Tuesday 13 February 2007

A rejoinder from Oliver Crisp

Yesterday I posted a brief critique of Oliver Crisp’s new article on Robert Jenson; and I invited Crisp to offer his own rejoinder to my critique. Here’s his rejoinder:

It seems to me that whether a particular theological argument is coherent or not is of utmost importance. Part of the reason for writing this piece was that it seemed to me that the obvious resources Jenson could have availed himself of (viz. recent philosophical work on these matters by metaphysicians) he was unable to avail himself of, because of his views about the nature of metaphysics. The result is that what he comes up with does not work.

As I hope came out in the article, I am an admirer of Jenson’s theology, which is provocative and insightful. But, as Jenson himself admits, it is the fate of any theological system to be dismembered and analysed. I was simply subjecting one aspect of his thinking to such analysis to see whether it made better sense than traditional ways of thinking about this matter. In my estimation, it did not. Naturally, this is not the only important matter one could discuss with respect to Jenson's work. But – to repeat – if all truth is God’s truth, it surely matters if a particular view advanced by a leading theologian as an alternative to other, traditional accounts of a particular doctrine, is not a more complete, or satisfying, or coherent alternative. To that extent, I think the essay was worth writing.


Anonymous said...


I think you are right on this – it is a failure of imagination, that is a failure to see the whole, and to see the evangelical purpose of the doctrine of God, that leaves some baffled.

Jenson lets the doctrine of God (‘immanent trinity’) be formed by not by some static ‘classical’ metaphysics of (attributes and essence of) God, but by the evangelical reality of God who is for us (the ‘economic trinity’).

We can know that God is free only because God he has made himself free for us. God has time for us. God makes time for us. This time and freedom are his own communion and life, shared with us. Thus time is not extrinsic to God. It is not a human projection back onto God. Time is God's first and ours second. That we have time is consequent on God's grace, on his being-for-us, the ‘economy’.

Of course this is a departure from ‘metaphysics’, but it must be so to be faithful to the gospel. Otherwise our theology is constrained by a deeply unchristian logic that insists that God is contained within a timeless heaven, unable to be in real (saving) communion with us on earth.

Jenson is simply re-stating Barth, who is himself affirming that God ‘has spoken to us by his Son’, which is to say that the trinity is the whole source and coherence of the Christian doctrine of God.

Shane said...

Two cheers for oliver crisp!

here's the key bone of contention: is there one truth or not?

Crisp says, If all truth is God's truth--and at that point even the mendacious barthians had better say amen!--then what is true ought not to be denied.

These 20th century theologians say they are departing metaphysics to be faithful to the gospel. This is really two implicit judgments. 1.) metaphysics is false. 2.) everyone up till now has been unfaithful to the gospel.

I have never seen a barthian theo-blogger give any support whatsoever for 1, and most of them lack the nerve to say 2 out loud.

I reject 2. I simply do not buy the idea that every theologian from Origen till Schleiermacher is unfaithful to the gospel because he uses metaphysical concepts in some way.

Against 1. all of this I observe that there are arguments for most of the classical metaphysical statements about God. These arguments are either true or false. If they are true, then the prove something about God which (because of the unity of truth) is true. If they are false, then they do not prove anything true about God.

But, unless you are willing to assume 2, you can't just shrug your shoulders, saying "i'm being faithful to the gospel" and ignore the orthodox formulations of the classical doctrines of the church. If you believe these doctrines are incorrect, then it behooves you to give arguments showing why the metaphysical elaboration of them is incorrect.

Shrugging your shoulders again and saying we live in a post-metaphysical world won't do the trick either. Not all of us are convinced metaphysics ever 'died' in the first place.

Jon said...

Oliver Crisp is a nice man. He once let me ahead of himself in a queue for a photocopier. You can't say much nicer than that in the academic world. So let's go with his argument!

Also, Shane, do you have a blog cause it sounds like you produce the kind of stuff I enjoy!

Ben Myers said...

Also, I just noticed an interesting post responding to this discussion: see here.

Sam Charles Norton said...

