God and the Other: Review Symposium (Part Three) – Nick Trakakis

 “God and the Other” Symposium: Part 3 – Trakakis

By Nick Trakakis
Originally published at The Church and Postmodernism on Thursday, August 4, 2011 ·

This final engagement with J. Aaron Simmons’ God and the Other: Ethics and Politics After the Theological Turn is by N.N. Trakakis, Research Fellow in Philosophy at Australian Catholic University and the author of The End of Philosophy of Religion.

Allow me to begin with a point about metaphilosophy. A previous reviewer (Christina Smerick) expressed the concern that, in Simmons’ book, “Continental philosophy is being asked to speak the language of analytic philosophy in order to be considered ‘legitimate’.” I’ll let Simmons fight his own battles, though I do wish to say that the kind of interplay and interaction (if not transgression) that is involved in the attempt to cross constantly back-and-forth between the Continental and analytic traditions of philosophy need not fall prey to the charge that in such an exchange one of these traditions will inevitably be prioritised, if not also absolutised. This, alas, has often been the result, but it is usually due to a poor or violent reading of the other tradition (the tradition that one dislikes and seeks to debunk). In a more open and friendly spirit, it is more likely that the language of both traditions is altered, even somewhat disfigured and radically transformed, so as to produce possibilities for thinking that were not available or apparent previously.

Simmons’ engagement with analytic philosophy is therefore to be welcomed – not only because of the engagement itself (though, in the current institutional climate, this on its own is commendable), but also and more importantly because this is achieved in a conciliatory and non-polemical manner. Although his philosophical background and training are mostly Continental (or postmodern), Simmons is always ready to draw insights and arguments, as well as modes of reasoning and writing (he is, for example, refreshingly clear and precise) from analytic sources – though I would have liked this kind of ‘resourcefulness’ to have been performed more frequently in the book.

A further positive feature of Simmons’ book, perhaps also due in some way to its engagement with analytic philosophy, is the refusal to dismiss or marginalise the propositional and doctrinal dimensions of religious faith in favour of the personal and existential aspects of religion, something that many Continental philosophers of religion (especially those who espouse ‘religion without religion’) are wont to do. This is evident in Simmons’ excellent discussion of Wittgenstein and Kierkegaard (in ch. 9), where Simmons refuses to follow Wittgenstein entirely in the view that, “The historical accounts in the Gospels might, historically speaking, be demonstrably false and yet belief would lose nothing by this” (from Wittgenstein, Culture and Value, quoted on p.200). There is much of religious value in Wittgenstein – I particularly liked the emphasis Simmons placed on Wittgenstein’s notion of the religious life as a struggle – but this need not blind us to Wittgenstein’s occasional blunders, excused in part by his ignorance of the history of Christian theology.

That said, in what follows I wish to look at Simmons’ understanding of the relationship between philosophy and theology, and the implications this has for apologetics. My focus, therefore, will be on ch. 7 of Simmons’ book, where he identifies three ways of differentiating theology from philosophy (or philosophy in the mode of phenomenology). Firstly, there is the ‘separatist’ strategy, advocated by Janicaud, where phenomenology (and perhaps philosophy in general) is deemed to be theologically neutral and thus separate from theology. Secondly, there is the ‘reconstructivist’ strategy, where theology is first reconstructed by emptying it of any doctrinal commitment to a determinate faith, and is then (only then) permitted to enter the philosophical fray. (This is the general procedure followed by Derrida and the New Phenomenologists.) Thirdly, and this is Simmons’ via media, we have ‘reconstructive separatism’. On this view, theology and philosophy remain separate, insofar as each has distinct presuppositions and sources of authority: “Theology, I propose, begins with the authority of divine revelation, canonical texts, and/or ecclesial frameworks; phenomenology begins with the openness to investigate appearance in whatever form, or lack of form, appearance takes.” (pp.162-63) But despite this separateness, a doctrinal interplay between the disciplines is encouraged, so that (for example) the doctrinal content of Christian theology may inform one’s (postmodern, or phenomenological) philosophy, thus giving rise to “the possibility of a postmodern Christianity, a postmodern Judaism, or a postmodern Islam, rather than merely some ‘religion without religion’.” (p.164)

As Simmons is aware (since we have been privately discussing this matter), I don’t think this gets the relationship between philosophy and theology entirely right, though I admit that it is an improvement on the position of the New Phenomenologists. I won’t go into the details here, but I will say that my view is more in line with Plantinga’s conception of ‘Christian philosophy’ and the Radical Orthodox rejection of any secular or autonomous philosophy. My concern here, however, is with the consequences of Simmons’ reconstructive separatism for apologetics.

