MD Philosophy and Theology

From: Elizaphanian (
Date: Mon Mar 10 2003 - 10:04:21 GMT

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    Hi David,

    This needed renaming. There was I naively thinking we might get some common
    ground. Silly me.

    > Whew! I think it would take 8 full length books to properly answer these 8
    > questions, but I'll at least give you some clues.

    A classic example of DMB style - "I have all the answers, you're clearly
    intellectually impoverished, here, have some crumbs from my table".
    Obviously I'm in dire need of clues to develop my understanding of the
    interface between philosophy and theology, after all, I've only had about 15
    years of studying this precise subject at the highest academic levels. Of
    course, that's an appeal to authority, which on its own is invalid. I only
    invoke it to explain why I find your patronising tone fatuous.

    > 1. Do you think theology has to be about God? (In other words, there is no
    > such thing as Buddhist theology, because Buddhism doesn't talk about God?)
    > Yes. Theos is the root word. Its all about God. If theology is or has ever
    > been about anything other than the divine, that would be news to me.
    > (Buddhism doesn't believe in a personal or anthropomorphic god. I think
    > safe to say that Buddhism is a religion.) Reminds me of an anecdote that
    > Campbell tells. An Eastern Indian was visiting the US and in an effort to
    > understand the culture picked up a copy of the bible and read it.
    > he went to Joe for some help and complained that he couldn't find any
    > religion in it.

    Clearly theology derives from the study of God; that is its traditional
    meaning. My position is that the term can now be used more broadly. After
    all, Christians, Jews, Muslims and Hindus have different understandings of
    God, yet they all have theologies (and of course there are Protestant,
    Catholic, Orthodox theologies within Christianity, and distinctions within
    other religions). I don't see any problem with using the term 'theology',
    properly explained, to talk about Buddhist teachings, but it's not something
    I would die in a ditch over. I just think the same term needs to be used for
    each religion, unless there are specific grounds for privileging one
    religion over another (which there might be - but that is something which
    you have denied in the past, because you believe that they have a common

    > 2. If so, where would you put the language of Buddhist teachings; at what
    > level?
    > Its aim is to go beyond all static forms and so is beyond all the levels.
    > is a mystical religion. Unlike non-mystical Christianity, where
    > yourself with god is the ultimate heresy, Buddhism says this
    > is the whole point and purpose of religion.

    Whereas I would say there is a clear compatibility here between traditional
    Christianity and what you are claiming for Buddhism. How can 'theosis' be
    the central term of Orthodox Christianity if what you are saying is true?
    This is the sort of comment that makes me think you haven't got beyond first
    base in understanding Christianity.

    > 3. How do you distinguish Buddhist thought from Christian thought (aside
    > from the blatantly obvious)?
    > Beyond what I just said, Christianity demands that the members be brought
    > into a particular system of sentiments, into a certain set of social
    > while the purpose and point of Buddhism is precisely the opposite; to
    > transcend all that.

    You don't know what Christianity is. "He who loves his father or mother more
    than me is not worthy of me" - what is that if not a claim to transcend
    social values? All you do is define Christianity as a social level
    phenomenon and then compress all the evidence to fit that definition.
    Forgive me if I don't join in with that process.

    > 4. Is it your view that theology is inevitably and irrevocably social
    > thinking?
    > Inevitably and irrevocably? Never say never. But as generalizations go,
    > its at the social level.

    If you want to define theology as 'social level thinking about religions'
    then I'd be happy to continue a debate on that basis. (I don't agree with
    it, of course, but there's no point in getting hung up on definitions). We
    can then focus the argument on the next point.

    > 5. Do you think there exists something which can legitimately be called
    > 'Christian philosophy' (eg Aquinas) which operates at the fourth level?
    > There is alot of Plato and Aristotle in Christianity, so I suppose one
    > make a case. But I think that mostly this is a case of using philosophy
    > religious purposes, putting intellect in the service of social
    > organizations, which is immoral in the Pirsigian sense.

    How to judge when philosophy is being used for religious purposes (ie being
    subverted from its proper role) and when it is being used to derive logos
    from mythos? I find it remarkable that you feel able to pigeon-hole Aquinas
    as a social level thinker. As you clearly feel that you have attained the
    intellectual level, you must have a more evolved philosophical understanding
    than Aquinas. Astonishing. Congratulations.

    > 6. Can you justify your comment "philosophically speaking, these notions
    > have no meaning", referring to traditional Christian language? (Are you a
    > logical positivist in disguise?) In other words, what are your criteria
    > philosophical meaning?
    > The particular notions I refered to were "the fall" and "the trinity". All
    > meant to say was that, outside of the specific theological system, these
    > doctrines don't mean anything. To a muslim or a jew, the idea that god has
    > three parts is sheer blasphemy. To a Buddhist it is a profound
    > misunderstanding and to science it is a fairy tale. These things only make
    > sense within Christianity.

