Protestant Christian theology is in its second century of schism between liberal and conservative schools. I don’t think schism is too dramatic a term. As Brian McLaren prays, "Please, Lord, bring the day when we no longer think in these terms." Beneath this schism are fundamental differences in epistemology, in how we believe we can know God and God’s will. Nancey Murphy has made a very similar argument in the first half of her Beyond Liberalism and Fundamentalism: How Modern and Postmodern Philosophy Set the Theological Agenda.
While the conservative school argues from a foundational realist epistemology, and the liberal school proceeds from a postfoundational anti-realist epistemology (these terms will be fleshed out in later posts in this series), premodern philosophy and theology have lost their power over our convictions. This is because classical and medieval philosophy and theology were predominantly realist yet nonfoundationalist. The problematic introduced by modern philosophy was not realism, which was already a given in premodern thought, but rather foundationalism, which is central to the early modern philosophy of Descartes, Hobbes and Locke. Hence the conflation of foundationalism and realism, and the postmodern reaction against both. Renewing the Center, by Dr Stan Grenz (may he rest in peace), and Reclaiming the Center, by Erickson, Moreland, Carson, Groothius et al, are explicitly animated by these two epistemologies; neither book seriously engages premodern philosophy or theology, because premodern thought doesn’t fit into either school.
Neither does either school ever, ever, ever write about Edmund Husserl. He was one of the top 3 philosophers of the 20th century (by anyone’s count); postmodern thought would not be without Husserl’s concepts of absence and horizons; and Dr Dallas Willard, whose Christian writings are respected across both schools, spends much of his time reading Husserl. Why does Husserl matter? Why does phenomenology (the school of philosophy initiated by Husserl) matter?
First, Husserl articulated a nonfoundational realist epistemology that clarifies how philosophy should be done and was done before modernity. With Husserl’s help, we are now better able to read the works of premodern thinkers as they intended them to be read. This fact helps explain why much of the work being done with Husserl is done in Catholic philosophy departments, not to mention by the current Pope himself, who taught phenomenology at Lublin and wrote from a basically phenomenological position in his wonderful encyclical Faith and Reason. Another writer on Husserl, Msgr. Robert Sokolowski of The School of Philosophy at The Catholic University of America, has written the best Introduction to Phenomenology that exists. I can’t encourage readers enough to read it.
Second, Husserl’s nonfoundational realist epistemology provided the concepts of absence and horizons, later used by his student Martin Heidegger and future postmodern thinkers, that allow us to affirm and develop insights made by postmodern thinkers about the genealogy of concepts without taking the fateful postmodern step into anti-realism. This unnecessary step into antirealism is prefigured by the modern conflation of foundationalism and realism against which postmoderns thinkers react. We can affirm absence within a realist epistemology. For example, phenomenology agrees that language pushes our interpretation of reality in one way or another, but it thoroughly rejects the claim that language precedes and completely structures consciousness. Instead, phenomenology describes the origins of language in the human subject’s free presentation and clarification of reality. Of course, much of reality is absent to the subject and is only a horizon of potential presence, and linguistic distinctions arising from such a partial presence of reality will push future understandings of reality in one or another direction. It is the job of the wise to recognize the element of language in the individual’s understanding of reality, and to help individuals and communities make better distinctions about reality based on their reflection and on their study of historical reflections on reality. Gordon Smith makes this argument in his Beginning Well, a commanding phenomenology of conversion, in which he calls on Christian leaders to thoughtfully clarify and expand the language of conversion-narratives, as the language of and distinctions made in such narratives allow the reality of conversion experiences to be more or less real and present, and therefore lasting, to the individual. Brian McLaren seems to be doing just this in his clarification of conversion to include reconciliation within the world. Dallas Willard provides us a similar phenomenology of revelation in his Hearing God, in which he affirms the reality of revelation without allowing revelation become a foundation for abstract propositions.
Third, and most importantly, leadership, discipleship and community stand or fall on our fundamental view of wisdom and virtue. If wisdom is a community project in which noone’s perspective is privileged, because "all experience is hermeneutical", then clergy and lay leaders are reduced from disciplers of men to quasi-leaders who facilitate experience-sharing within communities of individuals on a spiritual journey together. Such leaders may, in Brueggemann’s terms, fund the experiences of their community with stories from Scripture, but the locus of wisdom still resides in the community’s hermeneutical activity, not in the Scripture nor, sadly, in the leader. If, on the other hand, wisdom is to be found in wise people and their writings (like Scripture) then leadership and discipleship take on very different roles. What makes a text the result of wisdom, and not just a text that happens to have become authoritative within one’s tradition? Great texts clarify reality. They make distinctions about reality that seem right, because when we consider such distinctions about reality, they allow reality to become more present and real to us. Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics does just this. This book was the authoritative ethics text for 2000 years because it embarked upon the study of ethics not with rationalist foundations, but by describing what ethical, virtuous people do. Nonfoundational realism at its best. Modern ethics, on the other hand, establishes premises on which elaborate ethical structures are built only to fall a generation later. (As happened when Eichmann articulately discussed Kantian ethics while on trial for Nazi atrocities.) The books of the Bible are written by some of the wisest men ever, and will never be exhausted of their complex insights into the reality of the human condition and man’s relationship with God. Willard reads the Bible in this way. Another such reader is Leon Kass, who brings out remarkable insights from Genesis in his The Genesis of Wisdom. Wise leaders, whether clergy or lay people, will immerse themselves in such books of wisdom so that they can become wise, and will lead others through their words and actions into better understandings of reality, and into greater coherence between their actions and their views of reality. When wisdom is lost, however, leadership and discipleship lose their purpose.
In future posts in this series, I will be discussing the foundationalist turn in modern thought, Husserl’s project, the differences between the two primary schools of Husserl studies, consequences for Scripture, consequences for leadership, and other topics that will no doubt arise from the wise clarifications and objections of readers.