O’LEARY, Joseph S. Conventional Truth and Reflective Judgement: Keys for Fundamental Theology [forthcoming]
This book is the third volume in what Joe now regards as a trilogy. If each of the previous volumes (Questioning Back, 1985, and Religious Pluralism and Christian Truth, 1996) was a landmark in the field (and for me personally), this one represents the full flowering of his sabbatical researches into Neo-Platonism (and of the talk he gave my students in Dublin on theological judgement). It digs the foundations of a future inter-religious theology even deeper, leaving behind the tired squabbles of inclusivism v. pluralism for a truly exhilarating assault on the metaphysical bastions which still protect dogma understood as irreformable, unchangeable and ‘true’. This is a daring foray, made all the more piquant by Joe’s wonderful use of metaphor and irony. Being an Irish student of literature is a great pedigree for an experimental theologian.
At the core of the book is Joe’s appropriation of the Buddhist figure of ‘two truths’ – conventional and ultimate – for Christian theology, taking a cue from Kant’s concept of ‘judgement’ to release this distinction from the bondage of speculative reason. There is a pluralism not only of the religions, but of the rational; “Neither can be entirely purged of the contingency of its particular incarnations”. Logic never encompasses the movement of the whole mind, pace Hegel. Reflective judgement is the antidote to the pathologies of fundamentalism and sectarianism, to which the church is also prone; “Dialogue is the very element of theological thinking”. Theology needs “collective collaboration” with contemporary thought. “Faith is the first theological judgement, and orients the whole discipline”, and “Theology is... the critique of faith – both subjective and objective genitive” – and the same applies, mutatis mutandis, to Buddhism. Theology is not a system, a method to be applied to faith (Lonergan!); there can be a critique by faith, a prophetic judgement, a critique of dogma and scripture by the Word (Barth!) which is not just Protestant private judgement or even freedom of conscience, but that judgement-in-community which is at the origins of kerygma and dogma. The book is thus postulated on the relativity of all language (not: relativism) as conventional approximation to the ultimate, which continually withdraws from its grasp yet to which it points. Empirical phenomenology challenges speculative metaphysics.
One immediate and fundamental impact of this approach is on our concept of God. In Joe’s scenario, the God of metaphysics ‘withdraws’ from our speculative grasp, which is in the first instance a matter for philosophical theology, not mysticism. Von Balthasar’s (and, I presume, Masao Abe’s) conception of the Trinitarian relations as ‘self-emptying’ is already speculative. Even Marion’s evocation of a God ‘beyond being’ is not beyond metaphysics, and neither is it traditional; there is no alternative to wrestling with Being, as Heidegger taught. Augustine is a traditional philosopher, and though his philosophy is in tension with scripture, he does not ‘overcome’ metaphysics with scripture. Both he and Aquinas are “not as apophatic as Marion would wish”: both read Ex 3:14 ontologically. What is called for today, now that classical philosophy has receded, is an “ascesis of language”, for from a human perspective metaphorical language cannot state God in Godself; it is at best a “gesture of hope”: “Accepting this withdrawal of its ultimate referent is not a failure of our religious culture but the crossing of a threshold of maturity in our way of handling the biblical heritage”. This conclusion is pregnant with implications for the conduct of religious discourse in a culture of linguistic mobility and a plurality of perspectives: “Our thought progresses in refusing the way of essentialism, finding everywhere relativity, indetermination, contingency and pluralism”. This is the undertone of Joe’s whole study – unwelcome, naturally, to the guardians of orthodoxy, but programmatic for any theology of religions. It involves the acknowledgement, of course, that religious language is ‘only’ metaphorical, symbolic, poetic, even if it can be ‘cashed’ phenomenologically; this can appear to be a weakness, a fatal concession to the assaults of rationalism, whereas in reality it relocates theological discourse where it always belonged: in a language inspired by and comparable to the concreteness of the Bible. It also means there can be no reducing the various religious language games to some kind of unity, no general discourse about ‘God’, no Rahnerian schema in which all is already foreseen, no “tritheistic Trinitarian fantasies”.
The same applies to metaphysical speculation about a God-man: the humanity of Jesus remains fragile, the church’s grandiose conception of itself belies its historical contingency. Origins, the guarantor of identity, also withdraw, as Modernists like Buonaiuti tried to demonstrate, and the issues they raised are still unresolved. There is a lack, a gap at the origins of monotheism itself, so “Philosophical and theological arguments can contribute to conscientize believers about the need to invest more in reason and dialogue and less in primeval instincts that wrongly call themselves faith”, for “Religions work best when aware of their poverty and incompletion”. This flies in the face of religions’ attempts to sacralise their origins, making them immutable for all time. “Jesus and the Buddha are figures of salvation not by closing the gap but precisely by their capacity … to be penetrated by emptiness”. Again, an immensely evocative phrase whose implications are only beginning to be worked out.
