Friday, December 07, 2007

East and West: Differences in metaphysical method

Elliot Bougis asks a good question about what a Thomist is to make of the Palamite idea of the beatific vision.

I think Elliot has diagnosed the problem correctly:
The confusion, I think, in the debate, is to hear that, in Thomism, the intellect “becomes” what it perceives and then to assume that because we shall perceive God in essentia, we shall become divine essentially. Rather, while our intellect does “become” divine by apprehending the divine essence, we still remain human by virtue of only our will being perpetually drawn to God.

That's essentially an Aristotelian theory of knowledge, glossed with the Thomist correction of being in terms of act and potency. Michael Sullivan, Lee Faber, and I have been talking through some of the implications here.

I've been reconsidering some books that I have read about Cappadocian epistemology, particularly Nonna Verna Harrison's Grace and Human Freedom According to Gregory of Nyssa, Laird's The Grasp of Faith, and Douglass's Theology of the Gap. It's become apparent to me that the Cappadocians are operating under the Plotinian theory of knowledge and infinity and that they have nothing like the Thomist metaphysics in view. There's nothing intrinsically wrong with that, although I happen to think that Thomas's metaphysics is superior as an explanatory paradigm, but regardless, I think their concept of apophaticism is not absolute. Rather, it is peculiar to the epistemology in which they and their opponents (particularly Eunomius) were operating. ISTM that St. Thomas was talking in terms of metaphysical concepts that simply weren't in view at all for the Cappadocians. And IMHO that is exactly how a Thomist ought to see them, as an explanation offered by someone who did not have the Thomist metaphysics in view, to which the Thomist view can add clarification and explanation.

In my view, the entire Thomist metaphysical theory, including epistemology, was simply unknown at the time. Thomas's metaphysics (or indeed any Scholastic metaphysics, including Bonaventure, Scotus, and Suarez) was simply nothing like Plotinus's or Aristotle's, apart from using the same words. But I would say that the path to this innovation had begun far earlier. Even Augustine had already set the stage regarding the inadequacies of the philosophical concepts with which he was dealing, although he never developed a rigorous metaphysics to replace them.

In that regard, ISTM that the whole West (e.g., Ambrose, Hilary, Simplicianus, Jerome) followed Origen in method but not conclusions, examining the applicability of philosophical concepts to Christianity but also being willing to admit where the concepts were inadequate. If they reached a wrong dogmatic conclusion, rather than discarding the method entirely, the West was content to point out that they had made an error or taken some particular idea too far. In other words, if some philosophical approach reached a wrong conclusion, they were content to discard the approach. Because they weren't married to this one notion of philosophical knowledge, they could be eclectic in philosophy. That versatility, perhaps best exemplified by Augustine, characterized Western Christian thought and (I would argue) Western scientific thought all the way to the present day.

What that enabled theologically was exposition of dogma. The theological conclusions had authority, so the Fathers were authorities regarding their conclusions, but like Aristotle with Plato, their philosophical explanations could be criticized and improved, opening the possibility of development. Hence, you could have disputations with authorities; even respected authorities were not immune to dialectical criticism. There was a Glossa Ordinaria; there were commentaries on the Sentences. In the case of theological authorities (like Scripture or the Pope), there was still utility in theological method in terms of conceptual improvement of one's own understanding, effectively giving more clarity or effect to the theological authority. (See my comment here.) In short, there was a gap between how something was examined qua theological authority and how it was examined qua philosophical authority, and the philosophical understanding was always revisable even if the fact of the dogmatic authority was not, much like the way one can revise a scientific explanation without changing the fact of the experimental data. Note that this is a separate issue from the formality of dogmatic authority addressed by the canonists; the interaction (and confusion) of those concepts is a whole 'nother can of worms.

In the Byzantine mindset, by contrast, theological authorities were theological authorities precisely because their theological conclusions were immune to dialectic. That was related to the entire concept of what knowledge of God meant, as I outlined above. The Thomist account of knowledge implicitly included a notion of potency so that one could have real knowledge even without identity with the mode of existence of the things known. But in the Byzantine theory, the knowledge of God pertained to the mode of the object, and the object was unknowable by its nature. Thus, the very type of understanding that was said to have theological authority was timeless, unchangeable, immune to dialectic. It was the same eternal experience of all Saints throughout time. On that concept of authority, the notion of applying philosophical knowledge to God was simply a contradiction or an impossibility.

This is why Byzantine philosophy simply stagnated. Neoplatonism was a dead end without some impulse from the theological side to expand its explanatory concepts, because it couldn't locate the cases that presented problems. But the theological side was saying that the concepts simply could not be expanded to describe God and that philosophical methods could only be used as tools against heretics in reductio ad absurdam of their commitments to that method. Effectively, the Eunomian controversy killed the possibility that philosophy could be used to illuminate theological concepts, leaving the only way to resolve disputes being the sheer authority of the common experience shared by the saints. Personally, I see know reason why the East, cognizant of the conceptual development, would cling to an outdated notion of philosophical theology from a philosophical system that turned out dead.

