One wonderful thing about philosophical modernity—the kind that begins roughly with Descartes and comes to something like an end in the twentieth century—is that one knew where one stood. Science was believed (and still is by many) to be the one source of true knowledge. Everything else had to bow before it in one way or another. We only need to remember the huge dominance (at least in English-speaking countries) of logical positivism. As long as logical positivism ruled philosophy, philosophy of religion was suspect. Indeed, even ethical judgments were put into question by the position known as “ethical emotivism,” which held that all ethical statements were not even worthy of the designation “statement” and instead were simply expressions of one’s emotions. For logical positivists, only statements that are tautologically true or empirically verifiable have the right to be called “statements.”
Yet people finally realized that this statement couldn’t pass its own test. The idea that something was only true tautologically or empirically was itself neither true by tautology nor by empirical verification. As a result, logical positivism was discredited. The idea that scientific knowledge is the only true knowledge is much less prevalent today, though it is still the default mode of many people. But the loss of the privilege of science over everything else made many things possible. For instance, it is no coincidence that the Society of Christian Philosophers (largely an analytic organization with about 1,000 members) was founded in 1978, at the time logical positivism was dying out. As philosophers returned to a more pre-modern way of thinking, studying medieval philosophy suddenly got much more interesting. However, many thinkers have decried the loss of the modern consensus for the “postmodern” ways of thinking that were made possible (if you don’t like the word “postmodern,” then feel free to choose your own word). This also comes as no surprise. As I said earlier, at least you knew where you stood during modernity.
Perhaps this is too strong a statement, but I think Emmanuel Falque’s book Crossing the Rubicon couldn’t have been written in the age of modernity. Indeed, while many have found the “return of religion” or the “theological turn in phenomenology” to be a surprise, my reaction is: mais oui, bien sûr! Having been dismissed for so long as simply superstition, suddenly thinking as a religious believer became possible—in some cases, even respectable. Alvin Plantinga has long said that starting with the belief that there is no God is in no way more neutral than starting with the belief that there is a God. The point here is not that you can simply start with any beliefs you like but that there is no neutral starting point. Philosophy, theology, and the branches of science have never been neutral. Further, everything (as Derrida reminds us) has its own set of beliefs. Some of these can be proven but others of them are simply “prejudices” (or what the philosopher R. G. Collingwood termed “absolute presuppositions,” by which he meant the building blocks of thought or things that pretty much everyone takes to be true). Of course, Gadamer, who almost singlehandedly rehabilitated the idea of “prejudice” hardly thinks that anyone is simply entitled to their prejudices without questioning them, but his point is that there is no way of simply getting rid of them (which was the opposite of one of the main points of logical positivism—that you could get rid of them).
More fundamentally, Falque thinks that philosophy and theology, while different, are complementary. Which means the Rubicon can be crossed, or the distance between the Institut Catholique de Paris and the Sorbonne is not quite so wide after all. “Theologians make a point of reminding philosophers that they incessantly surpass the boundaries set by reason,” says Falque. While he does not put it this way, we might say that many things we believe to be “common sense” or obviously correct are things we really don’t much understand. We have been speaking of “matter” for centuries, but what exactly is it? Is there really such a thing as a “force” of gravity or a “law” of physics or is this simply our way of talking about the world? Even though theology and philosophy differ in terms of such things as how they proceed and the methods used, they are not really separable in any strong sense. As Falque puts it, “those who believe that they should still engage in the battle between philosophy and theology should now see that this clash would forever be sterile” (132). Philosophy helps us to understand theology: one need only think of how the formulation of the Trinity is founded upon Greek concepts. The task for theologians, according to Falque, is that they find new ways of formulating theological beliefs that speak to contemporaries.