Friday, September 03, 2010

Normativity and Theology

Some distinctions are so basic and simple that we denizens of North America tend, in general, to forget them. One such distinction is between the normative and the descriptive. While Hume famously taught that one cannot derive an "ought" from and "is," many no longer can grasp that statements about what is the case cannot entail statements about what must be the case. The only way, in fact, to get the "ought" from the "is" is to describe what is in such ways that there is an implied ought. But then one merely derives an "ought" from another "ought."

I taught for many years at a state university. Students came to there first or second class in philosophy assuming that how people behave somehow entails how they ought to behave. Perhaps the problem is the ambiguity in the word 'norm' itself. What is "normal" for human beings is that which falls within a spectrum of human behaviors. While what 85% of people do is "normal," clearly at least 5-10% is not. What is "normal" is what human beings normally do. This becomes a norm for human behavior for many, for they have never thought through the fact that normal behavior does not the normative make. Just because 90% or more of humans do a certain thing does not entail that they should do that thing. One simply cannot get an "ought" from an "is," even if what "is" is normal for human beings.

The loss of the "ought" probably is inevitable in a democratic equalitarian culture where one voice is prized as highly as the next. Clearly, the loss of the "ought" is connected with relativism with respect to truth. If one "ought" not hold one position more so than the next, it is difficult to understand the semantic field for truth. When doing mathematics one solves the equation is properly and truly or improperly and wrongly. Those who do it wrong "ought" to have done it properly. Grading mathematics examinations presupposes that the student "ought" to solve the problem this way and not this way.

Maybe it is because the natural shows "no echo of the normative" (Davidson) that we present-day devotees of naturalism have such a difficult time with truth. And if truth in mathematics is problematic for contemporary naturalism, how much more is truth in theology. How can it be so, for instance, that a notion of justification within theology thought and taught these last 1000 years is the position that one "ought" to hold. Given that Augustine, Thomas and Luther taught differently on justification, which one, or which elements of these thinkers views are right, are what rational agents ought to hold true? Surely serious work in theology must eschew the descriptive in favor of the normative. It is not merely that A taught x and B aught y and C taught z, and we must document this, but rather that A wrongly taught x, while B rightly taught y. Theology is thoroughly normative. To give up on the normative makes the descriptive task of church history merely one of reporting. While the historian in this case might say the C agreed with D, she cannot say that D rightly agreed with C.

Theology must always include the normative. Like philosophy, theology survives as a remnant to a by-gone era before statistical methods and the new "science of man" turned questions to human regularities (norms) of behavior. Theology, in its commitment to "oughts," does indeed suggest that the natural is not all that there is. There must be, besides are world, a world of the "should have been," a world of what would be ideal and beneficent, a world of the very Created Order of God, a world mirroring the ultimate design features of deity prior to its dissolution into what is, before its Fall into existence. That we only catch glimpses of this world seems reasonable to we creatures of this Fall.