Monday, 30 May 2022

Theological Self-Assembly

by Thomas Scarborough

The Swiss Reformed theologian Emil Brunner wrote, ‘World-views may be grouped in pairs.’ His original word for ‘pairs’ was Gegensatzpaare—pairs of opposites.

We see this in every dictionary of philosophy: realism vs. anti-realism, theism vs. atheism, altruism vs. egoism, and so on. Brunner himself provided these examples: materialism–idealism, pantheism–deism, rationalism–sensualism, dogmatism–scepticism, and monism–dualism (pluralism).

When Brunner made this observation, in 1937, on the face of it he could have meant two things. He could have meant that truth will always have its opposite—or that world-views are merely manifestations of our dualistic thinking. That is, they are mere phenomena, which have little if anything to do with the merits or demerits of the world-views themselves.

In fact Brunner meant the former—namely, that truth will always have its opposite—yet with an interesting twist. All of our world-views are untrue, he wrote, while faith is true: ‘If faith is lacking, a world-view is necessary.’ Further, world-views are theoretical, while faith is responsible. ‘We understand existence from the point of view of responsibility.’ Faith, therefore, belongs to a category all of its own, far from the realm of world-views.

This raises a thousand questions. Is this not intellectual suicide? Are world-views a true opposite of faith? Are world-views without responsibility? Do they not drive our actions in every case? And if faith is not about world-views, on what does one ground it? Of course, there is the question of definitions, too. How does one define faith, and world-views? *

More than this, however, Brunner apparently did not see that grouping world-views in pairs of opposites is especially theological. Theologians themselves are past masters at it. The language of personal salvation suppresses the language of social commitment; the language of community excludes the language of justification by faith; the language of religious values marginalises the language of the glory of God, and so on, and vice versa.

In theology, we find pairs of opposites such as liberalism–conservatism, immanence–transcendence, legalism–antinomianism, premillennialism–postmillennialism, and so on. These are not peripheral doctrines, but belong to theology’s core, and demonstrate that theological language has a natural, powerful tendency to exclude other theological concepts.

Brunner himself was aware that the separation of faith and world-views could be problematic. He wrote, ‘Can we, for instance, understand the spirit without ideas, norms, values, laws of thought, logos?There can never be any question of depreciating the reason, of hostility to reason, or of setting up a plea for irrationalism.’ Yet in that case, how may one interpret world-views as opposites of faith?

Theologians generally explain theological opposites in terms of the one-sidedness of their opponents—alternatively, they hold that their opponents are just plain wrong, or even apostate. Yet what if we simply have a natural tendency to generate pairs of opposites, regardless of truth?

It seems much like the honey-bee that remarks to another honey-bee that their colony has developed a most marvellous system: the exquisite selection of nectars and pollens, navigational skills second to none, with storage most wonderfully engineered. The other bee observes that the same is true, in fact, for all bees in every part of the world, over all of the known history of bees.

There is a powerful case in philosophy, not so much for our tendency to generate pairs of opposites, as our inability not to. The philosopher and logician Gottlob Frege described it as ‘the rule of words over the human mind.’ The literary critic and philosopher George Steiner wrote, ‘It is language that speaks, not, or not primordially, man.’ And the linguists Wilhelm Kamlah and Paul Lorenzen wrote, ‘We are thoroughly dominated by an unacknowledged metaphysics.’

That is, we are not free to think as we please. Whatever we turn out is the result of the dictatorship of ideas over the human mind—and over good sense, we might add. If this is the case in theology, then we have a theological crisis. Our cherished beliefs are merely the product of something more powerful than us, which holds us in its grip. How, then, to escape?

With our increasing awareness of various kinds of opposites—markedness, priority thoughts, term weighting, and otherness--among other things—it seems time that theologians should ask what is going on. For what reason are major concepts, both philosophical and theological, grouped in pairs of opposites? Is it, as is usually held, that some are true and others not? Is it that faith belongs to a category all of its own?

Or could it be that theological tenets of various kinds simply self-assemble?



* Emil Brunner is difficult to interpret, perhaps due to no fault of interpreters. A seminal statement of his: ‘Our nous therefore is the vessel but not the source of the Word of God. Where it receives the Word of God it is called : faith.’ Bearing in mind that Brunner is not so much the subject here as
Gegensatzpaare.

4 comments:

Keith said...

This is a particularly challenging discussion, Thomas. I’d like, very briefly, to pick up on just one aspect of your essay’s larger theme. That is, I see the situation less that we ‘generate’ pairs of opposites, as I don’t see the involvement (or necessity) of human agency in opposites’ occurrence. Nor, for that matter, the necessity of transcendent agency. Rather, I see the pairs of opposites as something we simply encounter as a ‘natural’ circumstance: one that infuses all aspects of the reality — the dualistic ontology — we happen invariably to experience.

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

Thank you Keith. This is well caught. I take the view that, in a sense, things exist twice. They exist in the world out there (or so we suppose), and they exist in our minds. But the form they take in our minds is (we suppose) altogether different to the form they take in the world. Excise them from the brain, and they are gone. We have only the contents of the brain to deal with.

This recalls an interesting line in Kant’s preface to his Critique of Pure Reason: ‘Things in themselves, while possessing a real existence, lie beyond the estimate of our rational cognition.’ Yes, but if they lie beyond the estimate of our rational cognition, how do we know they have real existence? I sense that Kant wanted to please his readers, and not (perhaps) appear to be a lunatic.

I would think that an obvious indication (again, we suppose) that out opposites are due to ourselves is that so many opposites are contradictory. Emil Brunner himself called them Gegensatzpaare. There is something wrong here in our thinking, unless contradiction is (as some have proposed) permissible. Take Simone Weil, ‘The contradictions the mind comes up against—these are the only realities.’

Martin Cohen said...


" For what reason are major concepts, both philosophical and theological, grouped in pairs of opposites?"

I would push things back a bit… the philosophers also have noted that everything we say and know is rooted in one distinction, which is highly binary: the is/ is not one. That is, you can't say anything about anything unless you create this kind of opposition. You can't say snow is white unless somethings are considered not to be white.You can't say some actions are evil unless some actions are considered not to be evil… The slightly more abstruse philosophical and theoretical "opposites" that are discussed here are (to my mind) no different from the daily common-or-garden ones, all of which depend on the is/ is not distinction.

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

Related to this, consider that a single subject may have various predicates, often opposites. ‘The king is evil.’ ‘The king is noble.’ Or as the Chinese had it (it looks to me in reverse order) there is unity in opposites. Here one has a pre-existent subject, yet the predicates are the ‘is’ / ‘is not’. How true is it then to think in such terms?

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