Wednesday, 3 May 2017

Romans and Critical Realism, II

Romans 1:18ff. really is a fascinating text. Paul gives what might be reckoned as a thesis statement in vv. 18-19: "For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth. 19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them." Here Paul draws a close connection between morality and truth that might be somewhat foreign to modern readers. We would tend to see these as independent variables: a morally deficient person can nonetheless be a great theologian, scientist, etc., and to think otherwise is to dabble in argumentum ad hominem. This is not how Paul reasons, at least not on the matters that concern him here. For Paul, it seems, God has made Godself known so plainly that only willful ignorance can account for the refusal to recognize God properly. This is for Paul a moral failing.

In my immediately previous post, I discussed how Paul understands that God has made Godself known: from the data of God's creation, argues Paul, one can infer God's power and nature (v. 20a). After this argument, he continues, arguing that
20b So they are without excuse; 21 for though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened. 22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools; 23 and they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles.
It is certainly the case that Paul is here displaying a quite unexceptionable Jewish aversion to idolatry. Such a properly cultural argument however perhaps does not quite fully do justice to what is going on here. I would suggest that what is happening is also in part hermeneutical. For Paul, the divine can be inferred from created things, such as human beings and birds and four-footed animals and reptiles; but for Paul's hypothetical idolater, there is no act of inference but rather these are the divine. If created things are the data by which one infers the reality of God, then in taking created things to be God one is mistaking data for reality. As such, it is perhaps not simply cultural differences that drive Paul here, but a particular apprehension of what it means to know. As Lonergan might put it, Paul's hypothetical idolater has confused knowing with looking. This, I would suggest, is part of why Paul can understand idolatry to be not simply a religious but also an intellectual error.

What remains to be explored more fully is what to modern interpreters might well seem to be a non sequitur: Paul's linkage of this (in his mind) intellectual error with moral error. My contention, to be presented in a subsequent post, is that Lonergan offers excellent resources for thinking through this question.

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