Against Analytic Ambitions

In the opening paragraph of Louis Berkhof's Introductory Volume to Systematic Theology—chosen for discussion here almost entirely at random from among several older systematic theologies on my shelf—the aim of the systematic theologian is characterized as follows:

There was little or no attempt in the first two centuries of the Christian era to present the whole body of doctrinal truth, gathered from the Word of God, in a systematic way. Yet the urge of the human mind to see the truth as much as possible as a whole could not long be suppressed. Man is endowed with reason, and the human reason cannot rest satisfied with a mere collection of separate truths, but wants to see them in unique 'grand explanatory theory', but analytic philosophy can proceed from different perspec tives and starting points just as it always has. These two points seem not to be sufficiently appreciated by those who would criticize analytic philosophy.

their mutual relationship, in order that it may have a clearer understanding of them____God certainly sees the truth as a whole, and it is the duty of the theologian to think the truths of God after Him. There should be a constant endeavor to see the truth as God sees it, even though it is perfectly evident that the ideal is beyond the grasp of man in his present condition.9

Berkhof's characterization represents an entirely common, traditional view of the task of the systematic theologian. These words might just as easily express the collective ambition of many who are engaged in the analytic theological enterprise. Of course, much that will qualify as analytic theology—for example, projects that aim to revise our concept of God in light of reason rather than scripture—falls outside the scope of Berkhof's vision. Nevertheless, we all can recognize in his remark about the 'theologian's duty' an ambition distinctly in keeping with the analytic tradition and decidedly contrary to what critics of the tradition will recognize as a proper or sensible goal for a theologian.

One point of contention here will be the idea that we can, even in principle, have access to 'the truth as God sees it'—i.e. absolute, perfectly objective truth. Objections to this idea come from two quarters. Some say that there simply is no such thing as 'the truth as God sees it'—that (in the words of Don Cupitt) 'reality [is] a mere bunch of disparate and changing interpretations, a shifting loosely-held coalition of points of view in continual debate with each other'.10 Others are prepared to grant the existence of such a perspective but vehemently deny that we can occupy it.n These claims are familiar territory, widely discussed both within and without the analytic tradition. I won't comment further on them here except to note the obvious: both are in tension with analytic ambitions, and so both will be sources of objection to analytic theology.

One can, of course, challenge both of these suppositions while remaining in the analytic mode. As I said earlier, analytic theology as such carries no commitment to substantive theories about truth or epistemology. But those who do challenge these suppositions will not think that any sort of robust theology can be developed in the analytic mode. It is in this way, then, that the

9 Systematic Theology: New Combined Edition (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdman's, 1932/1996), 15.

10 Don Cupitt, 'Anti Realist Faith', repr. in his Is Nothing Sacred? The Non Realist Philosophy of Religion (New York: Fordham University Press, 1987), 34.

11 See e.g. Merold Westphal's 'Appropriating Post Modernism', ARC: The Journal of the Faculty of Religious Studies, McGill University, 25 (1997), 73 84, and 'Overcoming Onto Theology', pp. 146 69 in J. D. Caputo and M. J. Scanlon (eds.), God, the Gift, and Postmodernism (Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 1999), both of which are reprinted in Westphal, Overcoming Onto Theology: Toward a Postmodern Christian Faith (New York: Fordham Univer sity Press, 2001). See also Westphal's 'Father Abraham and His Feuding Sons', pp. 148 75 in Overcoming Onto Theology, and 'Taking Plantinga Seriously: Advice to Christian Philosophers', Faith and Philosophy, 19 (2002), 173 81.

objections just mentioned count against analytic theology: they are objections against what we might call a non-minimalist conception of analytic theology.

I do not, however, think that these claims are the main source of objection to analytic ambitions. The arguments simply aren't good enough. Like many philosophical arguments, those that motivate denials of the existence and accessibility of absolute truths work much better as rationalizations for positions already held than as positive stimuli to conversion. Thus, I think that the best explanation for the nearly wholesale rejection of analytic ambitions on the part of theologians lies not so much in their success or failure in assessing a certain range of arguments, but rather in a more or less collectively held positive vision about the proper aims of theology that is antecedently at odds with the goals of the analytic theologian. Let me now make an effort at unpacking and justifying this claim.

