Circular Theologies

An argument Philip Kitcher makes in his new book strikes me as a strange combination of excess ambition and superlative naivety. He says, in effect, that science poses an insurmountable problem for Christianity in particular because of the doctrine of Atonement. Putting aside the difficulties posed by the so-called problem of evil, which is an issue falling under the rubric of theodicy, he asserts that the very role of evil in the Christian story of redemption is made wildly implausible by a science that posits an age of over 13 billion years for the universe. What role could evil and suffering have played in a universe where there was no life to suffer or to be at the receiving end of evil?

The argument is overly ambitious because, like most of the arguments one finds among the folk atheists hawking their wares these days it is put forward as an argument that will do such great damage to the cause of religion that the poor, benighted faithful will having nothing intelligent or persuasive to say against it, and certainly nothing that will have any effect on the scientifically minded. But it is remarkably naive for the very same reason. In fact, to think that this argument is any good at all, one must antecedently adopt a theological point of view, that is, one must have some sort of a view about what evil is, what its roll is supposed to be in the economy of salvation, and what Christians think is the role of God and Man in the whole picture. If one should take the further step of endorsing this argument, that is, if one should find this sort of argument persuasive, it can only be because one has adopted a theological perspective in which the objections make sense. And yet, most sophisticated Christian theologians would not find this argument the least bit troublesome, because they would not endorse any of the views required in order for this argument to go through. Granted, there are probably plenty of folk Christians out there who may find themselves wondering what sort of an answer, if any, could be given to this sort of argument, short of denying the validity of the scientific Weltanschauung to begin with. (It's really irritating to me just how many such folks there are out there, too, even in supposedly enlightened circles.)

This phenomenon is not new. We have already seen it in the form of the reductive explanation argument. This is the view that, since evolutionary biology sufficiently explains the origins of life, religion has thereby been proven false. Of course this does not follow at all unless one antecedently adopts a theological view that is incompatible with the truth of evolutionary theory. Some religious folks do, indeed, adopt such a view, but it is curious that virtually all folk atheists adopt the view. Well, actually, it's not all that strange, since by adopting it they prove their point. Very convenient. But again, the more sophisticated Christian theologians adopt no such view and, in fact, the truth of evolutionary theory is not the least bit incompatible with the truth of the Christian religion.

Of course, in both of these cases--the Kitcher argument and the reductive explanation argument--the folks do not really adopt the theological point of view as their own view, since they are not theists at all and hence, a fortiori, they are not Christians. Instead, it is a theological view that they project onto all Christians (if not all religious sentiment entirely). Where they came by this theological view is hard to say. Since they are mostly atheists, it seems fair to say that they didn't learn it at Sunday school, or from their parents, or in religious education classes. Probably they just made it up by reading other folk atheist literature and perhaps the evangelical tract here and there. When I was in college I knew students who would study for exams by getting the Cliff's Notes versions of the assigned materials, and this is about the level of sophistication we're getting from these folk atheists, so it seems pretty clear that they have no actual training in genuine Christian theology, and what little background they do have in it is used principally as a weapon to use against more sophisticated positions, so it is all a rather massively question-begging exercise from the get go.

Such is not the case with another form of circular theology, the form that is known among Christians as the sola Scriptura principle. I've already shown how this principle is incoherent, but its incoherence lies in its circularity. That is, you must already believe Scripture to be the only source of authoritative teaching in order to assert that it is. This begs the question against the orthodox view, of course, but question begging is not the sort of thing that fundamentalists generally shy away from. In this kind of case, the circular theologian adopts a theological perspective that he does endorse, and then uses it to prove the merits of his own theological stance and the disadvantages of others. It is every bit as question begging as Kitcher's argument against religions of atonement.

There is a final kind of case that has only recently come to my attention: the textual critical argument. This one is perhaps related to the sola Scriptura principle, but it is not quite identical to it. Like sola Scriptura it is employed by theists who do endorse the view, but it has to do with the text of the scriptures rather than the semantic content. It is often deployed by folks who already accept the sola Scritpura principle anyway but, as we shall see, this makes for rather strange bedfellows.

I can probably best address this argument by means of a couple of examples. The first is drawn from my new "Recovery Version" of the New Testament. The text of the oratio Dominicalis (I use the Latin for rhetorical effect: it irritates fundamentalists) in the Gospel of St. Matthew ends with the expression "but deliver us from evil" (alla rhusai hêmas apo tou ponêrou). If you've ever been at Mass with Protestants, however, you know that they don't usually stop there. The congregation will fall silent, except for one or two voices saying, usually loudly at first but quickly dying out into silence: "for thine is the...". That was how I learned that prayer, too, at my mother's knee, and even some Catholics add that doxology in their private devotions. There's nothing wrong with adding it, of course, but there is a view in some quarters that one is not actually adding anything, that is really how the prayer ends. The usual story one hears against this view is that the doxology was a part of the liturgical celebration that followed upon the public recitation of the prayer, and so the prayer and the doxology became confused and, at a time when manuscripts of the New Testament were still being copied out by hand in scriptoria some sleepy-eyed monk accidentally added it into the manuscript he was copying out. That's the usual story. If you're one of the folks who wants it to be part of the original prayer (I'm not so sure why one would care, but I suppose if one had learned it that way and didn't like the way Catholics said it and wanted some sort of evidence in favor of one's own practice, well...), the "Recovery Version" and other versions like it will come to your aid. The "Recover Version" prints the doxology right after the prayer and says in a foot note "This sentence is omitted in the earliest MSS."