Simmons holds that his preferred way of relating phenomenology to theology “leaves room for the possibility of a postmodern apologetics,” where this means that “one can give rational defenses of determinate religious belief and practice.” (p.164) This, unfortunately, comes at the very end of ch. 7, and so he hasn’t given himself much space to develop this promising idea. But from what he does say it is clear that such rational defenses would not aspire to the ideals of ‘classical apologetics’, the kind of apologetic programs formed within the Enlightenment framework and which seek objectivity, certainty, universality, and neutrality. Simmons briefly alludes to some possible examples of postmodern apologetics, including arguments showing that the God of the Bible is not the onto-theological God of metaphysics, and Kierkegaard’s ‘attack’ on Christendom. In an as-yet unpublished paper (“Apologetics After Objectivity”, which Simmons kindly made available to me) he develops the notion of a postmodern apologetics much further, showing how one could accept postmodern philosophy (and thereby reject the possibility of objectivity, certainty, etc.) while also engaging in a form of apologetics that aims to provide a defense of the specific truth-claims of Christianity. (This will be, following John G. Stackhouse Jr. and David K. Clark, a ‘humble’ and ‘dialogical’ apologetics.)

All this is, I believe, highly commendable, and indeed something that George Mavrodes and Alvin Plantinga, amongst many other analytic philosophers of religion, have been saying for quite some time. The problem, however, is that it doesn’t do much to resolve the tension between New Phenomenology and theology. To see this, consider the question: How could the New Phenomenology, when brought into closer relation with theology (as recommended by Simmons’ reconstructivist proposal), help to provide a defence, particularly a robust defence, of the central truths of Christianity? It seems, at least on the face of it, that the Christian worldview cannot be presented (or defended) by the phenomenologist as anything more than a formal possibility, never as the ultimate truth, for to do so would break the cardinal phenomenological tenet of epochē, the suspension of any claim as to what (really) exists. I do not, of course, wish to downplay the importance of defending or establishing the internal coherence and hence the (logical or metaphysical) possibility of the truth of Christianity – particularly within contexts or communities where belief in God has been resolutely dismissed, as happened in the post-war positivist era. (Plantinga’s rebuttal of verificationism and his famed ‘free will defence’ thus performed an invaluable service in warding off once-popular philosophical ploys against theism.) The problem is that we (and I suspect this includes Simmons) would like apologetics to have the capacity to go further than merely defending Christianity from attack (so-called ‘negative apologetics’) to offering reasons (albeit reasons that are context-sensitive, person-relative, fallible, etc.) in support of the truth of Christianity. It is difficult to see how New Phenomenology can be stretched to allow for such ‘positive apologetics’ while remaining within the phenomenological fold.

There may, however, be a way out. If the history of phenomenology, from Husserl to the new crop of phenomenologists, is any indication, the very contours and limits of phenomenology are (and always have been) up for grabs. Perhaps apart from a generic or vague ‘return to things themselves’ with a strong appreciation for subjective or first-person experience, all else – including therein the eidetic reduction and the method of epochē – is negotiable and can be discarded. (Consider, in this context, Edith Stein’s rejection of the transcendental reduction in favour of a realist phenomenology.) If this route is followed, then perhaps phenomenologists can finally fulfill Marion’s dictum: “It is forbidden to forbid!” Phenomenologists, like other philosophers, will then be free to allow their particular faith-commitments full reign to shape and influence their philosophy, rather than deceptively camouflaging their words with a studied neutrality. After Marion, this may be taken as the ‘fourth reduction’ – only this time we are unapologetically ‘reduced to’ (in the sense of being led back to) the only horizon capable of making sense of and thus truly disclosing anything: God.

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