Dr. Liccione Replies

Quite frankly I was rather surprised not only that Dr. Liccione actually replied so quickly to my post from earlier this afternoon, but even that he replied at all in his: Essence/energies: a reply to Benedict Seraphim. After all, this blog is a little-visited backwater of the blogosphere, and well, I figured he would figure such a reply would be a waste of his time and energies. I’ve only recently actually commented on his blog, so it’s not like I’m one to be taken notice of, such as a Perry or a Photios. And, given the gist of his reply, it’s even more of a mystery why he bothered at all.

All that said, however, he did me the courtesy of a response, and in his response it is clear that my earlier post left some things to be desired in terms of clarity. So here I will attempt to rectify that, and to further defend a bit what I said.

Dr. L characterizes my post as follows:

Benedict’s reaction is predictably negative, though not—to give him credit—nasty, which is what as I’ve become accustomed to from certain other quarters. His critique is two-pronged: ecclesiological and theological (where ‘theological’ means ‘pertaining to the doctrine about God’ as distinct from about the Church). Unfortunately, neither prong engages my actual argument.

As to the predictability of my negativity to his proposal Michael is unclear. Does he mean that it is predictably negative because in my replies to his original post I held to a negative appraisal of his proposal? Or, as is more likely, does he posit the predictability on the fact that like the other Orthodox who’ve responded to his proposal I’ve approached it negatively? Perhaps there’s something to the pervasively negative Orthodox response that Dr. Liccione is receiving? Could it be something more than just the purported pugnacity of online Orthodox? After all, if even the ever-irenic Fr. Stephen Freeman reacts in concert with the negativity of his co-religionists, then maybe there’s something to the negativity?

I, for one, think there is. Which is what my earlier post was intended to convey.

In any case, though I only meant to highlight that the differing ecclesiologies of the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches play into this debate–which differing ecclesiologies Dr. Liccione himself affirms–I did not intend to attempt a substantive critique of Dr. Michael’s proposal from said ecclesiological differences. It appears that Dr. Liccione and I simply differ over the extent to which Orthodox view the schism between Rome and the other ancient Patriarchates: as wholly pervasive and fundamental (thus the Mt. Athos reference) or as something much more ephemeral. He then caricatures the Bp Kallistos proverb–We know where the Church is, but not where it isn’t–as being inherently unable to say that Rome is not the church; after all if we can’t say where the Church isn’t, then we can’t say Rome, er, is there. But while Bp Kallistos’ proverbial expression is oft-utilized, particularly in apologetic or non-Orthodox Christian missional contexts, one doubts that even Bp Kallistos himself meant it as a full expression of Orthodox ecclesiology. Fr Stephen–who Dr. Liccione quotes as espousing the agnostic view–can speak for himself, but I hardly think the good Father would himself espouse the proverbial expression as a full statement of Orthodox ecclesiology.

Yes, it is true that you can get just about as many “Orthodox ecclesiologies” as there are online Orthodox, but that is hardly pertinent to Dr. Liccione’s implication that Orthodox ecclesiology is incoherent, or that the differing Orthodox views are fundamentally instead of superficially different. But in any case, this is beside the point: Whether or not Orthodoxy has a systematically unified ecclesiology (I think it does, but I do not think such an ecclesiology is had by way of systematic theologizing, but rather by unified liturgical askesis), Dr. L concedes the difference. He just doesn’t concede that that difference makes any difference on the DD front.

But it’s my critique from the theological vantage point where I can now see I was most confusing. I do too often invoke Dr. L’s name as the proponent for the position I critique, and that, in fairness to his two posts, is not the primary argument he makes in his post. He is right to call me on that infelicitous move. I do also invoke the names of frequent combox interlocutors to Dr. L’s site, and rather than his two posts, I had in mind, in making my critique, the comments of his co-religionists. I’ll leave it to Dr. L, or Jonathon Prejean, Michael Sullivan among others to assess whether my critique fits their own comments, and we can, perhaps, address that at another time.

