Saturday, March 22, 2014

Journal of a Soul 48

The Validity of Experience 3

Swan on the river Liffey, March 17th, 2014
Gerard Hall,* a well known and well respected Catholic theologian from Australia speaks about three turns in modern Catholic systematic theology, viz., (i) the anthropocentric turn, (ii) the turn to political theology and (iii) the embracing of liberation theology in Latin America and further afield.  All these three concerns are inextricably linked with the human experience element of belief. Green theology or ecological concerns in theology can also be brought in under this major direction in modern theology, as indeed can feminist theology. Prior to the early twentieth century, and most especially prior to Vatican II in Catholic circles, theology was almost completely done from a theo-centric or God-centred viewpoint. Faith was seen as the answer or response to divine revelation solely, with little human input. However, the more modern concerns with human experiences in theology take human beings as central to the whole enterprise and allow the more religious or divine dimension to come in after that, or perhaps, more conservatively, simultaneously with that.  In more theological terms, one could say that in more traditionalist theological circles the emphasis was particularly on the transcendence of God, while in more modern theological thinking the emphasis lies squarely on the immanence of the divine godhead in humanity.  This latter type of thinking could actually be construed as a return to an early Christian understanding of humanity that emphasized the fact that there was "a spark of the divine in man." ( This idea, most common to Gnosticism but also present in most Western Mystical Traditions such as Kabbalah and Sufism argues that all of mankind contains within itself the Divine Spark of God which is contained or imprisoned in the body.)

A Brief Account of Phenomenology
Edmund Husserl

Like all things that are studied, the resultant terminology is often confounding, and more often than not, leads the beginner to lose heart.  However, for my purposes here, there is no great complexity involved with this term, though any good philosopher will have to wrestle much with this subject if he is studying it academically.  That task, thankfully, is beyond our purposes here.  Briefly, phenomenology refers to a philosophical movement founded by the German philosopher Edmund Husserl (1859 - 1938) that concentrated on the reflection upon and the study of the structures of consciousness and those phenomena that appear in such acts of consciousness.  The empiricists had argued strongly that knowledge comes from sensory experience only, that is through the five senses solely, while phenomenology would see knowledge as coming through the total and fuller experience of consciousness itself. In other words, our experience is simply a broader phenomenon than our individual and even collective senses might allow.  Somehow, consciousness, then, is more.  Here, I return to what I particularly like to describe our humanity as, namely a phenomenon that is more than the sum of its parts.  My philosophical anthropology may be simply put as attempting to delineate "the more" that is humanity.

What impresses this writer here is that Husserl was a brilliant mathematician, who after achieving his Ph.D. in mathematics, turned to philosophy. (Indeed many mathematicians were to turn to philosophy, as did also the famous Bertrand Russell in England).  What further impresses me is that Husserl never ruled out religious experiences, quite simply because his phenomenology was broad enough to embrace all experiences, including the religious.  The following quotation from Prof. Herbert Spiegelberg is especially significant for this writer: "While outward religious practice never entered his life any more than it did that of most academic scholars of the time, his mind remained open for the religious phenomenon as for any other genuine experience." (See this link Here)

To cut a history of a very complex philosophy short, for our purposes here, Husserl influenced his friend and pupil Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), on whose existential phenomenology, the great Catholic Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner (1904-1984) was to base his transcendental phenomenology.  Rahner's approach, consequently, highlights the transcendental qualities of human experience, those qualities that open experience ever outwards, that is, in my words, to the more.  We are, according to Rahner, first and foremost a question to ourselves.  We live within mystery as fish live within the sea.  All our human longing and knowing do not dint or curb or lessen the deepest human transcendental questioning: Who are we? Why do we exist rather than not exist? What is it that we are called to be? Who or what does this calling to human beings in the world?

I remember struggling with Rahner's last great work The Foundations of Christian Faith, way back in the late 1970s.  One way or another, it seemed to me at the time, and still does, that this great work saw human experiences as foundational to christian experience, or, if you like, to faith.  Let me, therefore, finish this section with the words of Rev. Dr. Gerard Hall:

The Christian message is addressed to the totality of the human person--what Rahner calls the "experience of subjectivity" or the "original experience" of being human. This is the experience of mystery and radical self-questioning through which we transcend the limitations of the self and confront the whole. This radical self-questioning is what makes us who we are: we ask if death is final, if there is a purpose to life, if there is ultimate meaning to our existence? The searching human person experiences him/herself as "self-transcending being": one's self is revealed as 'more' than one's self. There is this fundamental relationship to mystery, God, Being or Holy Truth. To be human is to be called to be something 'other' than what we know ourselves to be at any moment of our earthly, human lives. (See HERE)

It seems to me that the human person is a mystery to himself or herself, a mystery that asks deep and ultimate questions of the human mind and heart.  Philosophy, if it is worth its salt at all, is that subject matter, or that method of thinking that teaches the human person much humility.  The human mind is indeed finite and yet is filled with a desire to ask a veritable infinity of questions.  We desire to know more and more and more.  And yet, no matter what amount of knowledge we amass, and no matter what amount of love we experience, we are fated to be extinguished just like a weak candle flame that can be blown out by the weakest of breaths.  It is sobering, indeed, to be a true philosopher of life.  The words that Shakespeare puts in his hero Hamlet's mouth, words issued to his friend Horatio, come to my mind here: "There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy..." (Act 1, Sc 5) And these are sobering words that all of us should take to heart. They are, indeed, Socratic in temper, and justly so.  Socrates, after all, had advised any good philosopher to first admit his ignorance and thence proceed.

It is in generalizing from all too particular and limited viewpoints that much untruth and falsity emerge.  In this regard, the fallacy of reductionism blurs all truth.  And so it is that the turn to experience in its wholeness, in its sheer fullness, through a phenomenology that reaches for the more, appeals so much to this writer here.  I conclude, this rather strained post with the reflection that we encounter life in its mystery rather like a pool (or ocean) into which we dive than as a problem that presents itself like a wall against which we might vainly and meaninglessly bang our heads.  And the more, the more, the more... it opens out into so much wonder, so much mystery, so much that is beyond us, and it draws us ever onward into the more, the more, the more...

* Rev. Gerard Hall, sm is the Head of the School of Theology at McAuley Campus, Banyo, Brisbane -Australian Catholic University. His home page can be accessed HERE

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