Skip to main content

Excerpts from Rollin Grams' Rival Versions of Theological Enquiry, Chapter 5 (Part 2)

This is the second post presenting material from my (Rollin Grams') Chapter Five: Rival Versions of Enquiry into the Pragmatic Task of Theology' in Rival Versions of Theological Enquiry (Prague: International Baptist Theological Seminary, 2005).  Subsequent posts will continue material from this chapter.

A Philosophical Rendering of Practices: American Pragmatism

Before proceeding to the next discussion, it will be of some value to note that the points I have been making with respect to theological enquiry have also been entertained by philosophical pragmatists (beginning in the late 19th century).  The value in doing so is in part a warning, for the pragmatists held out little of worth to any theism.  But it is also a constructive criticism of a scholastic theology that fails in so many ways to relate to life.

An emphasis on 'practice' in enquiry in Western philosophy comes from the anti-idealist philosophers at the end of the 19th and into the 20th century.  This includes British (e.g., G. E. Moore, Bertrand Russell) and American realism, as well as American pragmatism.  With the latter's emphasis on action and practices, we have a philosophical argument to entertain in the discussion of the place of practices in theological enquiry, albeit one not always noted in theological studies on this point.

The pragmatist movement formed an essential part of American philosophy.  It was particularly associated with the names of Charles Peirce (who used the term 'pragmaticism'), William James (who also thought of this movement as a 'radical empiricism'), and John Dewey (who, like James, linked his thought with empiricism and used the phrase 'empirical naturalism').  Pragmatism was a response to idealism and the rationalism it represented in the 19th century.  In the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, the 'idealist takes his departure from his consciousness, and reckons the world an appearance.'[1]  Frederick Copleston describes William James' view as follows:

The rationalist philosopher, as James sees him, moves from the whole to its parts, from the universal to the particular, and he endeavours to deduce facts from principles.  Further, he tends to claim final truth on behalf of his system of deduced conclusions.  The empiricist, however, starts with particular facts; he moves from parts to wholes; and he prefers, if he can, to explain principles as inductions from the facts.  Further, the claim to final truth is foreign to his mind.[2]

Moreover, the validity of a view is, for the pragmatist, found in its successful function.  This also means, as Ferdinand Schiller (1864-1937) pointed out, that abstract ideas are not valid, since they must be seen in conjunction with concrete contexts.  This is precisely the reason why he believed 'absolute truth' is seen to be impossible and unpragmatic.  Schiller opposed the idealist notion that the Absolute was the central concept in philosophy and instead located humans in its place.

Dewey's 'empirical naturalism' understands thought in a natural and pragmatic way: thought is a product of experiences and leads to action and further experiences (it is 'empiricist' and pragmatic); it is also a 'response' to 'stimuli' in the environment (natural and cultural) and it seeks to bring about change in that environment (it is part of a 'natural,' evolutionary process).  Knowledge, on this account, is not understood as mere observation of an object, where the spectator and the object are independent.  Rather, knowledge entails a forming of the object (which exists independent of the knower, contra Henri Bergson, but is not known in itself, contra the idealists).  Simply put, we 'know' things in terms relevant to us; we see them in terms of their function or usefulness in our environment.  And this means that theory cannot be divorced from practice.

Dewey is thus reacting to a rationalistic, scientific account of the world that is also dualistic, that separates the mechanical world to be 'observed' by scientists from the world of values.  He is also reacting to an abstract approach to thought and instead wants to focus on experience and concrete situations.  Dewey does not denigrate 'theory'; he only insists that theory must not be separated from experience.  He understands 'truth', for example, as instrumental--truth is what works in addressing a problematic situation.  Morality too has a natural and instrumental definition: we are formed by our habits (or customs) and dispositions, which are initially informed by our instincts or impulses, and the former give rise to our moral vision (to use a more contemporary term).  Values are not eternal or independent from facts.  As opposed to 'truth' or 'morality' in any static sense, instrumentalism prefers to speak of intelligence that grasps and effects new possibilities of growth, of the 'continuous reconstruction of experience,' as William James put it.[3]  According to Ferdinand Schiller, 'Truth is the useful, efficient, workable, to which our practical experience tends to restrict our truth-valuations.'[4]  Education, for example, is not a preparation for life but a process of living,[5] a process that is an end in itself.  It should not be about the study of 'subjects' but about social formation that will make of students good citizens who will contribute to the ongoing growth of society.  Remaining consistent to his pragmatic philosophy, Dewey defines his notion of growth in various areas not in terms of 'ends' but in terms of 'means,' what functions best given the problem faced in the present situation.  Thus Dewey states for philosophy--politics, ethics, education in particular--what Charles Darwin did for biology: growth is a result of responding well to stimuli in the environment that require change.

