Rolf Ahlers is the Reynolds Professor of Philosophy and Religion at Russell Sage College. We invited him to answer the question “What norms or values define excellent philosophy of religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.
The question is both modern and most ancient. Religion expresses finite subjects’ concern with the infinite, the Greek a-peiron, literally “the unbound”. It is since Anaximander the arche, the origin of all. Its normative, evaluative “truth”, a-letheia, literally “without forgetfulness”, necessarily remains veiled, occluded, hidden: disclosure renders it finite, thereby falsifying, hiding it. Infinity is archeologically self-sufficient, self-evident and self-justifying. It is at odds with justifying proof, a lower form of reason known in classical German philosophy as Verstand, understanding. Truth’s self-justifying infinite is therefore “known” only immediately through intuition or “faith” without the mediation of rational verification. But self-justifying infinity, the hen, the one of the hen kai pan, justifies the pan, all of determinate finitude. Christian theology knows it as “justification through grace”. Hegel said of Spinoza’s pantheist substance one must “bathe oneself” in it: Immediately known truth, also known since antiquity as “light”, is identified as higher Vernunft, reason, that enlightens both itself as also the false. It is therefore first and foremost evaluative or normative. Giordano Bruno sees it as the occhio della raggione, the eye of reason. Enlightening reason, the criterion of the true and the false, is therefore the objective and normative basis of “reality”, and yes, subjectivity can participate in it, although with difficulty. The American Spiritual knows this: “You can’t get to heaven on roller-skates”. You have to work hard to get to heaven. It is an endless, really impossible task. Grace is a gift. Normative truth is autonomous, simple and not composed, but its “world” is complex: Simple infinity and worldly complexity are coinciding opposites that imply necessary contradiction. No (infinite) soul, Leibniz said, is ever without (finite) embodiment on an endless scale of perception ranging from most to least perfection and harmony: theodiceic normativity coordinates most with least reasonableness: a coincidence of opposites – Nicholas of Cusa. The chorismos, chasm between infinity and finite outlined here far too briefly is an expression of both popular and theoretical skepsis regarding the reality of the external world that dominated all of western thought, despite Burnyeat. Skepsis, i.e. attempts to resolve conflicts between different explanations or theories, and their predictive power based on empirical evidence, is the “negative side” of normative philosophy (Hegel) and must therefore tolerate contradiction in reality which skepticism does not tolerate. Skepsis, part of true philosophy’s evaluative work, is not skepticism. Skepticism, both ancient and modern, dogmatically asserts the need for the absence of contradiction while simultaneously asserting no less dogmatically as empty dogma truth’s self-assertion, i.e. truth’s self-justification. True skepsis opposes any and all dogmatism. Skepsis, the justifying work of philosophy, tolerates contradiction in reality. Philosophy of religion expresses this provocatively in the words ho logos sarx egeneto. It states that all that is finite is fallible, not sui-sufficient and must perish but is not without hope. Hegel points to Spinoza’s self-justifying, evaluative thought and its relation to extension: finite entities are always dependent on other entities and require the concursus Dei, God’s assistance: For Spinoza all dependent objects are contained within the infinite. That is a metaphysical assumption that he has prodigiously argued. It means: contrary to finite entities, that all require other finite bodies to exist and “must perish”, they are viewed by Spinoza sub specie aeternitatis. But that has consequences for extending entities that we call “bodies”: There is a contradiction between looking at finite entities with or without that divine assistance. But this is an expression of that ancient skepsis (not skepticism!) about the reality of the external world at the threshold of modernity, a skepsis that produces the need to argue and justify these issues: They are not obvious. Sub specie aeternitatis finitude is rooted in metaphysical eternity which is, however precisely because of its pantheist infinity enclosing all and is never disembodied. That means finite entities are real only in a contradictory way. Skepticism hopes to eliminate all contradictions. such as, for example, asserting as valid both A=A which means that A=A cannot simultaneously be identical to A=B and A≠B. All finite human beings have infinite dignity, a metaphysical proposition – “John is a human being, A=A, i.e. he has infinite dignity, A=B”. But as finite human beings, the criminal – “John the criminal and has only finite, not infinite dignity, A≠B”. Predictive positive science that is empirically adequate, internally coherent, and broadly applicable does not tolerate the contradiction between asserting both A=B and A≠B. For such science does not tolerate metaphysical assumptions, seeking only secular norms. It should be added the need for consistence, coherence and predictability of judgment was asserted already by Plato who, however, also argued against that perspective coherence and the need to tolerate contradiction and incoherence. This is nothing new. But our culture, dedicated to anti-metaphysical secular science seeking seamless coherence faintly remembers the (metaphysical) grounds for asserting both A=B and A≠B. Our laws insist on inalienable human dignity in the refugee, patient, the criminal and the prisoner of war. But the quest for coherence no longer tolerates the fertile, normative grounds of an intellectual culture that has produced those cultural convictions. In sum, coherence, lack of inconsistencies and contradiction and predictability of the outcomes of theoretical assumptions based on empirical evidence can be affirmed by the major thinkers mentioned here only in the context of their assertion of the basic normativity of truth. Traditional metaphysical assumptions are not empty verbiage: Classical thinkers could spot the empty talker with unerring certainty. Socrates’ many conversation partners such as Callicles in the Gorgias often turned out to do little more than spout empty words. Callicles aims at practicality and applicability. “You must be practical” he tells Socrates. “If not, you will stand there like a fool with an open mouth not knowing how defend yourself. Not only will you look foolish with your incoherent stammering. You will endanger your life: If you lack the practical tools of logical arguments in a court of law where someone has unjustly accused you, you might well be condemned to death for a deed you did not commit.” Jesus, accused unjustly for crimes he did not commit, stands like a fool before Pilate who urges him to be practical and defend himself. Jesus, the light that enlightens not only God’s truth but also the world’s darkness, remains silent like a fool. He is most impractical.