Theology, Science, and Critical Discourse (Part 3)

We finally arrive at Ernst Troeltsch and his engagement with a multifaceted and problematic relationship between theology and social science. In parts 1 and 2, I laid out the problems he is grappling with as I understand them. On the one hand, we have the dual problems of “value neutrality” and the “objectivity of values” in historical and social scientific study and on the other, we have the problem of theology as a discipline centered around an organizing principle, attempting to take into consideration the development of Christianity as one world religion alongside others, while also utilizing its organizing principle to assert its own absoluteness.

In the foreword to the first edition of The Absoluteness of Christianity and the History of Religions, Troeltsch remarks that the aim of the text is to clarify the relationship between the “theological faculties” and those utilized in the study of the history of religion. Systematic theology, traditionally a discipline of describing absolutes in the form of law-like doctrines, seems to shake itself free of historical contingency through its appeal to the absolute, universal truth claimed to be central to and revealed through Christianity. Its sister discipline, historical theology, does not carry the same normative tone, but instead examines the ways in which doctrine has attempted a normative approximation of the absolute. Theology, Troeltsch says, is primarily concerned with normative knowledge, which it derives, he argues, “from the history of religion instead of from scholastic theories of revelation or apologetics against philosophical systems,” in order to “give to the Christian world of thought a form that will correspond to the present religious and intellectual situation.” In other words, Troeltsch here accepts Ritschl’s claims about historicism but rejects his Hegelianism in the form of an absolute principle toward which Christianity is unfolding. What Troeltsch is after, then, is adescription of a theology that is able to maintain both intellectual and normative rigor while delimiting the two extremes of absolutism and relativism along non-universalizing lines through a unification of the two. He argues throughout the text that the absolute and the relative are inextricably linked, that both history and theology find their deepest meaning in their connection to the universal and the absolute as he now understands those terms. Troeltsch is arguing for a different understanding the absolute here, one that escapes both the problems he finds in the Hegelian understanding of history and those of traditional apologetics.

itroelt001p1This relationship, as Troeltsch understands it, raises interesting questions about the nature of theology as a discipline, and especially (as I mentioned in the first post) it’s relationship to the natural sciences and its place within the academy more broadly. As Troeltsch himself and later Troeltschian scholars note in detail, this question is central to The Absoluteness of Christianity: What are the constructive possibilities for a systematic theology that is necessarily bound to its own time and place with no appeal to be made to an absolute telos as its anchor?

The consensus among much of the theological community has long been that Troeltsch’s project ultimately failed, primarily because it could not adequately reconcile the poles of absolutism and relativism; hence, theology snapped back toward the former in the theology of Karl Barth. But I think a re-examination of Troeltsch’s theology by paying particular attention to his articulation of a properly scientific theology in light of Heinrich Rickert’s philosophy of history, especially the ways in which the latter outlines the process of concept formation in both the natural and historical sciences, could be fruitful in clarifying the relationship between theology and religious studies/sociology of religion and even theology and the hard sciences. Furthermore, it seems to me that one of the primary faults in traditional criticism of Troeltsch has been to read his project as attempting to reconcile two sides of a binary, that is, find some sort of “third way” between them, rather than as an attempt to articulate a means of doing away with that binary all together.

A constructive Neo-Kantian Troeltschian theology can probably best be understood as a normative-historical science which develops concepts of historical individuals out of a non-essential value and general concept apparatus that constitutes the “core” of Christianity itself. In Rickertian terms, constructive theology for Troeltsch proceeds in the development of historical concepts in relation to a set of values taken as ahistorical but always manifested historically as well as a set of general concepts that establish a permeable boundary for theological discourse. The important Rickertian resource in this move is the way in which concepts are related to reality itself: historical concepts more closely reflect our actual experience of reality than any other type of concept, whereas general concepts are empty of all empirical content and instead hold validity for reality (see Part 1.) Neither concept type has any ontological content; they are only two different ways of regarding our experience of reality. I read Troeltsch, therefore, as advancing a viable material-ideational strategy (not in a binary sense) for systematic theology, one that is necessarily dependent upon the historical and social situation in which it is produced yet is still able to secure the normative authority necessary to still be called a properly constructive theology.

Troeltsch sets up the historical problem as it exists in the study of religion in particular, although it is clear he thinks that the problematic exists in historical study more generally as well. Troeltsch’s terminology, relativity and absoluteness, roughly parallels Rickert’s distinction between the individual and the general when referring to concepts. Troeltsch writes, “Relativity simply means that all historical phenomena are unique, individual configurations acted on by influences from a universal context that comes to bear on them in varying degrees of immediacy.” Both are concerned with the potential meaninglessness that the infinite manifold of experience presents us with. However, Troeltsch brings to bear the normativity which theology and religion more generally demand out of the manifold—to transcend the manifold—on his formation of the problem. In other words, the problem is not simply that the selection of historical individuals has the potential to be arbitrary given the nature of empirical experience but more importantly in the theological context such selection has the seemingly obvious potential of lacking any authoritatively normative content at all thereby rendering such selection non-theological by definition.