Shane - I certainly believe your 1), and I think 2) follows, when you change 'everyone' to 'every metaphysician'. Not all theologians are metaphysicians, of course, and the greatest are the ones who can disengage from the Greek inheritance - which is what, IMHO, the greatest church fathers did. And I don't think you have to read the creed (for example) through purely metaphysical lenses, you can read it as negative theology (not this, not that).

Fergus Kerr has written that ‘The history of theology might even be written in terms of periodic struggles with the metaphysical inheritance’ and it does seem as if there is something intrinsic to metaphysical endeavour which is inimical to the practice of theology, certainly on a post-Wittgensteinian account of metaphysics. For on Wittgenstein’s account metaphysics is the expression of the desire for the transcendent, a natural theology: in theological terms it is a desire to attain the divine from human efforts. In this way, all such metaphysical systems are idolatrous, for all such natural theology must be subordinate to that derived from the revelation in Christ.

Halden said...

Shane, the issues is not that Jenson thinks metaphysics is "wrong", the question cannot be turned into an abstraction like that. Which metaphysical system is the crucial question.

You set up something of a straw horse by saying that "every theologian from Origen till Schleiermacher" used metaphysics, thus if Jenson disagrees with their metaphysics, we must say that all of Christianity was never faithful to the Gospel. That whole sweeping statement implies that all those theologians shared a common metaphysic from which Jenson departs. That is simply not the case. All Christian theologians have employed metaphysical concepts, including Jenson, and there have been countless differing metaphysical systems employed by Christian theologians throughout the centuries. Certainly you don't think that Schleiermacher and Origen have the same metaphysics?

The point is that all Christian theologians have differing opinions over what a properly Christian metaphysics should be. They always have and always will. So just saying that Jenson "rejects metaphysics" which purportedly all Christians throughout history have espoused until Barth is simply not being willing to engage the particular way in which Jenson constructs his own metaphysic.

Shane said...

@ halden,

I'm not at all familiar with the work of Jenson, as I think I said earlier, so I am relying on the other interpretations being advanced here. In my experience 'post-metaphysical' is usually taken to mean doing philosophy, theology, whatever after "the death of metaphysics", i.e. avoiding metaphysics as such in its entirety.

What is metaphysics? Heidegger: "metaphysics is the epoch in the history of Being in which it shines as ground." which is heideggerese for: "metaphysics is the attempt to understand and control Being by grounding it in postulated metaphysical entities which obey logical laws." For Heidegger, metaphysics begins in logic and thus continues through the guise of modern technology even after the demise of "speculative metaphysics".

Whether Heidegger's definition of metaphysics is the best one that could be formulated i will not debate at present, but it is the one which seems to animate all of the post-metaphysical thinking I have encountered.

In post-metaphysical discourse, the term 'metaphysician' has a very negative connotation. It implies a moral failure of a sort. Nietzsche: "the will to a system is a basic lack of integrity." For Levinas the desire to do metaphysics is something like the desire to do violence to being. (I got the impression that Levinas thinks metaphysics is a type of rape.)

The term also has an indexical element: the set of metaphysicians includes everyone from heraclitus up to one's most immediate successor. (Remember that anyone who thinks of being in terms of 'logic' would count as a metaphysician for Heidegger.) For Nietzsche, Hegel is the last metaphysician. For Heidegger, Nietzsche is the last metaphysician. For Levinas, Heidegger is the last metaphysician. Derrida finally puts the point on it and says to Levinas, no no, you are still a metaphysician, and guess what you can't ever get rid of the metaphysics. ("Not to philosophize is to philosophize still" in the excellent essay, "Violence and Metaphysics".)

Also note that for Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Levinas the end of metaphysics is as much a prescription as a description. Here on the continent the death of God is accepted with a shrug of the shoulders as an irreversible necessity. But I am not convinced that it isn't a contingent (and hopefully transient) phenomenon arranged by social causes.

So yes, I understand 'post-metaphysical' to indicate the (in my opinion foolhardy because impossible) flight from all metaphysics as such.

