Sunday, March 1, 2009

Hans II: The Anthropological Reduction

This is part II of our Lenten Hans for Housewives.

Part I is here.

Chapter 2: The Anthropological Reduction

If the first danger to the Christian understanding of divine love was the tendency to reduce everything to human reason and logic, the second danger reduces everything to human experience (hence, "anthropological"). Our ability to know truth is man himself, "who recapitulates the entire world in himself."

Thinkers who got their anthropology right were, of course, ancient Greeks, the Church fathers, and Pascal (oh, rapture!). "According to Pascal, man is a monstrous chimera that thwarts all attempts at rational interpretation; he is a creature that can harmonize his irreconcilable proportions, his dialectical intertwining of grandeur et misere, only by looking at his reflection in [Christ]." (Side note: Hans Urs reads like poetry or liturgy--you have to go slow to soak in his language.)

During the Enlightenment, this way of approaching Christ's love, however, turns immediately into a secular Christianity. The church (lower-case "c") is just a group of people trying to be "good people." They practice a sort of "natural religion" that honors God but primarily cultivates "the best in man, a religion in which priests have no authority" whatsoever. Christ is simply a good guy who preached a new wisdom--the greatest human teacher, but just a teacher. The idea of an atoning sacrifice has no place in this reduction.

Kant--dear old Kant--marks the apex of this reduction (although I think the Unitarian communities keep it alive quite nicely). The unfathomable depths of human nature produce of their own power a "pure religious faith." That faith deposes reason, which has nothing to do with religion. This is because reason deals with objective truth; religion, in Kant's structure, is all about the subjective. The divine is just subjectivity, consciousness, and inner feeling.

The anthropological reduction is the central error of modernism: "Every objective dogmatic proposition must be measured in terms of its suitability to the religious subject, in terms of its positive effects on and capacity to complete and fulfill that subject." This process does involve some measure of "conversion," but here conversion only means an increasing feeling of fulfillment. If I am not feeling fulfilled by the teaching of Christianity, then that teaching has no hold on me. I am the measure of all things.

The main concern for Hans, however, is not so much the destruction of all teaching as it is this new making of God in man's image. We now justify the ways of God as revealed in Christ by pointing to our own needs. God came, not because He loved us first, but because we needed Him. The underlying assumption, He came because we called. When we stop calling, He stops coming.

The truth of this anthropology, of course, is that we do need to relive subjectively the objective redemption of Christ: "If Christ were born a thousand times in Bethlehem, but not in you, you would remain lost forever ... The Cross on Golgotha cannot redeem you from evil if it is not raised up also in you" (Angelus Silesius). But the tradition never justifies Christ's love in terms of "the pious human subject." "It never measured the abyss of grace by the abyss of need or sin, it never judged the content of dogma according to its beneficial effects on human beings."

That is the basic problem, although Hans Urs goes on for a bit longer, teasing out the meaning of this reduction in more recent thinkers, such as Marx and Kierkegaard. Then he looks forward: "If we cannot verify or justify God's Sign of himself in terms of the world or in terms of man, then what else do we have?"

God, he ends, is going to interpret himself for us. There is no human text or system that will make him more legible or more intelligible. God's way of doing this, we can be sure, "will not consist in anything that man could have figured about the world, about himself, and about God, on his own..."

Stay tuned for Hans's (or, rather, God's) "Third Way."


Anne said...

Thank you for this. I'm studying phenomenology (St. Edith's Stein's background), and I can see how it can easily fall into this error, though it doesn't necessarily.

A couple of questions, though. You write, "Thinkers who got their anthropology right were, of course, ancient Greeks, the Church fathers, and Pascal (oh, rapture!)." Which "ancient Greeks" do you mean? (one of the Pre-Socratics? Plato? Aristotle? Epicurus? The Stoics?...)

What do you make of the shift in Catholic anthropology from Augustine's very Platonic view through Aquinas's more Aristotelian view to JPII's phenomenological one? Personally, I don't think they have to be mutually exclusive, but rather that they emphasize different truths of human nature that were important for their time.

e2 said...

I don't think anyone in particular necessarily falls into these errors--it's just the trend of the history of ideas to take good thoughts and pervert them.

Anyway, I think Hans is referring to Aristotle mostly and Plato a little bit. Aristotle would fall under the "anthropological approach" category most readily, and he avoids the major errors of the Stoics and Epicurus. I love Pascal's scathing commentary on those Stoics.

Right about the shifts in Catholic philosophy: They do not have to be mutually exclusive. They seem to fit the signs of the times in which they take precedence. It will be interesting to see where phenomenology goes (ah! I wish I could be alive in 250 years to look back and see more clearly!). Our times seem to cry out for a personalistic approach to doctrine and morals, so the hard work of such (very bad or non-) Catholics in Stein's circles is bearing much fruit. Time will tell!