On Romanticist Metanarratives

25 09 2009


Found this via the Ochlophobist blog:

Pelikan once called the development of doctrine to be Newman’s “great idea”, and based his entire remarkable history of Christian Doctrine on it. The development of doctrine is a philosophy of history, and Pelikan gave it a practical application. (That Pelikan ultimately rejected the development–implicitly–by embracing Orthodoxy is evidence of its weakness as a grounds for understanding Christian doctrine and faith.) In defense of Newman, the Cardinal often claimed in the essay that the development was simply the fact that no idea is ever first expressed in its fullest form. This seems reasonable enough, but flies in the face of traditional Christian conviction that the Gospel is the fullest form of all doctrine, and that the Church simply defends its deposit through the inspired Creed and councils. It would be truer to say that what develops is the number of occaisions to which doctrine has to be explicitly applied, though no father of the councils would have dared to say he was finding a new doctrine, rather they were always defending that which had always been taught. And from Nicea to iconoclasm, there is plenty of evidence for that fact. New technical language is applied to explain doctrine, but for the orthodox Christian, doctrine itself never develops. Newman’s essay, therefore, attempted to defend orthodoxy against the enlightenment by undermining it; Hegel simply defended incipient-liberal Protestantism against the enlightenment by removing from it all the content of the Gospel. But their methods of engaging it bear a more than cursory similarity.

I have not studied Hegel directly, but imbibed much of the modern dialectic through Marx, who is basically Hegel “turned inside out”. And of course, I have studied Newman (though not as much as some people, who seem to make him a seminal figure in modern theological discourse). Yet I have observed the same thing described here myself in other places, and it has always disturbed me. Both attempts try to explain the “laws of motion” of a given idea based on conflict. It is an attempt to justify the internal logic of a system through conflict with the Other (Hegel created the term the “Other”), and turns history into a dialectical drama between the Truth and the Lie, a process that is governed in one ideology, by the State, in another by the “Holy Spirit”. In other words, it is a system that looks at the past from the perspective of the present, while traditional Catholicism looks at the present from the perspective of the past: quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus creditum est.

Of course, we can argue until the cows come home about how viable the “traditional” perspective is from the point of view of the “historical evidence”. Perhaps the early Church did not have indulgences, or didn’t have the name “Purgatory” kicking around, or paid little attention to what the Bishop of Rome said. But to think that you can destroy all such historical doubts with a theoretical sleight of hand is ambitious but equally unviable. All you have done is hit the target by moving it somewhere else, and such an exercise is based more on will than on intellect. Then again, that is what the romanticist metanarrative really is in the end: it is an attempt to impose a gargantuan ideological structure on the sloppy and unruly data of history. At least Marx was honest enough about this when he wrote in his famous thesis on Feurbach: “Philosophers have only tried to interpret the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” For advocates of this type of theology, there is no historical problem that a good meta-theory can’t fix.

As I have written before, I don’t really believe in meta-theories, but that is because I like to take all aspects of thought one by one, all dogmas and doctrines one at a time. After a certain point in my life, I made my first rule of discovering the truth that I would keep in mind who I am in the process of absorbing it. I am mortal, and for that reason, there will be many lacunae and ambiguities in what I believe. But those lacunae should not stop me from making a choice. They should force me, however, into making a humble choice. That is far different from the “totalitarian” systems of Hegelianism, Marxism, or their Catholic parodies.



6 responses

2 10 2009

For the atheist who thinks in such terms, religion is the quintessential metanarrative. I think of it more as a term of abuse than of art or philosophy.

Maybe I’m just wrong or at least confused. I haven’t read a word of Lyotard or his epigones and probably never will.

1 10 2009

I’d rather talk about folk religion. Postmodern babble about metanarratives and such is far more disedifying.

26 09 2009
Andrea Elizabeth

But without metanarrative, aren’t we left with relativism, or worse, chaos?

25 09 2009

It seems fitting that Hegel appears to be terrified in this drawing, though perhaps it might be better to say that it connotes a sense of a resignation to terror. Is metanarrative the cuisine of those who fear?

25 09 2009
Arturo Vasquez

Sounds like a Catholic version of Hegel’s idea of the State, but I really don’t want to have this conversation again. Truth beholden to power, epistemological pessimism, and all that…

Those remotely interested in this question can read what I have already written about it at this link (scroll up and down to see my comments).

25 09 2009
Michael Liccione

Newman’s account of DD in no way depends on Hegelian dialectic. I’m sure you’re familiar with his seven “notes” of authentic development. They are not adequately spelled out, to be sure; but there’s not a whiff of Hegel, Feuerbach, or Marx (all of whom I read ad nauseam as a student) either in those notes or in the way he applies them.

The following comment, which itself follows your attempt to make Newman guilty by association with polite and impolite atheists, is a bit more interesting:

In other words, it is a system that looks at the past from the perspective of the present, while traditional Catholicism looks at the present from the perspective of the past: quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus creditum est.

What’s interesting is that you cite the Vincentian Canon to support one side of a false dichotomy. Economical, that. I’ve written much before about the VC, which can be retrieved by going to my blog and doing an internal search on that phrase; the upshot is that, although that the VC isn’t literally true as description, it remains quite valid when reformulated as a prescription. Thus Ratzinger, responding to a question about JP2’s apostolic letter on women’s ordination: “[I]n the present circumstances, the Roman Pontiff, exercising his proper office of confirming the brethren (cf. Lk 22:32), has handed on this same teaching by a formal declaration, explicitly stating what is to be held always, everywhere, and by all, as belonging to the deposit of the faith.” That little ‘to be’ is the difference between description and prescription. Which, of course, brings us to the question of the authority doing the prescribing.

That is the question which really matters here. For there is no genuine choice between looking “the past from the perspective of the present” and looking at “the present from the perspective of the past.” Theologians, at least, always and necessarily do both: even when we judge the present in terms of the past, we can only see the past from the perspective of the present, which necessarily differ to some degree. It is certainly possible for those in latter days to forget or distort what was received by and known in former days; but it is also possible, and sometimes happens, that from the perspective of whatever “present” is in question, the Church can more clearly see in the past something which those of the past did not see as clearly.

As a matter of fact, that’s just what authentic DD consists in. That’s why, as Catholics, we can and ought to say that, e.g., the filioque, purgatory, and the Immaculate Conception do not add to the “faith once given” but are latent therein, brought out by the various ways in which the Holy Spirit leads the Church “into all truth.” But of course, we need authority to distinguish authentic developments from mere additions and actual corruptions. That’s what Newman saw. Which is what led him to the Roman Church.

He also saw that such authority required ecclesial infallibility. Even Owen White admits that, even if he can’t swallow specifically papal infallibility. So the debate isn’t really about the past vs. the present. As I showed in my critiques of Frs. Louth and Behr, the debate isn’t even about whether there is such a thing as DD. It’s about how the infallibility of the Church does, and does not, manifest itself in DD.

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