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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Theology, Science, and Critical Discourse (Part 2)

More time than I would’ve liked has passed between part 1 and 2 of this series. I’ve been in Berlin since the beginning of July improving my German and will be here until the end of August. My intensive language course has left little time for comprehensive exam preparation, let alone blog posts! Still, I’ve managed to find some time to crank out some reflections here. In this post, I begin to move into a discussion of theology by first considering Ernst Troelthsch’s mentor Albrecht Ritschl. Ritschl provides the second stream which flows into the river of Troeltsch’s thought and is important to consider so that we can see what Troeltsch is doing in his project (which will be the third post, contrary to what the first post says.)

In the first part of these posts, I laid out Heinrich Rickert’s philosophy of history which includes the justification for a viable human science on the basis of historical individuals and value relations. I also pointed out the obvious ways in which this methodology went very bad very quickly and remained so until the latter half of the 20th century when critical discourses were finally able to diagnose the various problems that underlay methodology in the social sciences. I’m especially interested in how theology fits into this story, particularly in whether theology is interested in the general or the individual (as Rickert understands those terms) or if instead it can somehow take an interest in both that doesn’t fall into the traps that Rickert’s philosophy does. Aside from what, from the perspective of critical discourse, is the impossibility of value neutrality and indeed the necessity of examining value neutral discourses to expose their underlying colonial, patriarchal, etc. commitments, Rickert’s insistence on the objectivity of values (i.e. value neutrality) seems to expose him to the precise criticism which he levels against positivism in the first part of The Limits of Concept Formation in Natural Science.

Remember that objectivity in the strict Kantian sense does not mean and should not be equated with knowing things as they are in themselves, i.e. knowing reality as it actually is. What Rickert is insisting on instead is to regard values as objects–but this is tricky. Values, we’ll remember from the last post, though they are abstracted from empirically reality, have no empirical reality when taken as the objective ground of historical study–they are wholly ideal. His insistence on this point is a little confusing since it seems like the point he is wanting to make is that these values are basically additional categories of perception, both empirically real and transcendentally ideal. Thinking back to Kant, we’ll remember that in order for perception to even be possible, these categories are required–they’re what make it possible for us to talk about empirical reality at all. But they themselves are not observable within empirical reality (e.g. Hume’s famous refutation of the observation of a necessary cause and effect.) The problem is that value is not a demonstrable condition of perception, and Rickert is aware of this. Values, then, essentially become general categories of value. This is the best Rickert can do. Like universal laws of science, these objective values which are meant to ground historical study are universal, general categories of value that must hold some sort of validity for empirical reality for every human being across time and space. His explanation of objective values, then, seems to slip general categorization back into historical study through a back door. If we were to really dig into an analysis of how these values operate, we would see that they’re not quite the same as the sorts of universal laws of human history and behavior that positivists in the late 19th century were trying to abstract from historical study. Still, we cannot deny that in order for Rickert’s system to work, he [thinks he] needs an objective ground; otherwise, historical study is arbitrary. The problem, of course, is not that Rickert insisted on the wrong ground but that he argued for an objective ground in the first place.

That’s a well worn path, and I don’t mean to rehash something that now comes so naturally and is so obvious to cultural theory and critical discourse to the point of seeming banal, essentially behaving as a first principle of sorts. However, the way that Troeltsch comes to wrestle with mediating between the poles of what he calls “absolutism” and relativism–and in 1902–with regard to theology is, to my mind, rather revolutionary. However, we first have to get a handle on the other, theological side of things, though with regard to both the social sciences and theology, Troeltsch is wrestling with absolutism, ethical neutrality, etc. Troeltsch was perhaps the final prominent member of the Ritschlian School and arguably Albrecht Ritschl’s sharpest critic. This garnered a lot of attention for Troeltsch from younger theologians and students, notably Paul Tillich, who were seeking out alternatives to the classical liberal theology that Ritschl’s work embodies. (My own thoughts on Troeltsch’s membership in classical liberalism will have to wait for another post. In short, I don’t think he belongs there.)