I propose that if metaphysics is inevitable, then we ought to at least find a better definition of it and then begin trying to do it well. I think it would be foolish for theologians to hitch the cart of church dogma to any particular metaphysical system (transubstantiation). But I think it would be equally foolish not to take advantage of some metaphysical sophistication in the elaboration of these dogmas.

@Rev Sam,

To continue with what I just said, I do see points at which the church must struggle with the metaphysical inheritance. But, I would contend that many of those whom are maligned and rejected as 'ontotheologians' by the 'post-metaphysicians' do in fact a much better job than is sometimes realized of separating sacred theology from metaphysical speculation.

I like to use Athanasius as an example because I think he exemplifies this so well. Athanasius is obviously dependent upon Plotinus. But it's also obvious to a careful reader that almost none of the concepts from Plotinus is just taken over simpliciter. There are always changes, qualifications, reworkings. I think Thomas Aquinas does a similar thing with Aristotle: separating the wheat from the chaff.

It isn't easy and therefore it isn't always successful, but I think there is probably much more to be gained from the attempt than there is to be lost from not making it.


Halden said...

Well, perhaps if were familiar with Jenson this conversation could be more interesting and/or profitable.

I think a lot of the "post-metaphysical" types of conversations, at least in my own limited exposure to them seem to be saying that they are "post" a very particular metaphysic, namely onto-theology. I know that at least for Marion, this is definitely the case.

Perhaps my understanding is crude, but I understand metaphysics to be simply the philosophical understanding of the fundamental nature of reality (I guess we could be saying ontology here, since maybe that term has less baggage).

When I read Levinas, Marion and other "post-metaphysical" philosophers, I really see them as being post-onto-theological. By no means do they lack an ontology, as you say. Levinas's ethical overcoming of metaphysics is simply a different ontology, that has a particular understand of the relation between the self and the other the he feels was constructed violently in the onto-theological construction of metaphysics.

So, certainly, if being "post-metaphysical" means that we pretend that we don't have an ontology, it is silly indeed. But, I certainly don't think that's what Jesnson is saying. His argument is that that taking the economic work of the Trinue God in history yeilds a very particular ontology that is at odds with many other philosophical alternatives, both ancient and modern. If he's right about that is certainly an open question. But it's one that could only be engaged by someone really engaging the structure of Jenson's ontology, which I haven't really seen anyone do. The only thing that generally gets said is "Well, that's just Hegalian!" and thus we can dismiss it out of turn. Personally, I think that's a shallow reading of Jenson, and it also avoids doing the real work of engagement, which is to say, even if his metaphysics are Hegalian, are they wrong?

Shane said...

'onto-theology' is another one of those terms floating around here. suffice to say for heidegger metaphysics = ontothology. what heidegger proposes to replace metaphysics is "thinking being". How these two differ I will leave to the heideggerians to develop and explain. But, in its broadest extension 'ontotheology' includes not just aristotelian or hegelian metaphysics but also things like technology or even nationalist political movements, fundamentalist sermons, etc. (cf. Derrida's response to Merold Westphal's paper in "God and the Gift" ed. John Caputo for the application of ontotheology to fundamentalism).

I agree with your distaste at 'arguments' of the form "X is a position characteristic of the philosopher Y, and is therefore false." I suspect such inferences are invalid. Usually I'm more upset by "X is neo-platonic therefore false" than "X is hegelian therefore false", because I think there is more value in neoplatonism than hegel, but I think that for philosophical reasons having nothing to do with Faith, nor Theology.


Anonymous said...

Shane, Halden, fascinating conversation, thanks - and one that is perhaps converging?

I hear Shane saying that the so-called post-metaphysicians reject ontology because they identify it with "ontotheology", but that that identification is incorrect, or tendentious, or at least needs to be more precisely made in order for the conversation to be coherent. Is that right? If so, it makes sense to me.

And so does what I hear Halden saying. Because Shane is a philosopher I think I'm coming at it more from Halden's angle, but to add my five cents . . .