Merold Westphal notes that, '[i]n postmodern contexts, onto-theology is one of the seven deadly sins' ('Overcoming Onto-Theology' (1999), 13). As I understand it, onto-theology involves primarily two tendencies. First, it treats God primarily as an explanatory posit, so that (as Westphal puts it), 'God's raison d'etre has become to make it possible for human reason to give ultimate explanations' (ibid. 11). Second, it involves theorizing about God in a way that presupposes that reason is a reliable tool for arriving at clear knowledge of God, so that reasoning about God can ultimately remove divine mystery. 12 To put it in other terms, the view of the onto-theologian is that we can (and sometimes do) believe exactly the truths about God, undistorted by our own human circumstances, that God himself believes.13 Now, it is easy enough to see that if the God's-eye point of view is wholly inaccessible (or, worse, nonexistent), the hope of the onto-theologian is a non-starter. Moreover, I suspect that most analytic theologians nowadays will think that, in any case, the suppositions of the paradigmatic onto-theologian are narrow-minded and optimistic at best. Mystery is inevitable, and God is clearly much more than a mere explanatory posit. Still, those who are theologizing with analytic ambitions typically and naturally find explanatory roles for God to play, and they will typically share the supposition that we can arrive at clear knowledge of God, even if that knowledge is not complete and some mysteries remain. 14

12 Correspondence with Westphal and attention to his work have helped me to sharpen my understanding of onto theology; but if misunderstandings linger, they are my fault and not his.

13 Cf. 'Overcoming Onto Theology', pp. 6 ff., and 'Taking Plantinga Seriously', pp. 177 ff. In the latter article, Westphal seems to suggest that belief in propositions somehow promotes or encourages onto theology thus construed. But I do not Wnd that suggestion plausible. One can have substantially the same view of our cognitive powers without believing in propositions; and one can believe in propositions while also aYrming that God is utterly mysterious, that no proposition is absolutely true, and so on.

14 Typically, but not inevitably. See below, pp. 19 21 on the relation between analytic theology and apophatic theology.

Thus, analytic theology shares affinities with onto-theology, even if the two enterprises are not to be identified.

But Westphal and others speak as if the very aspiration to onto-theology is not just a little misguided, but bad, dangerous, inimical to the life of faith, and so on. Why would it be so? In 'Overcoming Onto-Theology', Westphal tells us that, according to Heidegger, the goal of theology 'is never a valid system of theological propositions' but rather 'concrete Christian existence itself.'... [B]ecause its goal is the praxis of the believer as a distinctive mode of existence, 'theology in its essence is a practical science.' Unlike onto theology, theology properly understood is 'innately homiletical'... It is as if Heidegger is saying, I have found it necessary to deny theory in order to make room for practice. (16; emphasis in original)

In glossing the meaning of this last remark, Westphal refers us to the story of Cupid and Psyche as (in his view) it is retold in Wagner's Lohengrin and C. S. Lewis's 'Till We Have Faces. In each of these tales, a certain kind of loving relationship is undermined by a woman's desire to possess forbidden knowledge about her lover—knowledge which will give her a kind of control over her beloved, or (as Westphal puts it), will put him 'at her disposal'. He writes:

[In each of these stories] the challenge of faith is the same: the believer is called upon to sustain a beautiful and loving relationship through trust in a lover about whom she remains signiWcantly (though not totally) in the dark and who, though he gives himself to her freely, is not at her disposal. The relationship is destroyed when the beloved . . . insists on Enlightenment, on dissipating the darkness of mystery with the light of human knowledge, on walking by sight and not by faith.

To be able to resist this temptation, faith must deny theory, or, to be more precise, the primacy of insight. For such faith, Plato's divided line and Hegel's modern vision thereof as the movement 'beyond faith' to knowledge are not the ascent from that which is inferior... to that which is superior...; they are rather the withdrawal from the site at which alone is possible a loving, trusting relation with a God before whom one might sing and dance . . .