The result of this tension between theology and history has been recourse to the absolute. The parallel between this term and the function of general concepts and universal laws is not quite as clear nor is it as strong. Troeltsch identifies two ways in which the same absolute has been regarded in the history of the church. The first, Troeltsch refers to as “the apologetic of supernatural, orthodox theology”—namely, the primary tradition of the Church writ large—which, though it may admit the historical contingency of human institutions (i.e. the Church), still holds that these institutions have access to a universal, absolute truth that is outside of history. The second and Troeltsch’s primary target he refers to as the “evolutionary apologetic.” This is the absolute according to Hegel’s speculative philosophy, which similarly posits an absolute of which all of history partakes and toward which all history is unfolding. Under both methods, however, the absolute is more or less the same thing: an ahistorical, universal guiding principle. It is the absolute telos under which all historical individuals are subsumed. It is in this way that doctrines can achieve the status of “divine law” if they are posited as universal and outside of the scope of history.

Troeltsch’s aim, then, is to resolve the tension between history and theology—between the relative and the absolute. Troeltsch writes that the problem of resolving this tension is “the problem of how to discern, in the relative, tendencies toward the absolute goal. Or, to state the problem more accurately: How does one work out a fresh, durable, and creative synthesis that will give the absolute the form possible to it at a particular moment and yet remain true to its inherent limitation as a mere approximation of true, ultimate, and universally valid values? That is the nub of the problem, and it cannot be set aside either by the naturalization of history or by skeptically oriented specialization. It arises directly out of the material of history itself.” As we saw with Rickert, the material of history is a selected material according to specific value relations, and it is in the process of selection that Troeltsch most radically departs from Rickert, particularly in his understanding of value relations and valuation. In short, Troeltsch does not think that value neutrality is actually possible or even desirable in historical study broadly conceived. In Part 4, we’ll turn to an examination of Troeltsch’s proposal for a solution.

 

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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.

 

Theology, Science, and Critical Discourse (Part 1)

I’ve been immersed in neo-Kantianism this whole year between reading and rereading Weber as well as the literature that surrounds his work. This last quarter, I worked through a handful of texts that came from the Baden School of neo-Kantianism, spending most of my time in Heinrich Rickert’s The Limits of Concept Formation in Natural Science. Two seemingly unrelated questions were raised as I worked my way through it: (1) What sort of discipline is theology? and (2) What is the status of valuation in critical discourse. I have a number of friends working on the relationship between theology and science, something I too have waded into since my time in seminary, and I think Rickert provides some ways of thinking about the relationship between the natural sciences and the humanities/social sciences that have begun to change how I think about theology’s place in that spectrum. It also, I think, provides another way of conceiving materiality in relation to theology and some good reasons for why a materialist theology, carefully defined, is ultimately the most fruitful way forward.

This is going to take a few posts. In this one, I’m just going to lay out Rickert’s philosophy of history, and at the end, I’ll allude to what I’m going to do in the next post, which is to start talking about theology in relation to Rickert.

Rickert’s primary aim is to illuminate a logical opposition between concept formation in the human (historical) sciences and the natural sciences as a means of establishing what it means to conceptualize what he calls “historical individuals.” When Rickert is writing at the turn of the 20th century, historical study (broadly, what we call the humanities) is still emerging as a collection of disciplines in its own right over against the natural sciences with its own methodology and authority. Prior to Rickert, the study of history was regarded more or less as one of two things: the study of antiquity (what we call “Classics” today) or the far more contepmorary positivist sociology. The latter, championed by the French positivist philosopher Auguste Comte, argued that the study of history was just like the study of the natural sciences: the goal is to collect the data and abstract from it general categories and universal laws. This was untenable for Rickert, who, following his mentor Wilhelm Windelband, argued that general concepts destroy that which precisely makes history what it is: uniqueness and individuality.

Rickert is neo-Kantian in the sense that he doesn’t think that our knowledge is about reality as such. So when he’s setting up this logical opposition between concept formation in the natural and human sciences, it’s on the basis of how we regard our experience of reality. In other words, the difference between the natural and the human science is not in the ontology of their objects but the phenomenology of them. They share the same real objects as they come to us in experience but regard that experience differently. That experience, Rickert says, comes to us as an infinite stream of individuals. It’s actually doubly infinite in that there is an infinite number of individuals (extensive infinity) and each individual itself is infinitely complex (intensive infinity.) Because this is how we experience reality, general concepts are always less real than our immediate experience, i.e. they can never represent our experience of reality as that infinite stream of individuals. That doesn’t mean that they don’t produce knowledge though. General concepts still hold validity for empirical reality. They just can’t give us any knowledge of individuals in their unique individuality. This is a logical impossibility, says Rickert, because the very definition of general concept precludes uniqueness. The goal of the scientific method is to erase anomaly (uniqueness) in favor of repeatability (which we usually call verifiability.)

