Tuesday, October 18, 2005

An open mind

Fun with hermeneutics Here's a little conceptual mind game for you. In this excerpt from Francis Beckwith's article in Touchstone, replace the word "scripture" with data and the word "Church" with science.
[John Paul] is saying that biblical scholars and systematic theologians who think they can extract doctrine from Scripture unaided by the resources of philosophical analysis are kidding themselves, and are not doing a service to the Church. There are two reasons for this. First, such a scholar, whether he knows it or not, approaches the biblical text with a cluster of assumptions—a philosophy—about the accessibility of theological truth as well as about texts and their meaning not derived from the biblical text itself. Second, when reading the Bible, he is confronted with scriptural truths that call for a philosophically informed and coherent theology by which to understand and make sense of them. ... An interpreter of Scripture must be conscientious in ensuring that he is approaching the text with sound philosophical principles. As he notes: “Those who devote themselves to the study of Sacred Scripture should always remember that the various hermeneutical approaches [reading methodologies] have their own philosophical underpinnings, which need to be carefully evaluated before they are applied to the sacred texts.” ... [It is a] mistake thinking that one can do theology without any reference to, or understanding of, philosophy. On this point, John Paul is absolutely correct.
It seems to me that what JPII is saying ought to be obvious to anyone who hopes to write or think at more than a basic level - ie. educated people and people who hold positions of authority, like lawyers, politicians and scientists. It is the need to be aware of one's methodology in reading texts and the world. Fred puts it in simpler terms in this essay on the drama surrounding Darwin in the classroom. From the hubbub we can get the idea that there are a number of politcians and scientists who do not get it (and the lawyers feed on them both). First principles matter, and they can't be extracted from data alone, whether that data is scripture or the day to day material of our lives. Our confusion on this issue has implications for our democratic responsibilities. Beckwith continues:
what John Paul will teach [us], and what will appear novel to some... is the careful manner in which he shows that the moral principles found in Scripture are consistent with a reflective understanding of the order and nature of things that one can know apart from the biblical text.

Some Christians will find that perplexing, even troubling. They needn't; finding sound moral principals without reflecting on the Bible is very hard going. It took 6,000 years for the wisdom gathered in that book to take shape and we are fooling ourselves if we think we can do better "on our own." JPII's approach has two strengths to it. First, it offers a way of reaching out to those who do not accept the Bible as being especially wise and also to those who bring interpretations that are a little too creative. What JPII is alluding to is not pantheism but the presence of the Natural Law that runs through all of creation, including us. The money quote in Beckwith's article is the conclusion:
For example, John Paul teaches that the Bible and Christian tradition affirm that human beings have intrinsic dignity because they are made in the image of God and that we ought to treat each other justly, and that this affirmation and obligation, grounded in the nature that God gave us, ought to be reflected in our laws so that the state may advance the public good. Although he believes we can find these truths in Scripture, he also believes that these truths may be found in natural moral law, accessible to—and therefore binding upon—all human beings, even those unacquainted with the Christian Bible or its teachings. One way by which John Paul seeks to show that we have an intuitive awareness of this natural moral law is in his critique of the self-defeating argument for liberal democracy that embraces moral relativism, as is often done in the name of pluralism or tolerance. He shows that this argument is philosophically incapable of sustaining liberal democracy, a political regime that claims that the purpose of its laws is to protect human equality and dignity. Writes John Paul: It is true that history has known cases where crimes have been committed in the name of “truth.” But equally grave crimes and radical denials of freedom have also been committed and are still being committed in the name of “ethical relativism.” When a parliamentary or social majority decrees that it is legal, at least under certain conditions, to kill unborn human life, is it not really making a “tyrannical” decision with regard to the weakest and most defenseless of human beings? Everyone’s conscience rightly rejects those crimes against humanity of which our century has had such sad experience. But would these crimes cease to be crimes if, instead of being committed by unscrupulous tyrants, they were legitimated by popular consensus? According to John Paul, a democratic regime, whose purpose is to do justice by treating all human beings under its authority with equal regard, cannot do so without embracing certain fundamental moral truths as foundational to its institutions and laws: “the dignity of every human person, respect for inviolable and inalienable human rights, and the adoption of the ‘common good’ as the end and criterion regulating political life.” This means that governments that permit (much less encourage) abortion-on-demand and suicide, and do not protect (much less undermine) the institutions of marriage and the family, do not advance the cause of liberal democracy, because they are in fact violating its essential principles. For abortion-on-demand and suicide are inconsistent with the dignity of the person, and marriage and the family are necessary for the common good.
The text I bolded in the first paragraph seems to me to be a part of any sound beginning to a discussion of politics and laws, which we always hold to apply to all, secularist and theist alike. We could not do so if we did not think that our proposals had merit for both the governed and the governing, not unless we embraced the sort of dicatorial governing ethic that has been out of favour in the west since at least the end of World War II. JPII is not dictating policy here, only suggesting a methodology we can use to come up with any number of policies that do not overturn the Natural Law values that western democracies still claim to uphold. John Rawls' "original position" is a similar endeavor - a proposed method, not a set of policies itself - that many liberals hold dear. What philosophy should do is enable us to compare and discuss the merits of such proposals by bringing them to the surface, where they can no longer be asserted unthinkingly and unreflectively as true, and where those who differ are engaged instead of vilified.

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