This love, this trust, this relationship these are the practice for the sake of which it was necessary to deny theory. This is not to abolish theology. It is to see that theology's task is to serve this life of faith, not the ideals of knowledge as deWned by the philosophical traditions. ('Overcoming Onto Theology', 27)

On Westphal's view, then, the duty of the theologian is emphatically not to 'think God's thoughts after Him' (pace Berkhof) but rather to serve the life of faith. In order to do this, however, it must always respect the transcendence of God and refrain from the temptation to try to 'put God at our disposal'—i.e. to try to see God with clear intellectual vision, believing about God the absolute truths that God believes about himself. And, again, the issue isn't just that we are unable to attain such a clear vision. Rather, the point is that the effort both implicitly denies the transcendence that theology ought to respect and aims at a goal that, if accomplished, would undermine the life of faith and would thus work at cross purposes with the true goal of theology. If this is correct, then much of what would count as analytic theology is fundamentally misguided, predicated upon a wrong view about what is in keeping with the goals of theology. And if we take seriously the animadversions against the existence or accessibility-in-principle of'absolute truth', then analytic theology (conceived in a non-minimalist way) is also predicated upon a false view about what is even possible for theology. This, then, is our first substantive objection against analytic theology.15

Westphal's vision of the goals of theology is articulated in a way that, so far as I can tell, is fully consistent with traditional, creedally orthodox Christian belief. But it is important to bear in mind that substantially the same vision can and does arise out of very different points of view as well. In his essay, 'A Remarkable Consensus', for example, Michael Dummett laments what he takes to be a general loss of faith among Catholic theologians—a loss reflected in what Thomas Sheehan refers to as the 'liberal consensus';!6

In Roman Catholic seminaries... it is now common teaching that Jesus of Nazareth did not assert any of the messianic claims that the Gospels attribute to him and that he died without believing that he was the Christ or the Son of God, not to mention the founder of a new religion.

Nor did Jesus know that his mother, Mary, had remained a virgin in the very act of conceiving him. . . . Most likely Mary told Jesus what she herself knew of his origins: that he had a natural father and was born not in Bethlehem but in Nazareth, indeed without the ministrations of angels, shepherds, and late arriving wise men bearing gifts. She could have told her son the traditional nativity story only if she had managed to read, long before they were written, the inspiring but unhistorical Christmas legends that Wrst appeared in the gospels of Matthew and Luke Wfty years after her son had died.

Moreover, according to the consensus, although Jesus had a reputation as a faith healer during his life, it is likely that he performed very few such 'miracles', perhaps only two. (Probably he never walked on water.) ('A Remarkable Consensus', 428 9)

It is no doubt an overstatement to say that these claims are really a matter of consensus among theologians (Catholic or otherwise). But it is probably not

15 The respect for divine transcendence and the corresponding preference for apophatic modes of discourse that motivates this objection also motivates objections against the analytic style. See below, the section 'Against the Analytic Style'.

16 Thomas Sheehan, Review of Hans Kung's Eternal Life, New York Review of Books, 31 (14 June 1984), quoted in Michael Dummett, 'A Remarkable Consensus', NewBlackfriars, 68 (1987), 424 31.

far off the mark to say that such claims are widely endorsed by contemporary theologians. The point, in any case, is that exactly the same sort of positive vision for theology that Westphal articulates—one according to which theology's task is primarily practical, aimed at bolstering the life of faith rather than providing a true explanatory theory—will as naturally arise out of a theological perspective like this one as out of Westphal's or any of a variety of other perspectives.

The second objection pertains to a perceived link between the adoption of postmodern approaches to theology and the rejection of foundationalism. This is a complicated matter to discuss, however, because there seems to be a great deal of confusion among theologians and some postmodern philosophers about what foundationalism actually is. The problem (and I am hardly the first to point this out) is that many writers seem to confuse what most of us would call 'classical foundationalism' (roughly, the view that a belief is justified only if it is self evident, incorrigible, evident to the senses, or deducible from premises that satisfy at least one of those three conditions) with foundationalism simpliciter! Classical foundationalism is almost universally rejected nowadays. Other kinds of foundationalism, on the other hand, are thriving. But many of the writers I have in mind seem to think that the death of classical foundationalism was nothing more or less than the death of foundationalism simpliciter. This is far from the truth.

