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Tuesday, June 10, 2003






A Brief Dialogue Between Foundational and Contextualist Religious Epistemologies


Modern religious epistemic models involve the proposed irrefutable existence and primacy of the absolute. The existence of an absolute, a divine presence, actualizes and sanctifies an absolutistic moral stance therefore.
Opposed to this is the”contextualist” assessment , the child of Kantian dualities, and the attending insufficiencies of the mind to apprehend trans-experiential, noumenal realities. ( Kant does allow for the heuristic actuality of a divine presence as a sort of guarantor for his rationalistic moral formulations, however.)
The "post-modern” contravention insists on the "neutrality" of moral judgments, this notion premised upon the Enlightenment delegitimization of transcendence in favor of secular legitimizations, these sanctioned by that faith in “reason” and humanism which were felt to have been rediscovered at that time.
Liberal "neutrality" proposes the “non-existence” the absolute, or at least its absence in terms of human cognitive endeavor. The Liberal counsels abandonment
of absolutistic, monolithic, foundational, “truth” in favor of a plurality of diversified truths. “There is no truth," the canard goes, "there are only truths ."
Whereas the modern post-structural episteme emphasizes “absence” and a requisite moral relativity, religious devotions (especially those considered “fundamentalist") proceed untroubled by the aporias of skepticism and agnosticism, and are consequently motivated by an epistemic of unclouded, non-ironic
certainty regarding the “ presence” of an absolute , irrespective of its particular manifestations. (Allah, God, Yahweh etc.)
There are, I believe, elements of truth in both: the fundamentalist, while asserting the existence and presence of an absolute, limits the attributes, the predicates of this, to his own received, “constructed”, narrative tradition. Classic post-Enlightenment Liberalism --especially its post-modernist refinement, is on the other hand, “suspicious” of such “metanarratives”, hoisting an ironic, contextualist red-flag when such forms of legitimation are proposed as the foundations upon which systems of moral judgement are configured.
The neutralist, post-modern , post-Kantian “suspicion” does not necessarily belie a radical, humanistic, atheism regarding the actuality of theistic or realistic absolutes, ( these being beyond human access.) Rather it is the the contextuality of the narrative form, as a social construct, which is viewed aporistically. This suspicion of that intrinsic, self-justifying, non-inferential, credibility, which the fundamentalist, of what-
ever ilk, insists upon , provides the liberal contextualist with the material bases for his skepticisms of configured absolutes.
While suspicious of the credibility of socially constructed totalities, moral and/or divine, the contextualist, in many cases appears also dubious, indeed atheistically so, regarding the reality of non-contextualized absolutes, nevertheless. Herein a contravening “suspicion” surfaces, a“genetic fallacy” of sorts , this defined as: “ the error of drawing an inappropriate conclusion about the goodness or badness of some property of a thing from the goodness or badness of some property of the origin of the thing.” (emphasis added.) The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, 1995, p373
Throwing the baby out with the bathwater, so to speak, contextualism, while skeptical of the originations and probative values of foundationalist claims of access to an absolute reality, fallaciously projects this 'defeasibility-of-origins' into dialogues concerning the reality, the presence, of the absolute itself. Here deconstruction passes beyond hermeneutics into metaphysics, by aggressively denying the actuality of absolutes , i.e., the absence of transcendent meaning. An inappropriate “leap of suspician”, from this defeasibility-of -origins to the wholesale defeasibility- of-absolutes, is perceived herein.
Skepticism concerning the socially constructed configurations of the absolute, that which Advaita Vedanta refers to as Saguna Brahman, i.e., a personal God (Ishvara) with attributes and predicates, is perhaps hermeneutically viable. We perceive a sort of “hermeneutic overreach”, however, when this aporia is elevated ,
toward considerations of that aspect of the divine which the Advaitans refer to as Nirguna Brahman , i.e., the divine, the absolute without attributes (gunas), or predication.
