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Wissen und Geist: The Emergence of Humanity as a Question for Theology

9 October 2011

In lieu of a further installment in “Molinism and Varieties of Freedom” The Molinist brings you this paper on theological anthropology, written for Dr James Pambrun of Saint Paul University, the writing of which made much work on Calvinist perspectives on middle knowledge impossible.

Galileo Galilei

The emergence of ‘humanity’ as a question for theology is tied to the emergence of a new paradigm for thinking about the nature of the human person. This new paradigm was centuries in the making and accompanied slow developments within modes of thinking about ourselves and the world in which we live but is tied principally to two major events in the history of Western thought: the scientific revolution and the emergence of historical consciousness. These events and their immediate effects on our ways of thinking gave birth to and continue to shape the ways in which humanity thinks about itself. The scientific revolution marked a fundamental turning point in the self-understanding of humanity. The new science of Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, and eventually Newton overturned the Aristotelian understanding of the physical universe and for the first time human beings believed that we could observe the system of nature from a position of objectivity. This position of objectivity is what Hannah Arendt refers to as the “Archimedean point.”[1] The Archimedean point was ‘discovered,’ according to Arendt, with Galileo Galilei’s invention of the telescope, for it allowed for the first time for human beings to observe realities which lay beyond the reach of our native senses and confirmed for the first time the speculations of past generations about the falsity of Aristotle’s physics and the Ptolemaic model of the cosmos.[2] That it was the actual observation of the movements of the heavenly bodies and not the decidedly more contentious theories regarding the same that marked the axial moment in the birth of modern science is extremely important. The confirmation of theories through observation, the method of theory, observation, and confirmation, and the attendant epistemology of empiricism, brought the new science into conflict with the traditional authorities of knowledge, the church, who understood that Galileo’s observations would unmoor humanity from its epistemic safe harbour and open us up to the possibility that our senses cannot be trusted.[3] The susceptibility of our senses to misleading stimuli was only further confirmed by Newton, who overturned Aristotle’s observation-based dicta on the laws of motion, leading to what Arendt calls the “modern reductio scientiae at mathematica.”[4]

Galileo’s observation marked the shift from humanity as terrestrial beings to universal ones: where once we were bound by our very nature to the earth now it is only an incidental condition of our existence and, crucially, one which we can overcome.[5] The result of the distancing of persons from nature, the placing of humanity upon the ever-elusive Archimedean point, has been to place human beings in a place of anguish and despair. Humanity now sees itself as standing upon the Archimedean point, observing the system of nature as whole and slowly, bit by bit, deciphering her laws and mapping her contours. But to stand at such a point is to stand outside of nature, for only outside of the system can it observed as a whole. The more we do so the more the system which we seek to observe becomes alien to us, not a beautiful and ordered machine which mirrors the contours our own minds but mess of patterns and configuration which will not submit themselves to our perceptions or our valuations.[6] The irony of this development is that the further advances of modern science throw into question the very possibility of the Archimedean point which so altered our self-understanding and our perception of our place in the universe. In the wake of Einstein and Heisenberg, the realisations that space itself is curved and that the very act of observation will affect the object of observation, the possibility of ever observing anything objectively is finally done away with, for there is no place outside the system of nature at which to stand, no place where we can glimpse the whole.

The emergence of human historical consciousness began in earnest during the Renaissance and continued into the wake of the Age of Reason in a period which Bernard Lonergan describes as “The Second Enlightenment.”[7] Prior to the development of historical consciousness the dominant paradigm of historical thinking in the West was that of Augustine.[8] To Augustine there could be no significant shift in the nature of the age in which humanity currently other than the Parousia. The axial moments of the current age are the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, which marked its beginnings, and the next coming of Christ in glory, which will mark its end. Between these axial events there could be only a single epoch of history.[9] What changed this view was the self-consciousness realisation that the significant events of sacred history did not align with the great moments of secular history. As late as the 17th century French bishop and writer Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet could write his Discours sur l’histoire universelle and take “universelle” to refer to the history of Israel, Rome, and Western Europe, though his contemporary the Marquise of Châtelet commented his myopic view of what constitutes “l’histoire universelle” when Israel is relatively insignificant to the course of non-religious history and Russia alone dwarfs the greatest extent of the Roman Empire.[10] The Marquise’s observant eye brings to the fore the fact that Bossuet understood ‘history’ to mean ‘sacred history,’ that to Bossuet the relevant history of the world is that of creation and redemption.

