Theory and Praxis in Leibniz’s Theological Thought

In Wenchao Li & Hartmut Rudolph (eds.), G. W. Leibniz im Lichte der Theologien [Leibniz in the Light of Theology]. Steiner (forthcoming)
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Abstract
This paper re-assesses the place of theology in Leibniz’s thought focusing on the relationship between theory and praxis. It takes as its point of departure a general conclusion established in previous work, namely that Leibniz’s key formulations of his overarching plan for the reform and advancement of all the sciences, are devoted to a set of objectives which is both shaped by broadly theological concerns and ultimately practical. Against this backdrop, the discussion will then turn to an exploration of how Leibniz thought of theology as such. I argue that Leibniz was committed to the elaboration of a robust Christian dogmatic which was rationally defensible, and that this commitment resulted in a genuine engagement with Christian theology which took very seriously its theoretical content. The key additional thesis argued for in this paper is that this theoretical engagement was in the service of a science which he conceived as ultimately practical. For Leibniz, the ultimate aim of theology was to lead to the love of God above all things and, in so doing, to salvation and eternal happiness. It is in the light of this practical end that his theological pragmatism should be evaluated. When this is done, it becomes apparent that, beneath Leibniz’s efforts at theological reconciliation in the context of his Kirchenpolitik, there lies a deeper, fundamental and properly theological emphasis on praxis, grounded in Leibniz’s epistemology and driven by his conception of salvation as ultimately dependent on a practical attitude – the love of God above all things. Leibniz’s theological pragmatism was remarkably -- perhaps even surprisingly -- close to the family of prudential approaches to religious belief proposed by Pascal and later authors such as William James. The paper concludes that Leibniz’s conception of theology as ultimately practical is very much in line with the whole thrust of Leibniz’s intellectual programme as expressed in the over-arching plans discussed in the first section. These plans too were driven by a practical end: the promotion of the common good and of human happiness as the celebration of the glory of God in his creation. At the same time, the end of happiness – whether worldly or eternal -- should not be regarded as competing with Leibniz’s theoretical endeavours – whether in the sciences or in theology -- but as directly supported by them.
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