The main theme of this paper is that the correct balance between Faith and Reason has been lost, and that most people adopt one of two easier but false positions: Rationalism or Fideism. Both are attempts to simplify the world. Both are inadequate to deal with the complexities of reality. Rationalism tries to constrain truth to lie within the current limits of human "common sense" and understanding: it is characterized by spiritual blindness; a dulled conscience; the dismissal of metaphysics and an irrational confidence in scientific and cultural progress. Fideism tries to constrain truth to lie within an unquestionable, rigid and ultimately unintelligible cage of dogma: it is characterized by intolerance; legalism; unquestioning conformity and an unwillingness to countenance change of any kind. To a degree they feed off each other. The proponents of either seeing any advance made by their opponents as a reason to further fortify their own defences. Within a Catholic context, these positions translate to "liberalism" and "conservatism".
Secular Rationalism goes far beyond this. I shall next outline what I understand to be the six main themes of Secular Rationalism. Some of these conflict directly with any sensible use of the term "rationalism", but nevertheless evolved out of it.
"Man is the measure of all things" [Protagoras]This is a powerful and attractive slogan, epitomizing a liberation from Totalitarianism and Monolithic conformity. On this basis, I have known Pope John-Paul II both adopt and speak of the term "humanism" favourably. Manifestly, it is false in its plain meaning. Man is not a convenient measure or reference or basis for comprehending or interpreting many things! Neutrinos, quasars and God are each simply too remote from the scale or significance of Man for him to serve as a sensible reference point. None of them has as a purpose the well-being of Man. In particular, the infinite and perfect is incommensurate with the finite and flawed.
Protagoras' seductive slogan can also signify an enslavement to hubristic conceit: "I am all that matters". On this interpretation, it can serve as the manifesto for a bid for Man to unilaterally declare independence from God, as typified by the further aphorism:
"God is dead" [Sartre]One result of this humanism is the replacement of objective justice by democratically malleable "Human Rights".
"The Old One doesn't play at dice!" [Einstein]Until recently, I have thought the "Copenhaganist" positivism of Schrodinger, Heisenburg and Bohr to be a greater threat.
"Matter naturally develops into ever more complex structures, eventually leading to consciousness."Certain Twentieth Century Catholic writes, such as Frs Holloway (of "the Faith movement") and deChardin have toyed with this kind of idea. Personally, I have every sympathy with the first part of the sentence I have used to characterize "radical atheistic evolutionary theory". However, I dispute the latter italicized part.
"Only observables have meaning."Fortunately, Positivism can easily be dismissed on its own terms, as follows. If nothing that is not "observable" is "meaningful", and to be discarded, then Positivism is to be treated in just that way. This is because Positivism is itself a metaphysical theory, and is of its very nature not observable. It must therefore be said to be meaningless and be rejected! It is positively not "meaningful" to debate about "meaningfulness".
"The essence of Liberalism is that the individual human being has the right to decide for himself the norms by which he will regulate his life. He has the right to be his own arbiter as to what is right and what is wrong. He is under no obligation to subject himself to any external authority. In the Liberal sense, liberty of conscience is the right of an individual to think and believe whatever he wants, even in religion and morality; to express his views publicly and persuade others to adopt them by using word of mouth, the public press, or any other means."The relativist discounts the idea that there is an objective right and wrong which he should seek to come to a knowledge of. Instead (s)he claims the right to erect or construct or engineer as an artisan a personal ethical system or "truth", as (s)he finds congenial. The objective realist accepts that it is necessary to decide what is correct, however, (s)he does not view this as a right or luxury: to be striven for, but rather a duty: of which (s)he fears to fail in the discharge. Moreover, the objective realist uses the word "decide" in the sense that a scientist attempts to decide what is in fact the case rather than the sense in which Richard Gere in "American Gigolo" decides which suit and tie he will wear after his morning work-out.
[Michael Davies (1980)].