That said, however, I do not think that my criticism is far of the mark to what Dr. Liccione is arguing, or at least what he has said that he is arguing in this most recent post replying to my earlier one. I’ll cite him on this point:

I was quite explicit that I was speaking about dogmas: Orthodox and Catholic dogmas. The notion of absolute divine simplicity (ADS) has been dogmatized by the Catholic Church; the essence/energies distinction, as expounded by St. Gregory Palamas, has been dogmatized by the Orthodox Church. St. Gregory also argued that God is simple. His considered position is not quite the same as that of, say, St. Thomas Aquinas; but his conclusion is quite similar to the dogma formally defined by the Catholic Church. Therefore, my attempt to harmonize the dogmas of EED and ADS in no way depends, as Benedict would have it, on any “presupposition” that natural theology has “authority over revealed theology,” a presupposition that no orthodox Catholic would dare make. It depends on analysis of the meaning and purport of the two dogmas in question. My argument was that the two are logically compatible, true, and instances of authentic DD.

Now, when you compare the comments in the comboxes to the two earlier posts of Dr. L’s that I link, I see little to disabuse me of my criticism. The Roman Catholic interlocutors critique the Orthodox essence/energies distinction from the standpoint of natural theology. Whether or not they intend to make the claim that natural theology trumps revealed theology, when the Orthodox commenters affirm again and again that their theology begins first with revelation, and when such Roman Catholic commenters critique the Orthodox metaphysic because it does not map on to reality, what else is one to think?

That said, let us look again at what Dr. L says above. Absolute divine simplicity is RC dogma. Essence/energies distinction is Orthodox dogma. St. Gregory Palamas (who espoused the essence/energies distinction) “also argued that God is simple.” (Note, by the way: the link to the St. Gregory cite is from my other blog. Don’t know if Dr. L knew this or not. But it’s interesting.) So, given this, one might get the impression that all that separates us on these points is some intransigent Orthodox. But Dr. L is honest enough to continue (emphasis added): “His [St. Gregory’s] considered position is not quite the same as that of, say, St. Thomas Aquinas; but his conclusion is quite similar to the dogma formally defined by the Catholic Church.”

Quite similar/not quite the same is precisely the gulf of difference I’m noting.  And, indeed, though I will quickly admit to abject ignorance of St. Thomas, I’ve read both St. Thomas and St. Gregory enough to know that they do not come to divine simplicity by the same route (or methodology), and, I’m persuaded, are radically different, even irreconcilably so, on ADS and EE.

Now, Dr. Liccione might well object to my putting arguments in his, er, blog, that are not his.  Guilty. I should have been more clear.  But I do not think he has falsified my critique.  Rather, my read of his latest is that he affirms it, albeit by way of the back door.

Now, as Dr. L and others can readily see from my blog here, I’m hardly as intelligent and educated as they.  I certainly don’t have the chops to keep up with them in diablogical debate.  I’m pretty much a redneck Kansan and Orthodox catechumen.  I can find my way around an argument, and, on odd Tuesdays and Saturdays can sometimes, if the planets are aligned, make an argument myself.   I’m happy to continue clarifying and responding as the need arises, but if they’re looking for a battle of the big boys, this boy is just a piker who enjoys some good debate.

I again thank Dr. L for his courteous response and hope he feels just as well done by from me.

The DD Dog That Just Don’t Hunt, or Why the DD Ecumenical Overture Doesn’t Work

In a previous post, I referenced the first installment of Dr. Michael Liccione’s two-part post on the development of doctrine and how, in his view, Roman Catholics and Orthodox can find common ground on this matter without, he thinks, giving up their distinctives.

Well, several days ago, Dr. L followed up with his second post on doctrinal development and RC-Orthodox ecumenism. (For what it’s worth, Jonathon Prejean has a post criticizing an argument by Mr. Jargon that touches on the issues Dr. L addresses. And Brandon Watson also touches on the essence/energies distinction, asserting its ultimate notionality.)

Dr. L begins his post thus:

In a previous post I briefly argued that there is hardly any substantive difference between the Catholic understanding of authentic development of doctrine, as expressed by Vatican II, and a fairly typical account of DD given by a mainstream Orthodox author.

Dr. L and his fellow Roman Catholics lament the intransigence of the Orthodox who just don’t seem to want to “play nice.” When reading the comboxes of these and similar posts in the blogosphere, it’s clear that the Roman Catholic commenters scratch their heads. In their view, they’re offering the Orthodox the opportunity to keep their particular convictions but also to reunite with one of the ancient patriarchates and to end the millennium-long schism.

