Theology, Science, and Critical Discourse (Part 4)

I concluded Part 3 by pointing out that Troeltsch departs from Rickert on the question of “value neutrality.” It’s worth noting that this is also a departure from Troeltsch’s friend and colleague at Heidelberg, Max Weber, who is really the father of the idea of ethical neutrality in social science scholarship.

This first departure is arguably both Troeltsch’s most subtle and his most important. His case against value free judgment is primarily built upon the fact that without something recognizable in ourselves, we would never be able to make a judgment in the first place. This does not open the door, however, for unscientific polemic against cultures and histories as objects of study; rather, it is precisely what allows for empathy, for an even handed and rigorous study of unfamiliar times and places. This is also not say that such studies become automatically subsumed under the normative value judgments of the scholar. Rather, as we shall see, Troeltsch argues along Rickertian lines that value relations constitute the organizing principle of historical study.

Troeltsch agrees with Rickert that in the course of human history thus far, there are actually very few values which we can claim as relevant to history. This fact immediately eliminates the concern of an insurmountable and overwhelming relativism which had assumed that there was no means of establishing any sort of non-arbitrary way of approaching the infinite manifold. Thus a hopeless relativism (or irrationalism) is no longer an issue. This first step is important for Troeltsch particularly in rejecting the claim of the orthodox apologetic that the materials of history are dangerously relative, offering no means of discerning values in a normative way. On the contrary, history provides us with precisely the most salient normative developments. Troeltsch writes:

The important thing is to compare these developments in such a way as to take in the widest possible historical horizon in the hope of discerning not a universal principle of law like that at work in concepts employed in the natural sciences but a principle suggestive of tendencies toward a common goal. […] We will draw together the most outstanding results of man’s spiritual development that are known and accessible to us, basing this procedure on the supposition that their being known to us is not a mere accident but is due to the fact that they are the only significant developments which spring from an elemental matrix.

Among the world’s major religions, Troeltsch argues that there are really only “three or four basic orientations in which the power of religion is disclosed, orientations that have their counterpart in, and give support to, entire spheres of culture.” On the surface, this claim sounds reductive; however, these orientations serve as value concepts in precisely the same way that Rickert’s understanding of values functions–with the vital difference that they are not universal. In other words, these concepts only function in historical study insofar as they hold validity for reality. They are ideal, not real. They do not presuppose a correspondence to reality. And they are permeable, malleable, and non-permanent. Troeltsch tempers this assertion with the following:

There is nothing to prevent us from regarding the significant results of scientific, political, artistic, social, and religious life as enduring. It must be remembered, however, that just as these results took shape within definite contexts, so too they always assume individual forms. The doctrine of endless progress, or rather the theory of endless change, is a groundless prejudgment that seems plausible only to people who have consigned all metaphysical ideas regarding a transcendent background of history to the status of illusion—and with such ideas the religious belief in the unity and meaningfulness of reality.

We may take this as yet another illustration of his attempt to temper the relative with the absolute and vice versa. He is not content to take either on their own as a ground from which to approach history—only the two together.

In broad strokes, the same can be said of Troeltsch’s ambiguous gesture toward a “common goal;” however, more unpacking is necessary to see what he is getting at there. He acknowledges that this idea is at least vaguely reminiscent of the absolute which he has already rejected. Indeed, he means the concept of the common goal to replace the absolute altogether. This common goal, as a concept, has no content but serves as a general telos, as a criterion for judgment and is in this respect at least related to the previous idea of the absolute. The vital distinction between the common goal and the absolute, however, is found in the former’s origin. Troeltsch writes:

In the same way that we today think of the ultimate primarily as an inexhaustible movement of life, we may likewise understand the criterion of evaluation as something that merges within this movement of life as a result of a universal perspective on the one hand, and involvement in this movement on the other. It can be characterized as the determining of a direction, the setting of a course among the great, dominant tendencies of history. The criterion itself is both the product of a particular historical situation and a means for its further development; it is not a static and completed principle that determines how the process will take place (my emphasis).

In other words, Troeltsch is attempting a new understanding of what it means for a concept to be essential or a priori; namely, that all such concepts have a history of development, are currently in development, and have an unknowable historical trajectory.

We can see here Troeltsch’s explicit rejection of an absolute principle outside of history as the criterion for normative judgments. In effect, Troeltsch’s argument leads to the conclusion that Christianity must be understood in the context of the history of religions–with the important difference from Ritschl that it not have an ahistorical organizing principle driving it. That is, whether the common goal takes the form of the overcoming of suffering, perfect moral and spiritual development, or the establishment of a kingdom of God, Christianity must always be understood in the context of the basic orientations of the history of religion so that a proper comparison may be made, and thus an evaluation. This comparison is not a means of establishing Christianity as the absolute religion above all others; rather, it is a means of clarifying the internal, subjective commitments of the individual Christian or Christian community. In other words, the criterion that serves as the principle of judgment is always ultimately a matter of personal conviction–the conviction of the historical church.

The history of theology and the church move forward when emerging ideas, those beyond the historical horizon of the current epoch, flood into the mainstream by fusing with current ideas/social-historical-material conditions. And this isn’t only true for theological history, obviously. Troeltsch thinks this is how history moves–not “forward” necessarily, but it moves. Troeltsch also thinks this process is much more rational and “clean” than either Weber or the historical theologian Karl Holl do, which itself could be a whole different series. In the final post, I’ll finally give me own commentary on Troeltsch and Rickert and how I think they can contribute to the articulation of a materialist theology.

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