Saturday, September 11, 2010

Narrative, Logic, and Wishful Thinking in Theology

In a new book, with the possibly oxymoronic title of, "Analytic Theology: new Essays in the Philosophy of Theology," Eleonore Stump writes the following:
"To me, it seems that there are things to know which can be known through narrative but which cannot be known as well, if at all, through the methods of analytic philosophy."[1]
My worry here is that such a view is merely a contingent statement about the psychological assent of the individual, not about careful justification or reliable procedures for having trustworthy (even true) beliefs. A story adapted from the well-known 20th century philosopher, Bertrand Russell, is informative:
There is a small town with just one male barber; and that every man in the town keeps himself clean-shaven: some by shaving themselves, some by attending the barber. The barber, said to be a persnickety man, has a business rule whereby he shaves all and only those men in town who do not shave themselves. One day, a heavily bearded man, feeling the scratchy irritation that only a string of hot summer days can impute on such a fellow, decides to avail himself of this barber's services. As he's walking up to the shop, the thought strikes him, "Does the barber shave himself?" As he's reaching for shop's door handle, he further thinks, "Well, he does or he doesn't; that's for sure." Sadly, however, when he steps into the shop, he notes that the barber's not there. "Should I wait?" ponders the man, yet again scratching his neck.
Now people who love the narrative method for doing theology (or other religious-type thinking) would probably ask questions like, "Does this barber find meaning in having such a special commitment to whom he shaves?" Or, "Does this barber cheat members of the community by partitioning some from others as to whom he will allow into his business?" And, lots of other kinds of "deepity" fishings for Big Questions would, no doubt, also be asked.

Alas, the problem isn't that the story is just fictional, but that it's logically impossible that there is such a barber. (If the barber does not shave himself, he must abide by the rule and shave himself, but if he does shave himself, according to the rule he will not shave himself. Thus, such contradictions show our conceptual barber is nonsense.) So, what people who formulate such questions about this barber fall prey to is mere psychological assent, thinking they are asking meaningful questions. But there is no reference to the very concepts of their questions! They are fooled into asking about purely vacuous entities and events. Yet this is the very problem with much of what passes for standard theologizing. Many of the issues, even when not empirically defeasible, are simply vacuous. Sometimes theologizing fails by making scientifically false claims. Sometimes theologizing fails by making metaphorically hazy claims. But in these types of instances, theologizing would fail by making vacuous claims.

I once heard an aphorism which seems to be a corollary for this problem, at least for the traditional, dogma-based issues within theology. I'll paraphrase it as follows: "Just because a grammatically structured question can be formulated on some topic, doesn't mean there can be an answer to that question."



[image] william c hutton jr flickriver (Accessed Sept. 11, 2010)

[1] Oliver D. Crips, ed. "Analytic Theology: New Essays in the Philosophy of Theology" (Oxford Univ. Press, 2009), 255.

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