Ken Archer, a graduate student at the School of Philosophy, Catholic University of America, makes a good argument for the usefulness of phenomenology to Christian theology in his paper "The Turn to Husserl and Phenomenology by Protestant and Catholic Philosophers for the Redemption of Reason." Taking Dallas Willard, Msgr. Robert Sokolowski and Karol Wojtyla (Pope John Paul II), Archer argues that all three men understand benefits from Husserl phenomenology as (a) a reading of Scripture rooted in epistemic realism, and (b) a nonfoundational doctrine of ethics built on what people do rather than on abstract first principles, the result of which is " a consequent concern for the formation of ethical people within Christian theology."
Reason, he begins, was pulled away from anthropology and made its own thing. Reason and the rational became a discipline of specialist, tinkerers of method reserving "truth" for whatever is arrived at by their own machinations. Thus "to be rational [was] reserved to those who mastered the activities of mind through the application of methods of inquiry." Phenomenology does not breathe such rarified air.
Rather, says Archer, phenomenology is inherent in everyday thinking. It is not the development and mastery of a method, but a description of what is there, a description "of the structure of all cognitive experience present in all human living." And this is a major point that Archer makes: phenomenology view our daily cognitive experience as already structured towards revealing the truth of things." Phenomenological inquiry, therefore, is but the "discovery and description of everyday reason." "Our daily cognitive lives are inherently structured towards revealing the truth about reality, and are thus inherently rational." So much for the enlightenment.
Husserl discovered, as it were, an Achilles heel above the rim of Descartes's shoe. The enlightenment took reason as "a method or tool of the mind used to master its own actives." Reason was said to operate in a spatial context, leaping out of the so as to talk about the truth of things outside the brain. Consciousness exists on its own, then, an absolute solipsism that collects a real knowledge of the world by the application of an appropriate method. The senses, what the mind knows, require such a method to achieve real knowledge.
Husserl, with others (Archer identifies Lambert, Kant, Hegel, Brentano and Mach) redefined mind. Consciousness, he said, is always consciousness of something in extra-mental reality. Solipsism is impossible, then, because thought is thinking about, thinking of something else. The play between one's ears is impossible because the play itself requires a supporting relationship to the world ad extra. "Consciousness and the world are so directly and inseparably related that, without the world, there would be no consciousness." Therefore, Husserl rejected both legs of Enlightenment reason, and called for a do-over. Why not begin with actual acts of thinking, he said. Instead of requiring a special method to know anything about the world, Husserl said that thinking reveals "the direct and unmediated relationship between mind and world in which the mind present the world as consciousness . . . a consciousness naturally ordered toward revealing the truth of things." A new epistemology is needed, one that examines the structure of this revealing. The way consciousness comes about "reveals the reasonableness of thinking itself."
Now where language is concerned (language in general, scripture in particular), language is no longer a symbolic method to get at the world. Husserl believed thinking, that relationship that is the "thinking of," precedes language (rather than the view that says that if we don't have the language for it, we can't think it.) Language and texts, for all three of Archer's representative thinkers, disclose, rather than prejudice and shut out, the world. Of course, when applied to scripture, this means that scripture is not true for any other reason than reality, itself, is true. Authority has to rest on the truth of the real world, and not in arguments about whether something is revealed or not. All language is structured to reveal the truth of the world, to bring the world to a greater presence for ourselves and others, and this is true whether that language is in the Gospel of Mark or in a "polemical essay, poetry, math equation, the script of a play." The "world revealed in scriptures is fundamentally the same as our world today." Elsewhere, Archer discusses the truth-telling importance of the "theory of theatre" on John Paul II. Therefore,
The approach to texts just discussed does not look for axiomatic claims in texts to serve as foundational premises for knowledge of reality to be certain, rather it allows any text to disclose any essential elements of reality for the reader. An insightful text thus fills in our knowledge of our world by unfolding and revealing more essentials of our world to us.
And what is this but the epistemological principle of identity applied to hermeneutics!
Now the way phenomenology's reconstruction of reason connects with ethics is rather intuitive. Archer explains that "one we learn that reason has been trying to tell us the truth of things" we become more responsible to act rationally. Contemporary ethical theories are either consequentialist / utilitarian or deontological / duty-based" theories. Both assume a foundation, a method. Phenomenology denies the quest for the perfect method. We shouldn't be continually waiting to know more, always carrying about a hermeneutic of suspicion. Rather, we should act on our experiences and memories. What matters is not the formation of an ethic which must then be enacted, but the formation of ethical persons who simply do what they do--live ethically. Archer quotes Dallas Willard, "The Pharisee takes as his aim keeping the law rather than becoming the kind of person whose deeds naturally conform to the law." (Divine Conspiracy 184) And, as Archer admits, all three men understand Husserl's ethical move as a serious return to Aristotle, where ethics is "simply revealing what ethical people do."
John Paul II absolutely conjoined the epistemological and ethical aspects of phenomenology; "moral action [like reason] is also essential to human living." Just as reason is thinking of something inseparably, so living is always moral living. "Man interacts with reality continuously not only via consciousness but also via moral action, which is made possible by the continuous presence of reason which is the basis for responsible action. . . . action and thus moral agency is a constant concomitant to reason. . . . Right reason does not simply give us answers to occasional ethical dilemmas that we face, rather it reveals all of life to be a continuous occasion for moral action." Note, please, this quote Archer pulls from Willard's Divine Conspiracy:
First we must accept the circumstances we constantly find ourselves in as the place of God's kingdom and blessing. God has yet to bless anyone except where they actually are, and if we faithlessly discard situation after situation, moment after moment, as not being "right," we will simply have no place to receive his kingdom into our life. For those situations and moments are our life." (348-349)
phenomenology; Edmund Husserl; Dallas Willard; ethics; Aristotle;
consciousness; mind; epistemology; language; hermeneutics; Kingdom of God; John Paul II.