    That's a trivial point. Of course they only make sense within Christianity.
    The notion of 'language games' only makes sense by reference to
    Wittgenstein's overall perspective - that's not a criticism, just an
    observation of logical necessity.

    > Don't get me wrong. I was raised as a Christian
    > and have a good idea what they're supposed to mean.

    You make the mistake of thinking that the tradition of Christianity in which
    you were raised is the sum total of what Christianity is. When in fact, from
    what you have said, it was an especially sectional understanding.

    > But as a philosopher,
    > even as an amateur and a hack philosopher, I think such things are kind of
    > childish and absurd.

    Whereas I think your position can only be maintained by wilful ignorance and
    prejudice. Not sure where name-calling gets us, but in our conversations it
    seems to be the modus vivendi!

    > One this question, I'd turn the tables and ask you a
    > question. What philosophical meaning does the trinity or the fall have?

    I explained my account of the Fall in the Saddam Hussein thread. Of course
    you will say 'that's social level thinking' - and perhaps if I attained your
    Olympian intellectual heights I would be forced to agree with you. In the
    meantime, I'll continue to think that you are wearing ideological blinkers,
    and that I am operating at the fourth level.

    > 7. Is it possible to be committed to any substantive values while
    > at the philosophical (ie 4th) level? In other words, is there something
    > philosophically legitimate about embracing a particular intellectual
    > conception, whether it be Stoic, Wittgensteinian, Kantian, Modernist,
    > Rortian, Epicurean, whatever?
    > Committed to substantive values? Embrace a particular intellectual
    > conception? I'm really not sure what you're asking. How about this; when
    > operating at the philosophical level, it is not only possible, but one
    > TO be committed to intellectual values.

    I want to know what the substance behind 'intellectual values' consists in.
    Logical coherence? Empirical basis? In other words, one person is a
    committed Stoic, another is a committed Logical Positivist. Do you think
    that there are ways to discriminate between their positions?

    > I guess there's nothing illegitimate
    > about embracing a particular philosopher or philosophy as long as those
    > intellectual values aren't violated. I mean, it would be wrong to adopt
    > of these as a matter of faith. Philosophical views are supposed be derived
    > from lots of thinking about thinking.

    Where does the thinking stop? On what do you base your fundamental
    commitments? What is your foundation? (Because I'm pretty sure you're a
    foundationalist and essentialist, given your reaction to Matt K's project).
    As Wittgenstein put it, "One man is a convinced realist, another a convinced
    idealist and teaches his children accordingly. In such an important matter
    as the existence on non-existence of the external world they don't want to
    teach their children anything wrong." (There is irony there, in case it
    hasn't come across).

    > 8. If so, how are those philosophical positions distinguished from
    > ones (Christian, Buddhist, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh et al)?
    > The same way one distinguishes intellectual values from social values, and
    > since you include the Eastern religions, the way we distinguish social
    > static quality from Dynamic quality.

    So: western religions are social level with no intellect; eastern religions
    are dynamic rather than static? Philosophy comes in between the two?

    > 9. What criteria are available for distinguishing between alternative
    > philosophical conceptions, eg systems of metaphysics?
    > This is much tougher because they are all at the same level. But that
    > much what we are here to do; to make and sort out distinctions.

    You haven't answered the question, and it is pretty much the central
    question - how do you distinguish between intellectual systems? Do you agree
    with Pirsig's image of paintings in an art gallery? If not, why not?

    > 10. Do you have a hierarchy of philosophical disciplines (eg relating
    > epistemology, logic, metaphysics, aesthetics etc)?
    > No. I think they relate horizontially, not hierarchically.

    OK - so it is philosophy as a whole that constitutes the intellectual level?


    The key contest between us (accepting for the sake of argument that theology
    can be defined as social level thinking) is whether there is such a thing as
    'Christian philosophy' (or indeed Islamic philosophy, Jewish philosophy,
    Hindu philosophy). In one sense, the answer is clearly not - there is only
    philosophy. Yet I think it is perfectly possible to be philosophically
    sophisticated, and for that philosophical sophistication to be compatible
    with a commitment to a particular understanding of the world, a particular
    religious tradition. I see no philosophical (ie logical, metaphysical or
    epistemological) grounds for preference between coherent accounts which are:
    atheist, Buddhist, Christian, Stoic, Protestant, Catholic, agnostic,
    Kantian, Modernist, Wittgensteinian, Rortian, whatever. To use the Rorty
    vocabulary, they are all 'final vocabularies' - and I don't think there are
    over-riding intellectual grounds for preferring one to another. Each can be
    made intellectually consistent, each can be made compatible with evidence
    (although how the evidence is interpreted is what is normally in dispute).
    Your position seems to be quite solidly modernist, early twentieth century
    US mainstream (largely derived from William James, whether consciously or
    not). You just don't seem to be capable of recognising it as a stance that
    is open to question. In other words, to transcend your own static patterns.

    Doubtless you will say the same about me.....!


    "A good objection helps one forward, a shallow objection, even if it is
    valid, is wearisome." Wittgenstein

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