O’LEARY, Joseph S. Questioning Back: The Overcoming of Metaphysics in Christian Tradition (Minneapolis-Chicago-New York: Winston Press, 1985)
Fancy coming across a Jugendwerk of Joe’s in the Melbourne College of Divinity library! He really was a young Turk, laying into the greatest names in theology with bravado, but the title immediately caught my eye: ‘overcoming metaphysics’ – the very question that’s been preying on my mind for a long time. In fact, it took me back to our reading of Leslie Dewart’s The Foundations of Belief and Religion, Language and Truth in the early 70s, though they were dense and turgid compared with Joe’s elegance and daring. I wouldn’t be equipped to take the Heidegger-Derrida route, as he does, but it’s not the only possible one, and more important than the mechanics of deconstruction – which he performs with a light touch – is the basic diagnosis of what’s wrong with Western theological language. It might have been ‘right’ in previous centuries to speak this way (a high degree of philosophical precision was necessary by the time of the great councils, and in the Middle Ages metaphysics provided a lingua franca for Europe-wide debate), but now that its contexts of origin have disappeared, its context of validity is highly questionable, to the detriment of theology itself and public debate. Watching a Questions and Answers last night on religion, it struck me again: both the theists and the atheists were operating on the same wavelength: does ‘he’ exist or doesn’t ‘he’? Show me the evidence, etc. I think it needed familiarity with Buddhism to make this finally clear to me (more so than Dewart’s attempt to give priority to ‘reality’ over being and to philosophise about ‘non-being’), but Joe does a wonderful demolition job on the prevailing mindset quite independently of this, though not without relation to the exigencies of dialogue.
Though Joe acknowledges the possibility of narrative theology (2) and notes its Jewish heritage, he also says it is not a panacea (74) – as I have been tending to see it recently – for the problems in which the metaphysical tradition embroils us. Joe rightly says that this needs to be demonstrated with attention to the “concrete textuality” (41) of the tradition, which he carries out impressively on Augustine’s Confessions, with its uneasy to-and-fro between scripture and philosophy, and later brilliantly in a linguistic analysis of the Nicene Creed along the lines I used to practise, sifting out the propositions and determining their status (why hasn’t this been done more often?). All this is evidence for the “premature imposition of a system” (23) which makes ‘being’ an issue of faith, something Heidegger resolutely rejects. “Faith is not the answer to our (Greek) questioning of being, but co-exists with it in dialogical tension” (18). The alternative is suggested rather than worked out in detail: it entails a position “on the brink of the poetic” (29), where metaphor is given full play instead of imposing the conceptual prematurely on scriptural language (72; see 211 on “the unsettling truth which emerges unpredictably in poem or parable”). What really hit me between the eyes was the literary critique carried out under this heading on a round-up of the greats of contemporary theology: Tracy and Ogden, Barth and Rahner, Moltmann and Schillebeeckx; and what Joe discerns is exactly what has made theological language repugnant to me for years: the contorted efforts to fit faith into metaphysical schemas, taking roundabout routes to shore up the ‘ontotheology’ with its “reified abstractions” (83) on which the validity of statements of faith is presumed to depend – even in Barth: “Biblicism pits Scripture against metaphysics, but in the process structures Scripture as an alternative set of (metaphysical) principles” (99). Exactly; even Rahner’s ‘transcendental anthropology’ operates in a void, without reference to art, literature or science (95). Joe even remembers to place Catholic “magisterial fundamentalism” alongside Barthian “positivism of revelation” (108), anticipating by years something I put forward in the aftermath of Dominus Iesus.
