Louth: Discerning the Mystery

July 31, 2017

Discerning the Mystery
Andrew Louth
(Oxford, 1983)
160 p.

T.S. Eliot used the phrase “dissociation of sensibility” to describe a disorder that he saw afflicting the Western mind: a fault line between heart and head, between love and knowledge, between the inner world of human thought and feeling and the outer, objective world of scientific facts. Eliot discerned this dissociation in the seventeenth-century metaphysical poets and traced its origins as far as Bacon and Descartes, but the point is of wider application and may well have deeper roots. (Louth sees in, for example, Abelard and St Bernard an earlier example of the same bifurcation.)

This little book is an attempt to understand the effects of this dissociation on theology, and more generally on the humanities, which have suffered a crisis of confidence in comparison with the sciences, and also to explore whether anything constructive can be done about it.

Louth begins by noting the centrality of method to the modern understanding of knowledge. The sciences succeeded in finding a method that produced reliable discoveries, and thereby became the modern exemplar of how the right method leads to secure knowledge. The humanities, including theology, have been looking for a comparable method pertinent to their own domain and subject matter ever since, but without any convincing success. The humanities have adopted the “research model” prevalent in the sciences: humanities professors busy themselves with making “discoveries”, and publishing their findings in journals, just as their colleagues across campus do, but in spite of this, there is no cohesion in the humanities, no widespread agreement on what those findings are and what they signify.

Louth sees the historical-critical method as the leading candidate for a “scientific” approach to knowledge in the humanities: the text is analyzed, the context is explored, and the meaning of the text for its original readers is sought and interpreted as having a privileged status. Louth understands why humanist scholars are tempted by this method, but he also believes that its adoption has impoverished the humanities and distorted its subject matter.

This impoverishment he describes with an analogy to conversation: historical criticism is like the conversation of a therapist and a patient. Questions are asked, but the relationship is all one-way. The therapist does not allow himself to enter personally into the relationship on anything like an equal footing. But another model of conversation is provided by that among friends, in which there is both take and give; I learn about my friend, but I also learn about myself through engaging with my friend. We can engage literature, including the literature of the past, and including religious literature, in this way, cultivating a personal relationship. To such relationships we bring not just our analytic powers, but all that we are, including our prejudices and presuppositions, and this is necessary if we are to present ourselves honestly. Such relationships are dialectical inasmuch as we revise our views based on what we learn, yes, but what we learn is also informed by the views we bring to them.

Louth recommends this richer, more personal view as suitable for the humanities in general, and for theology in particular. I’ll return to that in a moment, but first I’d like to ask: when is it appropriate to read in this way? Consider, for example, the reading of authoritative legal texts. Here the forensic, I-ask-and-you-answer, what-did-the-lawmakers-think-they-were-saying approach seems more fitting than a freewheeling what-does-this-say-to-me approach. Similar remarks would apply to authoritative religious texts, if, perhaps, not quite to the same degree, and this raises some doubt in my mind as to its suitability for theology.

Nonetheless, with this “humanistic” counter-proposal to historical criticism in mind, Louth embarks on a two-pronged critique of the cultural supremacy of scientific knowledge, with the intention, it seems, of defending the humanities against assimilation to the scientific model. First, he draws on the ideas of Giambattisto Vico and Hans-Georg Gadamer to mount an argument that the humanities offer us something valuable that science does not, a way of knowing that differs from the scientific way of knowing but is nonetheless sound. And second, he builds on the ideas of John Polanyi to argue that scientific ways of knowing are not, in fact, qualitatively different from those common in ordinary life and in the humanistic disciplines. In this way, he breaks down the dichotomy between the sciences and the humanities that underlies our “dissociation of sensibility”, making room, in the process, for theology to recover its full resources.

