Historical and Linguistic Sensitivity

A little more may be said here about the need for historical and linguistic sensitivity on the part of philosophers attempting to examine and reflect on Christian doctrine. Of course, theologians themselves can manifest historical and linguistic insensitivity. Wedded to a particular school — say, that of Thomism (the systematic theology derived from St Thomas Aquinas) — they may attempt to teach a rigid, inflexible 'orthodoxy' that ignores the medieval background, the particular factors shaping St Thomas's thought, and the difficulties of appropriating a system of ideas and a technical vocabulary across eight centuries of development and change. Students of religion, too, can manifest comparable insensitivity. Attempting to apply the methods of phenomenology, by bracketing questions of truth and reality and comparing and classifying key elements in religious life and thought across the globe and throughout recorded history, they can fail to appreciate the historical embeddedness and particularity of the phenomena under scrutiny. Pannenberg has criticized both theologians and phenomenologists for just such historical insensitivity. But remember that it was Pannenberg who insisted on Christian theology being discussed 'without reservation in the context of critical rationality'. Historical sensitivity must not be used as a device to block philosophical analysis.

After all, philosophers are well placed to combine history and analysis. Students of ancient philosophy, for example, are used to using all the methods of historical research in order to explore the distant worlds of Plato and Aristotle in their own setting, and at the same time to using all the methods of conceptual and metaphysical investigation in order to appropriate what is of lasting significance in the thought of the ancient philosophers for philosophy today — and that includes the philosophy of religion. In a similar manner, philosophers explore the later worlds of medieval thought for what is ofenduring import in the synthesis ofancient philosophy and the Jewish, Christian and Islamic traditions. (We shall be considering the work of such scholars as Eleonore Stump and Norman Kretzmann in this connection in subsequent chapters.) The critical philosophies of the Enlightenment may also be scrutinized and assessed for what still illuminates contemporary understanding of the world and human life. Only if historical sensitivity is held to shut off past worlds from present appropriation completely, as seems to be the case in Denis Nineham's work, for example, does there arise an insuperable gulf between history and philosophy. The work surveyed in this book will provide a clear refutation of this overly sceptical and pessimistic view.

Linguistic sensitivity is something that is also needed by theologians and philosophers if the subject matter of Christian doctrine is to be explored appropriately 'in the context of critical rationality'. Philosophers trained in the analytic tradition ought to be well placed to show such sensitivity. Mid-twentieth-century analytic philosophy was known as 'linguistic philosophy'; and attention to ordinary language and its nuances of meaning is the hallmark of this school. But such attention misses the mark if religious language, especially talk about God, is treated as operating at the same level as everyday talk about the natural and human worlds. Justice has to be done to the unique nature of the transcendent object of theological enquiry. Both Wiles and Swinburne, in the debate described in the previous section, refer to and accept the analogical nature of human speech about God. In the chapters that follow we shall again and again come back to the 'way of analogy', by which, it is claimed, just because human beings are made in the image of God, language that has its home in the human context may be used, albeit in a stretched and undoubtedly inadequate way, to speak about God and God's relation to the world.

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  • mara marcelo
    What is linguistic sensitivity?
    7 years ago

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