Saturday, December 08, 2007

Hans Blumenberg: Augustine's Voluntarist God

Papal Keys
One for reason,
one for voluntarism?
(Image from Papal See Site)

According to Hans Blumenberg, Augustine enters into a discussion of miracles and the regularity of nature and emphasizes God's role in disrupting nature's 'regularity' because "he fears a lawfulness to which appeal can be made, which would give legitimacy to the human inquisitive drive and would leave behind it on account of its insistence on rationality, only a restricted acknowledgment of God's free will" (Blumenberg, The Legitimacy of the Modern Age, page 320).

Augustine notes a report in the work Roman Genealogy, by Marcus Terentius Varro (BC 116-27), and Blumenberg summarizes Augustine's use of Varro's report:
[A]n account is given of an alteration in the color, size, shape, and path of the planet Venus in the early epoch of the kings, a unique phenomenon never observed before or after. This testimony is cited in order to show the possibility of a natural object at a particular point in time exhibiting behavior different from what it had been seen to exhibit at all other times and what had been held to be its essential nature. From such a beginning, he could quite well have gone on to explain the unusualness of the phenomenon as subjective, in accordance with the formula that the miracle contradicts not nature but merely the nature that is known to us. This would have meant a broadening, but not an alteration, of the 'cosmos' concept: The regularity of nature would have been assumed as not indeed universally verifiable but still pregiven in principle. But Augustine does not hold to this line, and it was to have incalculable consequences for the history of Christian theology that he feared involvement in the cognitive pretension and in the exclusion of voluntarism more than he sought rationality. "So great an author as Varro," Augustine writes, "would certainly not have called this a portent had it not seemed to be contrary to nature. For we say that all portents are contrary to nature; but they are not so. For how is that contrary to nature that happens by the will of God, since the will of so mighty a Creator is certainly the nature of each created thing? A portent, therefore, happens not contrary to nature but contrary to what we know as nature."

So far he seems to have succeeded in reconciling to some extent the rationality of the cosmos and the volitional nature of the biblical God. But evidently this result does not satisfy Augustine's theological zeal, and consequently he forces the concept of law and the metaphor of the ruler into an antithesis that is certainly unexpected after what has just been said: "What is there so arranged by the Author of the nature of heaven and earth as the exactly ordered course of the stars? What is there established by laws to sure and so inflexible? And yet, when it pleased Him Who with sovereignty and supreme power regulates all He has created, a star conspicuous among the rest by its size and splendor changed its color, size, form, and, most wonderful of all, the order and law of its course!" It is not evident at first glance why Augustine goes further here than is required by his premise of the subjectivity of 'miracles' in nature. But on closer inspection it turns out that the train of thought contains a point directed against curiositas: Augustine believes that he has found the meaning of God's forcible intervention in the lawfulness of nature in the fact that it breaks through and frustrates the presumptuous claim of scientific exactitude to know the laws of nature and with their help to predetermine events... (Blumenberg, The Legitimacy of the Modern Age, pages 320-321).
On this point, Blumenberg observes wryly that "Only the sovereign act of intervention, putting in question all claims to theoretical 'exactiness' (inerrabilis computatio), is seen as the point of the story" (Blumenberg, Legitimacy, 321). He then adds some elaboration:
Nature is not set free as the final authority and embodiment of everything dependable, on which the human relation to reality can be based. The conflict between the idea of the cosmos and voluntarism is decided for the Middle Ages, and at the same time those premises are designated, by implication, whose secural had to become necessary in order to constitute an idea of science that was to make the absolute dependability of nature a condition of human self-assertion (Blumenberg, The Legitimacy of the Modern Age, pages 321-322).
Here, Blumenberg alludes to an irony unintended by Augustine, namely, that the latter's emphasis upon theological voluntarism implied what would be necessary for overcoming that voluntarism -- and in that ironic sense contributed to the emergence of science in early Modernity.

Although Pope Benedict XVI, in his Regensberg address, contrasted the theological voluntarism of Islam's Allah with the more rational concept of God in Christianity, while acknowledging that such voluntarism was also present as a Nominalist 'episode' in the development of Christian theology, from Blumenberg's discussion of Augustine, we see that the problem posed by theological voluntarism runs deeper in Christianity.

Moreover, Augustine is no peripheral theologian like Ibn Hazm but a major figure who has left his mark on all succeeding Western Christian theology, whether Catholic or Protestant, and Augustine's oscillation between a rational and a voluntarist God suggests that the Hellenization of Christianity was less synthesis and more unstable coalition.

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