The Problem with Prolegomena

The problem with prolegomena is that they are out of place.

Prolegomena are the things that must be said at the very beginning, before anything else.  They are the intellectual throat-clearing before meat of the matter, the logical foundations upon which later assertions will be based.  Karl Barth defined prolegomena as the explanation of the path to knowledge (in his case, in the field of dogmatic theology, but it could be taken more generally).  The prolegomena explain how the study of a subject ought to proceed, with what method, on what assumptions, in order to succeed at its intended task.  But the problem, with due apologies to Rodgers and Hammerstein, is that we never do start at the very beginning.

Instead, we always find ourselves already in the middle of things.

Theology starts the first time we hear someone mention God, and we try to understand what is said.  It does not start with careful discussions about the nature of God-talk.  By the time those discussions are underway, our minds are mostly made up.

Most people cannot remember the first time they heard someone refer to God; in our culture, it’s often very young.  Even in atheist or agnostic families, discussion may turn to the silly theories of God that other people hold, or neighbors or relatives that do not share the family’s own non-religious convictions. Or someone mentions God, or a belief in God, on the news, or the subject of religion comes up.  While it is not uncommon for someone to hear a statement about God and not understand what is being said, it is a rare person who later remembers the first time someone mentioned God in their presence.

And once the word is learned, a concept – some concept – is attached to that word, a notion of what “God” means and refers to.  Theology is not only done by religious people, but by everyone who uses or hears the word.  This isn’t academic theology, of course, any more than talking about one’s experience is academic history, or singing in the shower is professional performance, but it is theology.  People who go on to study theology academically already start with a very detailed notion of who and what they think God is.  By the time they have enough philosophical education and sophistication to discuss the nature and dynamics of “God-talk,” it’s too late for those prolegomena to precede the study of the subject.  In this, theology is just like philosophy, history, and most other subjects that people really care about.

So is prolegomena a waste of time?  No, it’s just misnamed and misplaced.  Trying to lay a foundation for a future study of a subject, upon which one’s mind is already made up, is self-deceptive: one almost inevitably comes to the conclusions one already held.  But we can improve our understanding.  People do change their minds (not often, but sometimes, even if rarely due to a persuasive argument).  Our understandings of all sorts of subjects are very partial, incomplete and biased, but through reflecting carefully on the ways in which we think about subjects, we can (by God’s grace!) spot and rectify some of our gaps and our misconceptions.  And because different people have a range of different understandings (whether of God, of philosophy, of the past, or anything else), we can argue with each other and try to persuade each other.  As we do so, we come to see weak spots in our own positions, even if we in fact fail to persuade.

The temptation for me (and, I suspect, for many) is to throw out any viewpoint that’s “just wrong,” and refuse to engage with positions that I have not personally espoused on the trajectory to my present position.  I want to tell people presenting such ideas that they just need to give up, to start where I did, and to follow the path I took.  I present my own experience as the canonical blueprint to all understanding.  Hrm.  But that’s not how it works.  Thank God that he doesn’t throw us out when we’re “just wrong.”  And although he calls us to imitate him, he doesn’t tell us that we need to first be sinless before we can understand or do anything.  Instead, he gradually improves us and grows us spiritually. And he doesn’t give up on us!

We call this redemption, and I think this process is also at work in our understanding of God (and everything else).  We don’t start with a blank canvas, waiting for ideas to be painted on.  We have a pretty full canvas to start, although we can sometimes stretch it more.  But most of the time we need to paint over what we already think in order to obtain the desired picture (and much of the time some of the old picture bleeds through, until we add enough new layers!).  We can improve our understandings, but this suggests that we shouldn’t tell people who disagree with us, “First acknowledge that I’m right, and then I’ll listen to you.”  (It’s also hard to learn from people who are just parroting back to us what we ourselves have said.)  Instead, we should continue to engage with viewpoints we find disagreeable.  As we do so, we’ll improve both our understanding of the topic at hand and our meta-understanding of what we are doing when we try to know something in that subject.  Prolegomena are not the introduction to a subject, as they usually claim, but an advanced stage of reflection on a field which is already very familiar, with the aim of obtaining even better theories of the topic of hand.  Prolegomena are therefore not the beginning, nor the end, but somewhere pretty far along the way.

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