It’s also, then, logically impossible for general concepts to apply to history. History is by definition unique and therefore unrepeatable in that uniqueness–at least, the history that interests us (more on this in a minute.) The data that eventually becomes “history” in the sense Rickert is after has the same nature as empirical reality (doubly infinite) and, by definition, cannot be made sense of in the same way that natural science makes sense of the infinite manifold. Rickert’s explication of concept formation in natural science shows us that there is this piece missing from our knowledge that natural science cannot provide–a concept of the individual. But now there’s a further problem: How is a concept of the individual possible if individuals are doubly infinite and unique? Up until this point, concepts have only ever been general. Historical concepts have to be something else that isn’t abstracted from the exact historical material in question but is instead formed out of something else.

This ‘something else’ also can’t be arbitrary, which is the other problem facing historical concept formation. As we’ve seen, natural science has the advantage of repeatability in forming its general concepts. Kant showed us this. Scientific observation is about the perception of a sequence (not a sequence of perceptions.) The repeatability of any sequence of perceptions is what eventually becomes knowledge in natural science. Clearly, historical knowledge doesn’t have that advantage within the data itself because in order for a datum to qualify as “historical” it cannot be repeatable. Returning to the idea of interest that I mentioned earlier, Rickert acknowledges that there are many more individuals (infinitely more, actually) within empirical reality than what we could actually study according to the methods of historical science. You can look at every leaf on a tree, every dog, every lump of coal in its unique individuality. But why would anyone do that? Though these individuals, in our immediate experience of them, are unique and individual, they are almost just as quickly subsumed under a general concept, which is what allows us to take in an infinite manifold and not be driven insane by the unique individuality of an infinite number of objects who are infinitely complex. So instead of trying to take in and consider each individual leaf, dog, rock, etc. we instead have leaves, dogs, and rocks as general concepts

But why don’t we do this with every individual? What’s the difference between Goethe and a guy at Tuesday’s open mic night? We can just as easily refer to both as “poets,” “humans,” “men,” etc. as we can examine them in their individuality and uniqueness. What non-arbitrary ground could there be for selecting one over the other as the proper object of historical study? How can we justify our interest in one over the other? Rickert’s answer is that there are two types of individuals: those which become automatically subsumed and “in-dividuals”–those whose uniqueness simply isn’t subsumable under a general category because of the values that intersect it.

Values, for Rickert, are very similar to general concepts in natural science. They have no empirically real content–they are ideal–but they do hold validity for reality. In other words, they are true insofar as they are valid. (“Truth,” by the way, is also a value for Rickert, which may be a problem in how he defines values, but we’ll table that for now.) Thus, Rickert establishes a number of “spheres” which he believes exist in every society–but they have variable content. Examples include art, religion, science, ethics, sexuality, etc. Each sphere has a value relation attached to it, i.e. art-beauty, religion-spirituality, science-truth, ethics-morality. The claim, then, is that the scholar selects historical individuals of interest to conceptualize based upon the ways in which they intersect these values as those values hold validity within the culture and time period in question. Goethe, rather than the guy at the open mic night, intersects beauty, spirituality, etc. in a way that one can identify within German culture at the time that he was alive but also perhaps today and certainly within other cultures as well (especially in the West.) The open mic guy just doesn’t do that in the same way.

That last paragraph probably made anyone familiar with critical discourse cringe. There’s an obvious tendency in this theory that leans toward old white guys deciding what’s culturally valuable, and certainly that’s how this panned out during the majority of the 20th century in the social sciences and humanities. Without giving Rickert more credit than he’s due on this point, I actually don’t think he was interested in the superiority of any one culture (unlike Hegel who clearly thought Germany represented the pinnacle of all civilization and that the history of any non-Western civilization was totally irrelevant to the progression of absolute spirit.) Rickert insisted on a rigorous value neutrality when it came to the scholar’s own personal valuations. This should be familiar to any of us in a social scientific field. It’s one of the challenges of being a theologian in a religious studies department. Value neutrality is still one of the most important aspects of good social science today.

The story should sound much more familiar now. The combination of these two aspects of Rickert’s method, value relations without valuation, inadvertently introduced into humanities/social science discourse the possibility for a normative colonial, patriarchal, bourgeois, and even Protestant agenda disguised as value neutrality, intentional or not–a truly catastrophic combination if there ever was one. This has in turn created the necessary space for genealogical critiques of social scientific disciplines (Foucault), particularly religious studies (Asad), as well as the post-structural critiques of social science found in Derrida, et. al.

All of those discourses have been and continue to be necessary tools, helping to pry open the door for important voices to speak in all of the humanities and social science disciplines, and theology has been no different. In the next post, I’m going to turn to the earliest theological critic of modern sociology, Ernst Troeltsch. Troeltsch is more often than not seen as the first theologian to embrace the modern social scientific method–and he is–but he did not do so uncritically.  It is in his critique of the value neutrality found in Rickert and his close friend Max Weber that we begin to find the answers to the two questions we started with: In what sense can theology be a science and given critical discourse, can theology engage in positing normative values?