In the American pragmatists we see the importance of experience, concrete actions, context, and instrumentalism.  Such emphases are assumed by those theologians arguing that theology is a matter of 'reflective practice', to which I now turn.

            Charles Pinches and Ethics after Moral Theory

A further question arises when considering with which task to begin: is 'ethics' a dogmatic or pragmatic task?  The very posing of such a question shows the difficulty of separating the tasks of theology too stringently.  Charles Pinches' discussion of theology and ethics demonstrates the significance of one's starting point.

Pinches opposes the dominant modernist notion that distinguishes actions from intentions in moral theory.  On the one hand, he argues, action theory strips away intentions from a description of actions, while on the other hand moral theories such as situation ethics find the 'moral' in moral actions in what is extrinsic to the actions themselves.  Other competing moral theories in the Enlightenment period have accepted the game of searching for some moral theory located within a single principle--often love--that makes actions--themselves morally neutral--moral actions.  The deontologist Immanuel Kant and the utilitarian Jeremy Bentham, for example, both sought to base ethics on singular moral principles even if they disagreed over how to construe their principles.[6]  Pinches responds to much of 19th and 20th century ethics by asking why we feel we need an ethic with one principle and why we think that a principle will be a better guide to ethics than stating that an action, such as murder or being cruel or lying, is wrong.[7]

Pinches' challenge to moral theory is to acknowledge that there are intrinsically moral actions.  Do we need some theory to determine what extrinsic principle will change an action, morally neutral in itself, into a moral action?  The current context for this discussion for Roman Catholics is the publication of Pope John Paul II's encyclical Veritatis Splendor, which tries to restore the place of moral actions to ethics in a climate ('proportionalism') where ethics is all about intentions and freedom such that the body is made irrelevant.  For proportionalists (such as John McCormick), any theory of ethics that ties the rightness or wrongness of actions to the actions themselves ('physicalism') is in error.  A reasonable reply to such a perspective, however, is that of Martin Rhonheimer (noted by Pinches): on such a view, at Jesus' trial Caiaphas gave good moral advice to the Sanhedrin when he said that it was better for one to die instead of the whole people.  Yet Jesus' death was not an action that was morally neutral in itself: He did not simply 'die' but was ‘killed’.[8]

For Pinches, Thomas Aquinas offers a solution to the confusions of proportionalism.  In his discussion of ethics, Aquinas first offers an understanding of 'human actions' (after which he discusses passions and virtues) that cannot separate 'actions' from 'intentions'.  Humans are capable of other actions, such as raising one's hand to scratch one's head, and such actions are held in common with other animals.  But human actions are intentional, and so all human actions are also moral actions.  On such a view, intentions are important, but not independent from actions, and actions are important, but not independent from intentions.  Thus human actions are intrinsically moral actions.

To name moral actions one chooses a name that has to do with the end (intention) of a human action.  'Murder' is not just 'killing' but killing with certain ends in view.  Aquinas notes that every human action involves an end of the will and an end of the action, which may or may not coincide (Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I-II.20.1).[9]  A chart may help to clarify the alternatives in mind:

Ends of the Will and External Action: Thomas Aquinas
My Example
End of the will
End of the External Action
Good will (to forgive)
Same good external act (forgiveness)
Helping families in poverty through a  free public education programme for children
Good will (compassion for families in poverty)
Different good external act (free public education for children)
Not eating meat sacrificed to idols
Good will (love for others)
Derived good external act (an indifferent action--eating/not eating)
Buying a kidney for a transplant; assassinating a cruel dictator; steal to help the poor; torture for the good of your country; kill children (abortion, exposure) to help deal with population growth
Good will (compassion to help a person in need)
Evil external act (buying an organ from someone willing to sell it because she is so poor; killing someone; stealing; torture; abortion, exposure of children)
Bad will (desire for someone else's wife)
Same bad external act (having someone else's wife)
Bad will (cowardly)
Derived evil external act (not acting)
Herod’s murdering children in order to try to kill the Messiah
Bad will (desire to kill someone)
Different evil external act (killing many children)
Giving alms in order to get praise from others (vainglory)
Bad will (desire to receive others' praise)
Good external act (helping someone in need)

On Aquinas' view, since all human actions are moral actions one does not need a moral theory to show how human actions can become moral actions.[10]  This understanding means that intentional actions, such as washing one’s hands, have their own goodness (e.g., hygiene), and so the world is like a forest of good rather than our simply having a one or more great values that are good, such as ‘freedom,’ and a host of morally neutral actions.[11]  Pinches describes the Enlightenment as a ‘tree cutting project’ in which the trees must justify themselves vis-à-vis the buzz saw of a moral theory.[12]