All religious imaginings are subject, in the first instance, to religious critique, for we are talking about “an emptiness that withdraws”. It is here that Joe’s theme of the conventionality of religion comes into its own. “To some extent a dramatic story of God acting in history may be rewritten as an account of humanity making breakthroughs in consciousness of the divine. In that case, the biblical and Islamic tales of revelation would be exemplary instances of a universal process of realization of divine presence”. The transposition of putatively objective, ontological statements of ‘fact’ into mythical, poetic mode leaves them intrinsically fragile – and plural. “A religion preoccupied with proving its truth has failed to establish its authority by transmitting a contact with the ultimate”. The whole system which determines whether statements are true or false, whether in geometry or theology, cannot itself be either. The metaphysical framework in which the dogmas once made sense is now obsolete; ‘true’ now means phenomenologically grounded and pragmatically justified. We are dealing with a convergence of practice rather than a contest of claims, so that theology becomes a “therapy of religious conventions”. We have no authority to reject reality: “Reality cannot be accused of heresy”.
What wonderful provocations! But could they ever gain acceptance as a basis for believers’ religious lives? Or are they already tacitly accepted as such? Joe does not discount the magisterium, even taking Dominus Iesus seriously. A crucial step in Joe’s argument is his direct invocation of dva-satya, the Buddhist ‘two truths’ construct of ‘conventional’ and ‘ultimate’ (rather than ‘transcendent’ or ‘absolute’, a useful terminological hint), in dealing with mystical experience as culturally constructed and relating the purely immediate to the unmediated. This concerns the foundation without which dialogue with oriental religion is scarcely feasible, for it is unlikely that such dialogue can be set up on the basis of deconstructing the alleged myths of Eastern spirituality in tandem with a deconstruction of Western metaphysics and mysticism.
“Conventional truth is a truth agreed upon for practical purposes”, which has the corollary that the past becomes “a museum of rusty old flying machines”. The key point is that religious systems are conventions, ‘confirmed’ in a sense by experience; but the ultimate which transforms these conventions is known only through them, whether as ‘enlightenment’ or ‘resurrection’. There is no common core experience; the unconditioned is never free of relationships to the conditioned it transcends. Nor is there a two-stage ‘escape’ from the experienced real: access to the realm of Spirit illuminates precisely the Real. The resurrection is known through suffering and death even as it transforms our perception of suffering and death. Tradition is thus constantly reappraised in the light of ultimacy.
The following chapters on the Platonic tradition and apophaticism, the fruit of Joe’s sabbatical researches, are too complex to summarise here and are in any case way beyond my competence. Suffice it to say that they are presented as a bridge to Vedānta and Buddhism in pursuit of “the One beyond being”, “the ultimate One that undoes all our categories”. The chapters abound in provocations: “Duty and action are the sources of happiness and the real decadence is the refusal of time and history, taking flight to an illusionary eternity in which consciousness turns in on itself in loving self-knowledge” (Philonenko). The theme of a tension between philosophy and scripture recurs (e.g. in the contrast between Augustine’s Conf. VII and VIII). The task today is to “revamp religious discourse so that it no longer obstructs access to this realm, but kindles experiences of ultimacy through recognition of its own thorough conventionality”.
There follow two important chapters reassessing ‘negative theology’, Pseudo-Dionysius and Gregory of Nyssa (the former a slightly unbalanced subverter of theological discourse, the latter a more reliable guide because grounded in scripture and creed). “The life of faith is not an epistemological condition only but an existence in time, striving forward to things hoped for”. As in Plotinus and Aquinas, we are dealing with aphaeresis rather than apophasis, with remotio rather than negatio; not a ‘hidden God’ behind the revealed God but Barth’s incomprehensible grace; less an ascent than a rejoining the here and now. God is known by otherness (the cross!); what is revealed is the being-given of being. The One overcomes metaphysics, as a reality too powerful for the feeble instruments of metaphysical reason. Yet the One is still envisaged and located from within the onto-theo-logical horizon. It is the rational, philosophical quest for founding principles that permits the sighting of an ultimate principle that transcends the horizon of philosophical reason. Seldom has the crucial paradox of religious language and theological intellect been put so elegantly. “One might say that the One is the figure that nirvanic ultimacy assumes when apprehended by the Greek mind, as that which eludes its grasp”. Joe is looking for the “new incarnated apophasis” he finds in literature and art rather than “tenuous abstractions, taking the frustration of knowledge as a privileged contact with the Unknowable”. A phenomenological reduction coupled with an evangelical reduction might help theology reach the “proto-phenomenological or proto-deconstructive” mode in which the Platonic tradition instructs us. “We prize their [Eastern traditions’] apophatic strategies because they do not send us mounting ladders to the beyond, but bring us back to the here and now”, recalling the tat tvam asi). Language is liberated, difference abolished – it is only conventional (the Brahmanic neti, neti). Yet withdrawal is approach and manifestation; “the two are in direct not inverse proportion”.
