Hazardous Language

By now Owl readers have heard about Richard Rorty,[1] the Professor of Philosophy from Princeton University and author of Contingency, irony, and solidarity. Probably his most famous dictum is this: Truth is made, not discovered. In other words, it is not the job of philosophy to describe the world in one overarching vocabulary. Instead, we creatures make it up (including our own personalities) on the fly. We have the power and responsibility to create and re-define it every step of the way. Rorty is no theist, but his teachings are tantalizingly compatible with Christian teachings against idolatry and (2) the freedom of a Christian as obedience to the free God.

But both philosophy and self-re-definition can still be done, and will have to be done from an unstable platform. For there is no permanent, irreducible nub of human being. Our language, owing to our contingency, cannot possibly speak about God with certainty. There is no pre-linguistic Truth to be spoken, and about that of which we cannot speak it is best to keep silent.

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Philosophy meets Faith

The Owl wishes to acknowledge a great debt of gratitude to one of his teachers, the Rev. Dr. Harvey Guthrie, erstwhile Dean of Episcopal Divinity School, Cambridge, MA, who generously took him under his personal tutelage and introduced him to Richard Rorty, of whom more below.

God’s being

Operating as a philosopher, let it be noted, not a theologian, Richard Rorty denies the necessity of a god who made the world with some intent of his own, which it is our task to discover. As philosophy, this is perfectly correct Down that path lie only the pretentious creations of human minds—in other words, idols. In Rorty’s famous dictum, truth is made, no discovered. As far as we think we have the truth of God in hand, we made it up. But God’s truth is a thing of a different order, wherefore we say—or rather, we hear God say he is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. That is not a valid philosophical utterance; it is not philosophy at all.

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The Grammar of God-Talk

Elsewhere in these writings we have asked whether it were not better for us to avoid theological language, at least when talking outside our own coterie of committed Christians. With those whom we would like to reach to make disciples, it is repugnant. Doctrine is not simply teaching, it is dogmatic; not authoritative but authoritarian. The talk that is expected of us, and we too often give, is counterproductive.

Yet surely there is a proper place for theological language, if it can be used judiciously, understanding its peculiar grammar. Richard Rorty understands and fails to understand this. In his terms there is nothing to be said about the nature of man, or the nature of God.[1] It is simply absurd to put predicates behind “God.” Yet we take very seriously a sentence like “God is love,” “God is good.” and “God is truth.” How can this be?

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Science and Religion

In From Dawn to Decadence (2000), Jacques Barzun discusses the scientific revolution that occurred between the seventeenth century and the present. In his description, this is not just a matter of learning to observe natural phenomena. Our medieval forebears were meticulous observers of their world—it takes only a look at their exquisite engravings of plants to convince oneself of this. But until a certain intellectual shift they could not derive general laws from what they saw. We moderns do this every day, rising from raw observation to abstraction. Then we treat the abstractions as things in their own right. Note the word rise.

Scientific language is equipped to treat of geometry, physics, chemistry, biology, and more. Finding meaning in the world is another matter. That belongs to poetry, morality, belief, and faith. Its operant language is not merely descriptive, but constitutive of reality. The two things do not operate wholly independently, which is why we have a postmodern debate about how much of science, especially the studies of human being, is comprised of social constructs. However that may be, when western culture developed a scientific world view, we found ourselves in a world divorced from many of its previous meanings.

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Richard Rorty is the author of contingency, irony and solidarity, a concerted philosophical challenge to faith. But on thoughtful consideration, it seems the best Rorty can do is show us where we would be had we not the faith. Thus he forces us to ask: Since we do have it, what is its true foundation? Read this way, he performs a very great service.

Rorty denies there is any permanent, pre-linguistic essence that defines human nature. Opposing his view, one might adduce the Augustinian gnawing in the bowels, the unrest which will not be quiet until we find rest in God. (Confessions 1:1)

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