But there are two fundamental misunderstandings at work here, one related to ecclesiology and one related to theology.

With regard to ecclesiology, the Roman Catholics, such as Dr. Liccione and others, view the Orthodox as separated brethren. Indeed, if Orthodox bishops would permit their faithful to commune in Roman Catholic Eucharists, the Roman Catholic would oblige them. For the Roman Catholics, the matter is more formal than it is material. But the Orthodox do not hold this same ecclesiological view: they understand Rome to be in material separation from the Church, with certain doctrinal heresies as well as the, to Orthodox, overreach of papal jurisdictional primacy. So there is more at work here, for Orthodox, than coming to a meeting of the minds. Roman Catholics don’t “get it” of course, since a) they do not believe they are in heresy on certain doctrinal matters, and b) they read the patristic witness about the patriarch of Rome in lights favorable to their views. (On that last point, so do Orthodox. The issue is not that of reading in a favorable light, but which light is the truth.)

But I don’t want to get in to the ecclesiology, since Mr. Jargon at NeoChalcedonian, among others, is doing a nice job of that.

The other, to me more pertinent issue, is that of theology. Dr. Liccione asserts his both/and scenario from a particular vantage point: that of natural theology. This may not be quite so clear from the post itself, but in the related links and the comboxes it’s clear that two things are going on: a) if Orthodox would only understand the doctrinal issues from the standpoint of natural theology, as the Roman Catholics do, all would be well, and b) Orthodox theology itself doesn’t stand up, so the Roman Catholic commenters claim, to natural theological critiques, and therefore is itself problematic (and thus a good reason to jettison it).

In other words, what Dr. L is implicitly asking, even if this is not his intention, is for Orthodox to cease doing theology in the way Orthodox do theology and to start doing theology the way Roman Catholics do theology. Or, to say it another way, what we have is a tautology: since Rome is right, Rome must therefore be right. Now commenters like Dr. L, Jonathon Prejean and others will object to this accusation of such a vicious circle. After all, they claim, what we have made are substantive arguments. And I agree, they have.

What they have not done, however, is justify their starting presuppositions. And that’s where the trouble begins. Orthodox begin with different theological first principles than do the Roman Catholic commenters here referenced. And to object that Orthodox do not make cogent arguments is primarily to say that Orthodox do not make arguments that start from the same point.

Now, strictly speaking, one does not, nor can, rationally justify one’s first principles. There is a certain strength to the ancient skeptical “Agrippan modes.” To avoid the infinite regress of justification, one has to admit a certain sort of circularity. That is to say, one has to start somewhere. So one posits one’s first principles. From there, as Aristotle, among other thinkers, notes, one then “justifies” such first principles, such asserted presuppositions, by way of coherence. Are the articulations and derivative arguments from such presuppositions sound? And, do they map on to reality as best we know it?

Jonathon, among others, would argue that Orthodox metaphysics does not “map on” to reality. This, of course, begs several questions, not the least of which is the circularity of an argument that utilizes “reality” as both the starting point and measurement of views that do not operate within that paradigm. Why does natural theology have the capacity to judge “Orthodox metaphysics” in a way that he, and others, reject “Orthodox metaphysics” can judge natural theology. And how would one ever be able to know that one’s conception of what one takes as “natural divinity” is an accurate representation and explication of such a reality? If both Rome and Orthodoxy agree that God’s essence (i.e., his nature) is inscrutable, doesn’t a “natural theology” somehow ultimately and essentially come up short?

I certainly affirm the goodness of Dr. Liccione’s intentions, and those of his colleagues, who are pursuing, to the best of their ability, the union they believe is warranted between the two churches, Rome and the Orthodox. And I can sympathize with their reaction: they’re attempting to offer union with what they think preserves Orthodox doctrinal integrity, only to be rebuffed.

But what I think they fail to understand is that it’s not just a matter of Orthodox not wanting to change how they practice their theology, or not wanting to give up a certain metaphysical view, it’s that Orthodox don’t accept the starting presuppositions to begin with (i.e., that natural theology has any sort of authority over revealed theology, or that revealed theology must be consonant with natural theology). In other words, it’s asking Orthodox to not be Orthodox.

And as they say where I come from, that dog don’t hunt.