Sunday, April 20, 2008

An Interesting Juxtaposition

I came across this in Ben Myers' Faith and Theology blog. It's a quote from Carl Schmitt, Roman Catholicism and Political Form:

“The Catholic Church is a complex of opposites, a complexio oppositorum. There appears to be no antithesis it does not embrace…. Ultimately, most important is that this limitless ambiguity combines with the most precise dogmatism and a will to decision as it culminates in the doctrine of papal infallibility."

Ignoring what Schmidt's book and the blog post is about (politics and the Church), what I find interesting is to compare this quote with one from a book I read recently, How Mathematicians Think: Using Ambiguity, Contradiction, and Paradox to Create Mathematics by William Byers.

"...the power and profundity of mathematics is a consequence of having deep ambiguity under the strictest logical control." [p. 77]

It is a pity that, in theology, decision tends to come down to something on the order of papal infallibility, but lacking the means for applying the strictest logical control, what else is there? Well, one can at least step back from the 19th century, when the doctrine of papal infallibility was made explicit, and consider control by the magisterium. As I've mentioned previously, I have to admire what the magisterium did with respect to central Christian doctrines, namely that of the Trinity, and of Christ's nature, as described in part 4 of Robert Magliola's Derrida on the Mend. What it did was to preserve the ambiguity. The doctrines should not be taken as saying how it is that God is One, yet Three, or how it is that Christ is 100% human and 100% divine. Rather, they should be taken as saying that in denying or fudging or in any way lessening either side of the contradiction one is being led into heresy.

And that, according to Byers, is how mathematics operates. Take the concept of 'zero', (or better for those acquainted with elementary set theory, the concept of the empty set which is used to define 'zero'). There was mathematics without 'zero' for a long time, but with it, it could do much, much more. Yet 'zero' is inherently ambiguous. It is the presence of absence. True, within ordinary language one can say "I don't have any apples", so in that sense, there was always an implicit concept of 'zero', but what happened in mathematics is that that concept became reified in such a way that it could be used with "strictest logical control".

Now I do not expect that this ability can be carried over to theology. Spinoza's dream remains unfulfilled. But what I do expect is that the principle of "preserving the ambiguity" can be more heavily emphasized, and of course the Path of Reason that I've been describing has that as its method. Its method and its content:

"Whereas the attempt to make a definitive object out of a "deep" concept cannot succeed, the drive to do so is itself an expression of the Absolute. Mathematics, we could say, is driven by the need to express the "Infinite" in finite terms, and this very drive is the "Infinite" in action." [Byers, p. 296]

Can this not be just as true for theology?