Monday, August 27, 2007

A rationally informed faith requires the imaginary perspectives of literature as well as human history

Faith, Reason and Imagination: the Study of Theology and Philosophy in the 21st Century John Milbank The Centre of Theology and Philosophy; Nottingham and Southwell, Nottinghamshire, UK
Recovery however, is not enough, because, as Pope Benedict also indicated, modernity is not simply to be rejected. The modern emphases upon strict logical identity, the independence of thought from being, the scope of possibility and freedom, have indeed increased our sense, albeit in a distorted because Promethean or else relativistic fashion, of the primacy of cultural mediation – the way human beings through sign, image and artefact create their own world and are in turn shaped by this world. There is no avoiding this new awareness by longing for the impossible return of a totally fixed, hierarchical social order wherein all knew their place.

On the other hand, as Bruno Latour has pointed out, modernity rests upon one supreme contradiction. Nature is supposed to be given and fixed and to run according to immutable laws, while culture is supposed to be entirely mutable and to pursue no pre-assigned ends whatsoever.[1] Yet today we realise that there may be nothing fixed about nature and that her supposed ‘laws’ may merely apply to certain regional natural republics within a more fundamental sea of chaos. Moreover, we have discovered that there may be no intrinsic limit to our capacity to transform also the physical world for good or ill. Nature, too, it seems, turns out to be cultural. But on the other hand, if that is the case, then our cultural reality is conversely entirely natural – it exhibits, as it were, on the surface of the earth, a strange fusion of nature’s capacity both for unpredictable fluidity and for the imposition of order.

Once again, in postmodern terms one can read this scenario either nihilistically or theologically. In the latter perspective the question ‘how should we be?’ turns out to make no sense if does not also mean ‘how should the whole of nature be?’, since nature is no more given than culture. On the other hand, the discovery that there is after all no ‘nature’ in the sense of a given order, can lead us back to the view that all finite reality is not ‘nature’ but rather ‘creation’. As created, all things participate in the divine creative power which is at once order-making and yet unpredictable, like the flow of music. Human beings simple command this power more intensely and consciously and this is the valid sense in which they are cultural beings.

A renewed metaphysics should not seek to suppress the primacy of becoming and the event either in nature or culture. It should not recognise divine order in the world despite the flux but through and because of it, albeit in its series of complex ans always relatively stable and consistent punctuations. The participation of finite being and intelligence in the godhead needs now to be re-thought in terms of the vital flow of historical becoming which will take account of the way in which, while ontological structures provide the setting for events, the latter can also exceed the import of pre-given structures. This is in fact allowed for by Aquinas’s view that essentia is actualised by esse, but the implication needs much further drawing out.[2] One can say here that the neoplatonic sense of metaphysical genealogy, namely that the ‘how’ of the way things are must be traced back to the ‘why’ of their ultimate ontological derivation (whereas for Scotus and his legacy the ‘how’ of things is complete as a description without advertence to origin)[3] needs to be infused also with a sense of historicist genealogy, namely that the ‘how’ of things must also be traced back to their temporal derivation.

The issue then is to understand just how the process of temporal becoming participates in the eternal procession of the creation from the divine Trinity which is itself a kind of eternal and perfected process of emanation and yet equally a process of internal becoming. The Son emanates perfectly from the Father, but the latter ‘becomes’ Father retrospectively (as it were) only through this perfect imaging. The Spirit then expresses, one could say, the perfect unity of metaphysical origination from the perfect with ‘historical’ evolution from an origin to further explication (even though, in God, this explicatio is perfect eternal complicatio which renders the origin replete from the outset).

In this way, one could speculate, creation is atemporally and emanatively given to us always through the eschatological achievement of the new Jerusalem, the perfected heaven and earth, and all our lesser, spoiled historical realities depend for their very existence upon this mediating source. On the other hand, a slow coming to be from Adam, contingently interrupted by the fact of sin and the process of redemption always at work (for even our ontological sustaining), unfolds through time the ‘becoming’ aspect of the Trinitarian life.

A more historicised metaphysics must also give more attention to the role of the imagination. As Aquinas already knew, the latter is for us the threshold between matter and spirit: it is the mysterious alchemical point at which mind, in order to think at all, must produce its own shadowy sensations that must always be ‘returned to’ in order to complete a thought (conversio ad phantasmata). Normally we see ‘right through’ these phantasms in order to re-establish contact, via our senses, with the physical world outside us. And yet they are always secretly at work and this is exhibited in the way we not only sense the world and all it includes, but necessarily and ‘fantastically’ sense it ‘as something’. It is just this capacity which renders us consciously historical creatures and one can say that ‘history happens in the primary imagination’, in Coleridgean terms.[4]
What makes a historical event an event is precisely the fusion of sensation and thought which imagination, and not reason alone, brings about. And to this is added the work of the secondary imagination when the mind, in the absence of present physical realities, is capable of projecting its shadowy sensations back out into the sensorily perceived world in order to modify it. This gives rise, in the first place, to those fictions that we believe in, those fictions that we inhabit, and which also, along with imaginatively perceived natural realities, help to compose our human history.

And then there are those fictions that we do not inhabit, or not fully, or which we know that we could never inhabit. Pictures of what has never been; symbols of the intrinsically absent and ineffably secret; stories that are simply ‘made up’ and may never be fully enacted. This is the realm of literature, where the secondary imagination absolutely rules. But together with the historical, now intrinsic for both philosophy and theology, the literary is also, in postmodernity, inescapable.

