Friday, November 5, 2010

Kant and Theology of the Body

Edward Feser has an interesting post on the influence of Kant on modern society and on Christian thinking. It seems to tie in pretty directly with the Theology of the Body debate. Kant described man as a “self-legislator” or an "end in himself." Some Christian teachers use this kind of language, which is everywhere in the modern world, to describe Christianity. I would say Theology of the Body is at least partially in this category. Here is his comment:
To be clear, I am not saying that anyone who uses Kantian language is guilty of blasphemy. As Kraynak emphasizes, Christian thinkers who have made use of it often transform it in the process, so as to make it compatible with Christian theology and natural law. But Kraynak is also keen to emphasize, quite rightly in my view, that the emphasis modern Christians often put on the Kantian moral categories is unwise. At its best, it is little more than a marketing gimmick, an attempt to “sell” traditional morality to the citizens of modern, liberal, secularized societies by showing them that it follows from premises to which they are already committed. And it rarely if ever works, because modern secular liberals are well aware that orthodox Christians and traditionalists do not interpret the premises in question the same way they do. Chanting “human dignity” and “respect for persons” like mantras is not going to convince anyone who doesn’t already agree with you to oppose abortion, euthanasia, pornography, and the like, precisely because human dignity and respect for persons are themselves highly contested concepts. What you need to do is to show exactly how the practices in question are incompatible with human dignity, and that means (I would argue) getting into precisely the sorts of classical natural law considerations one had hoped to be able to sidestep. There are no shortcuts. But then the “human dignity” and “respect for persons” stuff falls away as otiose.
He has a good point. When we try and use Theology of the Body as a shortcut. It often fails. We start with the idea of human dignity. I am not convinced this talk does not convince anyone. Some can sense intuitively that pornography is a violation of human dignity. But his is right you cannot make the case solid without going back to who God is and for what purpose God made us. Theology of the Body does that too. It talks about the trinity and where we come from and where we are going. But much of the language that is most appealing to the culture and most offensive to traditional Catholics is the baptized Kantian language.

When you present truth you can start anywhere. You can start with man and teach the truth as it related to him. You can start with God and move down to man. The logic does flow better when you start with God. When you start with man you can't rationally compel people to go the direction you want them to go. You can show how the it is logically consistent and fitting but you can't really prove this is the only option. When you start with God the logic flows much more powerfully. But when you start there much of modern society won't remain engaged enough to hear you finish.

So there are two dangers. One is that we don't communicate the truths of Christianity in the language of our culture. That we teach it in the language of the Scholastic metaphysics and end up talking past people. I think Humanae Vitae and some of the older teachings on morality did this. They are not wrong but the culture has no idea how to interact with them.

The second is to lose the gospel in the translation. This is getting to be a bigger and bigger problem because of the unconscious assumptions inherent in the language. It is really more of a tradition. It is very hard to challenge premises so deep that people don't realize they are there. Often even the teachers are so deeply immersed in the culture's way of thinking they accept unchristian premises without questioning it. This is why on contraception protestants didn't just change the medium. They changed the message. They got the morality tragically wrong.

Theology of the Body changes the medium but not the message. Yes, if you try and take shortcuts John Paul never took then you can get a distorted message. Do guys like Chris West take these shortcuts? Not if you do what I did and start with an introduction that has 4 hour long talks. But people are looking for shorter presentations than that. People just look at a few clips on YouTube. Then there can be dangers. He follows the flow of the modern mind for a while and then takes it in a different direction at a key point. If you don't get that key point you might think he is simply endorsing modern thinking. Only some of it. The part that is right.

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