Same God?

Hang on here. I purposefully meander a bit today, which is a fitting way of sharing a little epiphany I had while reading un-Christmassy stuff (Thomas S. Kuhn and Ian Hacking, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions: 50th Anniversary Edition) on Christmas Eve.

Do we, however, really need to describe what separates Galileo from Aristotle, or Lavoisier from Priestley, as a transformation of vision? Did these men really see different things when looking at the same sorts of objects? Is there any legitimate sense in which we can say that they pursued their research in different worlds? Those questions can no longer be postponed, for there is obviously another and far more usual way to describe all of the historical examples outlined above. Many readers will surely want to say that what changes with a paradigm is only the scientist’s interpretation of observations that themselves are fixed once and for all by the nature of the environment and of the perceptual apparatus. On this view, Priestley and Lavoisier both saw oxygen, but they interpreted their observations differently; Aristotle and Galileo both saw pendulums, but they differed in their interpretations of what they both had seen.

(Page 120, Kindle edition)

These sorts of questions could be extended to other areas, which was why Stanley Fish so insistently schooled Nico Perrino, on one So to Speak podcast:

[Stanley]: Do you believe in the distinction between faith on the one hand and reason or empirical investigation on the other?

Nico: Yes.

Stanley: Yes, I thought you would.

Nico: Of course, I do. So, I’ve fallen into your trap.

Stanley: Because I don’t. I taught a course yesterday on Inherit the Wind. It’s a movie about the Scopes Trial in the early part of the 20th century.

Nico: Yeah, Scopes Trial.

Stanley: That’s a movie produced and directed by Stanley Kramer who is a stalwart First Amendment liberal. The entire dramatic rhetoric of the movie depends on the distinction between faith on the one hand and reason, especially reason associated with scientific experiments, on the other hand. That distinction doesn’t hold up for a second. That distinction doesn’t hold up. What’s you’re dealing with in science as opposed to let’s say orthodox Christianity or something else are two different faiths.

Two different kinds of faiths undergirded by radically opposed assumptions and presuppositions. But it’s presupposition and assumptions which are generating the evidence and facts on both sides. Again, you have – I can tell and say this with all the generosity – you are deeply mired in the basic assumptions and presuppositions of classical liberalism. Anything else that is brought to you, anything that is brought to you by some kind of retrograde sinner like me sounds outlandish and obviously perverse.

Nico: No, not necessarily. Because otherwise, I wouldn’t be having this conversation with you.

Stanley: Good point.

Nico: But, you know, we’re at the corner of what? 5th and 12th Avenue. Are you telling me it’s not a fact that we’re at the corner of 5th and 12th Avenue?

Stanley: Oh, come on. Come on. Look, have you ever read The Structure of Scientific Revolution?

Nico: I have not.

Stanley: Okay. Do you know what it is?

Nico: No.

Stanley: Okay. It’s a book that is probably the most influential book in the social sciences and humanities for the past 75 years. That’s not an understatement. That is not an overstatement. Kuhn, his project, is the history of science as his title suggests. What he does is challenge the picture that I’ve already referred to where he says that science is not an activity in which one generation because of using its powers of observation and experiment adds to the details of the description of nature that was begun by previous generations.

What he’s saying is that scientific knowledge is not cumulative in the way that the usual picture of science suggests. Instead, scientific knowledge, that is the establishment of scientific fact, depends on what he calls paradigms. What’s a paradigm? A paradigm is the set of in place assumptions and authorized methodologies that govern and are in fact the content of scientific investigation at any moment. Paradigms rather than any direct confrontation between the observer and the world. Paradigms are what produces evidence and interpretations.

Finally, interpretations that are persuasive and successful for a while until that paradigm, for reasons that he details, is dislodged by another. When that happens, when the paradigm within which scientific observers work Kuhn says changes. One might say without exaggeration that without the world in which the scientific practitioner works has itself changed.

Nico: See, I don’t buy it though because there are things that scientist do maybe through this paradigm that produce a tangible result that only come as a result of. Changing the paradigm won’t change the result.

