Plausibility, Intuition and Cyril

These are just a few thoughts to add to the discussion; it is not a direct response to any of the other pieces written, though I will discuss some of the ideas raised.

For someone who has come through the joint degree in Philosophy and Theology, I think it is hard to avoid feeling some tension regarding the way in which we think when dealing with different areas of the course.  I am here thinking really about Analytic Philosophy (and more specifically, Philosophy of Religion in that tradition), but am not here trying to dismiss any other tradition or form of Philosophy as I really don’t have any experience of their fruitfulness (or lack thereof….)  What I will say though is that much of what we do in Analytic Philosophy just seems to make a lot of sense to me.  It doesn’t feel like applying a weird, alien methodology to irrelevant problems, but rather a clarifying and detailed study of questions that are raised by human experience anyway.  This for me clearly applies to the field of Philosophy of Religion where I feel that the discipline very much deals with the sort of questions that already concerned me before coming to Oriel, and really discovering Theology; questions such as how to reconcile God’s foreknowledge with freewill, whether God’s existence can be demonstrated, whether miracles occur.  Yet these very questions, along with the approaches that Analytic Philosophers of Religion employ in answering them seem much more questionable once you have spent two terms studying Patristic Theology.

A central example for me is thinking about Christology.  As many of you are probably aware, I am a fairly enthusiastic admirer of the Christology of that 5th century trouble maker/ beacon of orthodoxy St Cyril of Alexandria.  There’s something that Cyril seems to capture that most others don’t, about what it means for the Word to God to become Incarnate; no level of compositional union of two natures can really capture the idea that it is God that we are talking about, but he is a man (I like McGuckin’s book on Cyril, and Weinandy’s use of him in his work on impassibility).  However, I find that this is all much more appealing when you think about it in a context of doing Historical Theology than when you sit down and try to say how it is that God becomes Incarnate without changing and whilst being atemporal (though divine atemporality has generally been a claim I have wanted to support).  The modern analytic Christologies I’ve read that seem to deal best with this issue(I have Leftow’s mostly in mind as a very complex and effective account) put much more emphasis on the two natures of Christ and have a more compositional account of union, and in this way at least produce something that looks consistent.  And you can probably be consistent with Chalcedonian Orthodoxy.  And you’re probably as consistent with the Bible as anyone else is really.  It still doesn’t seem right to me though, because the Cyrilline insight of single subjectivity is not in my opinion emphasised and expressed fully enough (and I care much more about this than compatibility with the Chalcedonian definition).  I realise though that if I have to do Christology in a Philosophical context, my criteria and expectations also shift, and I find it hard to pin point what exactly it is that I want to defend and why (and no, the answer is not because it’s orthodox!).

One thing doing Philosophy of Religion makes me think about is why I hold the Theological commitments that I do, since often I realise that the positions I want to defend aren’t the ones that look to me easiest to defend.  Which I guess might just show that Theology is not purely an exercise in reason: and most theologians would be only too happy to agree with that.  Looking back to the tradition it is clear that, though of course reason comes in to play, this is not usually the explicit theological priority.  Everyone’s explicit concern is with the interpretation of Scripture, which is of course crucial, but also invites so many different interpretations that it could not in any simple way be used to adjudicate the great controversies of Christianity’s history.  In understanding though why people thought in the way they did we have to take account of their motivations, and these are individual, yet I would like to suggest three common factors to bear in mind (complete with convenient alliteration): Polemic, Preaching and Prayer.  The life of the Church is crucial, and really drives the desire to clarify doctrine in order to preserve unity.  And Theology is intimately connected with both life of the Church and the individual Christian.  In taking in to account these factors, I think we can often come to admire particular Theologians because of the way that they manage to achieve beautiful reconciliations of their prior commitments both Philosophical and Theological with the situation in which they write.  In a sense, to do Historical Theology we want to assess the process of reconciliation in a Theologian, and how they hold the delicate mysteries of their Christian faith together (and Cyril is a master).

However, this leaves me with the question of what it is for me today that makes a Theological viewpoint more than something to admire, but something that could seem plausible.  Because I don’t think that I am motivated by the same factors that motivated the thinkers that I read, admire and try to appropriate.  For one thing, we are all of course products of modernity, and the background question of how Philosophy and Theology inter-relate is approached differently because our overall world view is so different.  And for me personally, Theology does not build on the sort of devotion and religious life that steers so much Theological thought.  As Alec points out though, I think Theological judgement is about experience in a very broad sense, and crucially a sort of intuition.  And I also agree that this is something very active in Analytic Philosophy, where we do heed our intuitions and appeal to them frequently, yet also test them and try understand when others see differently.  At the root of all this is a need and desire for what is plausible to us.  And this doesn’t mean avoiding any sense of mystery; sometimes I find it hardest to be convinced by any idea of God that fits too neatly in to our world and expectations.  What I mean by plausibility is what seems to us to be right, whether or not we could put forward arguments for it, or clarify it adequately

Another factor that I think informs theological judgement is a desire to systematize, and to fit together a coherent picture.  This is one of the things I enjoy most in doing Historical Theology: to try to see how the picture fits together, and how one change in the system affects every other area of thought.  It is also though something that obviously shapes any constructive Systematic Theology (it’s in the name!), and guides our theological commitments in an intellectually satisfying way.  And trying to build these links and crossovers is part of the challenge and reward of doing Theology, which can be felt even without a clear sense of personal religious direction.

So, maybe part of what worries me when doing Philosophy of Religion is that it is so hard to explain where your prior commitments come from and why you hold them.  And then you come to the challenge of trying to show that they can at least stand up to some scrutiny, even if we are not trying to show them to be the product of philosophy.  This isn’t about being a rationalist analytic philosopher (to be honest, I think analytic philosophy toned down the simple rationalist within me); for me it’s about trying to talk about God in a way that I might actually find what I’m saying plausible.  I think an important starting point though is to think about why I ever wanted to say these things in the first place.  I also think that it’s important to think across the two disciplines and be clear whether we are committed to thinking of them as a unified whole or as compatible, or as separate (and perhaps even in tension).  Analytic Theology is perhaps a way for those who have found the Analytic tradition of Philosophy intellectually stimulating and fruitful tradition in other areas to at least question the way in which they do Theology.  And to consider the relationship between the way in which we think about God and the way in which we think about the world in general.


One thought on “Plausibility, Intuition and Cyril

  1. What a great, thoughtful post. Welcome to the blog, Emily! I hope to write more tomorrow, and this weekend, but there is definitely a lot of great food for thought here. I think I continue to wrestle with a lot of the same questions that you’ve raised.


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