There is nothing uniquely modern about the move toward theory and abstraction. . . . However, an exaltation of theory is unique to late modern culture, and it’s what makes an intellectual an intellectual rather than what used to be called a “man of letters.” For example, Dr. Johnson and Matthew Arnold—two men with very different views of religion, morals, and literature—achieved a rhetorical rather than theoretical synthesis. They analyzed their experience with an integrated sensibility rather than an all-explaining system of thought. The same was true for Edmund Burke, who gave a rhetorical defense of the interplay of prejudice and tradition that he thought allows us to achieve an integrated sensibility. . . .
Ortega y Gasset once wrote against the theoretical impulse: “To create a concept is to leave the world behind.” An overstatement, no doubt. . . . But there is a real temptation in theory, one to be resisted. It is the temptation to become an intellectual in the modern sense of the term. We search for a magical key, a general theory, a philosopher’s stone of the intellect that will turn the vast heterogeneity of life into the filigreed gold of a comprehended coherence. We hope for vision that will give us mastery, and through mastery release, release from the need to return again and again and again to the question of how to live.
I don’t think we can underestimate the power this temptation today. It is easy to become an intellectual, someone intoxicated with the promise of theory and addicted to vain images of its triumph. . . .
The fullness of reality we can only reach by abandoning ourselves to life’s particularity, allowing the truth of things—especially the truth of other human beings and our common life together—to dissect our souls. The proper word for this abandonment is love. Love works very differently from theory. It conquers the lover rather than the beloved. Love renders, and thankfully so, for truth shines from the outside.
It is appropriate that Reno's reflections came one day after my review of Jamie Smith's Desiring the Kingdom, whose author affirms the primacy of love as the sine qua non of humanity. Reno is in large measure right in alerting us to the dangers of misdirected theory. Academics in particular are always tempted to assume that the theories by which they undertake to account for reality are identical to that reality. For most of us the prospect of being ruled by one of Plato's philosopher-kings is not a pleasant one. Anyone convinced of the certainty of his own knowledge will not be of a mind to listen to his supposed intellectual inferiors, which is a recipe for autocracy at best and tyranny at worst.
Nevertheless, I would like to suggest that there is such a thing as loving theoretical activity, assuming, of course, that this is a rightly-ordered love. This entails nothing less than the loving use of our intellectual gifts for the service of God and neighbour. What does it look like? To begin with, it is not arrogant but is undertaken with great humility, recognizing that our theories will never completely grasp, much less control, the complexity of God's creation and must therefore be open to constant correction from lived experience.
Loving theoretical activity also eschews reductionism, that is, the assumption that there is a "magical key" enabling us to unlock all the mysteries of reality. Man is not simply homo economicus, as Marx and his followers would have it, even if economic motives are genuinely present in all human actions. Similarly, we cannot be reduced to psycho-sexual beings, as if sexual desire accounts for everything we do. Contrary to Darwin's adherents, the single biological mechanism of natural selection cannot adequately account for the unfathomable complexity of human cultural activity, in which we adapt the environment for our own ends rather than the other way round.
Theoretical systems need not be reductionistic, as long as they are open systems capable of being modified and corrected by reality. Over the decades I have found very useful the Christian philosophical framework articulated by several philosophers in the Kuyperian tradition, including Herman Dooyeweerd and D. H. Th. Vollenhoven. I have appreciated especially Dooyeweerd's effort to articulate the place of political life in the larger context of a normative creation order. His is an excellent example of loving theoretical activity, deliberately undertaken in the recognition that our world belongs to God.
Theory undertaken without rightly-ordered love will amount to little more than "a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal" (1 Corinthians 13:1). Yet love and theory are not intrinsically opposed to each other. The best theory is that which is ordered to the love of God and the love of our neighbours as ourselves.
Crossposted at First Things: Evangel