Theological Philosophy

Rethinking the Rationality of Christian Faith

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Lydia Schumacher
Transcending Boundaries in Philosophy and Theology
  • New York, NY: 
    Routledge
    , February
     2018.
     224 pages.
     $49.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781138549142.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In an earlier work, Lydia Schumacher attempted to lay a foundation for thinking about the nature of human rationality in terms of the moral virtues. Here, she seeks to build on that foundation a positive argument for the rationality of Christian faith. The claims that she takes herself to have established in the prior work are that rationality is constituted by moral virtue, that moral virtue is aimed at the highest good, and that the task of philosophy as a rational enterprise is to “describe and prescribe a personal commitment to the highest good” (187). This is a conception of philosophy—drawn principally from Thomas Aquinas—that is “pro-theology” in the sense of being compatible with a distinctively Christian theological conception of our morally ordered relation to the highest good, and hence compatible with a Christian theological conception of rationality and the philosophical enterprise per se. 

Schumacher aims in this work to establish an even stronger claim: a Christian understanding of our morally-ordered relation to the transcendent Triune Lord as the highest good revealed in Christ’s incarnation is not only merely compatible with the nature and function of human rationality. Rather, Christianity is a necessary and sufficient condition of human rationality. “Since an appeal to belief in God, Triune and Incarnate, is required to explain and even maintain this commitment [to the highest good], or rationality, I have suggested that a pro-theology philosophy is strictly speaking a theological philosophy” (21). 

For a volume coming in at just under two hundred pages, Schumacher’s main thesis is very ambitious. Perhaps it is for that very reason that Theological Philosophy falls short of its purported aim as an instance of positive apologetics. We are treated to an admirably clear, jargon-free, and normative (rather than merely historically descriptive) exposition of a characteristically ancient and medieval thought about the essentially God-directed nature, purpose, and function of human rational capacities. But while it is in some ways a lucid exposition, itdoes not manage to satisfy the standards of evidence and reasoning required to be a sound argument in favor of the thesis it entertains. We are given insufficient reason to suppose that philosophy as a rational pursuit is constitutively theological in the relevant sense. 

Schumacher’s argument necessarily depends on our granting the truth of some quite controversial theses about the nature of rationality and the enterprise of philosophy, which she takes herself to have established in a prior work. Those theses are restated in the introduction and first chapter as background assumptions for the apologetic she offers here. But since they are both controversial and also essential premises in her argument, we should expect to find some non-question-begging reasons to endorse them even if only for the sake of argument. For example, the idea that rationality per se is reducible to moral virtue seems to collapse epistemic value into moral and prudential value, or it entails a stronger thesis about pragmatic encroachment on epistemic value than anyone has been willing to defend in contemporary philosophical approaches to epistemic value. Moreover, it seems to favor a kind of value monism that it doesn’t situate in relation to the critiques offered in pluralist theories of value. But Schumacher doesn’t acknowledge any of these alternative paths or tell us why we ought to take her preferred route. 

Likewise, the idea that there could be something like a “highest good” that grounds all subordinate goods has confronted significant challenges in value theory, making the very coherence of that notion a matter of contestation for theists and non-theists alike (see, e.g., the criticisms Jeff Speaks has recently made of the notion of a supreme good as it functions in perfect being theology). Apart from a prior commitment to a (particularly platonizing) form of theism, what motivation could we have to adopt this picture? Simply helping oneself to Schumacher’s background assumptions without rendering them plausible for one’s purported audience would no doubt be unnecessary for a medieval philosophical readership (for whom they would be largely uncontroversial). But asking a contemporary philosophical readership—even those already committed to theism—to simply take such claims in stride stretches credulity too far to serve any useful apologetic purpose. Staking claims about the essential norms of rationality and philosophy makes one accountable to the literature in contemporary value theory and metaphilosophy, but Theological Philosophy almost entirely ignores that literature along with the (substantial) justificatory burden it would place on the theses that Schumacher asks us to simply assume. 

But even if one is prepared to take those assumptions on board, matters do not significantly improve in establishing the primary thesis of the book, that an orientation of faith, hope, and love toward the transcendent, Triune and Incarnate God of Christianity supplies both necessary and sufficient conditions for the possibility of human rationality as a morally virtuous orientation toward the highest good. Granting Schumacher’s framework of rationality, the sufficiency claim seems plausible enough—Christian theism entails a coherent picture of human orientation toward the highest good, and as such if it is true, it is surely rational in Schumacher’s sense. But the necessity claim is implausibly strong—why suppose that we could be rational in Schumacher’s sense only if Christianity’s claims about divine transcendence, Trinity and Incarnation are true? The chapter devoted to taking up that argumentative burden comes nowhere close to meeting it—we’re told that it is “necessary to posit” a transcendent good in order to avoid irrational preoccupation with finite goods (68, 189), but the evidence for this necessity reduces to some observations about contingent human tendencies. Showing that Christianity is a necessary explainer for human rationality entails that there is no possible explanation of human rationality on which God is not transcendent, trinitarian, or incarnate. Unfortunately, there simply aren’t any arguments that match the boldness of rhetoric on behalf of this claim. 

This is not to suggest, however, that Theological Philosophy is without any merit. Perhaps it can be read not as an argument for its primary thesis, but as an extended suggestion for a way of seeing that has been largely lost to us with the decline of Western Christendom. The question it leaves unanswered, however, is whether this way of seeing remains genuinely open to us.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Sameer Yadav is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Westmont College.

Date of Review: 
June 17, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Lydia Schumacher is Chancellor's Fellow at the University of Edinburgh, School of Divinity. Her previous books include Divine Illumination: The History and Future of Augustine’s Theory of Knowledge and the three-volume Oxford Guide to the Historical Reception of Augustine, for which she served as both co-editor and contributor.

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