, but of evidence.  What is the evidence for love?

It is the most widely discussed idea in human history.  At least, in Western cultural history; but where is the evidence for it?  Plato's Symposium can no more agree on what love is than philosophers of aesthetics can agree on what beauty is.  We still only know it when we see it, and while I saw an exhibition of Picasso's works, many of which were beautiful, I have no doubt my father would not find them beautiful at all.  Which of us is right?  On what evidence do we decide what beauty is?  And yet is it not as important as determining "true love," or even true belief in Christian teachings? (I limit myself because of my field of knowledge, not because of some exclusionary doctrine about "truth".)  And if I can't discuss this without looking over my shoulder at some higher spiritual realm, am I merely practicing illusion?  Is my love for my wife, my child, my family, my friends, mere illusion?

Well, perhaps it is if I am a Buddhist; but I'm not.  I am not, of course, proving the "truth" of the metaphysical realm; but neither am I confirming the validity of the limitations of the empirical one.  I may know everything only through my senses, but I don't know love simply because of sight, taste, smell, touch, and hearing.  I know it with those things, but not solely because of those things.

I understand here that I'm arguing with Sheehan, not Rahner; and that the understanding of "metaphysics" here is not the possibility of the metaphysical (words and ideas are certainly not physical, but their power and importance in human history cannot be overstated), but the reality of the metaphysical (what is the reality of words and ideas, for example).  I don't consider it an accident that all of this speculation about discarding the metaphysical either comes after the 18th century empiricists, or flows from, in the case of Bultmann, Rahner, and Derrida, the work of Heidegger.  What is interesting is that it leads Rahner to replace metaphysics (if Sheehan is accurate), or at least try to; and it leads Derrida to what he called a "negative atheology."

Negative theology is a concept that traces back to Martin Luther.  It is the idea that we can more accurately describe God by what God is not, than by what God is.  The limitation is on our ability to know, a limitation admirably enforced by the observations of David Hume, but where that lack of knowledge might be seen as a negative, negative theology regards it as a positive. A negative atheology would be a theology without theology; which sounds oddly like fundamentalism to me, but that's not what Derrida means.  It isn't, actually, clear at all what Derrida means; but he does an interesting job of hanging on to religion, something the Continental philosophers don't really want to throw out (anymore than they want to throw out the baby or the bathwater; they are still interested in their possibilities).  But that's a digression that takes us away from the Germans like Heidegger and Rahner (or Nietzsche, for that matter; digressions within digressions; where do the turtles stop?).  Still, the limitations of our ability to know are an interesting place to explore; even to begin.  Many would say this is, in fact, the beginning of wisdom, and that philosophers are supposed to be lovers of wisdom, or they are nothing at all.

Again, I digress.

There is, finally, the idea that all human experiences are shared, are corporate, or they are invalid. This is a philosophical notion, but it is so widely shared a one as to seem as obvious as we need air and to walk upright.  We all presumably see the same color yellow; or at least we would all point to the same color designated "yellow" if we were asked to (and weren't color blind).  But do we all experience the same feelings of love?  When young you might ask "How will I know when it's love?", and get the answer "When it's love, you'll know."  Hardly a more satisfactory answer than "How will I know what 'beautiful' is?", and yet we are all acculturated to agree, at least generally, on beauty:  from an Impressionist painting to Jennifer Aniston, we all understand the culturally accepted standards (even if we don't quite agree with it).  But love is personal; love is individual.  Back when Bill Clinton was in office and his marriage the subject of much discussion, Gene Lyons said:  "Other people's marriages are a country where I don't speak the language."  Who among us hasn't wondered about a friend, a family member, or a public figure, and how they could love their beloved?  But is love falsified because we don't love as another individual loves?  Because we don't love the person they love?  No more than beauty is falsified because what I find beautiful you find tedious, plain, or even ugly.  It isn't just a matter of personal opinion, it's a matter of personal experience.  Yet it is a curious thing:  my experience of beauty or love is not generally derided by public figures like Richard Dawkins or the late Christopher Hitchens.  But my experience of God is.  It is a delusion, an illusion, a mistake, a brain abnormality, a flaw in my reasoning or my conceptualizing, a mistaken reliance on outdated and unfounded metaphysics, it is in error.  But my love for my wife, no less individual and interior an experience, is no one else's business, and no more metaphysical than biochemistry.  Indeed, someone may reduce it to biochemistry,and tell me I "love" her only because she bore my child.  Which is odd, because I loved her for decades before that, and two decades after my daughter's birth, love my wife still.  And not only is my profession of love acceptable, but whole industries, from entertainment to flowers and candies, are based on it.  What madness is this?

No one else in society shares my love for my wife, but no one else questions it, either.  Imagine a society where they did, where every romantic relationship was regarded as madness and foolishness because it could not be empirically verified.  Who would want to live in such a world?

Must I de-mythologize love?  Would that make it more widely acceptable?  Except, of course, love is not part of a world-view we no longer share.  If anything, love as we imagine it today would be incomprehensible to the world of 1st century Palestine, or Bronze Age Israel.  I dare say, our limits on what we know are as much determined by culture as they are by our five senses.  Because most of what we know is actually in the realm of ideas; it is not limited to what sense our brains can make of stimuli, or of what we can know about the world.  As Wittgenstein concluded: 

What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.
 It at least has the virtue of making us not sound stupid.


