Addenda

Sound Thinking

10 Feb

How science became the omnipotent arbiter of genuine knowledge

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Ken Myers
Published: 02/10/16

Peter Harrison on the creation of an allegedly neutral public sphere

“Charles Taylor has spoken in A Secular Age about ‘new conditions for belief’ in the modern age. Specifically, he speaks of ‘a new shape to the experience which prompts to and is defined by belief; in a new context in which all search and questioning about the moral and the spiritual must proceed.’ This is the ‘social imaginary’ that underlies our conception of the role of belief. Part of that context is the appearance of a new and distinctive understanding of belief, and the appearance of a neutral epistemic space, identified with a universal reason. This is further related to the emergence of modern liberalism, which posits existence of a neutral public sphere. Both Taylor and [Alasdair] MacIntyre have questioned the putative neutrality of this public space where no single religious tradition is favored, suggesting that modern liberalism might be thought of more along the lines of a competing ideology or religion, asserting its own supremacy at the cost of other traditions.

“My account suggests a parallel development in the idea of an Archimedean epistemic space, in which supposedly neutral rational considerations trump all others. The creation of such a space was partly motivated by the need to adjudicate between competing truth claims of the ‘religions,’ themselves the product of the new conception of religion. It is no exaggeration to say that this was the chief epistemic concern of the immediate post-Reformation period. Advocates of a religion of reason, insofar as they supported the alliance of natural theology and natural philosophy (and thus a natural theology that was constructed upon ‘neutral’ rational grounds) were complicit in this development. The possibility of offering this kind of rational support for religion, where the latter is understood propositionally, necessitates the creation of a supposedly neutral space. Initially, that neutral space was occupied by natural theology and natural philosophy with their shared physico-theological mission. Over the course of the nineteenth century, however, that territory was gradually seated to a coalescing ‘science.’ This ultimately resulted in the assimilation of all cognitive claims to scientific ones. The high-water mark of this development was the twentieth-century positivist critique of religious, moral, and aesthetic language. This positivist ethos still lingers, and the insistence that science sets the standards for what counts as genuine knowledge remains a characteristic feature of the modern Western epistemological discourse. Arguably, the epistemic imperialism of science was inherited from the supposedly neutral grounds of eighteenth-century natural theology from which it emerged.”

—from Peter Harrison, The Territories of Science and Religion (University of Chicago Press, 2015)

Click here to subscribe to the Addenda RSS feed.

10 Feb

Persons without natures

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Ken Myers
Published: 02/10/16

John Milbank on the pure individual of liberalism

“Liberalism is peculiar and unlikely because it proceeds by inventing a wholly artificial human being who has never really existed, and then pretending that we are all instances of such a species. This is the pure individual, thought of in abstraction from his or her gender, birth, associations, beliefs and also, crucially, in equal abstraction from the religious or philosophical beliefs of the observer of this individual as to whether he is a creature made by God, or only material, or naturally evolved and so forth. Such an individual is not only asocial, he is also apsychological; his soul is in every way unspecified. To this blank entity one attaches ‘rights’, which may be rights to freedom from fear, or from material want. However, real historical individuals include heroes and ascetics, so even these attributions seem too substantive. The pure liberal individual, as Rousseau and Kant finally concluded, is rather the possessor of a free will. Not a will determined to a good or even open to choosing this or that, but a will to will. The pure ‘nature’ of this individual is his capacity to break with any given nature, even to will against himself. Liberalism then imagines all social order to be either an artifice, the result of various contracts made between such individuals considered in the abstract (Hobbes and Locke) or else as the effect of the way such individuals through their imaginations fantastically project themselves into each other’s lives (roughly the view of the Scottish Enlightenment).”

—from John Milbank, “The Gift of Ruling” (New Blackfriars, Vol. 85, No. 996 [March 2004])

Click here to subscribe to the Addenda RSS feed.

 

3 Feb

To renounce the world

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Ken Myers
Published: 02/03/16

James K. A. Smith on baptism’s rebuke of disordered cultural life

“[B]aptism is a moment when Christian worship articulates an antithesis with respect to the world. In constituting a people, God constitutes a peculiar people — a called-out people who are marked as strange because they are a community that desires the kingdom of God, and thus they reflect the cruciform shape exemplified by Christ. Since the early church, baptismal rites have included a series of ‘renunciations’ or even exorcisms that renounce Satan and the world. . . .

“Clearly the meaning of world in Scripture is not univocal; it can refer to various phenomena and realities. I suggest that the most helpful distinction to make when encountering reference to ‘the world’ is . . .  between ‘structure’ and ‘direction.’ . . . [O]n the one hand, the Scriptures affirm that the world as structure (as a given reality) is created by God and, as such, is fundamentally good. On the other hand, world is sometimes a sort of name given to human society that has taken the world (as structure) in the wrong direction. In that case, the world names fallen, broken systems, idolatrous configurations, the Garden of Eden remade as Babylon. In other words, in passages like Romans 12:2 and I John 2:15, world is the name for disordered creation, often with a specific emphasis on the misdirected cultural formations of human society, but also including the ‘principalities and powers’ (Eph. 6:12 KJV). It is in this sense that the world is to be spurned and renounced. Thus the baptismal formulas are rejecting not temporal material existence per se, nor cultural life as such, but rather the perversions and distortions of both that characterize fallen humanity. . . .

