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Compatibilism and Orthodoxy


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#41 Owen Jones

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Posted 12 May 2011 - 04:20 PM

Thanks to Fr. A and for Perry for the explications. However, I would suggest that Orthodoxy has never framed it this way in the first place. In a sense, these are non-issues for Orthodox. Now, not being an expert by any means, I am treading on very squishy ground here admittedly, but what we are really dealing with here are Aristotelian problems. So to understand the issues as framed by Thomas, one has to go back to Aristotle. And here is where I am on squishy ground. But Aristotle makes the distinction between the perfect heavens and the imperfect world. There are debatable passages in Aristotle regarding any degree of participation between the two, that is, whether or not there was an absolute separation between the two. But I think it is safe to say that Aristotle was quite consumed with the question or problem of motion and action, in part, or perhaps totally, because of this near total separation between the perfect and the imperfect realms. Hence, in part, such a focus on causality.

Again, I am far from on solid ground here, but there is much in Aristotle regarding actions and motions. They cannot be inexplicable! Aristotle is not a nihilist. For every motion and every action there has to be a cause. But he argued that an infinite regression of causes is irrational. Therefore he posited the unmoved mover or first cause. Note that this does not necessarily refer to causality in time, as in a chain of events on a timeline. Now this obviously raises all kinds of new questions, because Aristotle understood that this is not a simple problem to determine the what or why of causality, but anyone like myself who only has a smattering of knowledge about Aristotle will at least likely be familiar with the four causes:

material cause
formal cause
efficient cause or moving cause
final cause

Much can be said about the causes, but in summary, Aristotle was rigorously examining not only what causes something to do what it does but also causes it to be what it is, which also begs the question of what it is for, all in light of this contextual problem in that there is a perfect realm and an imperfect realm with limited or no interaction.

While I would say that these are useful analytical tools for any human being as a kind of diagnostic tool in an array of areas, the one that most readily comes to mind is in medicine. If doctors would more rigorously follow this method it would no doubt lead to much improvement in diagnostics and treatment.

Which brings me to Orthodoxy. Orthodoxy essentially takes a medicinal approach to salvation. But Aristotelian causality plays no part in this as far as I can tell. Part of this is simply because Aristotle's works were either not known are widely disseminated among the Church Fathers. The "discovery" of Aristotle, and the outright fascination, perhaps one might even term it fixation with Aristotle, arises within the context of the Franks and their political, religious influence in Europe. So by the time of Thomas, everything he wrote had to at least be reconciled with or consistent with Aristotle. But part of it is due to the fact that the Church Fathers would have found Aristotle to be so profoundly wrong in some of his essential precepts that he would not be worthy of examination.

OK, let's take a quick look at Plato. There are references to Plato in the Fathers. We know that many of the Greek fathers were educated in the Platonic academy, such as it was at the time. And so they had read their Plato. What they mostly focus on however is the Timeaus. It is the most often quoted piece of literature by the Fathers outside of Scripture. It gives a quite different picture than Aristotle. And though we might not go so far as arguing that Plato influenced the Fathers -- it was more a case of using the Timeaus as a proof text of the Biblical God -- the one creator God, and they went so far as to claim that Plato received this knowledge from Moses from a trip that Plato had made to Egypt. However, there are some fathers who are more philosophical than others and who use philosophical arguments to make their case, beginning at least with Justin Martyr, and following on with the Cappadocians, St. Maximos the Confessor, and St. Gregory Palamas, all of which would seem, in some sense, to see things in one might say Platonic terms.

I would say that the critical difference, the difference which Aristotle himself clearly and very emphatically (and not without a certain disdain) comments on, is what George Bush the Elder referred to as "the vision thing."

How did we get here from there and how do we get there from here? For Aristotle it had to be a chain of causality which leads us to make a step by step rational analysis, according the the analogy of being. For Plato it was a vision of heavenly reality, that stems from entering into heavenly reality. That is because man shares in both divine and human attributes (natures?). He is an in-between being who inhabits an in-between realm.

Aristotle quite explicitly rejects the notion of any kind of vision offering us rational insights. For Plato, it is all about the vision of God. In the Symposium, he sets out to explore the nature of love, by looking at the soul, what it is, and what it desires (eros). The sophists come up with all kinds of goofy notions on the subject, which are essentially the same goofy notions one finds today in our public school system and in university departments. As an alternative, Plato gives his vision of what man is, but it comes as a revelation to Socrates by the oracle, Diotima.

