Sunday, December 11, 2011

"Aristotle East and West" by David Bradshaw

I have finally finished the last of the books I bought from the Ochlophobist book sale. I saved the hardest, Aristotle East and West, until last. I have never been one to read philosophy, or to spend much time thinking through philosophical concepts. At some point, I realized that my mind just does not work in that way. If at all possible, I still avoid philosophical debates, ideologies, and isms of all sorts. And so, I knew full well that this work would be a struggle for me. I slogged through the entire book with little comprehension of the issues being addressed--that is, until the end. His summation, in Chapter 9 and the Epilogue, is crystal-clear and understandable. Bradshaw identifies, I believe, the real difference between eastern and western understandings of the Christian faith. My wife and I were exposed to a bit of Calvinism at our friend's funeral, and afterwards we talked through the differences between Arminianism and Calvinism. The conversation I would like to have with her, however, is how both constructs are only possible within the western system of thought.

A few choice passages, following:

What is the point of spinning out words about God when He can be known only through practice? On such a view theology, however complex it may become, is ultimately simply the enterprise of preserving "the faith once delivered to the saints." To claim (as does Aquinas, for instance) that it is a science in the Aristotelian sense--one that has God as its subject matter-would have struck the Byzantines as strangely pretentious. These considerations will help explain why the eastern tradition never produced a theologian of the stature of Augustine or Aquinas. "Stature" is measured by breadth of thought, originality, and influence, and these were not qualities that the Byzantines valued. They valued fidelity to the existing tradition. What one finds in the East is not a series of towering geniuses, but a kind of symphonic movement, in which the role of a great thinker is to pull together and integrate what others before him had said in a more piecemeal way. (p.221)

Augustine arrives at his understanding of the beatific vision by taking the momentary direct vision that he ascribes to Moses and St. Paul and extrapolating it forward into eternity. This ultimate vision is purely a function of the intellect. Strikingly, and by an apparently fortuitous convergence, Augustine thus agrees with Aristotle in seeing intellectual contemplation as the final goal of human life...What is perhaps most remarkable is that the Augustinian presuppositions we have sketched could come to dominate the thought of the West, while having virtually no influence in the East, and yet for almost a thousand years neither side recognized what had happened. Instead the controversy between them focused on relatively peripheral issues such as the filioque and the role of the Papacy. (p.229)

If one were to summarize the differences between the eastern and western traditions in a single word, that word would be 'synergy.' For the East the highest form of communion with the divine is not primarily an intellectual act, but a sharing of life and activity....It led to a tendency to think of earthly, bodily existence as capable of being taken up and subsumed within the life of God. Emphasis was placed, not on any sudden transformation at death, but on the ongoing and active appropriation of those aspects of the divine life that are open to participation....In the West synergy played remarkably little role....its immediate cause was the happenstance way in which Greek learning was transmitted to the West....Augustine impressed upon western thought a number of interlocking assumptions: that God is simple; that He is intrinsically intelligible; that He can be known in only two ways, through created intermediaries or a direct intellectual apprehension of the divine essence; and that the highest goal of human existence is such direct intellectual apprehension. (p.265)

If I am right...then there is reason to conclude that the eastern tradition is fundamentally sound. If so--and if I am also right that the western tradition was already unsound as far back as Augustine--then our entire view of history will have to change. Most significantly, the long movement of the West toward unbelief must come to appear in a very different light....What were the major reasons urged against traditional religious belief by the Enlightenment? It was said that the history of western religion was one of endless persecutions and religious war; that believers had arrogantly attempted to declare the will of God, and even to define what God is; that religious morality, and especially asceticism, had caused the human mind to relinquish its natural powers in favor of blind obedience, while denying the body and earthly life their rightful pleasures. Most interestingly, these failings were traced to an idea of God that was said to be incomprehensible and self-contradictory. It is no wonder, the charge ran, that the various sects are perpetually at one another's throats, since each has laid hold in an arbitrary way upon a single aspect of an idea that is fundamentally incoherent. Voltaire dismissed all such controversies with the simple remark, "a long dispute means that both parties are wrong."...The East has no concept of God. It views God not as an essence to b grasped intellectually, but as a personal reality known through His acts, and above all by oneself sharing in those acts....For the East morality is not primarily a matter of conformance to law, nor...of achieving human excellence by acquiring the virtues. it is a matter of coming to know God by sharing in His acts and manifesting His image. It is striking, in this connection, that the long western tradition of lay resistance to the clerical enforcement of morals had no real analogue in the East. (p.275-276)

Perhaps the philosophes were right in thinking that real persecuting zeal requires a conviction of the rational superiority of one's own conception of God. Perhaps, too, they were right in seeing a link between such zeal and the institutionalization of religious controversy brought about by the scholasticism. From an eastern perspective, it appears as no accident that the institutional strife of Thomist, Scotist, and Ockhamist during the late Middle Ages was followed by the open breach of the Reformation. The East certainly experienced it controversies, but they were always viewed as something temporary to b overcome, not something to b fostered and celebrated by permanent institutions....Nor did war and persecution come to an end once the Enlightenment had pulled God from His throne....From the standpoint of the East the whole story falls sadly into place. The enlightenment attacked scholasticism, but left untouched rationalist ideology; it attacked oppressive morality, but left untouched the alienation of body from sou; it attacked sectarian strife, but left untouched the deeper wellsprings of hatred. We children of the Enlightenment pride ourselves on our willingness to question anything. Let us now ask whether the God who has been the subject of so much strife and contention thought western history was ever anything more than an idol. (p.276-277)


Theron said...

The last line is awful scary, and I would think full of dread for anyone committed to the Western project.

This to me is a big plus for Orthodoxy, especially if we can communicate it to our culture.

Nathaniel said...

I think some subtlety is needed here. Augustine's notions of simplicity can be found in Eastern Fathers too. The difference in my mind is that the West never really condemned the slavery to Greek thought the way the East did (see for instance "To them who undertake Greek studies not only for purposes of education but also follow after their vain opinions, and are so thoroughly convinced of their truth and validity that they shamelessly introduce them and teach them to others, sometimes secretly and sometimes openly. Anathema!" from the Synodicon of Orthodoxy). This made them powerless in the face of the rediscovery of Aristotle and the later rebirth of all the ancient pagan forms. Bradshaw's mistake is that he roots this in Augustine and not the far more subtle attempts of the early medieval period.

In short, I roughly agree with Bradshaw, I just move the the "start" both earlier (Origin, or even St Justin) and later (the failure of the West to temper its reliance on Greek Philosophy).

John said...

Theron, exactly so. The trick is getting people to consider that there may be choices beyond those alternatives presented by the Western project.

Nathaniel, you may very well be right. I have not studied this in any depth, and have even been instinctively hesitant to fall in with the "blame everything on Augustine" crowd. I suppose I am not as interested in how or when or by whom it started as I am in the end result of it all. That is why I found Chapter 9 and the Epilogue so powerful.

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