Stanley: Tangible result is itself along with other talismanic phrases like that – tangible result will be recognized as one depending on what pragmatic point of view you are situated. What Kuhn would say, he’s not the only one and I’m not the only one, is that any conclusion that you might reach and be confident in is not supported by some correspondents between your methodological, descriptive protocol and the world. Rather it’s produced by the paradigm within which you are ensconced and of which you are in some sense an extension.

I really urge to read this book because he considers – he’s not debunking science. He’s not debunking scientific achievement. He’s just giving a different picture of it which challenges what he thinks of as the over simplified picture, again, of a world out there waiting to be correctly described. We, as rational observers, having the task to describe it.

Having now read a bit more than half of Kuhn, I understand what Stanley was saying, and I’m less inclined to agree with with Nico.

Anyway, one extension of the “paradigm” (or “gestalt,” as Kuhn so often has it) is the continually vexed question of “whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God,” which I have visited several times in the past (here, here, and even here in passing).

My paradigm, which led me to say “of course they do“ is monotheism strictly and literally speaking: There is only one God, howsoever He may be misunderstood. Those who say they do not worship the same God strike me as tacitly embracing henotheism, usually with some vehement tribal pride thrown in about the superiority of our God.

But in fairness, the paradigm of the “different God” folks is perhaps doctrine, and “common parlance” rather than strict and literal monotheism. A sufficiently different understanding of God (as the Islamic understanding differs from the orthodox Christian) is, figuratively, “another God,” much as scientists after a gestalt shift are figuratively in “a different world,” according to Kuhn (and Fish?).

Further, my paradigm is apparently flexible. I sometimes ruminate on how the “loving God” I met in bedtime Bible stories as a child, and in childhood Sunday School, got displaced by an “angry God,” prickly, even furious, at how our screwups besmirch His dignity, as if He were a feudal lord. They do indeed feel like different Gods. (I found the loving God again, once and for all, in Orthodox Christianity, but that story is too tangential today.)

Likewise, a “progressive Christian” profession that Matthew 25 is the “heart of the Gospel” arises from a different hermeneutic than mine and, I suspect, is a convenient way of making Christ’s incarnate deity an optional doctrine and doing away with “the scandal of the Cross.” In their paradigm/gestalt, Matthew 25 being the heart of the Gospel is almost axiomatic, and the stupendous paradox we celebrated yesterday is at best tangential, likelier credulous or even incomprehensible. They and I are divided by our nominally common (“Christian”) faith. (It also makes Christian sexual morality, which rivals the Cross for scandal-giving these days, optional.)

And then there are the Jews. I and they, too, worship different Gods if you want to be very figurative about it, though their non-Trinitarian God is pre-Christian rather than anti-Christian. I wonder, though, how many of the “Muslims-worship-a-different-God” folks even think about the Jews when blasting the Muslims?

So what? So can we, on this second day of Christmas (indeed, on all days) be less hasty with expressions that needlessly divide us with intimations that The Other believes as he believes because he’s pure evil rather than out of a very different, good faith, perspective?

That doesn’t mean we all unequivocally worship the same God, for God’s sake, but might our divisions can produce yearning instead of angry denunciations?

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Sailing on the sea of this present life, I think of the ocean of my many offenses; and not having a pilot for my thoughts, I call to Thee with the cry of Peter, save me, O Christ! Save me, O God! For Thou art the lover of mankind.

(From A Psalter for Prayer)

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Nominally Saved

Reading a three-part Robin Phillips series on the question “Was Calvin a Nominalist?“, I came away from Part I with some reminders why I have not returned to Calvinism.

I suspect I never was a Nominalist, and at a subliminal level my Realism (for which I lacked a proper name) would have made Orthodoxy compelling eventually, had other things not caught my attention first.

All emphasis and hyperlinks are in the original; bracketed comments are mine.

 Virtue flows out of the bedrock structure of reality, namely God’s perfect nature which finds expression in a teleologically-ordered universe … God does not simply decide what is good [Nominalism], but recognizes what man needs to fulfill his nature and flourish. Hans Boersma explains about this in his excellent book Heavenly Participation,

“For Aquinas, we might say, divine decisions had always been in line with eternal truth [Realism]. For example, when God condemned theft or adultery, this was not an arbitrary divine decision, but it was in line with the truth of divine rationality. Or, to use another example, when God rewarded almsgiving, this was not because he arbitrarily decided that almsgiving was a commendable practice, but because it was in line with the very truth of God’s character.”