We’ll take the first line of argument first. Vico argued that we should not, a priori, expect the humanities to yield less secure knowledge than the sciences, for it is the human world that we know best, from the inside: “In the sciences we study what is alien to us–physical things; in the humanities we study what is connatural with us.” The kind of knowledge we get, and the way we get it, is different from in the sciences, but there is no reason to be radically skeptical about the methods and results of the humanities, in his view. Rather, we are confronted with a great plenitude of worthwhile truths in art, literature, and religion; we can become bewildered, but should not become discouraged. Gadamer followed up on this line of thinking; he argued that the humanities are “subjective”, but not in the sense of being “not true”, but in the rich sense of engaging the whole of a subject. On this view, “the humanities are not primarily concerned with establishing objective information (though this is important), but with bringing men into engagement with what is true”. As Kierkegaard memorably said, “To understand and to understand are two different things.” And since we benefit greatly from this second, deeper understanding, in which truths penetrate our souls and give us depth and even wisdom, we stand in need of this knowledge that the humanities in all their richness can provide.

Polanyi, in his book Personal Knowledge (which I’ve been meaning to read for years), called into question the claim that the sciences have privileged access to truth and reliability. Instead, he argued that “all knowledge is either tacit, or rooted in tacit knowledge. It is not simply objective, but knowledge which has been grasped and understood by a person.” There is always a certain amount of “know-how” involved, and of acculturation into the particular discipline of study. There are always traditions to inherit: ways of thinking, standards of evidence, accepted assumptions, and so forth. Education has an element of apprenticeship in the sciences as it does elsewhere. On this view, the reason the sciences converge to a common understanding of the world is not because its method is so far superior to others, but because of the simplicity of the objects it studies. In all learning there is an encounter between the knower and the thing known, and the importance of the knower — of his or her particular interests, habits, and commitments — varies according to the nature of the thing known. For the objects studied by the sciences, the knower’s characteristics are of low importance, but for the objects studied by the humanities they are high, and this is enough to account for the disparity in agreement that we see in practice.

Polanyi’s stress on the tacit dimension of knowledge, and of the importance of tradition to the reception of tacit knowledge, provides Louth a bridge back to theology, for, given the Christian understanding of God and his dealings with mankind, tradition is inescapably important, and much of what it means to be a Christian is discovered tacitly: “Christianity is not a body of doctrine that can be specified in advance, but a way of life and all that this implies. Tradition is, as it were, the tacit dimension of the life of the Christian…” And Louth emphasizes that central to this inherited tradition is sacred liturgy, which embodies and transmits the tacit and the tradition as nothing else does: “The liturgy unfolds the varied significance of the mystery of Christ, and the fact that it cannot all be explained, the fact that much that we do, we do simply because we have always done it, conveys a rich sense of the unfathomableness of the Christian mystery.”

This suggestion — that the effort to make Christian experience “clear and distinct” is misguided — is one that I have encountered before when reading about Dante, and seems, based on my limited exposure, to be more influential in the Orthodox tradition than in the Catholic. (I note that Andrew Louth is himself an Orthodox priest.) I am sympathetic to it, for it answers to my own experience of Christian faith, which has been interested in systematic theology and apologetics to some extent, but which has been formed to a far greater extent by aesthetic experience, liturgy, and devotions, and by a persistent attraction to “the unfathomableness of the Christian mystery”. Louth comments that much liturgical reform since the Reformation — and, I would add, since Vatican II for Catholics — has consisted in efforts to make the liturgy more easily and clearly understood, which has not only thinned out the experience of the liturgy but also disrupted its continuity with what came before. But if Louth is correct then such efforts have been detrimental to the richness of Christian experience, and perhaps to the robustness of Christian faith.

If the preceding arguments are successful, they have the effect of carving out for theology some “breathing space” within which she can live her own life according to her own lights, without being beholden to foreign methods and standards of argument. Louth takes advantage of this space to present a case for the use of allegory in theology. Allegory “sticks in the gullet of modern theology”, and is alien to most Protestant theology (with its stress on the “plain sense” of Scripture), but it was common, and, it seems, natural to the Church Fathers, and Louth sees it as a valuable way of exploring the riches of Scripture. Allegory “does not prove anything, but it is not meant to”; rather, it is a means of entering, prayerfully and imaginatively, into the mystery of Christ. I found this section of the book interesting, but less interesting than what preceded it. I think this is consistent with the overall argument of the book; the main substance comes in the book’s central sections, and the final application is really just an illustration.