Frithjof Schuon, distinguishes between an “exoteric” reading, or those contingent, dogmatic, narratives which are systemic to religious constructs, and an “esoteric” metaphysic which abjures and itself relativizes (deconstructs ) the particularities of exoteric discourse, by refusing to attribute "an absolute reality to that which is contingent”. ( Frithjof Schuon, The Transcendent Unity of Religions, p.47 )
The “outward dogmatization of universal truths “, in the exoteric, or what we have referred to as the social context, is, he suggests, " perfectly justified in view of the fact that these truths or ideas, in having to provide the foundation of a religion, must be capable of being assimilated to some degree by all men. Dogmatism as such does not consist in the mere enunciation of of ideas , that is to say, in the fact of giving form to
spiritual intuition, but rather an interpretation that, instead of rejoining the formless and total Truth after taking as its starting point one of the forms of that Truth , results in a sort of paralysis of this form by denying its intellectual potentialities and by
attributing to it an absoluteness that only the formless and total Truth itself possess."
ibid, p. 3
The exoteric, contextual view, this “domestication of transcendence”, as William C. Placher notes in his book of that title, is doomed, Schuon predicts, to end " by negating itself once it is no longer vivified by the presence within it of the esoterism of which it is both the outward radiation and the veil. So it is that religion, according to the measure it denies metaphysical and iniatory realities and becomes crystallized in a literalistic dogmatism, inevitably engenders unbelief; the atrophy that overtakes dogmas when they are deprived of their internal dimernsion, recoils upon them from the outside, in the form of heretical and atheistic em>negations." (emphases added) op cit, p. 9
This “recoil” takes current form as that deconstructive hermeneutic , which denies the authenticity of cultural productions, viewing these as dominative and totalizing. Implied within this “negation”, of exoteric, “literal dogmatism”, is, to stress this point once again, that inferential genetic fallacy which denies as well the "iniatory and metaphysical realities", those archetypal foundations upon which these now contingently suspicious narratives are sourced.
Nietzsche’s funeral oration for the literalistic dogmatic God, concluded with a re-evaluation of all values as required in consequence of this passing . Only a personal God dies, however; only a god with attributes , a "theistic" divinity, the predicates of which are culturally determined and ultimately become atrophied, can in fact die.
That God of the 8th century Advaitin, Shankara, the Nirguna Brahman, or Meister Eckhart’s, “Godhead”, are both without the predications, or those personal attributes which admit social construction and eventual profanation and demise.
In a similar vein Paul Tillich speaks of the courage needed to accept a”God above God” i.e., beyond theistic formulations. “The God of theological theism”, is for Tillich, “ a being beside others and as such a part of the whole of reality…he is a being, not Being itself.” (The Courage To Be, p. 184f)
These theistic constructions bind the absolute to the “subject-object structure of reality", Tillich concludes, "he is an object for us as subjects”. ibid, p185
As such “God as a subject makes me into an object.” (p.185) This God, this culturally produced, socially constructed , exoteric configuration of personal divinity, with attributes, (including an ego ) is that very theistic concept of the absolute which must, Tillich insists, be transcended: " This is the God Nietzsche said had to be killed because nobody can tolerate being made into a mere object of absolute knowledge and absolute control. This is the deepest root of atheism," he insists..."an atheism which is justified as the reaction against theological theism and its disturbing implications." Ibid,p.185

This “God above the God of theism is not the devaluation of meanings which doubt has thrown into the abyss of meaninglessness”: rather Tillich insists, pace Nietzsche, that “ he is their potential restitution.” (p.186)
Beyond the “theistic objectification of a God who is a being” Tillich proposes an anagogic model. This much like Eckhart’s, "mystical" epistemic, conceives of a transpersonal “Godhead”, a God who transcends theistic construction, a God who as an absolute beyond attribution, remains unleavened by human projections and as such beyond contextualist deconstruction and suspicions.
(To be cont'd.. as if any one really gives a ....)




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