Just so many luscious theories to deflower…

“There is still so much in this life to learn,” he uttered, with the hint of tears in his eyes. “Don’t stop at one point and stay there,” he counseled his disciples.

Then, alas, Leopold rose his hand and slid his hood back past his ears. “Is there any thing to learn that we should not unlearn?” he asked the master.

“Pardon me,” replied the master.

“Well,” he coughed, “learning seems to imply right and wrong answers, and a final test, and a teacher. I….”

“Seems to imply,” whispered the master, scanning the palm of his hand.

“Master,” Leopold ventured further, “couldn’t I say something like this:….” And here he paused to allow the master to correct the countless errors he must have already made.

The Master looked at him from beneath raised eyebrows. “Well? Go on.”

Leopold straightened his spine and wiped the sides of his mouth with his fingertips. “Couldn’t I say, ‘There are still so many women in this life to love; don’t stop with one relationship and stay there?'”

The master chuckled. “But we are celibate in this community, Leopold.” An unseen cloud of chuckles rose from the patch of maroon hoods surrounding Leopold. He gave a weak smile.

“Yes, Master, we are,” Leopold replied, “but I am, I am talking about people in the larger world. About husbands and wives. People trying to live upright, honest lives. Have you not taught that virtue, free from deceit, is one of life ‘s highest aims?”

“Well said, Leopold. I take your point, then, to be…,” the master answered, and brought his fingertips together, giving Leopold the floor.

“All I mean to say, Master, or ask, really, is, doesn’t there at some point need to be an ultimate commitment?”

“But Leopold,” the master answered, “you do have that kind of commitment here, in this community. You need to put thoughts of marriage out of your mind, or, that is, admit this community is not where you belong.”

Leopold noticed all the hoods turn in his direction, but he could see none of the faces beneath them. “No, Master, I mean, I understand what you mean about this community. I was simply trying to say, well, my analogy of an ultimate, faithful commitment between a husband and a wife is an analogy for our, our cognitive world. It seems like we have to place ultimate trust in something. Don’t we have to stop somewhere?”

The master inhaled sharply and looked up to the rafters. “Leopold,” he began, “let me try to summarize your point for you.”

Leopold’s brow unfurrowed and his shoulders dropped with relief. “Yes, Master, by all means!”

“I have been teaching this morning about remaining ever open to truth as it unfolds.” The patch of hoods bobbed in slow affirmation. “About never sticking with one narrow view, never getting stuck in one dogmatic belief system. And you, young Leopold, are trying to say that this… this spiritual agnosticism is intellectual hedonism, the life of spiritual rakes. If I may put it so bluntly.”

Leopold stared for a moment. The hoods wobbled in many directions, apparently unsure where to direct their unseen gaze. Then Leopold’s eyes widened and he repeated, “Intellectual hedonism. The life of spiritual rakes. Keeping your options open. Not getting trapped. Staying safe. You mean… getting the best out of every viewpoint without being tied down to any one system?”

“That’s how I would put your… point, yes, Leopold,” answered the master. “At last you are seeing the value of this community, Leopold. We have the freedom of the sons of light, Leopold, freedom that the small-minded outside these walls can barely imagine, stuck as they are in their narrow beds of sure truth and unequivocal goods.” The master smiled and opened his hands like a father welcoming his son back.

Leopold rose to his feet and pulled hood off his head onto his neck. The hoods rose slightly, maroon sunflowers arching blindly under an eclipsed sun. “But, Master, I didn’t make a commitment to this community to be a spiritual rake, to be an intellectual hedonist. That’s a bunch of bullshit.” And with that Leopold turned to walk through the heavy oak doors into the cool dusk of a new life.

***

There is a “religious side” to every human like there is a “food side” to everyone. Our species is the homo religiosus. Humans are inherently religious. We should not find this any more odd than the oddity of putting various objects into our mouths and finding life in them. Metaphorically, then, atheism is a form of bulimia, a problem not with the menu or the chef, but with food in general. Agnosticism, in turn, is a form of anorexia.