The ambitions of the book are so great — quite out of proportion to its slender size — that it cannot be said to succeed unequivocally. It leans heavily on a heavy-weight trio in Vico, Gadamer, and Polanyi, and the weight of its arguments could not be fully felt without consulting those authors, and those objecting to them. Still, the structure of the argument is clear enough, and I am basically well-disposed toward it: there are ways of knowing other than scientific ones, and the humanities risk selling their inheritance for a mess of pottage if they allow themselves to be in thrall to the scientific model; traditions and the tacit are essential to religion; and in some realms one dispels mystery only by doing violence to the subject.

**

[An apostolic Church]
What unites us with the writers of the Scriptures is the life of the Church from their day to ours.

[The richness of Scripture]
It is in point to notice also the structure and style of Scripture, a structure so unsystematic and various, and a style so figurative and indirect, that no one would presume at first sight to say what is in it and what is not. It cannot, as it were, be mapped, or its contents catalogued; but after all our diligence, to the end of our lives and to the end of the Church, it must be an unexplored and unsubdued land, with heights and valleys, forests and streams, on the left and right of our path and close about us, full concealed wonders and choice treasures. Of no doctrine whatever, which does not actually contradict what has been delivered, can it be peremptorily asserted that it is not in Scripture; of no reader, whatever be his study of it, can it be said that he has mastered every doctrine which it contains. [quoted from Newman, An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine]

[Tactics]
A prejudice against prejudices is an attempt, which was the aim of the Enlightenment, to deprive tradition of its power.

[Intellect and moral character]
It may be that no element of our compound nature is entirely shut out from taking part in knowledge. It is at all events certain that the specially mental powers will never be able to judge together in rightful relation when the nature as a whole is disordered by moral corruption. There is no evil passion cherished, no evil practice followed, which does not cloud or distort our vision whenever we look beyond the merest abstract forms of things. There is a truth within us, to use the language of Scripture, a perfect inward ordering as of a transparent crystal, by which alone the faithful image of truth without us is brought within our ken. Not in vain said the Lord that it is the pure in heart, they whose nature has been subdued from distraction into singleness, who shall see God; or, we may add, who shall see the steps of the ladder by which we may mount to God. The steadfast and prescient pursuit of truth is therefore itself a moral and spiritual discipline.” [quoted from Hort, The Way, The Truth, The Life]

9 Responses to “Louth: Discerning the Mystery”

  1. Aaron James Says:

    I hadn’t heard of this book before you posted this last week, but since then I’ve encountered a second reference to it in Ephraim Radner’s new book on figural reading of Scripture. According to Radner, this book (and particularly Louth’s arguments for a revival of allegorical interpretation) had a galvanizing effect on a certain generation of theology students looking for an alternative to the dominant historical-critical method. Perhaps the book loses something from being read thirty years later, since many other theologians since 1983 have made similar arguments about the limitations of the historical-critical method and the need to expand our restricted modern understanding of knowledge. Interestingly, Radner notes that the influence of Louth’s book, and others like it, has not let to a renewal of allegorical interpretation of the Bible in actual practice; lots of theologians agree that it would be a good idea to read Scripture the way the church Fathers did, but there are not a lot of examples of what this might look like in a Sunday homily. (Radner’s book is an attempt to address this problem, first by putting forward a new theoretical foundation for figural reading and then by demonstrating how it might work in a modern context.)

    • cburrell Says:

      This is really helpful; thank you. Somehow or other I must been downstream from that “galvanizing effect”, because I picked up the book under the impression that it had been important or influential. Sadly I don’t remember where I got that impression.

      I have heard of Radner’s book, and I think it looks interesting, but at this point it seems unlikely that I’ll read it myself.

  2. Rob G Says:

    Louth was still an Anglican when he wrote D.t.M. His eventual coming to terms with what he wrote is what ultimately led him out of the Anglican church into Orthodoxy.

    Orthodox hermeneutics tends to be quite consciously patristic in nature, so allegory isn’t as much of a problem to it as it might be for other traditions.

  3. cburrell Says:

    Rob, when did you write that review of the book? I don’t think I’ve seen it before, but I can’t be entirely sure. I bought the book 8 or 10 years ago, intending to read it, so if it was you, your review would have to be older than that.

    In any case, you gave a very good summary of the book. Thanks.

  4. cburrell Says:

    Aaron, I agree that does sound awkward. I’m pretty sure I’m in favour of analogy in metaphysics, although I am still discerning exactly what that means.


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