Given the congruence between the will of God and the eternal nature of things [Realism], it is possible to say that the virtuous life is a return to reality since it is to embrace what is most fitting according to the primal nature of things …

One scholar who has argued for the influence of Nominalism on the magisterial reformation is Hans Boersma … In his 2011 book Heavenly Participation, Boersma argued that in so far as the Protestant reformers urged that the relationship between the divine and the human is fundamentally defined in forensic or “nominal” categories, and only secondarily in participatory or ontological terms, they colluded with the general nominalist drift of the time. Here’s what Boersma writes,

“The nominalist impact on Lutheranism and Calvinism came to the fore particularly in the tendency to interpret the divine-human relationship in external or nominal – rather than in participatory or real – terms. The Reformation teaching on justification by faith alone (sola fide) exemplified a great deal of continuity with the nominalist tradition. This continuity centered on the imputation of Christ’s righteousness. The imputation—according to the Reformers, a forensic declaration—was external or nominal in nature. Luther’s notion that the believer was at the same time righteous and sinner (simul iustus et peccator) gave strong evidence of the nominal character of salvation. While believers were righteous in Christ, they remained sinners in themselves. One can well understand why Luther’s detractors asked this question: But doesn’t the grace of God change believers internally? When Luther likened the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to Boaz’s cloak covering Ruth and to a mother hen’s wings covering her chicks, these external metaphors did little to lessen the anxieties of his Catholic opponents. To be sure, Luther did know about the need for good works, and, especially later, he clearly confronted the reckless antinomianism of fellow Lutherans such as Johann Agricola. Nonetheless, it is fair to ask whether Luther’s own articulations of justification perhaps gave occasion for some of his followers to express their aberrant views. Calvin, much like Luther, was intent on keeping justification separate from human works. In order to do this, he, too, maintained that justification was a nominal or external judicial declaration rather than an internal transformation worked by the Holy Spirit. The underlying pattern of the Reformation doctrine, with its strong focus on imputation, would not have been possible without the nominalist developments of the late Middle Ages.” (Boersma, Heavenly Participation, 92–93.)

Boersma is suggesting that Protestant theology followed the tradition of late medieval Nominalism in seeing moral order having an extrinsic relation to nature, with the raw command of a law-giver imposing meaning from outside. Although this is clearly not the full picture of reformation theology, nevertheless we can still cautiously state that where this particular emphasis was dominant, it worked to shift the focus away from a teologically-oriented universe to one in which the connecting link in the ecosystem of meaning was the raw command of God … God’s declarations about a person’s spiritual state bears no organic relationship to the person’s actual spiritual state under the wedge some of the reformers drew between grace and nature. This is why the phrase “as if” was so important in the network of legal fictions drawn up by the Protestant reformers. For example, John Calvin stated in his Institutes that “we simply interpret justification, as the acceptance with which God receives us into his favor as if we were righteous; and we say that this justification consists in the forgiveness of sins and the imputation of the righteousness of Christ.” Elsewhere Calvin wrote that God justifies us “as if innocence were proved.” Speaking of Calvin’s doctrine, R.C. Sproul explained that

“…justification has to do with a legal or judicial matter involving some type of declaration. We can reduce its meaning to the concept of legal declaration…. When the Reformers spoke of forensic justification, they meant a legal declaration made by God that was based on the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to the believer, not on Christ’s righteousness inherent in the believer.” [Faith Alone, p. 102]

The important thing for the reformers was first and foremost a change in status, not the healing of our nature … Tom Seraphim Hamilton’s comments about the Eastern Orthodox rejection of imputed righteousness are … relevant. Hamilton writes that

“For Orthodox Christians, imputed righteousness simply makes no sense. The problem isn’t that God is just unable to stand the presence of sin, and when He pretends we are righteous that is fixed. The problem is that we are unable to stand the presence and Glory of God, and this is fixed when God renews us after His own Image and lifts us to participation in His Glory. In an Orthodox mindset, God could impute righteousness all He wants, but this would be completely useless, because the problem has never been legal. The problem is that we are sick, and we need medication. Marking me as ‘well’ doesn’t make me well.’”