One of the difficulties in undertaking a commentary on Troeltsch’s departure from Ritschl and its philosophical underpinnings is that both Ritschl and Troeltsch are usually considered, in part, neo-Kantian theologians, Ritschl influenced primary by Hermann Loetze and Troeltsch by Rickert/Weber. Ritschl founded what is typically referred to as the “History of Religions” school of theology.  He was trained under the historicist biblical scholar and theologian F.C. Baur in the mid-19th century. This was a period of great transition and turmoil for theology, philosophy, and the study of history.Ritschl The Geisteswissenschaften were already emerging (well before Rickert came on the scene), and the question of the nature of history as a proper object of study was experiencing both reactions against and defenses of the dominant Hegelian idealist paradigm of history. Most important for the fields of study within Christianity was the question of historical context: Could theology be understood as a properly scientific discipline if its scholars presupposed Christianity to be the absolute religion? Baur’s response was a decisive “No.” However, his students, most notably the biblical scholar David Friedrich Strauss and Ritschl polemicized against this view, Strauss appearing to be the more orthodoxly Hegelian of the two. Ritschl insisted that the question of presuppositions was the wrong one to ask. Christianity is one of a number of major world religions, and, so Ritschl argued, it is only from the context of the history of religions as seen from the point of view of Christianity that the latter could be truly understood in its religious form, thus attempting to eliminate or at least delimit the problems Baur identified with assuming Christianity as the absolute religion.

As mentioned, Ritschl was also heavily influenced by the then burgeoning neo-Kantian philosophy, particularly that of Hermann Lotze. A full exploration of this influence is beyond the scope of this already lengthy post, but a few points are of interest: 1) Lotze affirms Kant’s view that the ethical will is the will of God. 2) However, Lotze departs from Kant in positing religion as a three-part relationship, I-God-Man. 3) He further departs from Kant in positing the Kingdom of God not as a kingdom of future ends toward which we infinitely approximate but as an actuality in the present. Finally, Lotze argues that doctrine and dogma can never be transmitted in an account of their actual truth. Instead, their transmission contains an “intuitive seeming” which makes intelligible what is ultimately inexpressible and maintains a true relation to the actual.

The primary effect of this influence is Ritschl’s rejection of an absolutely transcendent will in favor of a more contextualized understanding of the human person and agency. Ritschl, however, still maintained Idealist tendencies, particularly on the concept of the absolute in theology. For Ritschl, theology requires an organizing principle, and, according to Ritschl, the organizing principle of all Christian thought is the Kingdom of God, a view he began to develop as early as 1858. In his magnum opus, The Christian Doctrine of Justification and Reconciliation (1874), Ritschl writes, “The Kingdom of God is the summum bonum which God realises in men; and at the same time it is their common task, for it is only through the rendering of obedience on man’s part that God’s sovereignty possesses continuous existence.” This definition reflects the mid-19th century tension between historically bound human beings and transcendent theological principles. The Kingdom is a good that is imparted to humans by God, something they receive passively; however, it can only be realized in the moral striving of human beings toward it as their goal. It is thus dependent upon human will, which Ritschl does not view as itself transcendent the way Kant did. Christianity solves this apparent problem by means of a transcendent connection of the two ideas in the logic of grace. Therefore, the divine act of the gift is what ultimately constitutes the ground of the highest good. Human beings only contribute insofar as their moral striving is done out of faith in Christ. In other words, membership in the Kingdom of God is the condition for any human contribution toward it’s reality in the present or future. Johannes Zachhuber writes, “In this dual sense, the Kingdom of God correlates with human activity in the spirit of justice: it is its ground, purpose, and means. Its function as telos corresponds to the divine end in itself, which is dogmatically expressed in the idea of the Son as the ‘necessary and eternal object of God’s love: The Kingdom of God is therefore the ethical exposition of divine love as an end in itself.’”

Of particular importance for our purposes here is the absolute character of the Kingdom of God. Ritschl makes it clear that this is in no way to be identified as an earthly kingdom, i.e. as a State. Its operations in how it understands wrongdoing (sin), punishment (separation from God), and justification (removal of separation) completely transcend any worldly handling of these terms. This extends to all other religions as well. In other words, in asserting the Kingdom of God as the organizing principle for all Christian thought, Ritschl is also asserting the absoluteness of Christianity over all other religions. All human development is striving toward the ideal of the Kingdom of God. The Hegelian influence on this point is obvious. From this perspective, however, it is difficult to see how Ritschl can reconcile this understanding of the absoluteness of Christianity with his assertion that Christianity must be understood in the context of the history of religions more generally. This was not a problem for Hegel, who paid no attention to the world religions and was arguably only concerned with Western Europe. But for Ritschl, it imparts a nagging relativism which he does not seem to take seriously enough. Indeed, this is the primary criticism which his student Ernst Troeltsch leveled against him, to which we turn in the next post.