Thursday, September 24, 2015

My Thesis In A Nutshell

Since I started this blog just over three years ago, my life has been fundamentally transformed, all for the better, from that of a single fellow working part-time gigs hither and yon to a husband and father with a big-boy job. Getting married and having a baby have been the two biggest blessings of my life, by far, and I thank God every day for my wife and son. I wouldn't have met my wife, and our son would not be here today, if I hadn't followed my brother's suggestion to check out this small graduate school in the Bay Area with an intriguing dual degree program. So, in an indirect way, I have the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology to thank for my wife and son. Thanks, DSPT!

My activity in this space has been rather sporadic in the last year-plus, though, as my non-working/husbanding/fathering time has gone into the last stage of my graduate studies: the thesis. There were points in the last year, even in the last month or two, where I was unsure if I would be able to see it through, but Deo gratias, I finished writing it by the end of August, and last week I successfully defended it. So, as soon as the last things are filed and the paperwork clears, I will be the proud new owner of master's degrees in both philosophy and theology. Thanks, DSPT!

As my work proceeded over the last year, many of you asked, "So, what's your thesis about?" and I often stumbled and stammered--partially because I was unsure how much philosophical background would be required to explain it, partially because I wasn't entirely sure myself at certain points. I have something of an idea now that I'm done with it, though, and I wrote a summary of it as an introduction to my oral thesis defense. For the curious, here, in a nutshell, is my master's thesis:

The mission of the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology is centered on the intersection between faith and reason, theology and philosophy. Often these disciplines will approach the same subject each in its own way, according to its own mode. When we put the two in conversation with each other, we find (in the ideal) a mutually beneficial exchange whereby reason provides clarity to man's experience and faith provides an illumination to reason, revealing a further dimension to that experience that was always present even if invisibly so, and a strengthening and support of reason's own operation. While we would want to avoid a fideism that would claim that truth can be found only in or through revelation, we should not hesitate to affirm the title of theology as "queen of the sciences," the summit and summation of human knowledge that binds together the other disciplines and sits at their head as the discipline studying that truth from which all truths are derived: that is, God.
The particular corner of this intersection that I have written upon is hermeneutics, the study of interpretation, and specifically the place of tradition within the hermeneutical account of the German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer, the grand master of the subject. Gadamer's account of the way in which human beings interpret their experiences, especially texts, and the fundamental role that traditions, considered under the aliases of "forestructures" and "prejudices," have to play, provides much insight into the way in which people make meaning. Yet these insights take us only so far, and leave many important questions unanswered. The French Dominican priest Yves Congar treats of many of the same topics, yet he approaches them armed with an understanding strengthened by the support of Christian revelation. We see how this plays out. 
Gadamer emphasizes that history is the way in which human beings are in the world. We live and experience and think in a historical mode, characterized by finitude and fleetingness. Our understanding is likewise shaped by this particularity, and the products of our own historical situation, our texts, reflect this--as Fr. Eugene Ludwig says, "The project of an age is the project of an age." Congar, too, acknowledges this fundamental historical aspect of man, but sees within history a deeper significance, an economy at work that imbues seemingly random events, from the movement westward of a man from Ur of the Chaldees to the execution of a Jewish carpenter, with a greater importance. Man lives in history and God enters history to meet him, preeminently in the Incarnation, and thus history is sacred history. This history is recorded in a unique way in Scripture.
Texts like Scripture are key for Gadamer--indeed, he acknowledges that hermeneutics was born out of scriptural interpretation. If texts are the products of historical circumstances, then the text of one age will necessarily have a foreign air when read in another. There will be a disconnect, and the text will confront the reader as a question. The truly classic texts are able to appear relevant in any age, for in their particularity they still reach out to the universal and express something of it. Congar's concept of Scripture is not dissimilar: a text confronts us with its message, challenging us because it is the word of God and we are sinners in need of its Good News. Just as God reveals Himself in Christ, so Christ reveals and communicates Himself in Scripture.
But texts and contexts do not exist and are not formed in vacuums, but rather in communities and cultures. And cultures, Gadamer says, have languages as a constitutive element. Communities compose texts to express their inner unity, which is itself strengthened by the adherence to classical texts. Congar sees that this is true in the Church, but adds an extra element: the Church composes Scripture as an expression of what it is, but both Scripture and the Church are constituted what they are by the action of God appropriated to or predicated of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit descends upon a group and makes it a communion, organized under the visible leadership of the Apostles, who preserve the essential aspects of Christian identity and hand on to their successors that same responsibility. This is the essence of tradition, a key concept for both our authors.
For Gadamer, tradition is that which forms our worldview, that received knowledge which organizes our mental experience and allows us to assess situations without having to acquire (or reacquire) all the facts--thus, a forestructure or prejudice. Tradition is that by which we interpret the world, yet new experiences will affect our perceptions and cause us to adjust or even abandon traditions. And since tradition is primarily handed on through language, the interpretation of language is critical--thus, hermeneutics, and its omnipresence. It comes to the most basic level, for "being that can be understood is language." The person who is fluent in the language (broadly understood) of the tradition is thus authoritative, for they know of what they speak. The tradition is authoritative because it has endured over time, and the representative of tradition is authoritative because he represents it.
For Congar, obviously, Tradition is authoritative, because it is the handing on of Christianity itself--not just a set of propositions, but a way of being in the world, one that is centered in Christ and effected through the Spirit. The authorities have different competencies: the Fathers are recognized retrospectively as authorities because they clearly preserved and developed the deposit of faith, while the bishops successively guide this continuous process by virtue of their office. This notion of development is key for both authors, and is directly connected to the question of truth--for if our ideas and their formulations change, how can we say that truth is enduring/
Such change is the essence of the hermeneutical process for Gadamer: a text confronts a reader, who gives an interpretation that is a synthesis between his own fore-understanding and that of the text. This is what Gadamer famously calls "the fusion of horizons." Thus every act of interpretation produces something new--truth is made, until is is remade in the next act of interpretation, a process that goes on infinitely. Is Gadamer then a relativist? We might qualify our answer by saying that he is a "sophisticated relativist" or a "perspectival realist," the kind that puts severe limits on our ability to know but still allows that we can know some truth. Truth is mediated by language, such that things reveal themselves to us through language. Still, the process is infinite.
Congar, as a loyal son of St. Thomas, certainly holds that truths can be known, yet also that they can be developed. The prime example of this is typology in Scripture, the key of course being Christ: events in the Old Testament are seen to have a new significance in view of the events of Christ's life. Christ is the light that enlightens every man; Christ reveals man to himself. The Spirit of Christ over the course of time, through the course of sacred history, leads the Church into new understanding as it encounters new questions--always responsive, yet always faithful to its origins. It grows into what it always has been, as the acorn becomes the oak. It is rooted in the apostolic doctrine, nourished by the same Spirit who constitutes it and teaches it, guiding it into all truth, as Christ promised.
Thus we find what Gadamer mentioned but could not himself locate: the "legitimate prejudice," the true forestructure. The Catholic faith provides the lens through which we are able to see the world as it truly is, not as a replacement or alternative to reason, but as the necessary complement to reason, the salve that heals reason's wounds and allows it to function fully properly; not as a necessity to understand anything or everything, as is evidenced by the many non-Catholics who understand plenty of things, but as that which enables man not just to find the meaning of a text, but the meaning of life, of existence. Grace perfects nature. Faith illumines reason.
Clear as mud? Do ask questions if you like!

I do plan to post more often henceforth, as well as continuing my presence at Catholic Stand as a contributor and managing editor, and trying to expand my digital (and paper) footprint and be published elsewhere. I want this blog to be not just another place for commentating or opining on the latest fad, happening, or utterance. I want to share the fruits of my study with all y'all, to help you to come to know your faith better, and to share some of the things I've come across that have deepened my own faith. Please do send along topics you'd like me to address, questions you'd like to have answered, or any other subject matter you'd like to see here. See you soon!