"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Monday, March 26, 2007

Essence/energies: a reply to Benedict Seraphim

Having just lamented, in the combox to my previous EED post, that I had not got "a peep from the Orthodox" about my irenic proposal, I was putting the blog to bed for the night. Then a friend informed me by e-mail of this peep at This is Life!: Revolutions around the Cruciform Axis. I want to get in my reply before the debate gets ahead of me.

Benedict's reaction is predictably negative, though not—to give him credit—nasty, which is what I've become accustomed to from certain other quarters. His critique is two-pronged: ecclesiological and theological (where 'theological' means 'pertaining to the doctrine about God' as distinct from about the Church). Unfortunately, neither prong engages my actual argument.

The ecclesiological critique is no more enlightening than pertinent. Like my fellow Catholic philosophers who blog, and many who don't, I am keenly aware that Catholics and Orthodox approach each other with different ecclesiological premises. The Catholic Church teaches that the Catholic Church is the Church; the Orthodox Church teaches that the Orthodox Church is the Church. Catholics view Orthodox as "separated brethren" belonging to a communion of true, particular churches that are properly part of the Catholic Church, lacking for full communion with said Church only...well, full communion with the See of Peter. You can read all about that in the documents of Vatican II and the CCC; it's the ecclesiological basis for Catholic ecumenism with the Orthodox. On the other hand, and despite what Benedict asserts, Orthodoxy does not have as clear an official "line" about Catholicism. While most Orthodox view the Catholic Church as heretical on this or that point, by no means would all maintain that the Catholic Church is, in no sense, part of the Church. The more moderate view espoused by the Orthodox priest Stephen Freeman of Glory to God for All Things is hardly unknown or condemned in Orthodoxy: "We know where the Church is; we don't know where she isn't." Now if we don't know where the Church isn't, then we don't know that the Catholic Church is not part of the Church. Hence it's a bit much for Benedict to rebuff my ecumenical gestures on the grounds that I'm begging the question against "Orthodox" ecclesiology. To be sure, my frustration at seeing my ecumenical gestures rebuffed does beg the question against his ecclesiology and that of a fair number of other Orthodox, such as the monks of Mt. Athos. But then, their ecclesiological rejectionism begs the question against their more moderate co-religionists. It's pretty rich to be accused of begging the question against Orthodoxy when the Orthodox themselves haven't yet adopted an ecclesiology definitive enough to beg the question against.

The theological critique is that my argument's method—or, in more precise neoscholastic terms, my ordo theologiae—is incompatible with Orthodoxy's. Thus:

Dr. Liccione asserts his both/and scenario from a particular vantage point: that of natural theology. This may not be quite so clear from the post itself, but in the related links and the comboxes it’s clear that two things are going on: a) if Orthodox would only understand the doctrinal issues from the standpoint of natural theology, as the Roman Catholics do, all would be well, and b) Orthodox theology itself doesn’t stand up, so the Roman Catholic commenters claim, to natural theological critiques, and therefore is itself problematic (and thus a good reason to jettison it).

In other words, what Dr. L is implicitly asking, even if this is not his intention, is for Orthodox to cease doing theology in the way Orthodox do theology and to start doing theology the way Roman Catholics do theology. Or, to say it another way, what we have is a tautology: since Rome is right, Rome must therefore be right. Now commenters like Dr. L, Jonathon Prejean and others will object to this accusation of such a vicious circle. After all, they claim, what we have made are substantive arguments. And I agree, they have.

What they have not done, however, is justify their starting presuppositions. And that’s where the trouble begins. Orthodox begin with different theological first principles than do the Roman Catholic commenters here referenced. And to object that Orthodox do not make cogent arguments is primarily to say that Orthodox do not make arguments that start from the same point.

Alas, that is no more more pertinent than the ecclesiological critique. I don't need to "justify" the "starting presuppositions" Benedict is talking about. That's because I don't make them.

I was quite explicit that I was speaking about dogmas: Orthodox and Catholic dogmas. The notion of absolute divine simplicity (ADS) has been dogmatized by the Catholic Church; the essence/energies distinction, as expounded by St. Gregory Palamas, has been dogmatized by the Orthodox Church. St. Gregory also argued that God is simple. His considered position is not quite the same as that of, say, St. Thomas Aquinas; but his conclusion is quite similar to the dogma formally defined by the Catholic Church. Therefore, my attempt to harmonize the dogmas of EED and ADS in no way depends, as Benedict would have it, on any "presupposition" that natural theology has "authority over revealed theology," a presupposition that no orthodox Catholic would dare make. It depends on analysis of the meaning and purport of the two dogmas in question. My argument was that the two are logically compatible, true, and instances of authentic DD. Benedict has said absolutely nothing to show otherwise.

Of course, he can't quite make up his mind what my presuppositions are. For he also rejects what he thinks might my idea that "revealed theology must be consonant with natural theology." But he's still just jerking his knee.

Natural theology is a branch of metaphysics, which is a branch of philosophy, which is an exercise of human reason. Like other products of human reason, some things that some natural theologians have said are both true and well argued; others are false or otherwise not worth crediting. Done well, natural theology can attain enough truth to function as what Aquinas called a "preamble" to faith; done poorly, it can be an obstacle to faith. There's nothing particularly controversial about any of that—unless you begin with the premise that human reason can learn nothing of God without starting from the assent of faith as understood by traditional Christianity. That position is known as "fideism." But last time I checked, fideism is not a dogma of Orthodoxy.

Moreover, I strain to locate an argument that somebody like Benedict might have against what Vatican I said about the relationship between faith and reason (emphasis added):

Now reason does indeed, when it seeks persistently, piously and soberly, achieve by God's gift some understanding, and that most profitable, of the mysteries, whether by analogy from what it knows naturally, or from the connexion of these mysteries with one another and with the final end of humanity; but reason is never rendered capable of penetrating these mysteries in the way in which it penetrates those truths which form its proper object. For the divine mysteries, by their very nature, so far surpass the created understanding that, even when a revelation has been given and accepted by faith, they remain covered by the veil of that same faith and wrapped, as it were, in a certain obscurity, as long as in this mortal life we are away from the Lord; for we walk by faith, and not by sight.

Even though faith is above reason, there can never be any real disagreement between faith and reason, since it is the same God who reveals the mysteries and infuses faith, and who has endowed the human mind with the light of reason. God cannot deny himself, nor can truth ever be in opposition to truth. The appearance of this kind of specious contradiction is chiefly due to the fact that either the dogmas of faith are not understood and explained in accordance with the mind of the church, or unsound views are mistaken for the conclusions of reason. Therefore we define that every assertion contrary to the truth of enlightened faith is totally false.

As a Catholic, I believe that. And of course Aquinas affirmed the same in substance, especially in the "double-truth" controversy with Siger of Brabant and the "Latin Averroists." So, the "presuppositions" that Benedict says we're starting with, or at least that I'm starting with, are no such thing. The conclusions of human reason must always be consistent with revealed truth; when those conclusions are true, revealed truth is necessarily consistent with them. But that doesn't tell us which conclusions of reason are true. All it does it set out boundary conditions.

The aim of my post was modest: to sketch a way of removing an intellectual obstacle to ecclesial unity. But rather than critique the structure of my argument, or even reject one of the premises doing logical work in the argument, Benedict rejects what he mistakenly takes to be my methodological presuppositions. I can't help getting the impression that even such relatively well-mannered Orthodox as he are determined to cast about for reasons to rebuff Catholic gestures. Benedict's reasons will impress only those who are equally determined.
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