Reason, Truth and Theology in Pragmatist Perspective (Studies in Philosophical Theology 24). By Paul D. Murray
Version of Record online: 7 APR 2009
© The author 2009. Journal compilation © Trustees for Roman Catholic Purposes Registered 2009
The Heythrop Journal
Volume 50, Issue 3, pages 551–553, May 2009
How to Cite
Buckland, S. (2009), Reason, Truth and Theology in Pragmatist Perspective (Studies in Philosophical Theology 24). By Paul D. Murray. The Heythrop Journal, 50: 551–553. doi: 10.1111/j.1468-2265.2009.00484_37.x
- Issue online: 7 APR 2009
- Version of Record online: 7 APR 2009
Leuven-Paris-Dudley , Peeters , 2004 , €35.00.
Paul Murray's proposal concerning the rationality of theology is published in Peeters' series of ‘Studies in Philosophical Theology’. Originally a Cambridge doctoral dissertation, it is generous in spirit, careful in tone, and steady in gaze, showing an obvious love of the craft of theology. There are residual marks of its origin: rather earnest summaries before and after every section, a high academic style (barely an adjective bereft of its qualifying adverb). Footnotes swarm in shoals, and among them glint the names of the biggest fish that swim ‘in these parts’. The bibliographies occupy a fifth of the book. The point, though, is to give an example of the kind of open, self-critical conversation that the book calls for. Beneath the measured, reiterative main text a chorus of supporting as well as dissident voices can be heard, albeit in muted tones and reduced font. Can the Christian theologian, with all her ethical and metaphysical commitments, really read philosophy; can she contribute to a philosophical conversation? Apart from anything he actually says, the structure and tone of Murray's book make a case for his answer: she is in quite as good a position as anyone else to do so, if she is (as all must be) honest about her prior commitments, generous to her dialogue partners, and rigorous in her own argument. This book allows the reader to eavesdrop on, and even want to contribute to, a fascinating debate that is much more than an intra-theological discussion of methodology.
At its heart are close and sympathetic readings of three thinkers: Richard Rorty, Nicholas Rescher, and Donald MacKinnon. The background, inevitably, is the ‘postmodern questioning of reason’, particularly two recurrent themes: the claim that there are no neutral perspectives on reality, so that the hope of ‘certain sure foundations for human knowledge’ must prove illusory; and the claim that reality is ‘open textured’ and constructed or shaped (rather than discovered) by humans. Certainly disturbing to some believers, these are not, according to Murray, alien to Christian theology, although two possible ways to appropriate them are rather briskly ruled out: the anti-realism of a Don Cupitt or Mark C. Taylor, because it fails to take account of the ‘realist force’ of Christian discourse; and ‘Lindbeckian postliberalism, because it risks promoting the ‘arrogant assumption that the Christian tradition really has nothing to learn’ (p. 15). The way ahead, Murray proposes, is to retrieve an account of human rationality that is ‘alert to the situated, partial character of all human knowing and doing but which both perceives the need for a constant exposure to the refreshing challenge of other perspectives and retains the realist aspiration’ (p. 16). This is approached through the American pragmatist tradition, as represented by Rorty and Rescher. Thus emerges an account - mostly Rescherian - of human thinking, and the prospects are then investigated of appropriating this into theology. This is not, Murray repeatedly emphasises, an attempt to build a theology on Rescherian foundations; for that would be to walk back into the fiery furnace of the postmodern critique of ‘foundationalism’. Rather Murray seeks a consonance between an account of rationality retrieved from postmodernity and the method already employed by ‘best practice’ in theology. In the final chapter, the theological method of Donald MacKinnon, reconstructed from his variegated writings, is exhibited as substantially similar to that called for by Rescher. In a last ‘Retrospect and Prospect’, as well as in other sections earlier (notably section 4.5), Murray makes some remarks, rather abstractly phrased, about the implications of this view of theological method for the ‘character of Christian theology and ecclesial reality’.