The Relativist view may seem to be comfortable and humane. In practice it leads to tyranny. This is because it legitimizes those with power [Kings; Prime Ministers; Drugs Barons; Police Officers; Parents; Managers; Bishops; Trades Unionists; Men] in the use their power in accordance with their "truth". Those without power [Kings; Members of Parliament; Drug Addicts; Police Officers; Workers; the Laity; Women; Children] have no option but to accept their fate. They cannot claim that those who oppress them shouldn't do so, for they are only acting in accordance with what is true for them.
"Might is Right."The weak, poor and marginalized cannot appeal to principles of fairness or equity or justice. These are not part of the "truth" of the oppressors, and the oppressed have no right to impose their "truth" on those who wield power. Only by themselves gaining power sufficient to depose the tyrant can they establish their own ascendancy and become free to exercise their "truth" in their own turn. In doing so, they necessarily take on the mantle of the tyrant that they fought to overthrow!
"It is man himself who ends up being reduced, for the specifically human questions about our origin and destiny.... then have no place within the purview of collective reason.... and must thus be relegated to the realm of the subjective. The subject then decides, on the basis of his experiences, what he considers tenable in matters of religion, and the subjective 'conscience' becomes the sole arbiter of what is ethical.... This is a dangerous state of affairs for humanity, as we see from the disturbing pathologies of religion and reason which necessarily erupt when reason is so reduced that questions of religion and ethics no longer concern it. Attempts to construct an ethic from the rules of evolution or from psychology and sociology, end up being simply inadequate." [Pope Benedict XVI "Faith, Reason and the University: Memories and Reflections" (Meeting with the representatives of science in the Aula Magna of the University of Regensburg, 2006)]
Faith and scepticism are not antagonists, but rather bedfellows. Before deciding to make any step of faith, the intellectual ground before one should be given a good deal of prodding: the answers to any number of awkward questions should be demanded, obtained and evaluated. The initial role of scepticism is to steadfastly defend the mind from nonsense and humbug. Once the reasonable step of faith has been made, one should remember all the effort that went in to preparing for it, all the evidences that accumulated in its favour. No number of subsequent "minor difficulties" should be seen as demanding a retreat from the vantage point once painfully achieved. The role of scepticism is now to defend faith from spurious "evidence". Nevertheless, one must be conscious that evidence might accumulate that would be sufficient to demand a painful revaluation of faith. One should never say never. A failure to countenance this unwelcome, unpleasant and unlooked for possibility is part of what characterizes Fideism.
Note that the adoption of "rationalism" is itself a step of faith, and to talk intelligibly about faith requires a commitment to rationalism.
Next, I shall outline a number of themes in Fideism.
"Hold on to that which is good" [The Apostle Paul]The conservative believer values what they call a childlike, trusting faith: yet children question everything! Many parents have been driven to distraction by an incessant string of "But why?"s. Children believe what they are told by someone whom they trust, when what is said makes sense to them.
"... he who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep .... the sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out .... the sheep follow him, for they know his voice .... I came that they might have life, and have it abundantly. I am the good shepherd .... I know my own and my own know me."Conservatism is well founded on an understandable fear of a progressivism which systematically rejects "eternal truths". Its characteristic problem is that it fails to distinguish between the substance of what is objectively true; just and beautiful, and those things which are cultural; or matters of arbitrary law; or personal taste and preference. "Fifty Years Ago" can easily be mistaken for "The Golden Age". The say-so of some respected authority, whether Aristotle, Bohr, Keynes, Lenin or the Pope, can easily be mistaken for fact. Refuge is often sought in the repeating of formulae, which need not even be ancient. It is more important that a slogan is conveniently to hand and sounds plausible than that it is authentic or sensible.
[Jesus Christ: Jn 10:2-14]
"I've observed within the Church a tendency to go back to the 'good old days', mostly among the young who never lived in the pre-conciliar days of the Church. It's almost as if they want to return to the old Catholic ghettos of the 1800's, so common in major American cities of that time. It truly frightens me to see this mindset take hold. I think most of it is a legacy of John Paul II's pontificate. He did many wonderful things, but encouraging openness and dialogue with others were not amongst them. He may have contributed greatly to the fall of Soviet Communism, but he left the Church a very divided and bitter community. Despite often repeating Christ's injunction to 'be not afraid', he instilled fear in many within the Church by stifling the voices of those who disagreed with him.