The Augustinian model of history introduced an important division between sacred and secular history. However this division existed not at the level not of historical event but of historiography. The major divisions within secular human history and eschatological turning points of sacred history are one and the same: the difference is one of insight and interpretation.[11] To Augustine the Bible contains a privileged historical narrative which reveals the intent behind God’s activities in human history.[12] This narrative, not the events themselves, is the sacred history.[13] The moment which is so beautifully encapsulated by the patronising liner note the Marquise of Châtelet made in her copy of Discours sur l’histoire universelle was separation of historiographical sacred from the historical secular and the absorption of the former into the latter with the birth of an awareness that history is so broad and all-encompassing that no single sacred narrative can encapsulate it.[14] The time of the Marquise had seen a then-unprecedented opening up of Europe to the larger world which overturned the sense of universality that had so characterised the self-understanding of medieval Europe. In the face of this enlarged perspective of human history European thinkers could not but begrudgingly accept that if history does universal meaning then it would not be found in the dissolving paradigms of the Christian eschatological narrative or Christian triumphalism.[15] What replaced the totality of history was the totality of data, the effort to acquire meaning in history through empirical completeness. Figures such as Voltaire and the thinkers of the German Historical School strove respectively to compile a complete historical record of the entire world or an understanding of a single culture (and its attendant history) through an understanding of its entire remains and its entire background, asserting that from the mass of data would emerge a coherent complex of meaning.[16] The ideal of empirical completeness falls short of the task of finding meaning in history precisely because meaning is to be found in the interpretation of history rather than in the recording of it.

Even when interpretation is once again made the means of discovering meaning in history the breaking-off of secular history from sacred history that took place during the Enlightenment and the subsequent secularisation of history itself shift the focus of any attempt to find such meaning. The division between the secular and sacred is maintained but its content has shifted. Now what is classed as sacred is that portion of history which suits the meaning the historian wishes to portray. The ‘secular’ aspects of history are those which do not serve the historian’s meaning and can simply be arranged the interpretation the historian wishes to advance.[17] Functionally this paradigm is no different from that of Augustine except in that it is the function of the individual historian to determine the meaningful strand of history with which to weave the narrative of the relevant, which in this post-Enlightenment model is equivalent to the Augustinian ‘sacred,’ interpretation of history. Where once our historiography looked at the totality of history, from the creation of the world to the end of time, now it can view the past only from the viewpoint of the present, for it does not look forward to the completion of history. The sense of history has ceased to be perfective, envisioning all of human history from creation to the end of time as a simple whole, and has become past tense, a series of events leading to the present. Meaning is no longer inherent but must be assigned by the historian. Thus human beings can no longer look to history for meaning, since history derives its meaning from us.

The new absence of an historical telos fundamentally shifted the way human beings understand ourselves and our political communities. Removing divine agency from history also removes it from the present tense and places us in a world governed by the laws of nature and fathomable only to science. With the world in which we live emptied of transcendent meaning we are restricted to secular history in secular time, which, to the secular mind, is all time, and to secular foundations for our society. The long march of secularisation has evacuated the transcendent references both from history and from nature, leaving humanity without an exterior foundation upon which to build our communities. Prior to the secularisation brought about by historical consciousness and the scientific revolution the social order was understood as divinely authored and predestined and human beings derived meaning from participation in that divine destiny. Thus to be an American was to be a part of a people under God, a people whose destinty was divinely approved.[18] In the wake of that secularisation human society must be, in the words of Bronislaw Baczko, “fondé sur lui-même.”[19] Thus to find foundations for the secular society we must once again turn inward to examine ourselves and find within ourselves the ground upon which to build the social order ounce founded upon the transcendent.

