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The Relationship between Philosophy and Theology in the Postmodern Age - Part V

Today's Christian theologians are much more interested in postmodernist thought than the work- of Christian philosophers trained in the analytic tradition. Postmodernism is a movement which has emerged from the ideas of certain contemporary French writers such as Jean-Francois Lyotard, [23] Jacques Derrida, [24] Georges Bataille, [25] and Michel Foucault. [26] What these writers have in common is a generally cynical outlook, skepticism about the transcendental claims characteristic of the modem period of European philosophy from Descartes (1596-1650) through Kant (1724-1804), the suspicion that rational argument is a screen hiding desires for power, the idea that we cannot escape the cultural presuppositions which largely determine our world view, and an irreverent style. Many of the postmodernists look to Nietzsche (1844-1900) for inspiration. Contemporary Christian theologians who are reluctant to defend or try to justify Christian doctrine, some of whom even admit agnosticism, find common cause with the postmodernists. [27] Postmodernist writings do not really offer the theologian a set of philosophical questions of relevance to theology as we found with the philosophy of religion. Instead, the postmodernist offers consolation to the fideist theologian for his reluctance to attempt to show that his beliefs are reasonable and excuses for not engaging in the reasoned defense of the truth of his beliefs.
Postmodernism is not a philosophy, but an intellectual movement against philosophy as traditionally understood. Traditionally, the term philosophy functions as an encomium-it is not merely descriptive, but has a strong evaluative sense. To imply that postmodernist thought is not philosophy, but anti-philosophy, is to express allegiance to the traditional ideal of philosophy as love of sophia, as a quest for the truth which the postmodernists find somewhat preposterous. In castigating postmodernism as anti-philosophy; however; I do not mean to be dismissive. Postmodernism is a very important trend which has had a profound influence on many Christian theologians. [28] The philosophy of religion as practiced by Christian philosophers with training in analytic philosophy may be understood as a movement which to a large extent is diametrically opposed to postmodernism. To the postmodemists, the Christian philosophers seem a bit naive-still arguing about how to defend the rationality of asserting the truth of various religious doctrines. To the philosopher, however, what room remains for religion in the confines of postmodernism is little more than a sentimental attachment to the symbols and rituals of religion shorn of the metaphysical or transcendent significance which gives them their power and is responsible for the strong emotional response they provoke in the first place.
This is a claim. I suspect that most of my readers will agree with it, and that we do not have to look very far to find arguments to back it up. The claim is that the strength of the hold on the human imagination exerted by religion as evidenced by phenomena as diverse as the Islamic Revolution in Iran and allusions to religious themes in contemporary American fiction depends on the fact that religions allege that they contain truths that are absolute, truths that go beyond the particularities of their expressions in various cultural contexts. The questions of whether or not this allegation is correct, and whether it is even rational to believe it, are central to contemporary discussions of the philosophy of religion. For this reason alone, the skepticism of the postmodernist is important and requires a response. But aside from how this response is formulated, there is this other question of whether postmodernism can provide a philosophical perspective from which theology is more profoundly understood or whether it undermines theology by denying that it has any real connection with Ultimate Reality The Christian postmodemists and many, if not the majority, of contemporary Christian theologians contend that the question of the truth of religious doctrine can be dismissed without damage to religion, at least without damage to Protestant Christianity, because the focus of the evangelical's religion is salvation rather than gnosis.
This contention is dubious for several reasons. First, because the vast majority of believers, past and present, of the world's religions have understood their religions as making important claims about reality. Any denial of the importance of religious truth is a distortion of religious thought. Second, in Islam and Christianity, the Ultimate Reality is known as God, and the practical, symbolic and social dimensions of religious life are directed toward obedience and worship of God as the means to salvation. If claims that God exists are dismissed as naive, then the doubts generated about the reality of the object of worship threaten to make the meaningfulness of worship doubtful. Without God, worship is pointless, and without meaningful worship, there is no salvation. Third, the aura of the sacred and feelings of holiness generated by religion seem to involve the idea that the sacred provides us with a vehicle by means of which the mundane is to be transcended, the merely perspectival is to be escaped. In revealed religion, particular historical events are designated as revelation, and with this designation Christians and Muslims cease to see Jesus, Peace be with him, as a merely historical personality, and Muslims cease to see the Qur'an al-Karim as a mere artifact of early medieval Arabian culture, but as the Word of God. This transformation of awareness from the mundane to the sacred is accomplished by means of a recognition of an ontological status for the Source of revelation, so that without the metaphysical dimension of religion, the rest of it, including the salvific potency of its symbols, the feelings of obligation to respect its commandments, the attachment to participation in its rituals, all would weaken and wither. [29]
The above discussion of postmodernism prepares the way for a return to our original question about the relation of philosophy to theology. Despite the fact that religious authorities might feel threatened from time to time by questions that arise out of unfamiliar philosophical discussions, many of whose participants are indeed hostile toward religious authority, if not toward religion itself, ultimately the theologian cannot escape an involvement with philosophy. Perhaps the most persuasive reason we can offer to the theologian is that the philosophical criticisms of religious ideas that plague the minds of the young require a philosophical response if the young are to be guided. Even if no amount of merely philosophical expertise will be sufficient to remove doubt, some philosophical wisdom is necessary in order to engage the sincere seeker in the spiritual work of rising above the widespread Satanic suspicions that religion is little more than a pack of lies. The presence of philosophical doubts in the minds of the young was also the reason given by Allamah Tabataba i to Ayatullah Burujerdi for publicly teaching philosophy in Qum. Philosophy presents itself to theology as a servant without whose help the mess philosophy herself has made cannot be cleaned up!
But there are other reasons for theology to graciously accept the services offered by philosophy. Allah has graced the human mind with a thirst for wisdom, and the wisdom sought includes knowledge of the things of which religion speaks, as well as skill in practical evaluations and the sort of precision in which logicians, mathematicians and physicists take pride, and other things, such as history, as well. The philosophical quest is one which propels the seeker to some degree of understanding of all these areas and an attempt to fit them together. From time to time philosophy might devote too much attention to a single dimension of understanding, resulting in waves of logicism or empiricism or historicism, but the structure of the human spirit ultimately cannot be satisfied with a narrow slot from which to view reality. I am told that Sohravardi Maqtul said that a person who is not able to leave his body at will is not a real philosopher. I am not sure what this means, but it suggests to me the philosophical need to escape the confines of a physical perspective, the need to succumb to what some have derided as "the transcendental temptation." [30]
Theology, on the other hand, is much more limited than philosophy. The business of theology is not to offer a comprehensive theory of reality, but merely to show that there is a Supreme Reality and how this is related to lesser things. Without some attention to philosophy, the business of theology is not likely to be very profitable, because we do not get a very clear picture of God's relation to the world unless we pay some attention to what the world is supposed to look like. This does not mean that theology has to give an absolute stamp of approval to some particular metaphysical speculation, but theologians should not shy away from metaphysical issues either. Theology is well served by philosophy if it interacts with philosophical ideas without developing a dependency for a single philosophical way of doing things. Philosophy, too, perhaps finds its true vocation in service to theology. For if philosophy is to fulfill its goal of providing an intelligible comprehensive synthesis, it must make room for theological truth and knowledge of that truth, that is, by providing for the needs of theology. This becomes the worship of philosophy, to be at the service of theology; and as in all things human, the highest degree of perfection is to be approached through worship of Allah, recognizing one's own faqr before al-Ghani.


