"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Monday, August 31, 2020

What is Truth?

My entry into the world of academic theology, in the latter half of the 1990s, coincided almost exactly with the advent of the Radical Orthodoxy movement out of Cambridge. Having obsessively read everything written by Stanley Hauerwas, I followed his encouragement and next read John Milbank's landmark Theology and Social Theory: Beyond Secular Reason. I then met him during his brief sojourn teaching at the University of Virginia, where he agreed to be my dissertation director if I were to come there, but he returned to England not long after.

Before that, as soon as it was published over the Christmas break of 1997-98, I eagerly and devoutly devoured Catherine Pickstock's After Writing: on the Liturgical Consummation of Philosophy. It was a book I was in awe of for a long time, and I made a mental commitment to make sure I read everything she published. I have cited it countless times, and still think--though I have not followed debates in Latin liturgiology for several years now so perhaps someone has finally responded to Pickstock's challenge--that it makes a criticism of post-conciliar Latin liturgical reform that has never been acknowledged let alone answered: the elimination of structural repetitions in the post-conciliar Mass.

Not long after, in late 1998, I remember clearly standing in a bookstore in downtown Ottawa when Radical Orthodoxy: A New Theology was published. I bought it immediately. All three of these books cemented for me--as I know it did for a lot of others for a time--this almost mystical faith in the supposed philosophical corruptions of the High Middle Ages, not least those brought about by Scotus and Ockham, at whose names we all learned to expectorate in disgusted unison.

This all coincided with strong encouragement to pursue doctoral studies, which I had not considered myself worthy of doing. So I wrote to Pickstock with a possible dissertation topic--medieval corruptions of notions of authority in the Church, especially papal authority--and we entered into a dialogue by e-mail and letter and phone. She was enormously charming and encouraging. So I applied to the doctoral program at Cambridge and she agreed to be my director. I was admitted for the fall of 2000, but for reasons I will not bore you with here did not take up the position.

Nevertheless, I have always thought back on our conversations with fondness, and admired her work even if now I would regard parts of it--and, mutatis mutandis, the work of Milbank even more so--with a different eye.

All that is a typically prolix way of introducing you to a book of hers that is set for release in September: Aspects of Truth: A New Religious Metaphysics (University of Cambridge Press, 2020), 275pp. I'm looking forward to reading this and, if I can arrange it, to interviewing her about it.

About this book the publisher tells us this:
What is 'truth'? The question that Pilate put to Jesus was laced with dramatic irony. But at a time when what is true and what is untrue have acquired a new currency, the question remains of crucial significance. Is truth a matter of the representation of things which lack truth in themselves? Or of mere coherence? Or is truth a convenient if redundant way of indicating how one's language refers to things outside oneself? In her ambitious new book, Catherine Pickstock addresses these profound questions, arguing that epistemological approaches to truth either fail argumentatively or else offer only vacuity. She advances instead a bold metaphysical and realist appraisal which overcomes the Kantian impasse of 'subjective knowing' and ban on reaching beyond supposedly finite limits. Her book contends that in the end truth cannot be separated from the transcendent reality of the thinking soul.
The book comes with some hefty endorsements, not least from someone who also endorsed my own book last year:
'This is emphatically an important book – one of the most innovative and wide-ranging essays in philosophical theology to appear in recent years – from a scholar quite capable of tackling the most sophisticated minds of secular academic philosophy on their own ground, and showing that theology has a serious contribution to make to our thinking about thinking. This seriously original work – which addresses the fundamental question of what we think we are doing/claiming when we say we are speaking truthfully – has the capacity to make a major difference in its field.' Rowan Williams, Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge; formerly Archbishop of Canterbury
'Aspects of Truth is an original, serious and demanding work that seeks to come to a novel metaphysical perspective on the nature of truth, a perspective both adequate to and informed by Christian liturgy. Over the course of ten chapters, it draws upon the insights and reflects upon the inadequacies it finds in the writings of a great pantheon of philosophical and theological figures. It crosses and re-crosses boundaries between analytic philosophy, continental philosophy and theology. It's an exciting journey to take, in Pickstock's company. Aspects of Truth is provocative and challenging, written in a style that crosses boundaries as much as its arguments. I can think of no other book quite like it.' Fraser McBride, University of Manchester

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