Louth, Gadamer, Haecker

Language and literature disclose to us the moral realm of free human agents: the moral realm, because we understand it by analogy with the way we understand ourselves. In it we are confronted with the mystery of human freedom, as opposed to the puzzle of the interaction of natural laws; and this is a mystery in which we participate. “The world of history depends on freedom, and this remains an ultimately unplumbable mystery of the person. Only the study of one’s own conscience can approach it, and only God can know the truth here. For this reason historical study will not seek knowledge of laws and cannot call on experiment. For the historian is separated from his object of study by the infinite intermediary of tradition” [Hans-Georg Gadamer, Wahrheit und Methode; 4th ed. Tuebingen, 1975; p. 191. A newer, revised English translation is available: Truth and Method, Second Revised Edition. Continuum, 1989]. But this intermediary of tradition, although it does exclude experiment and the search for that sort of objectivity, is the bearer of positive meaning and truth: “it is not a yawning abyss, but is filled with the continuity of custom and tradition, in the light of which all that is handed down presents itself to us” [ibid., pp 264-5]. This “continuity” is the continuity of human communication, an experience of the transparency laid bare by language and literature: “‘hearsay’ is here not bad evidence, but the only evidence possible” [ibid., p. 191]. Understood like this, tradition is the context in which one can be free, it is not something that constrains us and prevents us from being free. “The fact is that tradition is constantly an element of freedom and of history itself. Even the most genuine and solid tradition does not persist by nature because of the intertia of what once existed. It needs to be affirmed, embraced, cultivated…” [ibid., p. 250]. The act of interpretation is one of the ways in which tradition is “affirmed, embraced, cultivated” and passed on.

From such a point of view the idea of an antithesis between tradition and reason, tradition and historical research, history and knowledge is rejected. Rather, tradition, as preservation, is an act of reason, and interpretation is engagement with what is presented to us by tradition.

Andrew Louth, Discerning the Mystery: An Essay on the Nature of Theology (Oxford, 1983)

It’s difficult to extract any passage in Louth’s book as these excerpts give the impression that they are discrete entitities, which is anything but the truth. His argumentation flows, quoting from one writer and then another, with all the facility of a master mosaicist, each quotation a jewel-like tessera set in place to create the kingly image of his own devising. The passage above is roughly in the middle of a long exposition of Gadamer and those of whom Gadamer writes, and with a short transition flows smoothly into an interesting excerpt from Theodor Haecker, Vergil: Vater des Abendlandes (5th ed, Munich, 1947):

I am not talking about Vergil and Vergilianism without presuppositions. No one does that or can do it, whatever or whomever he speaks of. Each consideration or description is based on a principle, even if on the nihilistic principle of being without principles. Man acknowledges nothing without presuppositions, even nothingness itself presupposes fulness of being, not vice versa. It is not presuppositionlessness in general and in itself which is the requirement of an exact science, but on the contrary, the possession of the fulness of all presuppositions which belong to a determinate object both subjectively from the side of the one in pursuit of understanding and objectively on the side of the object. Certainly, for a historian as a rule the present is confusion and darkness, things must lie at a certain distance before they can have or reveal a meaning, but then also they have it within living history only through things which lie before us, which for better or for worse have indeed to be presupposed as true things. If then, for example, someone demands of me that I speak of Vergil and Vergilian man without presuppositions, then I will ask him what he means by that. Is he demanding of me that I should speak, in the words of the ancient historian, sine ira et studio [=”without anger or partiality”], that is without yielding to any disposition, without any passion that clouds the vision, without any egotistical or partial purpose? Good, he is doubtless right. Is he demanding of me not to permit what does not proceed from the object itself? Good, he is again right. But is he demanding of me that I should leave out in my analysis of Vergil and Vergilian man “the” faith, the greatest concern of the West, the emergence, so close to Vergil, of Chrstendom, that I should determine it only from its past and what was immediately contemporary with it and not from its future, which now lies in the past and still lies in the present, then he asks of me what is improper and absurd [ibid., pp 16-17].