Atheists spend countless hours poring over religious documents, analyzing religious arguments, engaging religious believers, and the like, only to vomit it all back out and say, “Now that is what is making me, us, all of mankind, sick!”

Agnostics by contrast just walk through the mall, window shopping, tsk-tsking at every possible treat, turning each of them down, lest they become bloated and weighed down by anything they actually eat. Far too unsightly to binge and vomit like atheists, but also far beneath them to become fat and happy like the gullible, well-fed believers on the lawn outside.

Atheists claim there is nothing to religion, that is is sheer bunkum, and that is disgusts or bores them, and yet they are, when being most atheistical, as obsessed with it as any of the faithful, and probably more so because, whereas an average Christian is chiefly concerned with One Lord, the average atheist is concerned with the sprawling mass of “religion in general.” Otherwise they are “polite” and trim agnostics, not too fat too be a nuisance on the airplane of life, nor too raucous like the atheists on board.

Kurt Gödel ended up dying of starvation because he had a paranoia that all his food was poisoned. He was just being careful, a gustatory skeptic. He lacked absolutely iron-clad proof that his food was not dangerous nor had been tampered with. An agnostic literally means without-knowledge-one. A truly awesome self-description. I can at least respect my stepdad’s militant atheism for “having a pair,” but most of the time I admit I have as little taste for agnostics as I do for lukewarm Christians. As G. K. Chesterton said, the point of an open mind is like the point of an open mouth: to bite down on something real and good.

When it comes to our food, we are agnostic in the true sense of the word, but we are nonetheless largely rational for getting over our lack of “certain knowledge” and living and eating. We can’t be sure this or that food will give us cancer, or that it isn’t contaminated, but at the end of the day, we all gotta eat. This or that particular menu item is subject to rational evidence and reappraisal, but food itself is inescapable. So it is with God. This or that argument can be not to our liking, but we face everyday the insatiable need for the divine, and, like people driven to eats dirt and pine cones in the wild, will find ways to stave off the hunger, for better or worse.

We have to make a choice to live for some ultimate end. But based on what evidence? If we are rational, not to say rationalist, what reasons do we have to be rational, not to mention purely rational? Don’t we have to first will to be rational, and then follow reason where it leads? How can we follow reason if we don’t value rationality in the first place? You can’t convince someone to be rational. It is simply a great good which a person must will to accept, as a gift, to honor as a master and to cultivate as a child. Reason, then, is taken on faith or it is not taken at all.

But only if you first recognize that you have a nature, that your nature has intrinsic ends and proper goods, and that there is a way for that nature to be best used–– only then will you desire to take reason seriously as a natural human good. Nature is not intrinsically rational (just ask Stephen Crane, Jack London, Gerhart Hauptmann, or Cormac McCarthy, for starters). We “impose” rationality on it for the sake of an intrinsic good that is proper to human nature, namely, truth.

All that Catholicism claims is that God is the source of these intrinsic goods and the proper object of them hence He is worthy of our devotion, our “orienting our natural powers towards the good to be found in Him.”

The will to believe and the believing will…

Étienne Gilson says on page 83 of his Reason and Revelation in the Middle Ages that “faith is not a principle of philosophical knowledge, but it is a safe guide to rational truth and an infallible warning against philosophical error.” The point being that, while faith cannot provide rationally deductive demonstrations of this or that claim, it can provide the light and insight we need to direct our premises in rational investigation. We cannot philosophize by faith, but we can philosophize wrongly apart from faith. Since the content of faith, objectively given, is not an object of reason, it is not subject to purely rational strictures (much less to purely rational [i.e., deductive] demonstration, for which Anselm and Scotus argued in their ontological arguments). Because the content of faith is not an object of rational certainty, it is not an opinion at which we arrive, but is a testimony we accept as the Word of God. Moreover, because faith is not subject to rational demonstration, it is not arrived at by the intellect, but my a movement of the will, whereby the intellect arrives at truth it cannot grasp on its own without an elevating grace upon the pliant will.

