In Joseph Owens’ essay in The Cambridge Companion to Aquinas, the author emphasizes that Aquinas (with Aristotle) roots human knowledge in objects in the world impinging on our senses. With a nice turn of phrase, Owens marks how this is rather different from the subjectivism that one finds in Descartes and, generally, in ‘postmodern’ sensibilities:
[T]he postmodern approach is bound by its own historical antecedents in a way that stretches as far back as Descartes. It cannot take seriously the approach from things in themselves. It is incapable of understanding how things in themselves may be epistemologically prior to thoughts and words. Still conditioned by the Cartesian asceticism of turning one’s back upon the immaturity of sense cognition and taking one’s ideas as the starting points for philosophical thinking, it finds incomprehensible the stand that the thing signified can be epistemologically prior to the sign (p. 56).
In Bavinck’s narrative of this (in RD vol. 1), one finds that our true sense perception of the world serving as the foundation of human knowledge is a staple in the history of catholic Christian theology and philosophical thinking. Intriguingly, on this reading, infatuation with idealism or linguistic constructivism in recent Christian thinkers enamored of (so-called) postmodern thought represents a spurning of the catholic (small ‘c’) resources and trajectory.
Any thoughts on any of this?
I’m in between two parts of a review of Merold Westphal’s introduction to philosophical hermeneutics and have been reflecting on the importance of approaching Scripture according to its peculiar nature and subject matter, whatever may be gleaned from a general theory of texts and textual interpretation. In keeping with those musings, I came across this comment from Irish Puritan James Ussher (1581-1656) in his defense of the clarity of Scripture:
Scripture is our Father’s Letter unto us, and his last Will to show us what Inheritance he leaveth us. But Friends write Letters, and Fathers their wills, plain (A Body of Divinity [Solid Ground Christian Books, 2007], p. 18).
Ussher gestures toward something that we would do well to remember in a time when we are keen to avoid the appearance of epistemic arrogance or crudeness, namely, that the Bible is a covenantal book originated and commandeered by someone who actually wants us to understand it and, indeed, as our Creator and Lord, is eminently capable of accomodating his speech to the human intellect. The subject matter, the divine authorship, and the redemptive, covenantal telos of Scripture compel an admission of its perspicuity, even in an era rather skeptical of human noetic prowess. To vie for the possibility of real textual understanding vis-a-vis the biblical texts is not to sink into “modernism” but to think theologically about Scripture and to keep in step with the emphases of classic Protestant bibliology.
We have batted around the continuities and discontinuities between contemporary evangelicalism (of the N. American and British varieties) and 20th century fundamentalism, and I am afraid we never get very far. Perhaps it’s the nature of this particular conversation, but I remain interested in the subject. Teaching in an institution of Christian higher education with historical ties to fundamentalist Christianity means the general tendencies are never far off. So I was intrigued to see a post by Geoffrey Holsclaw on the dynamic between recent postmodern revisions to Christianity and their relationship to the very fundamentalist forms of thought and commitments they try and overcome.
Holsclaw suggests that at least three forms of thought which claim to move beyond fundamentalism under the guise of postmodern re-alignments are simply inversions of fundamentalism all over again: inerrancy to pure errancy, biblical primitivism to rabbinic primitivism, and conservative anti-intellectualism to liberal anti-intellectualism. Read the entire post here, but let me highlight for discussion his comments on anti-intellectualism (he has the emergent church crowd in mind):
I’ve become more and more concerned at a creeping anti-intellectualism among some of the loudest voices who rest on rhetorical questions, anecdotal evidence, and communal experiences over philosophical and theological articulation and argument. This, I believe, follows from the previous inversions because your don’t have to really say anything or land anywhere because we are all merely in an endless conversation. Essentially, everything is a rhetorical display without any real substance. Continue reading