The present work, like Questioning Back (1985), is an attempt to clarify the conditions under which theological thinking can be fruitfully pursued today. It is to be followed by a third volume which will focus specifically on the role of reason in faith and theology (2006: this will appear in French shortly). This critical trilogy, a quasi-Kantian'prolegomenon to any future theology', differs from its tremendous prototype in that theology, as an empirical, historical science, has no place for the exercise of the pure theoretical or practical reason which provides the infrastructural plumbing of philosophy. It is not a science which constitutes basic principles, but one which reflects on concrete traditions. Hence our three critiques belong rather to the mixed realm explored in the Critique of Judgement. They deal with human ratiocinations about realities that exceed the conceptual perspectives brought to bear on them, and with the attempt at a critical sifting and demystified retrieval of the religious languages to which the long history of these attempts has given birth.
The three critical approaches respond to three fundamental demands affecting theology as a whole, none of which can be flouted today without a lapse from responsibility and rationality. These imperatives of theological judgement may be stated as follows:
1. IT MUST BE ‘PHENOMENOLOGICAL’. Theology must constantly question
back to the primary level of faith, the original concrete contours of the revelation-event, the 'matter itself' that is apprehended by a contemplative thinking. This requires an 'overcoming of metaphysics': the theological tradition is deconstructed by querying the tensions between its metaphysical elucidation of the biblical events and the quite different cast of these events as apprehended in faith. Heidegger found a lack of fit between the space projected by metaphysical concept-formation and the space within which the phenomena give themselves to be apprehended by meditative thinking. Similarly, there is a complex topology of the world of faith that can never be fitted into the horizons of metaphysical theology, which rather act as a screen against it. A creative retrieval of the tradition today works toward a clearing of the fundamental horizons of faith, and subordinates the quest for metaphysical intelligibility to this prior openness.
Of course, just as there is not an original revelation-event that can be recovered in a pure form, so there is no monolithic metaphysics that can be overcome once for all. Nonetheless, an ongoing labour of critical clarification, in a constant stepping back from rationalisations to the vision of faith that they obstruct, has to become an inbuilt self-critical moment in theology. One might daate the emergence of this imperative in its modern form to Luther.
2. IT MUST BE PLURALISTIC. Christian thought has to be fully open to the plurality of religious and secular voices that situate and relativise it as a contingent cultural history which can be responsibly continued only in attentive response to these other voices. This imperative has begun to make itself strongly felt only in the recent past, and it has given rise to the most interesting religious thinking of today. Dialogue, as the present work wants to show, saves Christianity from turning in on itselt in an incestuous rehash of its traditions, lets in some fresh air, and restores a human, natural complexion to religious language.
My hypothesis is that pluralism is an irreducible aspect of religious life and thought that can never be ironed out in the final triumph of a single viewpoint. The reasons for this lie in the grain of religious language itself, its reliance on ideas and images that are always culture-bound. The vitality of religion, like that of art, depends intrinsically on the maintenance of a variety of divergent styles.
At a time when science has made mighty strides toward a grand unified theory of the physical universe, this celebration of pluralism might seem regressive. But the religious equivalent of scientific unity would be a general theory of religious pluralism, which justifies it and shows its inherent necessity. Accepting-pluralism as a basic fact of religious life, rather than a surd or a regrettable contingency, we can pose the question: if religion is intrinsically pluralistic, then what does this tell us about religion? I seek the answer here in a picture of religions as products of finite, historical, situation-bound struggles, each of which projects images and a rhetoric of the transcendent and develops these in a constant ferment of self-deconstruction.
The possibility that these open-ended, incomplete, dialogical quests can actually be vehicles of the mystery with which they grapple is the crucial nexus by which they stand or fall. In this field subjective projection and objective revelation are intertwined even more enigmatically than observer and observed in quantum physics. That is another reason why we cannot step outside the pluralistic milieu of the religious enterprise in order to reduce it to a more 'objective' pursuit. Theological reflection has, then, to remain an art of attunement and discernment. Of course it must cultivate logical rigour in the texture of its discourse, but it cannot hope to constitute a system of context-independent principles, that would then be the logical foundation of the merely empirical flow of culture-bound religious ideas and practices. Even when theology has seemed to attain such objectivity, as in Aquinas, a critical historical retrieval may reveal that the apparent monolith is in reality a path of pluralistic open-ended questioning.
