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Monday, 9 March 2009

Christian Philosophy as Necromancy

I believe my vocation as a Christian Philosopher and Theologian is to provoke people to wrestle with the existential questions they face regarding themselves and God and to challenge them to take Christian answers to these questions seriously.

I was thinking about metaphors for the conversation my vocation requires me to engage in and I came up with the idea of Christian philosophy as Necromancy; Necromancy is the practice of communicating with the dead. In the religious or quasi-religious traditions of some societies it is believed that a person’s soul or spirit continues to exist after they die. The departed spirits can communicate with those still living and those still living can consult their knowledge and advice on matters of importance to them provided that the communication is done through a medium known as a necromancer. The necromancer is a person who is believed to have a special skill of discerning and interpreting what the departed spirits are saying and making this accessible to the enquirers. Similarly, the necromancer is able to put the questions of the enquirer to the departed. Necromancy is a two way conversation; the enquirers putting questions to the departed and the departed giving their answers through the necromancer.

I believe in my own field at least (and in more other fields than is often realised) that what I do is analogous to Necromancy. In the analogy, the enquirers are my audience, the Necromancer is the Christian philosopher and messages of the departed spirits are the subjects under discussion. The departed spirits are the great scholars and thinkers who have gone before us.

Let me elucidate this a bit more fully. In philosophy many of the most significant writings are by people who are dead, people like Plato, Hume and Descartes. The same is true in religious education where one is trying to encourage people to understand and inculcate a theological tradition.

A tradition is a body of purported knowledge (in religious traditions often revealed knowledge) handed down to the current generation from its ancestors. The point of studying tradition is to appropriate the wisdom (and to winnow out the folly) of the past and apply it to a contemporary context.

While these people are dead, the issues they faced are of relevance to us today because many of the questions they addressed are questions we still encounter and want answers to; we want to know what is truth? What is the purpose for existence? What is knowledge? Who are we? What is God’s will? Etc. These people provided, often, carefully reasoned answers to these questions and the point of studying them is to try to appropriate their insights in our own context. Studying these people’s writings, if done properly, is not just to read these people but to enter into dialogue with them.

Why did Plato hold the views he did? What were his reasons - are they cogent? If I offered a particular objection to his position how could it be responded to? When one reads the differing views of Plato and Aristotle who was correct? Why? In the debate between them, which arguments are sound and which are not? Can Plato’s position be modified to stand up to the criticism of Aristotle? And so on. To engage this subject properly it is not enough to just passively read; one must enter the debate and contribute to the discussion oneself. We do this because we have a stake in the questions involved and because the answers to these questions are important.

So in a very real sense, religious education and philosophy are conversations with the dead. We have existential and philosophical questions we want answered and we “consult” the teachings of our dead ancestors to help us answer these questions; in doing so we enter into dialogue between us and them.

As I noted, a necromancer is a person skilled at interpreting the teachings of the dead. This means the Christian philosopher must also be a scholar; he or she must understand these teachings and be in a constant two-way conversation with the dead him or herself. Her or she must also be able to articulate this conversation to others. His or her job is to try and take what he or she learns about what the dead have to say and then make it accessible to contemporary people and show them how it addresses the issues and answers they are asking.

The Christian philosopher also functions as a medium of two-way conservation with the dead. He or she is to pose questions to his or her audience on behalf of the dead. She or he is to take what they have said and place it squarely in front of the audience, demonstrating the challenges this information raises to their lives. The Christian philosopher must also defend the teachings of the dead against misunderstanding and misrepresentation, to a degree he or she plays “devils advocate,” so to speak, by taking the side of the dead, for the sake of argument, against the questions and scepticism of his audience to get them to take what is said seriously and to not just flippantly reject it as the ideas of non-modern people.

At the same time, the Christian philosopher should pose questions to the dead on behalf of the audience; he or she should offer the objections and questions that modern people raise to the dead and ponder their writings, critically evaluating what they have said.

There is some weakness in this analogy; not all Theologians and Philosophers are dead. Even so, they usually write standing in a tradition or their writings are informed by their own reflections on the past. Hence, it must be stressed that a Christian Philosopher is not the only necromancer that exists. She or he is part of a community of necromancers, thus it is a communal project of discernment. This means that the teacher’s discernment and interpretation of the departed messages are not just based on his or her own insights but the shared insight of the necromancer’s guild. This may involve appropriation of other necromancer’s insights as well as critical commentary and interpretation of other necromancers; the conversation with the dead has horizontal as well as vertical elements.

Others may object that my account here is too conservative, that it sees Christian philosophy as the inculculation of tradition. This is something of a caricature; what I am talking about is not mere inculculation but also a critical appropriation of tradition. I would add that the negative stance towards tradition expressed is such sentiments is based on certain enlightenment views of epistemology that I think are mistaken. The thinkers of the middle ages were much wiser than we are here in that they did not disparage everything from the past.

Finally, necromancy is considered, in those societies where it is practiced, as a sacred vocation and I believe this equally applies for the Christian Philosopher and Theologian; we are assisting people to wrestle with and find answers to the deep questions they face about God and this is something that must not be undertaken lightly.

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