Now, I am not arguing in favor of a direct line of causality between Plato and the Greek Fathers here. But certainly Orthodox philosophical anthropology follows the same lines, and we see this concept of man as an intermediate being, inhabiting an intermediate realm, in the writings of the Fathers. We are divine/human beings. In fact, what makes us human is our divine attributes. Today we mean something quite different by this of course. When we say that so and so is being human, we mean that he is being honest about the fact that he is basically no good. But for Plato and the Fathers, being human is living in and being a part of God's life. This is indeed the "natural" state of created existence. It is the most natural way to live. Not in harmony with a perfect realm that exists but is far off, but actually being part of it.

This is why there is so much confusion between the Orthodox East today and the Catholic West, so to speak (although last time I looked I live in the Orthodox West!) on the subject of nature and the supernatural. Orthodoxy does not make that distinction and never has, whereas it is the essential distinction made by Aristotle, and somehow Thomas has to get the two together. He does so by fusing Aristotle with Dionysius the Aereopagite. This remains a problem in Catholic thought today, if I may be so bold.

Now, as a good resource, we have a post somewhere on Monachos by Fr. John Romanides on the NOUS that should be quite helpful. And also his writings on Augustine and the Trinity, and the impact of Aristotelianism and the Frankish influence on Western theology, some of it rather scathing. But if you get beyond that, it's useful resources. Also, I've just added a comment on another thread on the subject of free will. I will go out on a limb and say that it is Orthodox, but I am perfectly open and willing to be corrected if I err. But it explains why such a philosophical and theological absurdity such as Occasionalism could never have arisen in Orthodoxy, and why these various philosophical approaches are unnecessary.

#42 Bryan J. Maloney

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Posted 13 May 2011 - 07:10 PM

I have studied Aristotle (Biology major, Philosophy minor), and his God is simply incompatible with anything Christian. Aristotle's God is and by logical necesity must be completely unconcerned with mortal existence. Aristotle's God cannot love, for to love is to interact with the imperfect, and to do so, even indirectly, is not possible for Aristotle's God.

That being said, Plato's "God", is also fundamentally incompatible with anything Christian. The Timaeus has some attractive images, but as a whole, Platonic "theology" cannot be reconciled with Orthodox (or any non-loony) Christian doctrine. Plato's "God" is an unfeeling, incomprehensible "eidos", not any sort of being with whom one can have an actual relationship. Plato's God does not and cannot beget. Instead, everything, including the "gods"--indeed, every Divine concept we might have, is one of Plato's emanations, but none of them are due to active Will on the part of God. Plato's God is just a passive thing, from which reality emanates. Plato's God is far more akin to a Buddhist or Gnostic concept. However, the Fathers had to work with what they had available. Since they were surrounded by Greeks, in their wisdom, the chose that part of Greek culture that was least offensive to the Revealed Truth. A teacher with a Patristic heart in the USA would not waste any time on the Timeaeus. Instead, I would say that a teacher of Patristic heart would use what is in our culture, here and now, to illustrate how the Truth is always there and always ready for us.

#43 Owen Jones

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Posted 14 May 2011 - 12:41 PM

First of all, it is wrong in principle to force both Aristotle and Plato to be measured in Christian terms -- to judge them in Christian terms. On the other hand, I disagree with your assessment of Plato's God, up to a point. It is quite clear in the Symposium that God causes man to desire Him and to participate in His Beauty. In fact, I will go so far as to say that Socrates is presented as a god-man, and the virtues he exemplifies are the virtues that God has. In the Symposium, Socrates is treated as a divinity. He is shrouded in mystery. He does not appear when summoned. He appears when he wills. And the long paean by Alcibiades clearly points to a man with divine powers and attributes, yet among the most humble of men. This is how Plato "personalizes God," through the person Socrates. Now, it is probably true that these divine qualities are available only to the philosopher, which is why one might say that classical philosophy is a failed religion. But at least let's be clear about what it is and isn't. In Plato it is not a construction of dogmatic principles, but rather a man philosophizing, i.e. a man desiring God and to be like God in His virtues. That's not gnostic.

There are elements of both the personal and the impersonal in God in Plato, as there is in some of the more complex thinkers in Orthodoxy, such as St. Maximos. For many of the Fathers, God is impassable.

