Friday, 26 March 2010

Augustine on war

Why is war bad? Not, according to Augustine, because it involves people dying: they'd die anyway, so suck it up and stop being so chicken. No, "the real evils in war are violence, revengeful cruelty, fierce and implacable enmity, wild resistance, and the lust of power”, and often the reason people go to war in the first place is precisely to stop other people who are being cruel, violent, and lusting after power (a variation on the argument that it was ok to go to war with Germany/Iraq because Hitler/Saddam were such baddies). That's why, when Jesus and John the Baptist met soldiers, they didn't tell them to give up their soldiering: they recognised that what they were doing was lawful and meant to defend public safety. What really matters, according to Augustine, are the reasons people have for going to war. It's all about the heart-attitude, although because leaders only have power if God allows it, it's even ok to go to war for an ungodly king (and presumably for one whose heart attitude was less-than-perfect): he wouldn't still be king if his ungodliness was if God wasn't ok with him being king, he wouldn't still be wearing the crown that allows him to despatch soldiers. When Jesus tells us to 'turn the other cheek' he's talking about an inward disposition, not bodily actions. Even though the kingdom of God is not of this world, when Jesus-loving armies go to war and kick pagan ass, it totally resounds to the glory of God.

Task for you, dear readers: can you spot the holes in these arguments?

Photo credit: Bongo Mongo

Friday, 19 March 2010

In defence of academic theology

"Tiny advances or displacements in the field of scientific theory often begin by being impossible to evaluate. Such changes may appear at first as pastimes reserved to the leisurely keen-wittedness of scholars. But when one considers that such new acquisitions then become part of the general consciousness and so become the automatic presuppositions of action, one can perhaps recognise that much may depend on them, and sometimes everything. This is also true of theology. It is very strange. But we Christians often seem to be completely unconvinced of the power of thought with regard to our Christian faith, and to be very doubtful that 'theory' can bring about very practical effects. That is why we often prefer to think over Church politics, social questions, methods of propaganda and so on. That is why living theology is so little esteemed. Many people in the Church have the impression that it merely casts useless obscurity on truths that have long been clear, that it generates unrest and distracts from more important matters. Such people miss the point, that a living, questing, questioning theology is working today for the preaching of tomorrow, so that it can reach the spirit and heart of man. Such theological work may often seem fussy and futile. It is nonetheless necessary."

Karl Rahner, Nature and Grace

Photo: Rahner and Ratzinger, from Radio Christiandad

Karl Rahner on Theology and Anthropology

First, a nice little Rahner story. Karl Rahner was a German, wrote his theology in German and, like so many German academic theologians, had a reputation for being a bit obscure and difficult to read. Someone once asked his brother Hugo, a Jesuit theologian what he would be doing in his retirement, and he replied that he though he would try to translate his brother's works...into German.

Anyway, in an article called Theology and Anthropology Rahner argues that theology and anthropology always go together: we can’t say anything about God without also saying something about human beings, and vice versa; the same applies to Christology: we can’t understand what it meant for Jesus to be fully God and fully human without understanding what it means to be human and what it means to be God. But it’s not just any old anthropology we need – none of your studies of monkeys – what we need, Rahner thinks, is a transcendental anthropology. Don’t worry, I’ll explain.

First, some Latin: a priori means ‘what is before’, and in this context it means’ ‘before experience’. An a priori investigation of the world means looking at what we can work out about the world from reason alone, without having to rely on our experience of what the world is actually like. An a posteriori or ‘what is after’approach is based on experience. Transcendental investigations are all about the a priori: they’re all about what it means to know or experience the world. To do theology as transcendental anthropology means asking ‘What is it about this particular doctrine that means that human beings can know it?’ For example, human beings can know about God because human nature is orientated to God. Still with me? Let’s try an example.

Angelology is the study of angels. Angelololologists take the things the Bible says about angels and come up with a whole set of ideas about angels. Sometimes they’ll divide angels up into different types of angel, or they’ll talk about what angels are and how they’re different from humans or plants or animals (no one has ever actually discussed how many could fit on the head of a pin – sorry!) You might well ask what on earth all of this has to do with us, and the question a transcendental theological anthropology will ask is: What is it about human beings’ understanding of themselves that angelology expresses? It assumes that everything God has revealed tells us something about what it means to be human. So a transcendental anthropological angelology might look not for taxonomy of angelic types, but for what the relationship between humans and angels is.

Why should we take this transcendental theological anthropological (phew!) approach? Rahner gives three reasons:

First, because every sort of knowledge inevitably raises questions about the person who’s doing the knowing. Some sorts of studies can ignore these questions and get away with it, but theology and philosophy can’t, because they’re asking questions about the whole of reality, and not only is the knowing subject is part of that reality, but if we’re trying to understand everything we need to think about the limits of our ability to understand things. Not only that, but all theology is fundamentally concerned with what it means to be saved, and salvation is essentially about the people who are being saved, so any theology inevitably is about those people.