Over against this sort of rationality, whereby a theory is used to deduce things about actions, Aquinas (and others now recapturing this view) held that moral reasoning is analogical.  If so, our understanding of morality is not something to be reduced to a few (or one!) moral principles but is to be found in a rich forest or moral actions.  This forest is, moreover, socially rather than principially constructed: out of shared experiences and common stories we are able to use terms that relate to shared moral notions and make analogies to what is under discussion.  As Pinches avers, a community therefore needs to keep its moral memory fresh.[13]

Pinches' discussion of Aquinas and the notion of intrinsically moral actions addresses a problem in ethical theory that others have been addressing in hermeneutics: the problem of separating 'actions' from 'intentions'.  Kevin Vanhoozer and Anthony Thiselton have argued that the contemporary crisis over the 'meaning of a text' derives in large part from separating words from intentions, langue from parole.  They both appeal to speech-act theory to show how these are inseparable notions.[14]  And, just as Aquinas' view on moral actions leads to understanding the social dimension of our moral understanding, so too speech-act theory depends on Ludwig Wittgenstein's view that language is a social 'game' which functions according to socially accepted rules and does not exist apart from such a playing field.  Actually, Pinches is addressing the same issue: the moral meaning of actions is, after all, a sub-category of meaning in general.  The modernist, scientific tendency to view enquiry as dissection reduces human actions, whether moral actions or communication, to things, like bodies on an orthopaedic surgeon's table, to mere actions that can be separated from intentions.  The tendency is to opt for the intentions over the actions in such a separation.  Moral theorists become 'proportionalists' opposed to 'physicalism', and philosophers discussing hermeneutics opt for the only intentionality left once the author's intentions have been separated from his or her words in a text: the intentionality of the reader.

This gnostic or docetic game was already being played by some Corinthian Christians in the first century.  Paul counters it by insisting that the 'body' cannot be reduced to moral irrelevance through an ethical theory based on a singular principle having to do with the human will distinct from actions (in the Corinthian case, the principle of freedom).  Paul responds to those permitting visits to prostitutes (whose arguments are shown in quotations) as follows:

12 "All things are lawful for me," but not all things are beneficial. "All things are lawful for me," but I will not be dominated by anything. 13 "Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food," and God will destroy both one and the other. The body is meant not for fornication but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. 14 And God raised the Lord and will also raise us by his power. 15 Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Should I therefore take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! 16 Do you not know that whoever is united to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For it is said, "The two shall be one flesh." 17 But anyone united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him. 18 Shun fornication! Every sin that a person commits is outside the body; but the fornicator sins against the body itself. 19 Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own? 20 For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body. (1 Cor. 6.12-20; New Revised Standard Version)

It is also an Enlightenment game.  The counterpoint to this is to maintain the inseparable connection between actions and intentions in human (moral or communicative) actions.  The logic of such a move, however, means that pragmatic issues such as those addressed in this chapter become inseparable from the other theological tasks.

My point is not that one must or should begin with the pragmatic task--I shall note the view that maintains this position in the next section.  I believe that we can and do begin with any of the tasks of theology and find ourselves working in all directions, and I believe that we can and do affirm in principle a certain authority to one of the tasks over the others.  For Evangelicals, the tasks with authoritative priority are in principle those having to do with interpretation of the Bible (the first two tasks).

[1] Ralph Waldo Emerson, Complete Works II (London, 1866), p. 280.
[2] Frederick Copleston, S.J.  A History of Philosophy: Volume 8 Modern Philosophy: Bentham to Russell; Part II: Idealism in America, The Pragmatist Movement, The Revold Against Idealism (New York: Image Books, 1967), p. 88.  The next three references (to James and Schiller) are from this source.
[3]William James, A Pluralistic Universe (New York and London, 1909), p. 311.
[4] Ferdinand Schiller, Humanism: Philosophical Essays (London, 1903), p. 59
[5] Ferdinand Schiller, Formal Logic: A Scientific and Social Problem (London, 1912), p. 382.
[6] Charles Pinches, Theology and Actions: After Theory in Christian Ethics (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002), p. 43.
[7] Charles Pinches, Theology and Actions, p. 52.
[8] Martin Rhonheimer, ‘Intrinsically Evil Acts and Moral Viewpoint: Clarifying a Central Teaching in Veritatis Splendor,’ Thomist (1994), pp. 27f.
[9] See Charles Pinches, Theology and Actions, ch. 5.
[10] Charles Pinches, Theology and Actions, p. 137.
[11] Charles Pinches, Theology and Actions, p. 138.
[12] Charles Pinches, Theology and Actions, p. 140.
[13] Charles Pinches, Theology and Actions, p. 141.
[14] See Kevin Vanhoozer, Is There a Meaning in this Text? and Anthony Thiselton, New Horizons in Hermeneutics.  The importance of speech-act theory runs throughout the arguments of both.