The contradictions of anātman are overcome when one grasps the ‘I’ as an artefact, in much the same way as the ‘ego’ can be conceived as a projection; the conventional forms are maintained, for they are the “means by which emptiness is known”. Emptiness is realised in negating itself – as the fullness of all. “The ‘emptiness of emptiness’ signifies that emptiness is always correlated with the dependently arising phenomena of which it is the emptiness”. Hence nirvana is best translated ‘freedom’, “the quiescence of fabrications” (MMK 25.24). This corresponds almost exactly with the correctives David Loy has given me over the years. Its impact on Christian theology, if it were taken seriously, would be sensational. It only needs to be spun out of Joe’s wonderfully suggestive phrases so it can be embedded in the actual conduct of theological discourse on its particular problems – perhaps transforming some and creating new ones. It is also foundational for dialogue, which cannot be based on a philosophia perennis uniting all the traditions; “Rather each tradition of contemplative apophasis has immediate relevance to the others”.
Joe’s concluding chapter is nothing less than exhilarating when read in the context of Catholic preoccupation with ‘identity’ and ‘orthodoxy’. Dogma is originally witness, confession; it is therefore normative for the unity and identity of the church. But it must be “constantly thought and rethought in reflective judgement” as an ongoing historical appropriation of revelation. “Only at a later stage did it acquire the appearance of advancing metaphysical theses”, becoming a token of substance and identity. “It is a kind of meta-dogma that all this dogma was necessary”. Owing more to Aristotle than scripture, it contrived to obscure the originating phenomena (like ‘being’ in Heidegger) – but it can be retrieved by rethinking scripture in order to overcome substance language so we can speak in categories of event and process. Here again the shock of encounter with Buddhism can be wholesome: “The conception of true existence is an afflictive obstruction” (Jay-tsun-pa). The realisation of emptiness is a breakthrough to freedom, which highlights a “merely functional” church as the “historical fabric of Christian faith”. The equivalent, perhaps, is the spirituality of Spirit, which prevents the divine freedom from being “frozen into an immutability that would be incompatible with freedom”. To do so is not to capitulate to the unreflective atheism so prevalent in Western intellectual circles; “Rather one must think through one’s notions of God until they transform into traces of emptiness”, for “The reification of God is on a continuum with the reification of self and of the data of experience”.
With this Joe rejoins his underlying theme of the ever-renewed exercise of theological judgement if faith is to flourish in the milieu of self-aware global pluralism. What are we really to make of such a tour de force? While Joe never cuts the anchor chain securing him to the theological tradition, the risks he takes are breathtaking, as are his swashbuckling gestures of disregard for mere convention and hidebound traditionalism. There is a vein of poetry running through his language, lit by constant bursts of irony, which bears witness to the Irishness of his style. Despite the profundity and complexity of the material he wrestles with, the book is a sheer delight for anyone impatient with contemporary neo-orthodoxy (‘radical orthodoxy’ pays it too much of a compliment). Its reception by the theological establishment is going to be a spectacle worth watching. The very freedom which makes it so entertaining also perhaps makes it vulnerable to those who will disagree with its judgements on historical and philosophical grounds, but the depth of research which lies behind it makes one confident that Joe will easily be able to parry most such criticisms.
For me the most valuable contributions he makes are the critique of theological language, the reassessment of negative theology, and the deployment of Buddhist thought as a wake-up call to Christians still sunk in dogmatic slumber. As a stimulus to inter-religious dialogue it is invaluable, and incipiently it is an exercise in what I have been calling ‘collaborative theology’, i.e. doing Christian theology not gegenüber, but zusammen mit religious thinkers of other traditions. What Joe demonstrates most convincingly is that, while the symbols and even the symbolised may not be equivalent, the mysteries they adumbrate and the problems they address are in some sense ‘the same’. Even if we are never able to pin this sameness down definitively, as long as our language remains sufficiently fluid we will be able to initiate a kind of osmosis which can only enrich religious thought. This is of course anathema to the guardians of all orthodoxies, but I am convinced it is the only way ahead for theology.