Toward a New Philosophical Theology Based on Intersubjectivity

By Bracken, Joseph A. | Theological Studies, December 1998 | Go to article overview

Toward a New Philosophical Theology Based on Intersubjectivity


Bracken, Joseph A., Theological Studies


[Editor's note: Contrary to the view of two prominent French Roman Catholic philosophers and theologians, Jean-Luc Marion and Louis-Marie Chauvet, the author argues for the continued validity of metaphysics as a logical foundation for systematic theology today, provided that one rethinks metaphysics in the light of a new logic of intersubjectivity.]

The critique of classical metaphysics initiated by Martin Heidegger earlier in this century and then carried forward by a variety of other contemporary philosophers, such as Jacques Derrida, Emmanuel Levinas, and Richard Rorty, has been greeted with enthusiasm by "liberals" who are trying to rid themselves of what they see as the adverse effects of "totalizing" thought in Western philosophy, and with suspicion or even hostility by "conservatives" who fear a loss of objectivity if metaphysical ways of thinking are simply abandoned. Still a third group of philosophers has been working at a "reconstruction" of metaphysics along lines more amenable to habits of thought already operative in the natural and social sciences. David Griffin, for example, is the editor of a series in "constructive postmodern thought" published by the State University of New York Press, to which he himself has contributed.(1) With this third group I align myself because, while I am sympathetic to the "deconstructive" critique of classical metaphysics by Heidegger, Derrida, and others, I am profoundly uneasy at the prospect of constructing a contemporary theological worldview without an underlying philosophical scheme to give it a stronger claim to objectivity and academic respectability.

Moreover, I likewise concur with Griffin, Cobb, and others who have published in the SUNY series mentioned above, that resources for a "reconstructive" metaphysics are available in the North American philosophical tradition. In the present article, accordingly, I will indicate how the philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead, albeit with some modest changes,(2) can be used to set forth a "reconstructive" philosophical theology based on intersubjectivity that in my judgment meets the challenge of Heidegger, Derrida, Levinas, and others with respect to the "totalizing" character of classical metaphysics. That is, a theoretical scheme grounded in universal intersubjectivity should be open and incomplete since its ultimate components are by definition interrelated subjects of experience in process of development rather than fixed objects of thought within an a priori causal scheme (as in classical metaphysics). Universality or metaphysical generality should, moreover, still be present in this new philosophical theology based on intersubjectivity, but with the qualification that objectivity is grounded in habit or repetition of pattern among subjects of experience rather than in fixed essences within a pregiven causal scheme.

To provide a counterpoint for my reflections in this article, I will review the work of two prominent French Roman Catholic philosopher-theologians, namely, Jean-Luc Marion and Louis-Marie Chauvet, who have drawn up their own highly imaginative response to the work of Heidegger, Derrida, and others. Yet, while their response is a deliberately nonmetaphysical approach to Roman Catholic belief and practice, my suggestion here will be that, on the contrary, their "symbolic" approach to theology could itself be incorporated into a philosophical scheme based on the premise of universal intersubjectivity. Thus in my view there is no need for Marion and Chauvet to abandon metaphysical modes of thought altogether but only to revise them properly. To be specific, in reviewing the work of Marion, I will focus on what I regard as the apophatic character of both human and divine subjectivity, that is, the inability of a subject of experience fully to be described in objective terms. Thus subjectivity, whether human or divine, is always "transcendent" of whatever is said about it. Then, in taking note of the work of Chauvet, I will indicate how subjects of experience in their dynamic interrelation nevertheless create objective patterns or structures of intelligibility which constitute an enduring social order within which they continue to address one another.

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