Matters are further complicated by the fact that relatively few writers distinguish between doxastic foundationalism and what might be called source foundationalism. Doxastic foundationalism is the (entirely commonsensical, even if not universally held) view that some of our beliefs are properly basic. Basic beliefs are those that are not based on other beliefs. Properly basic

17 Stanley Grenz and John Franke write: 'In its broadest sense, foundationalism is merely the acknowledgment of the seemingly obvious observation that not all beliefs we hold... are on the same level, but that some beliefs... anchor others____In philosophical circles, however, ''foun dationalism'' refers to a much stronger epistemological stance than is entailed in this observa tion about how beliefs intersect. At the heart of the foundationalist agenda is the desire to overcome the uncertainty generated by our human liability to error and the inevitable disagree ments that follow. Foundationalists are convinced that the only way to solve this problem is to Wnd some means of grounding the entire ediWce of human knowledge on invincible certainty' (Beyond Foundationalism: Shaping Theology in a Postmodern Context (Louisville, Ky.: Westmin ster/John Knox, 2001), 29 30). But as anyone acquainted with the contemporary literature in epistemology is aware, this characterization is simply false. Grenz and Franke cite W. Jay Wood (Epistemology: Becoming Intellectually Virtuous (Grand Rapids, Mich.: InterVarsity Press, 1998), 84) as their source for the characterization; but Wood does not characterize foundationalism as they do. Rather, as one might expect, he applies a description like the one given by Grenz and Franke to classical (or, what he calls strong) foundationalism (Wood, pp. 84 5). The character ization of classical foundationalism that I have given is the one found in Alvin Plantinga and Nicholas Wolterstorff (eds.), Faith and Rationality: Reason and Belief in God (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1983).

beliefs are those that are rationally or justifiably held in the basic way. Perceptual beliefs, for example, are usually thought to be justifiably based on experiences rather than beliefs. Thus, they are typically considered to be examples of properly basic beliefs. Source foundationalism, on the other hand, is the view that some of our sources of evidence are privileged in the sense that (a) they can rationally be trusted in the absence of evidence of their reliability, and (b) it is irrational to rely on other sources of evidence unless they are somehow 'certified' by the privileged sources.18 Classical empiricism and rationalism are both examples of source foundationalism. Distinguishing between these two brands of foundationalism is important, because doing so will help us to get a sense for what the connection between postmodernism and non-foundationalism is supposed to be.

Pick up any of a variety of postmodernish texts inveighing against foundationalism, and you will find something like the following story. The modern period was dominated by an obsession with certainty and a quest for indubitable, incorrigible foundations for knowledge. Rational beliefs were supposed to be just those beliefs that were part of the indubitable and incorrigible foundation, together with those that were deducible from the former. But, alas, subsequent work in philosophy demonstrated that the quest was in vain, that foundations of this sort are not to be had. Thus, foundationalism is no longer viable.

The story about what follows from the alleged death of foundationalism (both historically and logically) is variously told, but at least two consequences seem to be fairly widely heralded. First, it is said that we must give up on the idea that there are universal standards of rationality, and we must see facts about rationality and 'the deliverances of reason' as being in some way dependent upon historical and cultural factors. Second, it is said that the death of foundationalism has now put us into what Lyotard characterizes as the 'postmodern condition'—namely, a state of'incredulity toward metanar-ratives' (Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition, p. xxiv). A metanarrative, as I understand it, is a grand story aimed at the 'legitimation' of some broad field of inquiry (e.g. empirical science). It is, in other words, an account that aims to show—once and for all, as it were—that a certain mode of inquiry is reliably truth-aimed.

18 Rejecting source foundationalism, then, will be a matter of rejecting at least one of the two components that I have just identiWed. Note, however, that those who reject source foundation alism might still treat various sources of evidence as basic, in the sense that (a) they rely on those sources in the absence of evidence for their reliability, and (b) they treat other sources as in need of certiWcation by the sources they privilege. Doing this does not count as accepting source foundationalism because it does not involve the belief that doing otherwise is irrational, nor does it necessarily even involve beliefs about the reliability of the sources that one in fact treats as basic.