The sum of all of these developments is a fundamental shift in human self-understanding. The world in which we situate ourselves is no longer static: where once we existed today as we were created, awaiting the completion of the great wheel of history with the imminent second coming of Christ, living all the while in an orderly and unchanging world, today we live surrounded by complex, ever-changing, and often chaotic dynamisms. The question is no longer one of what is humanity is but of what we have been, how we got there, what we are today, how this came to be, and what we will become and how we will get there. ‘Humanity,’ to employ Whiteheadian terminology, is a process and is not reducible to the morphology of a ‘stuff.’ What it means to be human cannot thus be pinned down at a particular moment in history and the answer pointed to not only for future generations but imposed upon the past. It, or we, must be sought continually because the context in which the question is asked, and thus the question itself, is ever-changing. This reality represents a loss of stability in human self-understanding. Humanity is no longer understandable a fixed quantity and our ever-emerging, ever-changing self-understanding in the fields of science and history and demanded new reflection upon the very question of ‘humanity’ in other fields of understanding.

It is rightly observed by the Second Vatican Council that humanity can barely keep pace with the rapid developments of history.[20] From the moment that Galileo first looked through his telescope and observed the heavens we have become more and more displaced from the world in which we situate ourselves. Gaudium et spes aptly describes humanity as existing between anguish and hope, worrying over the present course of events because they cannot, in the shifting tides of the modern age, recognise and apply permanent values.[21] The question of humanity is precisely the quest for these permanent values, an understanding of our own essential nature from which we can proceed to act in the world. The answer to this question was once simply assumed, being seated as it was in our place in a clear and organised created order, there to wait for the inevitable completion of a history we would view as a whole, from creation to final judgement. The advances of science which placed us outside of this organised order and made clear its shifting and dynamic nature, along with the realisation that human history cannot be conceived as strictly in terms of the fall, the calling of Israel, the life and death of Christ, and the eventual Parousia for all of the peoples and places of the earth seemingly untouched by those formative events have made it clear that the question cannot be answered except with continual reflection upon our own nature and our place in the creation which we know so little about.

Notes and Bibliography


[1] Arendt, Hannah, The Human Condition, Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press, 1958, 257.

[2] Arendt, The Human Condition, 257, 259.

[3] Arendt, The Human Condition, 267.

[4] Arendt, The Human Condition, 267.

[5] Arendt, The Human Condition, 263.

[6] Arendt, The Human Condition, 267.

[7] Lonergan, A Third Collection, 63.

[8] Voegelin, Eric, From Enlightenment to Revolution, Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1975, 3.

[9] Markus, R.A., Saeculum: History and Society in the Theology of St. Augustine, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970, 20-21.

[10] Voegelin, From Enlightenment to Revolution, 5.

[11] Markus, Saeculum, 17.

[12] Markus, Saeculum, 16.

[13] Markus, Saeculum, 14-15.

[14] This is no to say that a sacred history is not relevant to history but merely that history cannot be limited to a single sacred historical narrative.

[15] Voegelin, From Enlightenment to Revolution, 7-8.

[16] Voegelin, From Enlightenment to Revolution, 9; Lonergan, A Third Collection, 64.

[17] Voegelin, From Enlightenment to Revolution, 11.

[18] Taylor, Charles, Sources of the Self, Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1989, 186.

[19] Baczko, Bronislaw, Les imaginaire sociaux, 17, As quoted in Taylor, Sources of the Self, 188.

[20] “Gaudium et spes,” The Basic Sixteen Documents: Vatican Council II: Constitutions, Decrees, Declarations, Flannery, Austin, O.P., ed, New York: Costello Publishing Company, 1996, 167.

[21] “Gaudium et spes,” 166.

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