Second,you might ask why, if transcendental anthropology is so crucial to theology, the Church has gotten along perfectly happily without it for so many years. Rahner makes two points: firstly, there’s a distinction between proclamation (the things the Church declares to be true and invites people to believe) and theology (serious reflection on these items of faith), although obviously they always overlap. Rahner argues that, however long the Church has been around, there are still plenty of things we just haven’t thought about very theologically – he gives eschatology and ecclesiology as two examples. Second, just because theologians haven’t consciously been doing transcendental anthropological theology (I’d abbreviate, but TAT sounds silly) doesn’t mean they haven’t been doing it at all. Rahner thinks you can find transcendental anthropological theological approaches at least as far back as Thomas Aquinas. In addition, whatever the history, a transcendental anthropological theological approach is necessary
now. We can’t pretend that modern philosophy didn’t happen, and the modern philosophy of Descartes, Kant, phenomenology, existentialism etc. demands a theological response. This modern philosophy is all about producing a transcendental philosophy of the autonomous subject, which is unChristian insofar as it suggests we don’t need God, and Christian insofar as it recognises that human beings aren’t just one thing in the world, but the beings on whom the fate of the whole cosmos depends. If Christianity is to be persuasive to modern people, we have to engage with transcendental anthropology.Link

Third, we need a transcendental anthropological theological approach because we need to make Christianity credible to modern people. There are plenty of Christian doctrines that seem dangerous, implausible, or just plain bizarre to people who have grown up outside the church, but if we can start to show how, say, the doctrine of the Trinity affects our ideas of what it means to be human, we can make Christianity that bit more plausible.

Photo credit:
Ħarsa fil-Għajn on Flickr

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Capitalism as a religion

In Capitalism as Religion, Walter Benjamin argues that capitalism is, essentially, a religion, serving to 'satisfy the same worries, anguish, and disquiet formerly answered by so-called religion.' As such, it has four key features:

- First, capitalism is a pure religious cult, more extreme than any religion before it. In the capitalist religion, everything has meaning only in relation to the cult: theology isn't a separate discipline, making space for other areas of knowledge. In the religion of capitalism, everything is spiritual (Rob Bell would love that).
- Second, capitalism isn't like other cultic religions where there are special feast days when you're expected to rock up to the temple, sacrifice some goats, sleep with some prostitutes, all that malarky. It's much more demanding than that: in capitalism, every day is the Sabbath; every day we must go to church.
- Third, where other religions are all about repentance, capitalism is all about blame. It is so suffused with blame, so entirely without any idea of repentance or salvation, that even God becomes guilty. The great hope of capitalism isn't a new heaven and a new earth, but obliteration.
- Fourth, capitalism hides its God.

Benjamin argues that, as a religion, capitalism is entirely parasitic on Christianity. We look to banknotes for glimpses of the spirit instead of to icons; we worry about money instead of feeling guilt for our sins; instead of pagans or heathens or atheists we have benefit cheats for enemies.

Picture credit: Ben Heine

Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Kant's categorical imperative

Remember when we talked about Kant ages and ages ago? We looked at his idea of duty, which is basically this that human beings should act in accordance with duty, and their actions shouldn't be in any way selfishly motivated; an idea so far removed from any our our experiences that even Kant admits there is not a single example of any human action which meets this criterion. Because we can't possibly get this ethical principle from our experience, we have to derive it solely from reason, which Kant seems to think can operate independently of our experience. We need a moral code that comes purely from rational deduction. What might that look like?

Kant thinks that if we want a moral code that's totally rational, it can't be bound up with messy ideas of what it means to be human, which inevitably brings in our experience (Why reason should be any less to do with our experience than emotions or motivation, Kant neglects to explain). So we need a moral code that would, in theory, apply to any rational being, human, angelic, alien, whatever. Now, everything in nature acts in accordance with laws, and what distinguishes rational beings is that they are aware of those laws and can choose to act in accordance with them (er, did you just derive a definition of rationality from experience?). So whereas stones always obey the law of gravity, we don't always obey the laws of morality. This means that moral laws are imperatives: they are all about what we ought to do, even if we don't always do it. Imperatives can be hypothetical, which means that they tell us we should do something so that we can achieve something else (You ought to go shopping so that you can buy the ingredients for baking biscuits) or categorical, which means that they tell us to do (or not do) something because it is good in itself (Eat biscuits). Because Kant thinks that what's really important is our motivation for our actions rather than the actions or their consequences, he doesn't really care about the hypothetical imperative: morality is all about the categorical imperative. The categorical imperative, by the way, is one of the ideas Kant is most famous for, so once I've finished explaining you can flaunt your new phrase to gain philosophical kudos, along with opera trinitatis ad extra indivisa sunt.

Now, if you're trying to get something done (bake biscuits), you need skill (in baking) and prudence (good biscuit recipes and wisdom about which sort of biscuit is tastiest). It's all a bit vague and intangible (except the biscuits). But if morality is about laws, there's none of this fuzziness. Laws have to be universally applicable, so there is really only one categorical imperative: "act only in accordance with the maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law." That is, as you're about to eat your tasty biscuit, think to yourself: would it be ok if everybody else in the world ate biscuits? This is, in a way, where the biscuit analogy breaks down (crumbles?) a little. An easier example is this: say that you want to tell a lie, either to get yourself out of trouble or for a less selfish motivation, say, to hide some Jews from the Nazis. Can you honestly desire that lying becomes a universal moral imperative? It might make your life (and other people's lives) better right now, but imagine the chaos if everyone lied all the time. Lying can't be ok, because a universe where lying was a universal law would be a big old mess.

It's not very intuitive, is it? What happens when, say, a categorical imperative to step in to prevent murder conflicts with a categorical imperative to tell the truth? What happens when the categorical imperative to protect human life conflicts with itself in the case of a mother whose life is endangered by a pregnancy? What happens when the categorical imperative to try to preserve our own life by eating (biscuits) conflicts with the categorical imperative to seek justice, but the only biscuits we can get our hands on are made by an evil multinational company who exploit their workforce? How do you even decide which categorical imperative you're acting on at any one point? If I eat a biscuit, do I imply that a) people should eat; b) people should eat biscuits; or c) people should eat chocolate digestives? Or is eating a biscuit an a-moral act, in which case, what about all the economical and political implications of my biscuit consumption? It's no wonder that Kant can't imagine even a single instance of a perfect moral act.

Photo credit: Kant finger puppet, for sale at the Unemployed Philosopher's Guild. Oh yes.