But why should these consequences be taken as somehow natural or inevitable consequences of the death of foundationalism? And what have they to do with analytic ambitions? Regarding the first question, I suggest that the details might be filled in as follows. Remember that the modern quest for secure foundations for knowledge also included a quest for what Roderick Chisholm would call a criterion of knowledge: a mark possessed by all and only beliefs that count as knowledge (or, alternatively, by all and only beliefs that belong in the foundation).19 For Descartes, the mark was 'clarity and distinctness': beliefs that possess the mark are foundational; beliefs that don't are justified only if they are derivable from foundational beliefs. Notoriously, however, Descartes faced real problems providing a defense (or, one might say, a legitimation) of his criterion. The criterion could be circularly defended, or simply accepted without any defense; but it is hard to see any way of 'getting behind' it, so to speak, and defending it without relying on it or on some other, similarly indefensible criterion. Thus, if one is persuaded that circular defenses are wholly unacceptable, the prospects for this part of the Cartesian project look dim.

Of course, the claim that we can find and provide a non-circular defense of a criterion of knowledge is no part of doxastic foundationalism as such. But it is easy to see why one might think that the failure of Descartes' quest points to a general problem with finding criteria for knowledge. And it is easy to see how skepticism about criteria would translate into incredulity toward meta-narratives. If we can't find criteria, then, ultimately, we can't demonstrate the reliability of any of our putative sources of knowledge (reason, sense perception, religious experience, etc.). Thus, any grand story we tell in defense of some mode of inquiry will ultimately rely on suppositions about our sources that we can't defend. Metanarratives, one and all, will be nothing more than castles in the air.

This spells trouble for source foundationalisms like empiricism and rationalism. If we can't legitimate any of our sources then it's hard to see how we could have any basis for privileging one over the others as empiricists and rationalists have traditionally wanted to do. For exactly the same reason, it spells trouble for the prospects of defending an alleged universal standard of rationality. Source foundationalisms offer, at least implicitly, such standards. But so too does coherentism—very roughly, the view that beliefs are justified by virtue of their coherence with other beliefs we hold. Thus, all of these views will have to be tossed out as indefensible, and we will have to move to a position according to which decisions about which sources to trust and which

19 See Chisholm, Foundations of Knowing (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1982), esp. ch. 1.

standards of rationality to adopt are simply ungrounded pragmatic choices.20 In moving to this sort of position, it is not inevitable that we give up on universal standards of rationality. There being such a standard is consistent with our not being able to defend any particular standard. But to avoid giving up on universal standards, we must take a very optimistic view either of our ability to hit on the correct standard by accident (evolutionary or otherwise) or by divine design.21

I have been moving quickly here, and painting with a broad brush; but I think that something like what I have just said is a reasonable reconstruction of how many thinkers manage to move from the failure of classical founda-tionalism to some of the postmodern distinctives that might otherwise seem rather remote from it. But now how does all of this hook up with a decision to reject analytic approaches to problems in philosophy and theology?

I said earlier that source foundationalisms lurk in the background of a great deal of analytic philosophical theorizing. Philosophical naturalism has dominated the contemporary philosophical landscape and, though I do not myself think that it is a version of source foundationalism, there is no denying that many naturalists have characterized it as such.22 Moreover, many of the research projects undertaken by analytic philosophers can be characterized as contributions to large-scale efforts to work out the explanatory/theoretical consequences of adherence to some particular brand of source foundational-ism. Crudely, we can think of many projects as trying to help answer questions like, 'Suppose the methods of science and those methods alone are the only sources of knowledge that need not be certified by other sources. How then should we think about consciousness?' Likewise in theology. Again crudely, one might think that many projects in systematic theology (traditionally construed) are aimed at answering questions like, 'Suppose Reason and the Bible are sources of knowledge that need not be certified by other sources. How then should we think about the metaphysics of the incarnation?' But for those who have given up on source foundationalisms, these sorts of projects can seem rather pointless. Different communities will rationally adopt different standards of evidence and rationality; and so they

20 This is a position I have defended elsewhere. See ch. 1 of my World Without Design: The Ontological Consequences of Naturalism (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2002). Note, however, that in saying that it is via pragmatic choices that we determine which sources to trust and which standards of rationality to adopt, I do not mean to suggest that our trust in those sources or our adoption of those standards is merely pragmatically (as opposed to epistemically) rational. This is discussed ibid., esp. chs. 1 and 3.