I don't think that the East lacks anything for experience of God, but I think that the East is woefully inadequate in their intellectual understanding of this experience. A dogmatic adherence to an outdated metaphysics strikes me as exactly the opposite of what the Cappadocians were counseling. They were condemning philosophy as Eunomius was using it, but I seriously doubt they would have done the same if they had the Thomist metaphysics explained to them. But the East has never been able to get out of this intellectual rut, and it's now to the point that the West understands what the East means to say better than the East knows itself (at least if Florence is any indication). And it's been wedded to ecclesiology, so you have the Orthodox Church identified with a senseless concept of itself based on a metaphysical system that is about a thousand years out of date. That's a bit brutal, but like I said, ecumenism really isn't my area. My Scholasticism beats your Neoplatonism every day and twice on Sundays, and no one can reasonably say that they are the same thing. Frankly, if you are expecting this stuff to ever make sense to you from a Thomist perspective, I hope you are not holding your breath.

That being said, I think Zubiri's sentient intelligence holds out hope for rehabilitating the Cappadocian account (and perhaps even reconciling the two sides). The "notes" in Zubiri and the way they reveal the formality and substantivity of the thing de suyo and their relation to the essence are actually close to the way energeiai reveal the hypokeimenon in the Cappadocians. You'd still have to discard some of the entitative notions, but I think it could ultimately provide a coherent metaphysical underpinning for the position. And it would not be critical of the Western position any more than Zubiri is critical of certain notions of classical metaphysics (quite frankly, I think that St. Thomas, correctly interpreted, was similarly critical, and I suspect this is why Thomist Frederick Wilhelmsen complimented Zubiri's metaphysical understanding). But the Orthodox would have to be willing to work on the matter, and I see few signs of that development.

Until that happy day, I think we lump the anti-dialectical polemic along with sola scriptura and intelligent design as pure intuitions that have no real application as a description of reality. It's fine if you believe them, but I don't think they actually have any real meaning, and I haven't seen any evidence that they will ever be given a real meaning. JMHO.


At 12:29 AM, Blogger Arturo Vasquez said...

For me, what most separates the East and West in terms of theology can be taken from this quote from Marie-Dominique Chenu:

"The statues of Reims would have been out of place in the tympanum at Vezelay, no less than the masters would have been in monastic cloisters. But the two Christendoms of feudal Vezelay and of urban Reims, each with its own understanding of faith and mode of expression, formed part of a single church."

That is, the "scholastic" approach and the "monastic i.e. symbolic" approaches to theology both have their places in the Church. I guess I would not place the genius of the Catholic Church at the foot of "development", but rather in the polyphony of voices within Catholic discourse. Some voices were not rejected so that others would be accepted, but rather all had to find their part in the harmony of how Catholics have come to believe.

The problem with the Orthodox Church is that some of those voices were either never developed or was killed off by Turkish or Czarist swords. There were serious intellectuals in Byzantium who were studying the scholastic approach (let us remember that St. Thomas was translated into Greek). Byzantine Christianity was still in dynamic formation when the walls of Constantinople fell in 1453. But from that time on, it for the most part froze into the monastic hegemony that we all know and love. The problem, as some point out, may have started sooner, but it got much worse after the fall of the New Rome.

Even after this time, however, there were attempts to "scholasticize" Orthodoxy in many places. Peter Mogila in Kiev used scholasic theology in educating the clergy in eighteenth century Kiev. Latin was the language of seminaries in Russia, and Orthdox theologians today would condemn virtually all the books on Orthodox dogmatic theology written before the 1950's as being too "Latinized". (Some refer to it as the "Western captivity" of the Orthodox mind.)

The bottom line is that what passes for theology in most parts of the Orthodox world now is a very particular party line that has won the day FOR NOW. Fifty years ago, most Orthodox clergy couldn't tell you anything about St. Gregory Palamas other than his feast day was celebrated on the second Sunday of Lent. And if you press them, they will admit that one can be Orthodox and not be a Palamite, just as one can be Orthodox and conceivably not believe in the sinlessness of the Virgin or her assumption into Heaven. (And I have heard these things from the mouth of Orthodox monks from ultra-conservative jurisdictions). And in that lack of authority lies the problem, but that would just open another can of worms.

At 1:06 AM, Blogger the Cogitator said...

Jonathan, I think if Groucho Marx had written this post he would have said, "Byzantine theology? It's not called byzantine for nothing, you know." Wandering around in the same confines, as in a maze, gives the illusion of having covered a great distance; without progressive expansion of theological thought, theology will be just like an inner maze. You can punch only so many holes in the same confined space to make renovations over time before the house itself begins looking like Swiss cheese and it's left sagging in on itself. I think the reason Lossky, Bulgakov, Schmemann, Florovsky, Meyendorff, Yannaras, Staniloaue, et al., have made such a splash all these years is because at last from the East there came a surge of fresh interaction with thought not older than a hundred or fifty years. The East really had something to say to the world because for once it was drawing on things the world was actually talking about. Much the same splash-effect goes for a book like A. Nesteruk's "Light from the East", a book I think you would like. "Holy Archimadnrite, Batman, the Eastern Orthodox are trying to reason about science! Such progress!"

