Monday, July 30, 2007

The Starting Configuration of Monotheistic Intellectual Life

Randall Collins argues that intellectual life depends on competing networks who oppose one another across a common set of problems. The Western faiths -- Judaism, Christianity, and Islam -- tend to start (and restart, and restart) their intellectual arguments in the same configuration. All three faiths begin with a faith in one God, and an overlapping set of texts about God. Rituals develop, standard prayers get established, practices of daily life get a religious gloss, and everyday ethics grow up in the life of the community of believers. In other words, a viable life of faith can grow up without intellectual reflection on how, exactly, God's universe works. I expect that most of the believers in most faiths around the world and through the ages are happy to just do it, without a full intellectual account of how and why.

Some people, though, have the intellectual itch. They want to know how and why. They want to have an intellectually deeper and, to them, more satisfying faith. And they want to make a name and a living from arguing about it. So they begin to reason about the faith.

Collins details what happens next. It is hard to create the conditions for sustained intellectual life. If, though, conditions are ripe, intellectuals of one position get the attention of other intellectuals who take an opposing position, which in turn draws in at least one other network of thinkers arguing for yet another position. This argument also typically draws a reaction to the whole business of intellectualizing faith that says "a plague on all your houses." Thus, the opening configuration of intellectual life.

In The Sociology of Philosophies Collins goes on to name each of these four positions in the opening configuration of Western theology.

The rational faith position comes first. They argue that the rules of reason apply to God, too, so we can reason about what God and God's actions can be like based on reason, even if some particular points can only be supplied by revelation.

The rational faith position provokes the traditional scripturalists to offer a reasoned defense of why God is not limited by human reason.

The argument between the rationalists and the traditionalists creates a market for a third party to import classical philosophy -- in the case of all the Biblical faiths, Greek philosophy.

These three parties could be a stable configuration for an intellectual argument. Almost inevitably, though, mystics criticize the whole idea of reaching God through intellectual argument; ironically, by criticizing the intellectuals, the mystics are drawn into the intellectual argument willy-nilly.

The argument may branch out into many further positions from there, and the power of one group or another within the argument may wax or wane, depending on how well they argue. Moreover, it is difficult to sustain the right external conditions for a focused intellectual argument over generations, so the whole project may collapse for a time. Still, the opening configuration -- rationalists, provoking traditionalists, importers, provoking mystics -- is likely to be repeated at the start of each new round on intellectual creativity.


Mark Smith said...

Where do today's Fundamentalists end up?

My guess is mystics, though they might be in the traditional scripturalists. There is a certain disdain for reason that leads me to believe that they WANT to be traditional scripturalists but in the face of rational argument against their position fall back to the mystic position.

Gruntled said...

Fundamentalism was indeed born (at Princeton Seminary) as an intellectual defense of scriptural traditionalism. They regard themselves as the truly rational defense of scriptural authority. They regard the more moderate "plenary inspiration" position as incoherent.

Fundamentalism is a head religion (vs. a heart religion). I don't think you can have fundamentalist mysticism.

Jon said...

Maybe this would make Pentecostals the mystics of Fundamentalism? Hmmm...

I remember reading that Weber and/or Troelstch did not see much use for mystics in religion--they do not "contribute" in the way that others do. What do you think the role of mysticism is in contemporary Christianity? In the PCUSA?

Gruntled said...

Mystics are hard to organize -- that is why Troeltsch treated them as a residual category. Christian mysticism is much better recognized and categorized on the Catholic side than the Protestant. The heart religion side of Protestantism -- Methodist/holiness/pentecostal -- is a more likely place for mystics to end up.

Presbyterianism is a head religion's head religion. It is difficult to find a mystical Presbyterian strand, though anything is possible.

José Solano said...

There are mystics and there are “mystics.” Christian mystics are not divorced from their thinking faculties. On the contrary they are enormously involved in thinking and trying to understand what they have experienced.

Mystics have had a personal experience that disturbs to some degree their everyday routine life. In some cases the experience may cause a disorientation that weakens their ability to “appropriately” function in daily life or they are seized by certain delusions of grandeur. These are mystics in quotation marks. Their emotional and thinking faculties do not function harmoniously and the person is to some extent dysfunctional. This problem can be temporary or long lasting. They are in need of psychological or psychiatric help.

Christian mystics, as well as some non-Christian mystics, are different. They have had a powerful personal experience that they try to understand and assimilate in their daily life. The Christian mystic relies on Scripture and his church to make sense of his experience and allows the transformative power of the experience to make him more productive in evangelical work. This is often done through creative, artistic activities as the arts seem to offer a better means to transmit the essence of the inspirational experience. The art form often used is writing, both poetic and prose but all of the arts are at his disposal and which ones he uses depends on which he may be skilled in.

Fundamentalists are almost by definition never mystics. They are generally baffled by mysticism and may see mystics as under some demonic possession.

Though some Pentecostals have powerful personal and communal experiences they are for the most part not trying to understand their experience other than to believe it was a God sent sign. They tend to be more concerned with the experience than where the experience is sending them. It is for them generally an uplifting experience that provides much religious zeal and confirmation of God’s living power.

God may send you a powerful personal experience, even a beatific vision, but the work of assimilating this experience, integrating it in your life and then providing means by which others may be helped, is a life-long Work. Focusing on or preoccupation with the experience itself, trying to give the experience to others or talking about is not productive and often leads to ego-inflation. Paul and John of the Revelation were clearly mystics. Paul did not like talking about his experiences and John was just commanded to relay it to the churches for God’s people to ponder.