One cannot read Plato with an open mind without having some experience, some feeling of God's presence, personally. Throughout most of his dialogues, there is a consistent theme that we participate in divine reality. I am not sure it is correct to view this as emanationism, which is more of a Plotinist concept. Certainly, Plato's God is not some intellectual abstraction or deductive conclusion. It is not, as I said, that the Father's tried to fuse the Hebraic/Christian experience of God with the Platonic. But there is no doubt that Athens was fused with Jerusalem, at least among the Greek Fathers. The Syriac Fathers are something else entirely. And one cannot go wrong if one wishes to adopt the Syriac Fathers as his mentors.

On the other hand, the point made about Aristotle is well taken, although even in Aristotle it is not absolute. There are hints at man participating in the divine realm. The point of course is that Plato is concerned with practical problems -- how is it that the cultured, educated Greek polis can degenerate into tyranny? How is it that the most intelligent and educated people could sink so low or could be so wrong? And his practical solution is to examine the root causes of these developments and he finds the problem located in the soul of man, which is really a dramatically new thing to consider. Aristotle on the other hand is concerned primarily with addressing abstract or theoretical problems. He is deeply dissatisfied with the Platonic notion that one can have a personal, visionary experience of God. He writes a scathing, sarcastic comment about his mentor in this regard.

The puzzling question is why the Latin West would have such a fixation with Aristotle that so much of Catholic theology since has been dominated by his method. Now, if every school kid were required to read Aristotle, and work through his arguments, I think the world would be a better place, to be sure. I am not condemning or dispensing with Aristotle. It would be like condemning Einstein because he wasn't Orthodox! We are talking about science here. But the literal fixation with Aristotle has led to all kinds of problems in the development of theology and science in Western Europe. Aristotle just could not be wrong about anything! These problems just never arose in Orthodoxy.

#44 Owen Jones

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Posted 17 May 2011 - 03:05 PM

gee, I was kind of hoping more people would challenge me...dead thread???

#45 Bryan J. Maloney

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Posted 20 May 2011 - 05:24 PM

Explaining Aristotle's dominance is easy. He was all the West had available for a long time.

#46 Owen Jones

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Posted 21 May 2011 - 11:56 PM

Yes, but he dominated in the West in a way that Plato never did in the East. None of the Fathers ever proceeded from the premise that one's theology had to conform to Plato.

#47 Owen Jones

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Posted 21 May 2011 - 11:58 PM

And so, to take it one step further, what was it about the development of theological reason in the West, that such a phenomenon could occur?

#48 Bryan J. Maloney

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Posted 23 May 2011 - 02:15 PM

In the West, by at least the 13th or 14th century theology appears to have been led from the universities instead of the monastaries. This has never changed since that point. It might be somewhat of an explanation.

#49 Owen Jones

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Posted 24 May 2011 - 01:42 PM

I really think there is more to it than that, Brian. In reading and reading about early through late medieval Latin theologians, from Augustine and Boethius, through figures such as Duns Scotus, William of Occam, Bonaventure, Anselm, and, of course, Aquinas, I get the impression that they are all groping for solutions to problems that exist in their minds, but have never been problems in Orthodoxy. And they found in Aristotle, primarily, the solution to those problems. Now, I can read Aristotle's "Posterior Analytics" (or try to read it!), and find it very helpful on a certain level regarding the question of education. In fact, I believe that the world would be better off if every kid were required to study the "Posterior Analytics" prior to being admitted to high school. And it couldn't hurt a lot of Christians to read it, for the mental discipline involved, and to acquire the knowledge of certain necessary relationships between premises and conclusions, universals and particulars, and so on. But what Aristotle is talking about is a method that will result in "pure science" rather than people being driven by their opinions and passions and calling that truth. But the problem comes in when the method is confused with the truth itself. When the method becomes the determinant of the outcome, and therefore becomes dogmatic. And one of the most serious problems today is that science has been reduced to method. Aristotle actually addresses this problem in the "Posterior Analytics" so far as I can tell. But as with any great thinker, his followers tend to objectify it as if truth itself lies in the method. This occurs in every discipline, including mechanical engineering. It's just something that human creatures do.

As for Orthodoxy, I don't find this fixation with the question of theological method. The Fathers did not write treatises on theological method! What they did was they theologized! I may be mistaken, and if so would like to be shown where I am wrong on this. Yes, they employed rational arguments to defend Orthodox principles against heretical ideas. But at the heart of it lies a prophetic gift which is something quite different than rational argument. It does not negate rational argument. But the foundation of the rational argument is a prophetic gift, in the sense in which St. Paul talks about some people being given the gift of prophecy. This is why so few people in Orthodoxy are actually called theologians. It is much more than a method.




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