Theologians who attempt to ditch ontology actually saw off the branch on which their sitting. These are the heirs of Ritschl who practice "liberal theology", which Barth rightly called "flat-tyre" theology. They dismiss Chalcedon (too metaphysical) and can make no sense of the Trinity. The result is some form of fuzzy theism and Arianism, and, anthropologically, subjectivism and moralism. Of course they are not doing without philosophy, just metaphysics (at least that's what they think). And I think Halden is right that the likes of "postmodernists" like Marion are certainly doing ontology, and are pretty up-front about it. Of course there are some whacky postmodern theologians out there too!

But there are plenty of 20th and 21st century theologians who follow the example of Shane's Athanasius and and Aquinas - more or less. They certainly realise that theology must be ontological, but they deploy ontology as a theological tool, deployed eclectically, elastically, pragmatically, "bent," as John Webster puts it, "to serve the purpose of articulating the Christian confession." So you could say that for Athnasius, Plotinus is "bent"! And for Aquinas, Aristotle is bent. Plato is getting bent again in Milbank. And, of course, for Barth, Kant and Hegel are bent. Hegel gets bent a lot in contemporary German theology! - Moltmann, Pannenberg, Jüngel - and (to return to topic) he gets bent in Jenson too.

But bent the right way? Or perhaps bending rather than bent (Bultmann and Heidegger come to mind)? That's the interesting question. But I am at least sure that Jenson's intention to do historical ontology is sound, for any Christian theology based on the incarnatus est must include that bent. In at least that respect, Pannenberg's theology is sounder than Jüngel's, due to its foregrounding the actual gospel history of Jesus in a way that the latter doesn't.

I'm not sure I have added anything new to the conversation, but I will be happy to have sensibly rearranged a few chairs.

Sam Charles Norton said...

Just to clear a little ground of agreement - the church fathers (Athanasius, Augustine, G. of Nyssa) do something different with Greek philosophical terms which is theologically beneficial. I have no disagreement with that; somewhat the contrary (!)

What I'm trying to get at is that there is an understanding of metaphysics - which is most emphatically NOT identical with the Heideggerian critique, tho' there are significant overlaps - derived from Wittgenstein, which changes the nature of what sort of endeavour metaphysics is; and, in my view, that changed nature renders it incompatible with theology (that is, it is structured around the worship of a different God). This doesn't mean theology can't engage with metaphysical arguments; it is to say that such metaphysical engagement is always a secondary and subsidiary pursuit.

I'm not greatly familiar with Marion, but I know a little bit about what Milbank is trying to achieve, and what I'm arguing for is not the same as the 'onto-theological' critique. Milbank writes (in Word made Strange): "…the domain of metaphysics is not simply subordinate to, but completely evacuated by theology, for metaphysics refers its subject matter – ‘Being’ – wholesale to a first principle, God, which is the subject of another, higher, science, namely God’s own, only accessible to us via revelation."

My problem with that sort of thing is that it makes theology and metaphysics the same sort of enterprise. Which they're not. I've written about this in more detail on my blog, eg here.

Anonymous said...

Coincidentally, I've just been reading an article in today's Church Times by the former Bishop of Oxford Richard Harries on W.H. Auden, whose centenary is next week.

Harries notes that Auden "argued that it was impossible for a poet to write without a proper metaphysic. But, as he said: 'Those of us who have the nerve to call ourselves Christians will do well to be extremely reticent on this subject.'" Which is particularly interesting since for Auden, the faith itself is a metaphysic.

Shane said...

Kim, thanks for that nice reframing of the problem. I'll accept the idea that Halden and I are converging. I'm not so sure that Marion would recognize himself to be doing 'ontology' though. I take it that is whole point is to speak about "God without Being". Maybe his position has changed since that book? I don't know for sure.


Halden said...

Marion might not want to put the matter that way, because what he's rejecting is the idea that "being" is a catagory within which God and creatures can be circumscribed univocally.

He's arguing for "God without Being" in the sense that God does not belong to a wider category (being) underneath which he may be analyzed. Rather, God simply is, and is the condition of any speach about Godself.

In essence what I see Marion doing is rejecting the Scotist idea of the univocity of being. The issue is all in how we define "ontology". It may be that Marion woulddn't use that term, but he is offering a philosophical-theological construction about how to 'think' God and humanity. And his answer is centered in the icon and the Eucharist.

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