Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Christocentric Weltanschauung (Don't Worry, I Define It)

 In reading Angus Menuge's excellent essay on the Christocentric 'Weltanschauung' (which is defined as a comprehensive view of reality, or a worldview) of John Warwick Montgomery, in the collection of essays on Montgomery titled Tough-Minded Christianity, I was reminded of a line of argument contained in David Bentley Hart's stellar Beauty of the Infinite.

Menuge describes Montgomery's view as building upon Luther's "bottom up" approach to theology, as contrasted to some theologians' -- like Aquinas's -- "top down" approach. Luther thought it was most productive to begin theology with the life of Christ and work your way 'up' from there, where Aquinas' natural theology uses reason to discern divine attributes and he proceeds to work his way 'down' from there. While both end up in the same place, so to speak, where you start does make a difference and Menuge -- visa vis Montgomery -- goes on to demonstrate why the "bottom up", Christ-first approach is ultimately the more fruitful.

In tracing the development of Montgomery's thought, Menuge quotes Luther's commentary on Galatians:
[Paul] wants to teach us the Christian religion, which does not begin at the very top, as all other religions do, but at the very bottom ... [If] you would think or treat of your salvation, you must stop speculating about the majesty of God; you must forget all thoughts of good works, tradition, philosophy, and even the divine Law. Hasten to the stable and the lap of the mother and apprehend this infant Son of the Virgin. Look at Him being born, nursed, and growing up, walking among men, teaching, dying, returning from the dead, and being exalted above all the heavens.
This quote, and the further development of the idea, brought to mind David Bentley Hart. Hart (as we will see shortly) seems to come to a very similar conclusion to Luther on this point, though by different means. Hart's thought originates in Eastern Orthodox tradition and develops through various epochs of secular and  Christian philosophy (Late Antiquity, Medieval, Modernity, Late-Modernity, Postmodernity), cataloging the ultimate triumph of rhetoric over dialectic and surfaces over essences. The point he arrives at is that Christian thought is, and ever has been, a truth that is best understood as a kind of rhetoric, as contained in the aesthetic, surface plane of reality, rather than in the rational 'ground' or 'foundation' that modernity sought (which is compatible with the postmodern critique of modernity). Namely, that Christian thought begins with -- or at least centers on -- the rhetoric of the form of Christ, with 'form' meaning the totality of Christ's works; the incarnation, his life, his actions, his miracles, his character, his interactions, his words, his death, resurrection and ascension. From there the 'argument' that Christianity puts forth is a further development of that rhetoric, in the form of the Church on Earth, and the Holy Spirit working through it. In The Beauty of the Infinite, Hart's magnum opus, Hart says:
What Christian thought offers the world is not a set of 'rational' arguments that (suppressing certain of their premises) force assent from others by leaving them, like the interlocutors of Socrates, at a loss for words; rather, it stands before the world principally with the story it tells concerning God and creation, the form of Christ, the loveliness of the practice of Christian charity and the rhetorical richness of its idiom. Making its appeal first to the eye and heart, as the only way it may 'command' assent, the church cannot separate truth from rhetoric, or from beauty.
This conclusion seems to mirror that of the Christocentric Weltanshauung of Menuge-Montgomery-Luther, though with a different intellectual pedigree.

None of which is to suggest that Hart, Luther, Montgomery or Menuge reject the value or the just role of reason in evaluating truth claims, only that they all seem to suggest that at the heart of the Christian claim about reality is a story, or a rhetoric, rather than an 'argument'. Other arguments can be marshaled to defend the truth of the story, but the story -- especially the element of the story concerning Christ -- comes first, and there is no argument stronger than the story itself.

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