“The baptismal renunciations are clear echoes of biblical language that asserts a radical, even ontological, change that takes place when one becomes a member of the body of Christ, a citizen in this new configuration of the polis. ‘For once you were in the darkness,’ Paul says, ‘but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of the light’ (Eph. 5:8). This transformation and demarcation is a radical turning akin to resurrection, again calling to mind the image of resurrection pictured in baptism (cf. Rom. 6:12–13). As Paul elsewhere exhorts, ‘Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly. . . . These are the ways you once followed, when you were living that life. . . . Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self’ (Col. 3:5, 7, 9–10). Our baptism signals that we are new creatures, with new desires, a new passion for a very different kingdom; thus we renounce and keep renouncing our former desires.

“Unfortunately, in the Reformed tradition, because we are rightly concerned not to accede to the modern gnosticism that would denigrate the goodness of creation, we can also be prone to blur Scripture’s marked distinction between the world and the new creation (of which the church is a part). We even get a little embarrassed about the New Testament’s stark claims about the people of God. In short, in the name of defending the goodness of creation, we paper over the distinction between structure and direction; thus our affirmation of creation slides into an affirmation of the world, which then slides toward an affirmation of ‘the world’ even in its distorted, misdirected configuration. In the name of the goodness of creation, we bend over backwards to affirm common grace and are embarrassed by the language of antithesis, which feels dualistic and otherworldly. In short, we forget the renunciations that attend our baptism.”

—James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (BakerAcademic, 2009)

Click here to subscribe to the Addenda RSS feed

3 Feb

Cadences which break (or mend) the heart

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Ken Myers
Published: 02/03/16

George Steiner on the mystery of musical meaning

“[O]ur perceptions, the immediacy of our perceptions of harmony and of discord would seem to correspond not only to our readings of inner states of personal being, but also to that of the social contract and, ultimately, of the cosmos (that ‘music of the spheres’). The energy that is music puts us in felt relation to the energy that is life; it puts us in a relation of experienced immediacy with the abstractly and verbally inexpressible but wholly palpable, primary fact of being. The translation of music into meaning, into meaning that is entirely musical, carries with it what somatic and spiritual cognizance we can have of the core-mystery (how else is one to put it?) that we are. And that this energy of existence lies deeper than any biological or psychological determination. Thus we do seem to harbour at the threshold of the unconscious, at depths precisely unrecapturable by speech and the logic of speech, intimations, incisions in the synapses of sensibility, of a close kinship between the beginnings of music and those of humanly-enacted meaning itself. A world without music is, strictly consideed, outside our persuasions of order and desire. It need not be a dead world in the geological or biological sense. But it would not be explicitly human. . . .

“We know of music as we know the spark and pressure at the centre of our own selves (or, perhaps, as we know of our own sleep). But we have no defining, systematic grasp of its constant, enormous impact. We can say that music is time organized, which means ‘made organic’. We can say that this act of organization is one of essential freedom, that it liberates us from the enforcing beat of biological and physical-mathematical clocks. The time which music ‘takes’, and which it gives as we perform or experience it, is the only free time granted us prior to death. We can speculate, and have done so from the ancient rhapsodies to the neurophysiologists of today, on possible concordances — themselves a musical borrowing — between bodily rhythms and subliminal cadences on the one hand, and the structural conventions of music on the other. But where it is not metaphor, almost everything said remains, in a chasteningly etymological sense, verbiage. . . .

“What we know is the relevant power. Folktale and metaphysics, myth and psychotherapy, Eros and religious rites, share the knowledge that music can literally madden, that it can make violence vibrant, that it can console, exalt, heal, that it can wake Lear out of crazed blackness. There are cadences, chords, modulations which break or mend the heart, or, indeed, mend it in the breaking. There are tone-relations which make us strangers to ourselves or, on the contrary, impel us homeward. There are andantes (Mahler’s trick of transcendence) which seem to break open the prison house of the ego and to make us one with the tidal peace of being. There are scherzos (too many in Mozart) in which laughter is perfectly real and, at the same time, where laughter is a last, unconquerable sadness. Melodies — I have cited the conviction that they are ‘the supreme mystery of man’ — can arch across an abyss or they can, as it were, pulse underground, unsettling all foundations. All these, however, are lame banalities. . . .

“Where we try to speak of music, to speak music, language has us, resentfully, by the throat. This I believe to be the buried meaning of the fable of the Sirens. More ancient than language possessed of ‘thrones, dominions, powers’, more secret than those bestowed on speech, music lies in wait for the speaker, for the logician, for the confidant of reason (Odysseus par excellence). The Sirens promise orders of understanding, or peace (harmonies) which transcend language.”

—George Steiner, Real Presences (University of Chicago Press, 1989)

Click here to subscribe to the Addenda RSS feed

 

3 Feb

The risk of stories

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Ken Myers
Published: 02/03/16

George Steiner on the necessity of vulnerable imaginations

“To starve a child of the spell of the story, of the canter of the poem, oral or written, is a kind of living burial. It is to immure him in emptiness. Mythology, the voyages through Scylla and Charybdis, down rabbit holes, the turbulent logic of the biblical, the ‘gardens of verse’, are the great summoners. A comic-book is better than nothing so long as there is in it the multiplying life of language. The child must be made accessible, vulnerable to the springs of being in the poetic. There are risks. His visitants can turn ugly or hypnotic. There are adult men and women whose sensibility has not outgrown, has not ironized into self-awareness, childhood charades of mythical heroism or fantasies of the despotic. The nursery tale, the pathos of stuffed and furry things, can translate damagingly into later needs. The shock of the revelatory fable, often misconstrued, can lame mature sexuality. But such risks must be run. If the child is left empty of texts, in the fullest sense of that term, he will suffer an early death of the heart and of the imagination.”

—George Steiner, Real Presences (University of Chicago Press, 1989)

Click here to subscribe to the Addenda RSS feed.

 

 

Pages