To this I will add a quote I got at Energetic, care of Rob G., by Fr. P. Reardon:

“What almost always passes for ‘Orthodox theology’ among English-speaking Orthodox these days is actually just a branch of the larger Orthodox picture. Indeed, it tends sometimes to be rather sectarian.

The Orthodox Church is an ancient castle, as it were, of which only two or three rooms have been much in use since about 1920. These two or three rooms were furnished by the Russian émigrés in Paris between the two World Wars. This furniture is heavily neo-Palamite and anti-Scholastic. It relies heavily on the Cappadocians, Maximus, and Gregory Palamas (who are good folks, or course). Anything that does not fit comfortably into that model is dismissed as “Western” and even non-Orthodox.

Consequently, one will look in vain in that theology for any significant contribution from the Alexandrians, chiefly Cyril, and that major Antiochian, Chrysostom. When these are quoted, it is usually some incidental point on which they can afford to be quoted.

Now I submit that any ‘Orthodox’ theology that has so little use for the two major figures from Antioch and Alexandria is giving something less than the whole picture.

Likewise, this popular neo-Palamite brand of Orthodoxy, though it quotes Damascene when it is convenient, never really engages Damascene’s manifestly ‘Scholastic’ approach to theology.

Much less does it have any use for the other early Scholastic theologians, such as Theodore the Studite and Euthymus Zygabenus. There is no recognition that Scholasticism was born in the East, not the West, and that only the rise of the Turk kept it from flourishing in the East.

There is also no explicit recognition that the defining pattern of Orthodox Christology was formulated in the West before Chalcedon. Pope Leo’s distinctions are already very clear in Augustine decades before Chalcedon. Yet, Orthodox treatises on the history of Christology regularly ignore Augustine.

Augustine tends to be classified as a ‘Scholastic,’ which he most certainly was not.

But Western and Scholastic are bad words with these folks.

In fact, however, Augustine and the Scholastics represent only other rooms in the larger castle.

For this reason I urge you, as you can, to read in the Orthodox sources that tend to get skipped in what currently passes for ‘Orthodoxy.’ For my part, I believe the Russian émigré theology from Paris, which seems profoundly reactionary and anti-Western, is an inadequate instrument for the evangelization of this country and the world. I say this while gladly recognizing my own debt to Russian émigré theology.”

At 7:43 AM, Blogger the Cogitator said...

I would ask Jonathan, and anyone else here interested, to have a look at the comments I left in the "Killing Your Father" thread at Energetic, mostly to referee how my Thomistic analysis is going or should go.


Many thanks,

At 9:52 AM, Blogger CrimsonCatholic said...

Just to be clear, the whole reason I am emphasizing the metaphysical angle is that the West absolutely REFUSES to subordinate the force of reality to any philosophical approach. There are no sacred philosophical cows in Western theology, and ironically, the Eastern rejection of dialectic is simply dogmatic adherence to a philosophical paradigm. That's the reason the West can be polyphonic; the experential description is prior to the philosophical analysis. The Byzantine view has committed to a certain philosophical view of existence, and for some Orthodox, that means no one else gets to talk.

I think your estimation of the situation in the comments is correct. It's not clear to be how you've been answered at any point.

At 9:53 AM, Blogger CrimsonCatholic said...

typo: should be "to me," not "to be." I'm apparently thinking of ontology and not personalism.

At 6:02 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I guess I would not place the genius of the Catholic Church at the foot of "development", but rather in the polyphony of voices within Catholic discourse.


"polyphony." Le mot juste!


At 9:23 PM, Blogger Drew said...

I think the crux of the issue lies in the Byzantine non-development of epistemology, viz., how the intellect is in potency to its possible "real-world" objects of knowledge, and how the notion that God is absolutely unknowable prevented the philosophical refinement of certain theological dogmas and doctrines that were elaborated in the fourth through sixth centuries. I understand what didn't happen, nevertheless I remain confused as to why it didn't happen. The Byzantines were in a far better position that the West was until the Renaissance to understand and further develop the philosophy of Plato, Aristotle, Seneca, Lucretius, Plotinus, Porphyry, Galen, and so on, and yet they never were able to move past the continual copying of the text in monasteries where such learning was often held to be suspect. Thanks to the works of the Russian emigres, Orthodoxy today has a problem: false conservatism. I am an Orthodox who recognizes this, and I try very much to deal these subjects on my own blog. Perhaps you should consider reading it...I think you will find it interesting.



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