Why should this be? It has to do with the double import of the imagination. The latter, as I have said, is the mediating twilight threshold between spirit and matter, or between reason and the senses. Its strangest characteristic as a ‘between’ phenomenon is that it resides ‘in the middle voice’, at once passive and active.[5] Whereas we can control even where we direct our gaze, images flood into our mind when our eyes are shut, often unprovoked. All the same we can to some degree learn to conjure these images at will and to shape the precise from which they take. However, at the point of seemingly most control, when we are being ‘creative’, it is more as if we must find the trick of ‘summonsing’ in to the chamber of our mind elusive hidden realities that are seemingly in some sense ‘already there’. (This is why, in Sufi thought, the imagination is seen as opening onto a realm of intermediate beings, rather as rarefied reason opens upon the angelic realm;[6] similar considerations are found fragmentarily within Christendom in terms of the intrinsic link between imagination and ‘faerie’.).

But this double aspect both renders thought more real, and reality more spectral. And this is exactly why modernity, which ever since the Renaissance has more and more opened up the power of the imagination (including the technical imagination), is at once more historical and more fantastic than were the Middle Ages. For a greater sense of our reliance upon the primary imagination grounds thought back in sensation and image, and makes us realise that our thinking is inseparable from our corporeal living and from all that has really happened to us. On the other hand, the further release of the secondary imagination (escaping from ecclesiastical, political and sexual censorship), reveals to us the fluidity of physical nature as such and the way that form and image is far more intrinsically spectral than even rational speculation.

This release can, of course, be part of a scenario whereby ‘art’ usurps the place of religion. On the other hand, it can also serve to point up the very core of the religious impulse in a clearer way than for the often more abstract reason-dominated Middle Ages. (And it is probably the case that only an appeal to the logic of the imagination allows the ‘great tradition’ of theology from Origen to Aquinas adequately to counter the more consistent rationalism of the nominalist revolution.) For the secondary imagination is also the very point at which reason and faith become conjoined. This is because the theological necessarily links rational reflection with the contemplative regard of historical events and visualised pictures or symbols. Its elusive blend of idea and image belongs precisely to the realm of the imaginative ‘between’.
Moreover, it is by exercise of the secondary imagination that we have to try to connect historical becoming (including the Incarnation and the emergence of the Church) with the descending emanation of all of nature and culture from the perfect Godhead. Rationally informed faith therefore, is the exact place at which thinking about history (inhabited fictions and real-ideal occurrences) and thinking about literature (uninhabited fictions) comes together. Since religion concerns ‘believed-in fictions’ or fictions that might be inhabited or in some sense already dimly are, it transcends the contrast between literature and history, just as, in the life of Christ, mythos, as narrative saturated with meaning, and historia, as real event deficient in meaning, really (and not just in our supposing) come together.[7]

In the light of faith therefore, history and fiction both appear as different kinds of ontologically real realms, since they are both situated in the more all-embracing world disclosed by the light of faith: the world in which imagination discerns the link between emanative derivation (which we can only ‘fantasize’) on the one hand, and historical becoming on the other. Merely fideistic faith, by contrast, tends to ape a rationalistic reason without faith and a positivistically-conceived history, ignoring its constitutively ideal dimension (the way in which ‘what happens’ is always in part ‘what people think has happened’). Fideisms or fundamentalisms always notably downgrade imagination, or go for the kitsch, because they reduce revelata to factual assumptions and theology to a few simple and rigid rational deductions from those assumptions.

The reflections in this third section are intended to try to explain why, in the modern era from Hamann through to Tolkien via Claudel and PĆ©guy, it has been literary works which have often most successfully defended and rethought the orthodox Christian legacy. Having understood this, we can in future take more systematic account of the literary-imaginative dimension.

By the agenda of ‘theology, philosophy and literature’ therefore, I propose in the first place a reflection on the theological origins of modern philosophy. In the second place a theological critique of modern philosophy. In the third place an attempt further to incorporate temporality into metaphysics. And in the fourth a realisation that a rationally informed faith requires the imaginary perspectives of literature as well as the imaginative perspectives of human history.
[1] Bruno Latour, Politics of Nature: How to Bring the Sciences into Democracy trans Catherine Porter (Cambridge Mass: Harvard UP 2004). See also Michel Serres, L’Incandescent (Paris: Le Pommier, 2003)
[2] See Philipp W. Rosemann, Omne ens est aliquid ( Louvain-Paris: Peeters, 1996), for an important attempt to do so.
[3] On this point see Emmanuel Perrier OP ‘Duns Scotus Facing Reality: Between Absolute Contingency and Unquestionable Consistency’ in Modern Theology Vol 21 No 4 October 2005, 619-643
[4] For Samuel Taylor Coleridge on the imagination see his Biographia Literaria (London: Everyman, 1965)
[5] For ‘the between’ (metaxu) see William Desmond, Being and the Between (New York: Suny, 1995) For ‘the middle voice’ see Catherine Pickstock, After Writing (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997) passim.
[6] See Henri Corbin, Alone with the Alone: Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn’Arabi (Prineton NJ: Princeton UP 1997)
[7] For this thesis see John Milbank, ‘Atonement: Christ the Exception’ in Being Reconciled: Ontology and Pardon (London: Routledge, 2003), 94-5

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