Dec 5, 2010

Wisdom Literature and Philosophy

Already indulging in one digression from the discussion about the value of translations and original languages in studying philosophy -- since I really ought to follow up with a post setting out my probably eccentric views on which criteria can be given, explained, and defended for what constitutes a good translation -- I'm going to take a different tack and blog about a topic which more than tangentially coincides with a long-time obsession of mine, the complicated question of Christian philosophy.  And, since I like to break up my perhaps overly long and dense entries from time to time with an image, here's the cover I ended up choosing for my volume coming out soon with Catholic University of America Press.
So, after that shameless plug. . . on with the digression! 

I noted that I was happy engaging an interlocutor who shared a lack of a typically modern assumption, namely that philosophy was in some way strictly separated from theology or religion.  This was not an assumption commonly made in antiquity, nor in the medieval period (at least until the fields of philosophy and theology not only came to be distinguished from each other but were often separated from and opposed to each other).  For my part, I don't think that this simply represented a confusion or lack of development on the part of those earlier thinkers, as many scholars seem to -- though I am willing to concede that some figures may have blurred these together.

And, since I'm fessing up to certain of my own views on these matters, I'll go further and say that any sort of strict distinction between philosophy and theology per se seems deeply problematic to me, not least since when philosophy accepts such a distinction, whatever terms and limits it may be configured in, philosophy either unwittingly takes it as a gift produced by theology, developed through a theological point of view, or philosophy does so restricting itself to ground it assures itself is solely its own, and develops the distinction in a superficial manner, ending up by treating both sides reductively, and thereby failing as philosophy in the process.  But, again, fodder for further discussions.

Dave and I agreed in regarding the Wisdom literature of the Bible as relevant to philosophers and philosophy.  He extended the purview of philosophy beyond the Sapiental books to include, for example, "I Samuel on kingship as political theory."  Now, two points about all of this -- unargued for at this juncture, so that I can get to the main topic of this post.

First, until a good ways on into the period that we call Modernity, Biblical passages and texts, or at least conceptions derived from them, were fairly routinely brought in for consideration not only in theology, but in philosophy.  To the scholar, Scripture furnished not proof-texts to definitively end arguments, but ideas, positions, connections which were considered valuable, and might be relied on in arguments, but also called to be explored, ruminated upon, thought out.  For the most part -- there are exceptions -- in Ancient and  Medieval philosophy, practitioners were keen to apply the mind to the search for wisdom, wherever it might be found.  And, wisdom included political theory, moral theory, theory of human nature. . .  the list could go on.

Second, the reason we talk about Wisdom or Sapiental literature is because there are books of the Bible which have been traditionally regarded (and for good reason) as being particularly concerned with something like the philosophical life, the life of the sage, the wise person.  Protestants and contemporary Jews differ from all other Christians and from Jews in late antiquity who used the Septuagint on the question of precisely how many books of that sort ought to be considered divinely inspired, but at least within the hermeneutic horizon of ancient and medieval (and even some modern) thought, writing, and intellectual life, a list of Biblical literature believed to mediate and transmit wisdom of those not only sages, but living a life of relationship with God or at least seeking His ways, can be provided:  Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Job, (the Wisdom of) Sirach, Wisdom (of Solomon), and the Song of Songs.  Now, are these the only books with which a Christian philosopher might engage in the quest for or dialogue with wisdom?  No, because there are sapiential passages in many of the other books.  As texts, many scriptures promise and bear fruitfulness for the philosophical endeavor, so long as one does not choose and impose too narrow and stunted a conception of philosophy upon oneself  in or prior to the process (and to prevent this, seriously engaging the History of Philosophy is, I think, invaluable).

During the debates that took place in the 1930s over the issue of Christian philosophy -- which involved more than 50 interlocutors arguing at length and in depth about not only its nature(s) or historical existence, but also its very possibility or philosophical legitimacy -- one curious assumption kept being made by most of the interlocutors, including most of the main debators.

Whether, like the rationalists and the neo-Scholastics, one considered the very idea of Christian philosophy illegitimate, or whether one gave some philosophical characterization  to that combination of words and argued for its legitimacy, even its reality or necessity, a guiding presupposition was that revelation and reason were ultimately separate categories, phenomena, or realities whose interaction needed to be justified and explained.

Etienne Gilson, for example, contending for the historical existence of Christian philosophy as Christian philosophies, construed it as the product of the rational activity of the believing Christian

once this philosopher is also a Christian, his reason’s exercise will be that of a Christian’s reason, that is, not a reason of a different type than that of non-Christian philosophers, but a reason that labors under different conditions. . . . it is true that his reason is that of a subject in which there is something nonrational, his religious faith. But I await someone who will show me a pure philosopher, the concrete realization of an unique concept, in whom reason would not cohabit with any irrational of this sort. And I ask especially whether the philosophical life is not precisely a constant effort to bring what is irrational in us to the state of rationality. What is difficult for us is distinguishing between the irrational and the not-yet-rational. And once one’s choice is made, there is still an issue of knowing the time when the possibilities of the rationality of the nonrational one has chosen are exhausted. What is peculiar to the Christian is being convinced of the rational fertility of his faith and being sure that this fertility is inexhaustible. If we pay attention, that is the true meaning of St. Augustine’s credo ut intelligam and St. Anselm’s fides quaerens intellectum: a Christian’s effort to draw some of reason’s knowledge from faith in revelation.
There are many other passages which would have to be cited if the goal here was to provide an adequate portrayal of Gilson's position.  And innumerably more would have to be brought up and systematically nested into studies if my aim was to convey a full grasp of positions hammered out in prose during the 1930s debates.  Instead, I'll just say four things.

