Philosophy, theology, justice. Has there ever been a time that these three topics have not been intertwined? From its very inception, western philosophy has been interested in the religious and mythological claims of human beings. From Thales to Heraclitus, from Plato to Aristotle and from Stoicism to Neo-Platonism, philosophers have entertained the notion of divinity and the claims made about the divine by human beings. In this, however, they are not necessarily “believers.” As Plato warned, to think about God without the aid of wisdom is folly, which truncates human experience and allows social order and justice to reflect divine manifestations more akin to charlatanism than sound thought. If the smoke and mirrors of religious folly are taken as truth, the implications of such “truth” form a very flimsy foundation upon which social order is established. Even God is subject to truth, Plato argued in the Republic, less we make truth into something arbitrary and whimsical subject only to God’s will. There is more to reality than what we see, hear, feel, etc. and thinking about wisdom may never be exhausted by human understanding. Following his philosophical predecessors, Plato realized that human discourse itself is the pathway to truth and when embraced, discourse reveals beings that stand forth in all of their fullness forming a foundation upon which all that is good, just and true is grounded. The path of discourse (dialectic) allows beings to presence themselves without the aid of social bias and in this the Being of beings is revealed. For Plato that is goodness.
More ancient than the thought of philosophers, however, are the traditions and texts of those who pondered the thoughts of divine beings. The gods represented the collective wisdom of the ages handed down in stories that eventually took the form of writings thought to be divinely inspired. Forever hounded by alienation, suffering and injustice, these religious traditions speak of salvation, a salvation that will rescue human beings from their existential angst. Are these texts so different from the discourse of philosophers? Are the truths claimed by the philosopher different from those pontificated by the religious savant? Are they seeking something different? Or is the “more” sought by the philosophers something akin to the transcendence of the divine, which hides and reveals itself at strategic times throughout human history? Is a social order established upon the wisdom of philosophical thought more sound than a social order promised by the soteriological prophecies and laws of sacred texts?
In Western thought, these questions have been pondered by some of the most brilliant minds birthed by humankind. The wisdom of philosophy has been married to theological insight by the likes of St. Augustine who drew heavily upon Neo-Platonism and St. Thomas Aquinas whose adoration of the texts of Aristotle opened for him the meaning of the biblical canon. The thoughts of philosophical greats such as Immanuel Kant, G.W.F. Hegel and Søren Kierkegaard have inspired modern theologians such as Karl Barth, Paul Tillich, H. Richard Niebuhr, etc., and the writings of Martin Heidegger formed a philosophical backdrop to many theologians such as Rudolf Bultmann, John Macquarrie, Karl Rahner and one of my mentors, Carl Raschke. In all of this, one would hope that as the wisdom revealed by philosophy was married with theological insight, a social order would be birthed reflecting the promise of salvation common to the religious imagination and formed on justice and fairness as understood by philosophy. One would hope that as human beings embraced the marriage of philosophy and theology, peace would abide.
Sadly, this has not been the case. Fingers of blame have been plentiful. The philosophical purist points to weak-minded believers as the ruin of society. Religious purists have pointed to the liberal traditions of the philosophers as the source of ideological impurities promising to undermine the ethical decency of theological revelation. Neither trust one another but occupy themselves with the constructions of impressive straw men as representations of the other side’s evil. The Church and theological institutions are not immune to this chicanery just as academic institutions are influenced by the sophistry of philosophical accusations. Seldom do these two sides talk to each other betraying some of the most cherished principles of philosophy and ethical mandates that religious thinkers purport to extol. Deeply buried in this venomousness discord is suspicion that masks the “more” of philosophical discourse and blinds us to the divine revelation of the theological imagination so that justice becomes a matter of choosing sides, welcoming like-minded persons and excluding everyone else.
Many of us grow weary of this deafening discord and simply turn our backs to it hoping that by ignoring it, it will just go away. However, society has never been able to free itself from the discourse of philosophy just as it has never been able to build a wall strong enough to separate it from the influence of religion. Indeed, it is folly to try, and continued efforts to ignore the deafening roar of conflict have led to an upsurge of populism that rejects expertise in favor of opinion and opens the door to what is now called “the post-truth era.” This is an era where in an Orwellian twist of doublespeak, yes means no and no means yes, and where a lie is the truth and the truth is a lie. How can society continue to function in such a fashion without a return to fascism?
It is this era—an era of post-truth—that this blog hopes to consider. It will not do so by turning away from the conflict created by philosophical and theological discord but by embracing it. Langdon Gilkey once wrote a book titled Naming the Whirlwind: The Renewal of God-Language. The title was inspired by Job 40:6-7. You may remember that Job was a person for whom the foundations of life were destroyed to test his faith in God, and it is from the whirlwind of destruction that God spoke to Job. According to Gilkey, the state of the Christian religion has lost its foundation and must now hear the words of God from the midst of a modern whirlwind. How to hear those words is the content of his book. I do not intend to mirror Gilkey except to say that if the late 60s was a whirlwind for Gilkey, 2020 and the post-truth era is now a hurricane, the winds of which threaten to destroy the house that frames human discourse and with it, the meaning of truth, the ethical framework of decency and the cherished edifice of justice. It is too late? It is my hope that this blog provides a format for discourse as we take a step back and listen to the voice that speaks from the hurricane. It may be the voice of wisdom; it may be the divine voice of our salvation. Join me in an effort to find out.