Progress in philosophy and theology in the long view

Why does philosophy seem to make so much less progress than science?  Professor J. L. Schellenberg addresses this often-asked question at Aeon magazine.  He quickly touches on some common answers.

  1. Philosophy deals with inquiries for which a proper methodology has not yet been developed.  Once real progress starts being made, a subject stops being a branch of philosophy and becomes a science.
  2. The point of philosophy isn’t to answer the big questions, but for each individual to refine his or her soul by struggling with them.  By its nature, it must be done anew by each person.
  3. Philosophical questions don’t get answered but they do get refined.  We now have a more precise sense of what the problem of free will is, for example, and this is progress of a sort.

I think there is merit in each of these points, but Schellenberg suggests another.  Perhaps the big questions of philosophy are just really hard and take longer than a couple of millennia to solve.  It is not unreasonable to hope that the human race will survive for tens or hundreds of thousands of years.  On such timescales, philosophy hasn’t be around long and may still be, looking back from a hundred thousand years hence, at a very immature phase.  The task of philosophers for the coming centuries may ultimately preparatory work:  discarding dead ends, developing tools, achieving small but solid initial results.

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Catholic common ground

Bishops are searching for it.

Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago and Archbishop José Gómez of Los Angeles, who at least on some matters, would be regarded stereotypically as representing “liberal” and “conservative” views, will headline together a major convening of Catholic leaders this June aimed at overcoming division, building relationships, and strengthening the Catholic community’s contribution to the common good.

“Through Many, One: Overcoming Polarization Through Catholic Social Thought,” will take place June 4-6 at Georgetown University and is a project of the university’s Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life in response to what its organizers have described as “the harmful divisions within our Church.”

Cupich – who was appointed to Chicago in 2014 – is widely perceived as one of Francis’s closest allies in the U.S. Church and has been a strong champion for worker’s rights, immigration, and the consistent ethic of life. Gomez has led the nation’s largest and most diverse diocese since 2011 and is currently the vice-president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). He was ordained a priest through Opus Dei, a movement that is widely viewed as having conservative leanings, and has been a vocal advocate for pro-life and religious liberty causes. In recent years he has also become one of the most vocal leaders within the U.S. Church hierarchy calling for comprehensive immigration reform.

The gathering will focus not on internal Church issues, but on “the neglected challenge of bringing Catholic principles to public life so as to truly be ‘salt, light and leaven’ in a divided society.”

Well, there does some to be one conspicuous piece of common ground, one that sets apart these holy bishops from all those grubby nativists in the pews.

Actually, I don’t understand why these freedom-and-democracy types are bothered by polarization.  Why shouldn’t Catholics be divided on everything under the sun?  Otherwise, would it not mean that we had failed to evangelize one faction?  If we need a core that unites us and distinguishes us from the world (and we do!), we could point to the seven sacraments and the Nicene creed.  However, that would mean giving up on “bringing Catholic principles to public life”, at least insofar as “public life” means what are commonly called “political disputes”.

Instead, the goal is a united witness to Catholic social teaching.  I’m all for this, but I doubt either the Cardinal or the Archbishop is.  After all, if the Church has a duty to bring something distinctive to public debate, then it must advocate a position different from the main non-Catholic positions, a position that nonbelievers by-and-large disagree with.  Banalities about caring for the poor and the common good don’t count.  The anti-Catholic communists agree with them.  The same could be said for pleas to protect the environment.  Even the episcopal common ground of open borders advocacy is a completely common position in elite circles.  A robust defense of the social kingship of Christ would certainly qualify, but American bishops would recoil from any such thing.

The trouble is that, to episcopal ears, “Catholics social teaching” means “the things we can say that will make us popular, that will attract the young people and get the newspapers to write nice things about us”.  There are indeed things men in the public eye can say that carry no risk and some degree of social reward.  (Nobody ever lost a job or status for attacking “racists”.)  However, such popular, consensus-affirming positions simply by being popular and consensus-affirming are not distinctive, and the Church serves no urgent or irreplaceable function in articulating them.

If Catholic social teaching is important, it must be unpopular.

Is the novel a distinctly atheistic art form?

This is the opinion of Ian McEwan, because novels train us in empathy.  I’m not sure what that has to do with religion, but most atheists do strike me as nauseatingly sentimental, so maybe there is a connection.  In the linked article, M. M. Owen analyzes three of McEwan’s novels, finding their treatment of storytelling to be more ambiguous than McEwan’s public position.  It sounds like McEwan is too good a novelist to keep himself on message.

Certainly, there does seem to be something about the novel that makes it a poor vessel for religious or mythical narratives.  I think it’s that novels describe their events in such great detail.  Archetypes may be invoked, but no character or event can simply be its archetype because it has been so thoroughly individualized.  Myths reside in “sacred time” beyond profane localizations, like Platonic Forms.  When the story is recited, or a like event occurs, the myth becomes present.  Novels are too long and too detailed to be “made present” through communal, liturgical reading.

Christians are always being told that we need to retake the culture.  Don’t bother with politics; reach people through the arts.  We should not assume that this just means to excel at the art forms of the contemporary world:  that we should aspire to write the best novels, movies, and pop music and somehow instill it with our values.  It may be that we will need to develop other art forms as proper bearers of our culture.