First, Gilson's passage here embodies an assumption made by nearly all of those who were arguing for Christian philosophy, an assumption about which consideration of Wisdom literature, reason, and philosophy ought to have made those scholars suspicious.  The irrationality of the supernatural, of revelation, of scripture, even of religious experience -- its need to be transformed into the rational, the philosophical --Gilson's  characterization of each insight Christian philosophy developed and deployed is that

Second, Gilson's (and Blondel's) old teacher, the rationalist Leon Brunschvicg, indicated one dead-end way in which one might see rationality in religion, philosophy as an activity of reason in Jewish and Christian scriptures.  Taking cues from Spinoza and Hegel, and incorporating contemporary French sociological-anthropological speculations about the primitive mind, ancient peoples, and religion, he is perfectly willing to see rationality in revelation, a puerile, underdeveloped rationality in need of being made truly rational

Third, Maurice Blondel, who argued for Christian philosophy, but sparred with Gilson and Jacques Maritain over the proper understanding of Christian philosophy (uncharacteristically uncharitably -- returned in kind by those two! -- and unnecessarily), realized this problem more fully, more fundamentally, noting the necessity for  philosophy to grapple with the problem of the supernatural (study so radical as to make Heidegger's trumpeting about the need for fundamental ontology rightly seem superficial).  But, even Blondel himself fell short on this particular issue.

Fourth, Gabriel Marcel, who true to character and to his own avowed non-method of philosophy, did not follow up on this systematically, realized and set out two sets of reflections which got past the assumption being criticized here, but still need be followed out further.  The first refutes the rationalist and neo-Scholastic positions against Christian philosophy:
If it was admitted that Christianity has had no positive influence on philosophical development, this would entail saying that it has never actually been able to be thought—for there is no thought worthy of that name that does not contribute to transforming all the other thoughts. . . .  To say that Christianity has never been thought is to let it be understood that it is not thinkable, that for human reason (taking this word in its widest signification) Christianity constitutes a sort of perfectly opaque foreign body.
The second problematizes the notion of reason philosophers and many schools or movements philosophy rely upon, noting that reason can realize that it has been mistaken, less fully developed or fulfilled, in need of further unfolding and deepening:
Perhaps it would not be abusive to claim that the essence of [Christian] philosophy is a meditation on that datum’s [i.e. the Incarnation's] implications and consequences of every order, not only unpredictable but contrary to reason’s superficial demands from the very start wrongly posing themselves as inviolable. But the essential function of metaphysical reflection will consist in critiquing these demands in the name of higher demands, and consequently in the name of a superior reason that faith in the Incarnation puts precisely in the condition of becoming fully conscious of itself.
Now, without committing to Marcel's emphasis on the centrality of the mystery of the Incarnation, can we not cast a look backwards, to pre-Christian Jewish Wisdom texts and tease out implications for how they might be understood?

When a philosopher takes a passage from Scripture, uses human reason to question, explore, perhaps even systematize its implications, is it really something blankly irrational which originally confronts them, transmuted then into something rational, something that can be considered philosophy in the end?  Perhaps some startling revelation like the one Gilson adopts as a paradigm, God revealing to Moses: I am who am, understood by the philosophers working through its significance to mean that God is Being itself (or conversely, that Being itself is God, i.e. personal) -- perhaps that does fit that mold.

But does the Wisdom literature?  Read Job, and what takes place on those pages sounds a lot like a philosophical dialogue.  The Wisdom literature got set aside as a genre not only because there was a class of people called sages or wise men, but also because they do not read like the other Biblical literature.  Presumably, they were not worked out in their writing in precisely the same manner.

Gilson's paradigm for Biblical literature, for revelation, is prophetic:  God reveals to the human reasoner what he or she could not possibly have expected, and then human reason, if humble and faithful enough, goes to work on assimilating the new truth into the framework (perhaps one shaken to its bases) of the older ones.

In prophetic literature, Thus says the Lord. . .  .

In Wisdom literature, things go differently.

It is instead:  seek the Lord, but also:  I've lived a long time, studied what other wise (i.e. adequately rational) people -- not just Jews but from other people as well -- had to offer on these topics, pondered and turned them over in my mind a lot, and here's what I've come to (through my activity engaging and expanding reason, employing the faculty essentially characteristic to human being -- rationality).

So, if the Christian (or Jewish for that matter) philosopher takes up the kind of revelation that is Wisdom literature, and thereby finds his or her rational activity further enhanced and endowed in the process of engagement, yielding new insights, doctrines, positions, arguments, concepts or experiences communicable to and explorable by others, what then transpires?  Something much more akin to the fruitful contact which occurs between Christian thinkers, as for instance when I study and then ruminate on Anselm's ever-fertile little work Proslogion and then actually (which does not happen every time, or even often, alas!) go further with an Anselmian insight into God, creatures, the created world, the human rational mind, the nature of good and evil.

Put in even simpler terms, the assumption that rationality lies exclusively and necessarily on this side of revelation, and not even more on the other side -- with all of the implications this bears for the status of religious texts, passages, even concepts developed through religious thought -- is precisely that: an assumption.  It rules out, or casts into a corner of theology one will then never look into, the possibility of communities of rational inquiry in which revelation, or better yet, God (since what's revelation supposed to be of, after all) would play a continual part, not least as ever-renewed dialogue-partner.