  1. Must I de-mythologize love? Would that make it more widely acceptable?


    Did people think about how their life looked before TV or movies?
    Does the constantly sensed audience lead to how anxiously we face just life?
    Always observed by the absent, the tacit audience always present,
    and we, never so here as watching them, and so miss our own lives.
    Even love the most Unexplainable and Entirely Sufficient Reason To Be at All,
    a performance for the memory of our place in a bored or jaded or, worst of all, pleased audience? The loved as cast rival.

  2. I have to say I found the Sheehan piece a little disappointing. One would think from it that Catholicism had been gnostic until 1976, when Rahner saved it from Platonism.

    I am myself a great fan of Plato, but recognize, of course, that, explicitly since Irenaeus, the Church has insisted that the material is an essential component of human existence.

    Rahner isn't "anti-metaphysical" because of any particular antipathy to Plato. As far as I can tell, he is more "ante-metaphysical," insofar as he follows Heidegger in finding Plato already dealing with "beings" "Seiende" rather than the preliminary, more fundamental question after "Being," "Sein." Rahner's difference from earlier theology is his starting point, the analysis of one's own Being, as Heidegger began with Dasein. The criticism of Rahner is that, by beginning with man rather than God, his whole theology amounts to an existentialist anthropology. The reply is that modern man, not so much by virtue of his scientific orientation, but by his situation outside of the Church, knows little enough of God or revelation or Church, so that his own existence is the only place one can begin.

    Rahner's starting point, though controversial, may in fact have influenced the Catechism overseen by then-Cardinal Ratzinger. Though Rahner is not cited in it, it does not begin with God, or Revelation, but with man, if I am remembering right, "Homo capax Deo," the human being who is capable of receiving God. It's a two-way street, God seeking man and man seeking God...but the catechism, interestingly, begins with man, as does "Grundkurs des Glaubens."

    What I fear about Rahner's method is not that it's unorthodox, but that, philosophically, it may lose appeal. How many people today are excited about Hegelian dialectics? For how long did the left-Hegelians and right-Hegelians carry on a passionate debate about the developement of Absolute Spirit or History? And who cares today?

    I fear that the thrill that the very term "existentialism" carried in my day is fading. Who cares, among the young today, about Heidegger, or Sartre? Rahner certainly speaks to me, but I rather inherited that capacity, and most kids today seem to care more about egalitarianism, patriarchy,gender revolution, technology, media, and, understandably, employment. Religion is, basically, politics by other means. Heidegger, if they took any notice of them, would seem as old and hidebound as Hegel, I'm afraid.

  3. Rick--

    I don't disagree. This review sparked some thoughts about metaphysics and Christian doctrine that had lain dormant for me, but the spark didn't last long. Even as I review this post, I find whatever thought I had died aborning. But you said something I think is exactly right, and it points up the problem of Bultmann's kerygma:

    The criticism of Rahner is that, by beginning with man rather than God, his whole theology amounts to an existentialist anthropology. The reply is that modern man, not so much by virtue of his scientific orientation, but by his situation outside of the Church, knows little enough of God or revelation or Church, so that his own existence is the only place one can begin.

    The kerygma is of and by the church. If you already stand outside the Church, you can neither hear nor understand it properly. If you are already inside the church, you need more than the kerygma to remain a participating member, i.e., more than a Christian in name only. It seems to me the prime question is: how do you shape a proclamation to the world that isn't as hidebound as Hegel, or, alternatively, as that of the fundamentalists and evangelicals?

  4. It's interesting to me that Sheehan starts his review with Feuerbach, whose thesis is that God is wholly a human projection (and hence a source of alienation). Bultmann expressly disclaims any such notion at p. 70 of my edition, and I think Rahner, too, would see "das Geheimnis" as something outside of human being, not just a projection. Oftentimes, I think, proponents of a thinker can cause more misunderstanding than detractors.

    The kerygma is from the Church, but not necessarily "in Church." Bultmann often seems to equate it with the preached Word, but the paradigmatic instance seems to be the proclamation of Peter on Pentacost, in the streets. It is a great temptation to keep it all "in house," a private possession. And, of course, in the days of "Christendom," the proclamation was so much part of public life that, for better or worse, the kerygma was everywhere. If Christianity is not so much in the air we breathe, the Church is necessarily more vocal, but also more controversial, more resented, more a source of conflict and disagreement than grace and light. It's truly a dilemma.

  5. Well, the kerygma is much more in the church today than it was in Peter's day; which is Bultmann's point, or it almost is. He can't quite let go of the fact that the kergyma is itself a product of a world-view which must accept the premise of the kerygma before the proclamation can be pronounced.

    Peter faced something of the same problem, but the account we have is Luke's version, which can't be confused with the historical event. Rather like Paul's version of his encounter with Peter over taking the kerygma to the Gentiles: Paul is triumphant in his version, but that ain't necessarily what actually happened.

    Not, on the other hand, that the "historical event" is objectively knowable, either.

    And I'd modify my opening assertion to note the kerygma of the church, after 2000 years of social acceptance and even dominance, assumes a cultural validity it no longer has. Believe me, I've been teaching high school kids whose background is either not Western (Asian, IOW, although they live Western lives) or is not church-related at all. Their knowledge of even the Nativity or the Crucifixion, once cultural touchstones in the West, is practically nil. You want to pronounce a kerygma to them, you gotta start even further back than "egalitarianism, patriarchy,gender revolution, technology, media, and....employment." Religion isn't even politics by other means to them; religion simply isn't. Period.

    That's the brave new world and the creatures in it.....

  6. BTW, I've learned to gauge commentary on S.K. based on whether it even mentions Hegel.

    Old school does; newer (and more valid) commentary, doesn't.

    Valid, of course, IMHO.