When he comes to positive proposals, Joe claims that metaphysics is a “problem specific to Western theology” (115, though I would want to examine his passing remark that this also includes Indian thought, 10; here Dewart is more comprehensive in his assertion that Chinese and Arabic lack the copula and hence the ability to thematise ‘being’). He maintains that it was Luther who first pitted faith against philosophy and initiated the ‘faith-to-faith’ hermeneutic (135) that would dehellenise theology (117).Today this would be the equivalent of a critique of ‘Western reason’ (119), something that would have to be handled very carefully even in the light of responsible philosophers of science, not to mention Dawkins & Co. Joe believes Harnack’s historical approach to dogma needs to be followed up (strange that he doesn’t mention Troeltsch, whose characterisation of the ever-renewed ‘essence’ of Christianity would fit perfectly here). And – another key point of convergence for me – this brings us back to that “fear of Judaism and the Jews” (128) which has haunted the Western metaphysical enterprise: “The step back out of metaphysical theology is a step towards the Jewish matrix of all our theology” (128). As I have always insisted, this is the indispensable starting point of re-anchoring faith in history and taking an open stance towards other religion. Here, too, there are some telling observations about the falsity of so much dogmatic language which makes faith into mauvaise foi,forcing faith to be a noetic principle and not allowing it to be sui ipsius interpres (139). Faith as “events of recognition and trustful commitment” (138) would demolish “the usual complacencies of theological diction” (144). Wonderful stuff, and long overdue even now, but it comes with the warning that complete dehellenisation is impossible, given the groundwork laid by the early Fathers and the crucial function assigned to the homoousion (146-7). Well, we’ve yet to see Joe’s account of the birth of metaphysical theology in the Christological controversies, which resulted in the ‘colonising’ of biblical language by metaphysics, and has its counterpoint in the assertions of negative theology (so, Athanasius vs. Gregory of Nyssa – less so, interestingly, the Pseudo-Dionysius, 158; I notice that Joe also consulted John Keenan). The outcome is that faith has become a “theoretical ideology” instead of a “communal vision which is always being reshaped” (177). The exercise of ‘reading Augustine backwards’ yields the fascinating assertion that, though the resulting scriptural-philosophical amalgam is 90 per cent Platonic, there remains an unassimilated 10 per cent biblical residue which keeps disturbing the intended synthesis and could be used to unravel the seamless garment.
An important sub-plot in Joe’s story is that this task of deconstruction is unavoidable if we are to prepare for our next challenge: “a full-scale confrontation with the traditions and mentalities of the East. The Christian tradition will not be ready for that adventure unless it enjoys a concrete, demystified historical self-understanding” (207) – starting with the restoration of the links with our Jewish heritage.
'Unless this concrete history is now fully accepted Christians will go to meet other faiths carrying a burden of abstractions which have lost both their historical and their contemporary context and which can only generate confusion in dialogue. No doubt the other faiths will have to face their historicity in a similar way.' (207)
Not least Buddhism, but that’s another story, though Joe’s parting shot about the applicability of ‘form is emptiness, emptiness is form’ to the ‘phenomenality of Christ’ is suggestive: “this form itself subsists on the basis of the divine emptiness with which it is coterminous” (222; see 220). Against this background Joe’s Religious Pluralism and Christian Truth makes even more sense.
In such an audacious essay at such a high literary level there are bound to be soft spots, and two which I identified could be probed further. They centre around the terms ‘biblical’ and ‘phenomenality’ (sometimes used together – “Biblical phenomenality”, 16). ‘Biblical’ was of course a catchcry around the time of Vatican II, and even then I was uneasy about a kind of scriptural romanticism. Joe shows convincingly that even in Augustine cascades of scriptural quotations don’t really allow us to break free from the philosophical matrix. But this still leaves us a long way from seeing what a theology would look like that was ‘truly’ biblical, not ‘positivistic’ like Barth’s, not ‘biblicist’ like today’s evangelicals, but anchored in what Paul Knitter hints at as a ‘poetics of history’ (in fact, a comparison with his Without Buddha I Could Not Be a Christian would be instructive). The big, big challenge for our contemporaries, especially in the classroom but even in the pulpit, is to bridge the yawning gap between biblical language with its experiential presuppositions and the postmodern, media-driven mentality: never so well informed, never so incapable of historical perspective, not to mention literary discernment. The puzzles surrounding ‘phenomenality’ are closely related to this, and the puzzlement is no doubt my fault for being a non-practitioner, but the reason I’ve kept my distance from Heidegger all these years is this suspicion of arbitrariness in assigning meaning to metaphors and reporting on the results of introspection. At the same time, I concede that if the link could be plausibly made between the phenomena disclosed in John’s Gospel and phenomena experienced and observed in subsequent centuries, right up to today, it would indeed be possible to bypass the metaphysical heritage which continues to generate pointless and irresolvable ‘ecumenical’ problems like real presence, sacramental efficacy and the sanctioning of absolute authority. Three cheers, at any rate, for a daring sally into territory that has been off limits to professional theologians for far too long.