[23]. Jean-Francois Lyotard, tr. G. Bennington and B. Massumi, The Postmodern Condition (Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press, 1984).
[24]. His major work is Of Grammatology, tr. G. Spivak (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1974), but especially relevant to contemporary Christian theology is Derrida and Negative Theology, ed. Harold Coward and Toby Foshay (Albany: SUNY Press, 1992).
[25]. Georges Bataille, Theory of Religion, tr. R. Hurley (New York: Zone Books, 1989).
[26]. Michel Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge, ti. A. M. Sheridan-Snuth (New York: Harper & Row, 1972), also see the biography, James Miller, The Passion of Michel Foucault (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993) in which the relation between Foucault's writings and his sado-masochistic homosexuality is explored.
[27]. For a collection of essays in which postmodernist thought is seen as offering resources for Christian theology see Faith and Philosophy, Vol. 10, No. 4 (October 1993). 28. Postmodernism is also starting to attract the attention of students of Islamic thought. See Akbar S. Ahmed, Postmodernism and Islam: Predicament and Promise (London: Routledge, 1992) and Ernest Gellner, Postmodernism, Reason and Religion (London: Routledge,1992).
[29]. Worthy of note is Huston Smith's defense of the religious world view over the postmodern proclamation (issued by Richard Rorty) that "There is no Big Picture:" "Postmodernism and the World's Religions" in The Truth about Truth, ed., Walter Truett Anderson (Los Angeles: Jeremey P Tarcher, 1995), an address originally delivered in Kuala Lumpur for a symposium on "Islam and the Challenge of Modernity," and later revised without references to Islam as "The Religious Significance of Postmodernism: A Rejoinder" in Faith and Philosophy 12:3 (July 1995), 409-422.
[30]. See the defense of atheistic skepticism by Paul Kurtz, The Transcendental Temptation (New York: Prometheus, 1986).

Adapted from: "The Relationship between Philosophy and Theology in the Postmodern Age" by: "Dr. Muhammad Legenhausen"

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