Saint John Chrysostom believed that this realist understanding of virtue gives men and women the tools they need for reframing their suffering. In his “Treatise to Prove That No One Can Harm the Man Who Does Not Injure Himself” Chrysostom discussed the prevailing notion that we are harmed by misfortune … Using penetrating logic, Chrysostom argues that we could only assert that such things actually injure a person if such misfortunes prevent the person from achieving “virtue”, which he defines as the goal/end/telos appropriate to our nature … Chrysostom argues, that we can only talk about misfortunes injuring a person if the misfortune prevents or retards the person from flourishing according to the virtue of human nature. As he says, “let us determine what is the virtue of man, and let us regard that alone as an injury, which is destructive to it.” Chrysostom’s next point is that since the virtue of man is to be united with Christ in true doctrine and uprightness of life, no amount of external affliction has the power to injure a person who does not injure himself:

“What then is the virtue of man? Not riches that you should fear poverty: nor health of body that you should dread sickness, nor the opinion of the public, that you should view an evil reputation with alarm, nor life simply for its own sake, that death should be terrible to you: nor liberty that you should avoid servitude: but carefulness in holding true doctrine, and rectitude in life….

“For since neither wealth nor freedom, nor life in our native land nor the other things which I have mentioned, but only right actions of the soul, constitute the virtue of man, naturally when the harm is directed against these things, human virtue itself is no wise harmed….

“For it is not stress of circumstances, nor variation of seasons, nor insults of men in power, nor intrigues besetting you like snow storms, nor a crowd of calamities, nor a promiscuous collection of all the ills to which mankind is subject, which can disturb even slightly the man who is brave, and temperate, and watchful…”

I included that Chrysostom quote as a sort of bookend: to emphasize the telos or virtue of humans.

Phillips, also a former Calvinist, charitably acknowledges that the Reformational idea of sanctification—which in theory follows (forensic, external) justification—does indeed involve making us well, does have ontological meaning. But, as I have put it, “salvation” these days in Protestanatism of the Reformed and Evangelical varieties typically consists of “justification” with nothing more (“this particular emphasis was dominant,” as Phillips puts it), nothing internal to the saved person, all external and forensic.

* * * * *

“No man hath a velvet cross.” (Samuel Rutherford, 17th century Scotland)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.

Where I glean stuff.


Paraphrasing Fr. Patrick Henry Reardon, nobody reads monk Peter Abelard’s theology today, though he was “the keenest thinker and boldest theologian of the 12th Century” and people flocked to him and, so to speak, threw money at him to teach them theology. We read him, if at all, for his love letters to Héloïse, with whom he had an affair.

Still today, one can style oneself a theologian and it will pass without objection — especially if one has an academic degree in the branch of philosophy that has co-opted that title, and even if one is an atheist (I leave it to them to reach modus vivendi with their mirrors in the morning).

That’s a caveat for any sincere Christian apt to be taken in by self-descriptions like “a public and political theologian.” Academic reputations are made by breaking new ground (e.g., in “theology,” clever speculation and inventing or refurbishing heresy). Public reputations are made by calculated provocations (for instance, “Catholic” historian Garry Wills arguing for abolition of the priesthood and demoting the eucharist; mercifully, he doesn’t claim to be a theologian).

That’s not just some renewed snarkiness toward an Orthodox man who has been getting his second 15 minutes of fame lately by reprise of his calculated provocation. I feel the same way when I hear Vigen Guroian or David Bentley Hart described as “theologians.” Maybe. Maybe not. I once heard Billy Graham described as a theologian, too.

However, Orthodoxy has privileged the meaning of the term given by Evagrius Ponticus when he wrote that “If you are a theologian, you will pray truly. And if you pray truly, you are a theologian.” (Treatise On Prayer, 61).

(OrthodoxWiki) Theology of the baser sort (the academic) is one of my besetting temptations, maybe because it’s far easier than true prayer.

* * * * *

“The remarks made in this essay do not represent scholarly research. They are intended as topical stimulations for conversation among intelligent and informed people.” (Gerhart Niemeyer)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.