As a general rule, it is fair to say that the mere fact that a MS is early is not necessarily a compelling reason to regard it as authoritative, so, at least on general principles, there is nothing all that wrong with adding this sentence, as long as there are in fact some MSS that support it. In this particular case, however, there are two reasons for omitting it, both compelling. One is that we actually have reason to believe that we know where the doxology actually came from: liturgical practice rather than Our Lord's own teaching. Second, while it is true that a few manuscripts contain parts of the doxology, none of them has it in its entirety and all of them are considerably late. So why stick it in there? Possibly because one likes it better that way, or perhaps one thinks one has arguments to support reading the text that way. Either way it's a judgment call that can be reasonably disputed. The difficulty is, folks who adopt circular arguments like these are ipso facto not being very reasonable. When I was teaching at Rutgers I attended a Bible study that was run by fundamentalists. They were a great bunch, and I thoroughly enjoyed my time with them, even--or perhaps especially--during discussions of the differences between fundamentalism and Catholicism. One of them subscribed both to the sola Scriptura principle and to the textual critical argument. He was a firm advocate--as I am myself--of the Authorized Version, but his reasons were rather different from mine. Whereas I like its English prose style and am willing to overlook its textual bizarreness, he wanted to claim that its text is the only accurate version of the New Testament. One of the other fundamentalists actually disagreed with him. This other fellow was a graduate student in classics, and knew all about the textual history of the New Testament, and he argued that the Authorized Version, as nice as it is, could never be considered an "accurate" text since it was based on inferior manuscripts. The first fellow claimed that, on the contrary, those allegedly inferior manuscripts were actually superior. Why? Because they were the ones the Authorized Version translated, and the Authorized Version is the best version. Further questions were directed to the fellow but he deferred to God's will in the matter, and that was that.

A second example is in order here, though strictly speaking I think this particular case can count as a full-fledged circularity in its own right. I'll call it "primitivism", because it's the view that the only "authentic" Christianity is the most genuinely "primitive", that is, it is the form of Christianity practiced by the Apostles themselves, the first (primus) Christians. This may sound rather like what Pope Pius XII called "archaeologism", but the view I have in mind is a predominantly fundamentalist one. Again, it is related to sola Scriptura because, hey, what better place to find out about "primitive" Christianity than in the New Testament? There are a couple of reasons to be wary here right from the start. The first is that the earliest New Testament document, St. Paul's letter to the Thessalonians, dates to A.D. 50, nearly 20 years after Our Lord's death. The Gospel accounts of Our Lord's life and teachings were not committed to writing until nearly 20 years later, sometime after the destruction of the Temple in A.D. 70. During the 20-40 years between the death of Our Lord and the beginning of the written record of the "primitive" Christian community, a lot of interesting developments may well have taken place. We know that there were rival visions of Christ's life and work, and of course the surviving accounts are the accounts of the victors in that rivalry. It seems rather hopelessly romantic to think that we can ever reconstruct what is usually intended by the term "primitive Christianity".

Suppose that we do, however. Suppose, if you like, that the practice described in the Acts of the Apostles (written down around the year 85, by the way, nearly two generations after the death of Our Lord) represents the "primitive" Church. In writing down these practices, St. Luke was merely acknowledging a state of affairs that had evolved over time. Nowhere does he claim that what he represents is something that will remain unchanged in any way. He claims only that he is going to write down what has been handed on in a certain order, so that his readers may better understand where the Church is and how it came to be there. This is no different from what many other historians of the time claimed to be doing, and none of them was asserting that history had or ought to come to a stand still. Furthermore, like the sola Scriptura principle, the primitivist argument presupposes that the primitive Church herself would have endorsed primitivism, which seems a rather far fetched idea, at least on the basis of the evidence we have. One could perhaps point out that the primitive Church thought that Our Lord's return was imminent, hence there would be no time (or need) for doctrinal or practical development. To say that there was no time nor need for development, however, is not to say that development is forbidden should it turn out to be the case that Our Lord's return was not as imminent as they thought.

The pattern here is clear: adopt a theological perspective, then use it to support your own theological perspective. Clearly circular, but perhaps not all that different from what we are always forced to do: adopt certain dialectical starting points from which to argue for our deeper hypotheses. It could be that this is simply a necessary feature of human reasoning. Whether the Magisterium itself can be held to be free of such difficulties is a problem I will save for another day.


John Farrell said…
Another aspect of Kitcher's book I found irritating was his credulous acceptance of what the Jesus Seminar... um 'determined' for lack of a better word. That entire last chapters almost reads like it was written by an entirely different author.

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