This hold that faith places on philosophy has to do not with the supposed irrationality of faith claims, but with the very meaning of faith and reason as such. As soon as faith becomes an object of purely rational demonstration, it is eo ipso no longer an object of faith, and this in the same way your belief that I have brown hair is a ‘belief’ once you see (and thus know ‘scientifically’) that I do have brown hair. Accordingly, Gilson, citing St. Thomas in ST IIaIIae, q. 1, a. 5, notes that it is “impossible for one and the same thing to be an object of science [i.e., rational knowledge] and of belief for the same person…” (op. cit., p. 74). This disjunction is in order, since faith “implies assent of the intellect to that which the intellect cannot see [qua ‘scientific’ knowledge] to be true…” (ibid., p. 73). Further, Gilson argues, “if reason cannot prove them [i.e., dogmas] to be true, it cannot either prove them to be false” (ibid., p. 83). This is all of a piece with what we read in SCG I, 3:

Just as, therefore, it would he the height of folly for a simple person to assert that what a philosopher proposes is false on the ground that he himself cannot understand it, so (and even more so) it is the acme of stupidity for a man to suspect as false what is divinely revealed through the ministry of the angels simply because it cannot be investigated by reason.

As Gilson notes, St. Thomas’ anti-Averroist and, we might say, trans-Augustinian position on faith and reason stands in an interesting light, given the developments that ensued a few centuries after St. Thomas. For one thing, largely animated by Gehrard Groote, the Moderna devotio placed nearly all emphasis on our mystical perception of God, rather than any scholastic musings about Him. (Groote founded the fraternity of the Brethren of the Common Life in Deventer in 1381, and in 1475, a 12-year-old Desiderius Erasmus would enter the school for that fraternity.) This anti-scholastic, mystical attitude can be seen in Thomas à Kempis’ Imitatio Christi, as well as in the doctrine of Meister Eckhart (condemned in 1329 by Pope John XXII) about the soul’s union with God even this side of Heaven. It also finds expression in Luther’s excoriation of scholastic thought: “only without Aristotle can we become theologians.” (Cf. Gilson, Reason, pp. 86–94 for more details.) According to Ernst Cassirer, it also manifests in the development of Nicolas Cusanus’s thought. On page 13 in his The Individual and the Cosmos in Renaissance Philosophy, Cassirer states:

With the same assurance with which [Cusanus] denies the possibility of conceiving of the infinite by means of logical abstractions and generic concepts, he also denies the possibility of its conception through mere [mystical] feeling. In the mystical theology of the fifteenth century two fundamental tendencies stand sharply opposed to each other; the one bases itself on the intellect; the other considers the will to be the basic force and organ of union with God. In this dispute, Cusanus sides emphatically with the former. True love of God is amor Dei intellectualis: it includes knowledge as a necessary element and a necessary condition. No love can love what he has not, in some sense, known. Love by itself, without any admixture of knowledge, would be an impossibility. Whatever is loved is, by that very act, considered good; it is conceived of sub ratione boni. This knowledge of the good must spur on and give wings to the will, even though the What, i.e., the simple essence of the good in itself, remains inaccessible to knowledge. … The principle of docta ignorantia as ‘knowing ignorance’ re-affirms itself once again.

All of this suggests that there is a constant, inescapable tug on the rudder of Christian theology, which guides it back towards what Gilson calls the Augustinian family, a family characterized by St. Anselm’s credo ut intellegam. In that family, the will, drawn by love, always has an at least notional prominence over the intellective pursuit of truth that characterizes much of the Thomistic family. What I suggest for discussion is whether Cassirer underestimates the role of will in the scholastic account of our knowledge of God, since, as Gilson notes, where reason stops, grace must help the will to continue by faith. This point is made emphatically by James F. Ross in his papers dealing with cognitive voluntarism, available on his webpage).