3. IT MUST BE RATIONAL: This is an old, and very prosaic dictate; but we miss the scope of what it currently prescribes when we take the word 'rational' in one of its older senses rather than as denoting contemporary conditions of rationality. All three critical approaches have to do with reason in a wide sense, notably in its aspects of openness to the phenomena and critical questioning of traditions. But here the focus is on reason in the most mundane sense of argument and proof. The concern is not with further enlarging the horizons of religious meaning, but rather with showing that such meaning is in harmony with criteria of rational intelligibility. Having clarified the particular phenomenological modalities of Christian truth and the pluralistic contexts of its enunciation, we can now take stock anew of the rational justification of the entire discourse. Despite the long tradition of apologetics and the rich panoply of rational argumentation in scholastic theologians, this stocktaking remains necessary for those who have sought to defend and exemplify the reasonableness of Christianity have usually been remiss in fulfilling the phenomenological and pluralistic imperatives of theological judgement, so that their justification of belief does not quite match the conditions of contemporary rationality.
All three approaches are concerned with truth. The first is concerned with the 'truth of revelation' in a phenomenological sense, remotely analogous to Heidegger's 'truth of being', and it sees this as the essential foundation of all subsequent Christian truth-claims. The second attempts to show that within the always limited and contingent horizons of a pluralistic religious universe it is possible for a discourse to refer objectively to an absolute truth or truths, though this truth can never be sighted or formulated independently of the interplay between the divergent discourses. The third will focus more sharply on the ultimate rational justification for maintaining religious claims, concerned less now with the modalities whereby religious truth is apprehended than with the rational justification and upshot of our adherence to this truth. Heidegger and Derrida, our guides in the first and second critiques, are no longer of direct service here; instead we turn to those most intently concerned with rationality as such, Kant and his heirs down to Frege and Quine.
It might be imagined that the phenomenological and pluralistic emphases put old-fashioned rational argument out of play. Some have worried that the approach in Questioning Back lay open to a 'fideism' that would be dismissive of Christian rational achievements; others feared that the present work, in its French incarnation (La vérité chrétienne à l'âge du pluralisme religieux, 1994) could not escape a 'relativism' that would be unable to do justice to the objective ontological bearing of Christian doctrinal claims. Friendly readers of sceptical disposition have objected that both works remain comfortably ensconced within the religious language-game, offering no justification for adopting it in the first place. In the third volume, even at the risk of 'rationalism', a danger against which the first two provide ample preservation, I shall attempt to allay these misgivings by offering a positive account of the rationality of belief and sketching a clear definition of what reason can (and therefore must) do in the realm of religious thinking.
If the real is the rational, and the rational the real, then religion is unreal to the degree that it is irrational. It may have a powerful phenomenological basis in encounter with the living God, and it may unfold radiantly in a pluralistic, dialogical horizon, but if the suspicion of its being mere projection is not explicitly faced and dislodged, then we have not left the doomed enclosure mapped by Freud in The Future of an Illusion. Religion draws its strength ultimately from the phenomenological level, not from reason, but reason has an indispensable role not only in defending authentic revelation against the suspicion of unreality, but also in curbing and channelling the religious energy that gives rise to lethal delusions when it shrugs off rational accountability.
This entire critical enterprise is being conducted at a happy distance from matters of immediate ecclesiastical concern. Crises of faith and morality, authority and structure, liturgy and social practice can induce a panic and precipitation which is inimical to thought. Fundamental theology can only be pursued in a quiet place, where one may take the measure of such crisis and analyse its underlying cause: the failure to present Christian claims in a manner that is thoroughly intelligible and convincing in a contemporary horizon. Then one must work out patiently and in the most general style the first methodological steps towards a demystified account of doctiine. Every generation in which Christianity has successfully confronted a non-Christian world has had its labourers at this task. Today the labourers are few; we shall be meeting some of them in the following pages. Moreover, the necessity of the task, and its 'pastoral relevance’, is not as keenly appreciated as it was in healthier periods of Christian history. Instead there is an over-reliance on the rhetoric of Scripture, or on encyclicals and catechisms, whereby one loudly tells people what to believe while dismissing as impertinent the question why.
Serene open dialogue, respect for the phenomena of biblical and traditional faith, in their variety and irreducibility, alert rational argument, such are the secrets of wholesome, truthful theological judgement. They are not secrets at all, but plainest common sense. However, the unmastered irrationalities of the past still hold us in their sinister clasp, so that the struggle for freedom – the freedom to think, the freedom to explore the rich texture of biblical revelation and of contemporary experience, and the freedom to affirm the Christian faith in dialogue with all faiths – remains as taxing and as challenging as it has ever been.
Joseph Stephen O'Leary