Rorty's position is carefully and sympathetically examined, his philosophical roots excavated in Sellars, Quine and Davidson (rather than Rorty's own trinity of Wittgenstein, Heidegger and Dewey); and he is assessed within the pragmatist tradition (he comes out as a ‘neo-pragmatist’). Murray has read the seminal philosophers crashing about in these thickets, and provides some deft guidance. He endorses much in Rorty's critique of the ‘objectivist, epistemological-sceptical tradition’, and listens hard to what he has to say. In the end, though, he agrees with others that Rorty's ‘cure’ is worse than the disease: (1) rather than moving us beyond scepticism as he claims, Rorty actually intensifies it; (2) by replacing the possibility of knowing the world, necessary if we are to change it, with that of merely re-describing it, Rorty drains the energy from ‘would-be transformative practice’ and reinforces the socio-political status quo; and (3) rather than providing the conditions for ‘keeping the conversation going’, Rorty's proposed world ‘post-philosophy’ actually allows the powerful, ‘relatively leisured’, ‘Western intellectual’ to determine what it is that is ‘deemed good [or true] in these parts’. These three criticisms of Rorty, in fact, are precisely what Murray is happy to find remedied in Rescher's ‘somewhat different retrieval of the pragmatist tradition’. Rescher accepts with Kant the idealist claim that ‘we make a real contribution to how we understand the world which would be different were our composition different’ (p. 95). But he does not conclude that there is no ‘mind-independent material correlate to the modes of understanding and configuring the world that our intrinsically mind-dependent concepts make possible’ (p. 95). Our understanding is shaped by our concepts; but our concepts too are shaped by ‘a process of biological, cognitive and conceptual evolutionary interaction with a world that is really there’ (p. 96). Though the image of ‘correspondence’ is ruled out (we cannot see both sides of the relation), Rescher thinks we can and should preserve its realist instinct, and use pragmatic considerations to assess the suitability of our methods. For the mature Rescher at least, what is at issue is not merely cognition. We are not merely knowers, but also evaluators and (crucially) agents engaged in changing the world: ‘we seek not simply intellectual satisfaction but successful negotiation of the world’, not just (re-) description but ‘explanation, prediction and control’ (p. 98). Our knowing is never ethically neutral. And here it is coherentist approaches that are preferred: though coherence cannot guarantee the truth of a body of propositions, it ‘does at least guarantee that one is moving in the direction in which truth is best sought’ (p. 98). But pure objectivity and unassailable certainty are always alike unobtainable: ‘the truth’ operates only as an ideal aspiration which is also, of course, a constant reminder of its unobtainability. Thus emerges what Murray calls Rescher's ‘dynamic, expansive, recursive, fallibilist view of rationality in its three interconnected modes’, these being cognition, evaluation and practice (p. 130). We inherit, says Rescher, a mass both of conceptual presuppositions and data already situated and interpreted by them, and we test all this to identify the most warranted truth claims, demoting some, confirming and upgrading others in a process that has neither beginning nor end (p. 114). ‘Whatever coherent system of understanding we might arrive at remains permanently in need of expansion and revision’ (p. 115).
Rescher's own forays into philosophical theology are surveyed by Murray but found to be disappointingly non-Trinitarian, even ‘deist’, as if he has not been able to hear within theology the echo of his own account of rationality. (A quibble here: on p. 149, Murray twits Rescher for showing no awareness of the relevance of quantum mechanics and chaos theory ‘to a theology of continuous but limited divine action in allowing both for (God-initiated) novelty and flexibility within the processes of physical reality and observable regularity at the macro level’: as if, in order to act, God needs quantum mechanics to open-up space ‘within’ physical processes; as if, in fact, God were a thing. And what could possibly ‘limit’ divine action?) Does the book stand or fall with Rescher's account of rationality as a piece of philosophy? In fact, Murray makes no claim to build on Rescherian foundations: rather, he is seeking a consonance between (what he hopes is) a viable view of postmodern rationality and ‘certain theological presuppositions’ of Christian theology, as illustrated in the practice of a working theologian like MacKinnon. Paramount among these presuppositions is the Trinitarian ‘belief that Barth rearticulated throughout [Church Dogmatics] Volume III that all of creation in its diverse particularity exists through and relates to the Logos, the self-reflected reason of God in Christ and continues to be energised by the generative and transforming power or Spirit of God’ (p. 133). As to method, Murray continues, this implies ‘a sense for the particularity of truth and the role of coherentist considerations in its discerning; the need for such discerning to have an expansive, recursive dynamic to it and the recognition that rationality stretches beyond knowing in isolation to include evaluation and practice also. But this,’ he concludes,’ is simply to name the character traits of Rescher's own approach to rationality’ (p. 135).
For his theological audience, Murray's link between Trinitarian theology and the (ideal) pattern of human rationality will be the crucial ligature of this book. Here can be heard echoes of Rowan Williams and other Cambridge-connected theologians, many of them influenced directly or indirectly by Donald MacKinnon. They will no doubt welcome Murray's attempt to crystallise out MacKinnon's method. But, to judge only from the many affectionate stories, it was perhaps MacKinnon's towering moral, intellectual and methodological integrity that was his greatest legacy to theology, and which has been so fruitful and influential. Murray's book serves the same ideal.
One last point: this book is about method in theology. Sometimes, however, a larger and much less humble claim is hinted at. At points, Murray rather more shyly proposes that, in the final analysis (if there should or could ever be such a thing), only Christian Trinitarian theology can provide the broadest possible framework within which alone it can be ensured that conversations be not prematurely foreclosed (see pp. 147, 152). When Bruce Marshall says, in the epigraph to Chapter One, that ‘It is not sufficient simply to say that the doctrine [of the Trinity] is central to Christian identity … the very notions of how we decide what is true and of what truth is must be reconfigured in a trinitarian way …’, one wants to ask: who exactly is this ‘we’? On p. 51, Murray himself writes that ‘part of the burden of this work is to suggest that if an inadequate, because basically deistic, theology is complicit in the problematic ‘God's-eye-view’ objectivism, so also the contemporary recovery of a rich Trinitarianism in Christian theology may have a related contribution to make to an appropriate revisioning of human rationality’ (p. 51); human rationality as such, note, and not merely the method of Christian theology or practice. (A slightly different suggestion is made in the last sentence on page 130.) Perhaps this is partly a matter of the form of theological treatises, or academic dissertations in particular, each position being subsumed in the next: Rorty is insufficiently pragmatist, Rescher is insufficiently Trinitarian and needs to be led respectfully to a richer method; and so, finally, MacKinnon. In the ‘Conclusion’, the book presents itself more clearly as what it professed to be at the beginning: a philosophical proposal for theological method rather than a theological proposal for rational method as such. But would a reader be wrong to emerge with a suspicion that it is also being said that in theology alone - at least in the ‘heuristic’ ideal operating in the work of its best practitioners - is the true nature of human rationality reflected? And what should one make of a claim like that?