21 Ibid., ch. 1, for further discussion of this point.

22 I do not think that it is a version of source foundationalism because source foundation alism is a view according to which we have certain privileged sources, and naturalism, as I understand it, is not a view at all. For defense of this claim, ibid., esp. chs. 2 and 3.

will naturally—and rightly—think differently from one another about theological matters. The project we ought to engage in, one might think, is a more conversational project—one which aims to assess each of the different 'traditions' by its own standards and then to bring the best in all of them into dialogue with one another. The analytic ambition of going to the sources and working out a single grand explanatory theory is myopic at best.

It is important to pause here, however, and note that there are quite a lot of presuppositions and questionable inferences in the movement I have traced from the failure of classical foundationalism to the abandonment of analytic ambitions. Though many of the moves I have described seem natural in one way or another, and maybe even philosophically defensible, the movement as a whole still seems to me to be far from inevitable, despite the way in which many 'post-foundationalist' philosophers and theologians seem to talk. But even ifit is not a logically inevitable movement, there might be further motives in play.

The sorts of 'further motives' I have in mind are pragmatic. For instance: The majority opinion among contemporary philosophers (analytic and continental alike) seems to be that neither of the source foundationalisms— empiricism and rationalism—that have dominated the history of philosophy is especially friendly toward religious belief. There are, of course, plenty of philosophical arguments (both empirical and a priori) for the existence of God and even for particular doctrines of Christianity, like the resurrection of Jesus. Moreover, many of these arguments are still avidly defended. Even so, the arguments are widely regarded even among religious philosophers as impotent to convince the unconvinced. One response to all of this has been, effectively, a move in the direction of a new brand of source foundationalism—one that admits religious experience, or something like a special faculty for producing religious beliefs (such as Calvin's sensus divinitatis), as an additional basic source of evidence.23 But a natural alternative response—especially in light of the suggestion that Descartes's failure spells trouble in general for source foun-dationalism—is to look with despair upon the prospects for developing a

23 So called 'Reformed Epistemology' is part of this trend. (See, esp., the essays in Plantinga and Wolterstorff, Faith and Rationality.) The 'core' of Reformed Epistemology is the view that certain kinds of religious beliefs (e.g. belief that God exists) are properly basic i.e. that they are justiWably held in the absence of propositional evidence. Saying this implies a rejection of the traditional source foundationalisms; but, of course, it isn't equivalent to affirming any new brand of source foundationalism. Indeed, it is consistent with an outright rejection of source foundationalism. Still, it seems fair to characterize it (as I have) as a step in the direction of a new brand of source foundationalism. See also Plantinga's Warranted Christian Belief (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000) and William P. Alston's Perceiving God (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1991). On the sensus divinitatis in particular, see Plantinga, Warranted Chris tian Belief, esp. pp. 170 84, and John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, bk. I, ch. iii, pp. 43 6 in Calvin: Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. J. T. McNeill and tr. F. L. Battles (Philadelphia, Pa.: Westminster Press, 1960).

satisfying theology within source-foundationalist constraints, and to decide simply on pragmatic grounds to embrace a different methodological tradition altogether. As I see it, this second response arises not so much out of a cold logical inference from the demise of classical foundationalism to the rejection of analytic ambitions, but just out of a sense that one has seen the breach in the hull, as it were, and ought therefore to abandon ship.

Summing up, I have discussed two main objections to analytic ambitions. First, those ambitions seem to presuppose a false view about what theology can actually accomplish. Second, the grand explanatory aims of analytic theology seem to fit best within a tradition that takes some version of source foundationalism for granted; but the alleged death of classical foundational-ism, together with the widely perceived tension between religious belief and the dominant source foundationalisms in the analytic tradition, provide a rather complicated impetus toward alternative modes of theorizing. In the next section, I turn to objections against the analytic style.

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