(As a side note, it’s interesting to see here in Haecker [the first editon of Vergil dates to 1933] is that which was claimed late in the twentieth century to be newly discovered by postmodern literary criticism: the impossibility of presuppositionless investigation or of objective interpretation.) In Louth’s mosaic, Haecker contributes further to the curve of continuity arcing throughout. Whether in language, culture, religion, or any other of the humanities broadly defined, we find continuity to be inextricably bound up. All of these rely upon community and commonality at core; they could not survive without them. As Louth deals with earlier in this chapter on The Legacy of the Enlightenment, there is a sharp distinction between what we call in English science, that is the natural sciences and experimental science, and the humanities. And never the twain shall meet. Louth puts it well:

The sciences are ahistorical; they deal with a natural order that has always been much the same as it is. The humanities are historical; they deal with the doings of men who are shaped by the historical contexts in which they live. But while the awareness of historical consciousness brings with it an awareness of the peculiar nature of the humanities as forms of knowledge, it may also contain unexamined presuppositions that qualify the nature of this insight. And we may begin to suspect this when we see an awareness of history—historical consciousness—smuggling in as a method, parallel to the scientific method, a way of procedure calling itself the historical-critical method. For such a method may unconsciously bring with it presuppositions that underlie the scientific method but which are not appropriate to the humanities. There do in fact seem to be a number of interrelated presuppositions being thus introduced. One is the notion of objective and subjective truth, and another, it will be argued, is a priveleged position being ascribed to the present, or what is thought to be the present. (Discerning the Mystery, pp 26-27)

Now, in the above paragraph, Louth is describing the historical-critical method in general, not its parochial application in biblical studies. While Louth’s book is, as the title describes, an essay on the nature of theology, there is no concern with biblical studies at all in this chapter. He’s working at a much higher level of abstraction at this point, though he does eventually come to it in later chapters in some detail. Here, his point touching on anachronism is particularly topical today, when the naive and uncritical application of the norms of modern historiography to ancient texts in a kind of quasi-scientism is rife in certain circles.

Overall, I can’t recommend Louth’s Discerning the Mystery strongly enough. It’s unfortunately exceedingly rare to find a theologian competent in philosophy these days, though Louth has always maintained a greater than fine reputation in that respect. Likewise, it’s unfortunate that this book is very hard to find, and thus expensive when found. But there is much material in it that is thought-provoking, and Louth covers many issues that have since his writing come to the fore in various fields, so many and in such satisfying detail as for him to seem prescient.

And what was the point of this post? I suppose it’s just so I can enjoy the above quotes whenever I want to, and to register my delight in a book that doesn’t skimp at all on the brain food!


  1. Well, I’m pleased you posted it, if only to reassure me that I’m not the only one who finds it a wonderful book! (Okay, I knew that already, but it’s still nice to hear you praising it!)
    I’ve been wanting to write something on this book but don’t have time at the moment, so am going to link here if that’s okay…

  2. Sr Macrina, thanks! It seems we’re a fan club of two for this book, at the moment There must be others out there who’ve read it. We’ll just have to hope they find us!

    Thank you too, for the link to your blog. I don’t think you’d sent it before, although you’d mentioned it! You’re certainly welcome to link to anything you find useful here.

  3. That’s also a winner, Iyov. I read that just before Discerning the Mystery, which led me to track the latter down.

    I’ve also got his book on St John of Damascus, which is really great. He covers not only his writings, but his hymnography, which is rare in a biography. Byzantine hymnography is seldom covered, but it’s very important as the expression of theology that the people would hear and be regularly formed by, much more than canons or theological treatises. And St John of Damascus was one of the best and most prolific of hymnographers. The singing of these hymns and so on makes the theology personal and enhances the congregation’s (and individual’s) love and joy in the faith, providing them with more than just proper theology. Louth’s books are golden in their thoughtfulness and style.

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