I, for one, do not want to go back to the 'good old days'. My Catholic ancestors in America fought long and hard to get out of the Catholic ghettos. Many of today's young people have no idea that it was only until the early 1960's that Catholic Americans finally came into their own, symbolized by the election of President John F. Kennedy. These young 'John Paul' Catholics are plainly frightened by modernity. Their faith, by and large, is uninformed and not based on the rich and ancient traditions of the Church. Their view is limited only to the Church fossilized in the past five centuries.
The neoconservatives in the Church cannot think of dialogue, since true dialogue entails a willingness to listen and learn from others. They seem all too willing to exclude, condemn, and close ranks against what they perceive to be a diabolical and evil world. To me, this is anything but Christ-like. Our Lord did not fear to engage others in dialogue, and embrace others in love." [Private Communication from a lay Catholic (Sept. 2006)]
Analytical Theology: a Science, is replaced by descriptive Bible Knowledge: a kind of "Natural History" of God. Dogma is replaced by Scripture Memory. Systematic doctrine is replaced by a disconnected series of propositions. If these seem to be contradictory one of another, this is only to be expected: the frailty, inadequacy and corruption of the human intellect can always be blamed.
Such a doctrinal stance means that unbelievers can only be evangelized by means of irrational and emotional appeals. They cannot be reasoned with, because reason is untrustworthy: and part of the process of conversion is to give up "human wisdom" in favour of "divine folly".
Of course, if human reason is radically flawed and untrustworthy, even with the aid of grace (Luther taught that grace does not reform the sinner), a further conclusion follows: "Scripture does not require interpretation". This follows from the following premises:
The concept of religious authority, whether of the Bible, Tradition or the Magisterium was increasingly rejected, and free thought and action was favoured. There was an increasing willingness to "de-mythologize" Christianity and turn it into nothing more than a framework for social and political action.
"The liberal theology of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.... with Adolf von Harnack as its outstanding representative..... was highly influential in Catholic theology too. It took as its point of departure Pascal's distinction between the God of the philosophers and the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.... Harnack's central idea was to return simply to the man Jesus and to his simple message, underneath the accretions of theology and indeed of hellenization: this simple message was seen as the culmination of the religious development of humanity. Jesus was said to have put an end to worship in favour of morality. In the end he was presented as the father of a humanitarian moral message. The fundamental goal was to bring Christianity back into harmony with modern reason, liberating it, that is to say, from seemingly philosophical and theological elements, such as faith in Christ's divinity and the triune God." [Pope Benedict XVI "Faith, Reason and the University: Memories and Reflections" (Meeting with the representatives of science in the Aula Magna of the University of Regensburg, 2006)]Albert Sweitzer is another well known exponent of this approach. Dogma was seen as the cause of ill feeling and tension, being opposed to "human rights" and the intellectual freedom necessary to respond to an ever-changing political, sociological and economic environment. It was concluded that Dogma should itself be subject to an ongoing evolutionary modification or "re-interpretation". This is the sociological origin of the Ecumenical Movement.
Newman pointed out that Catholic Doctrine had always developed, from implicit and naive beliefs and convictions into explicit and sophisticated dogmatic schemes, but that this was not evolutionary. Rather, it was true to type. Just as the oak tree does not evolve from an acorn, but rather shows forth the potentiality of the seed: so does the Nicene Creed make explicit what St John and St Paul tried to express in New Testament times, before a suitable theological language had evolved.
A number of prominent Catholic theologians nevertheless became interested in some of the ideas of Modernism, seeing in them a means to open the Church to a more healthy attitude to the World. Popes Pius IX and Saint Pius X both issued detailed condemnations of many of the propositions characteristic of Modernism: the Bulls Quanta Cura and Lamentabili Sane. Saint Pius X also imposed the Anti-Modernistical Oath on all clerics. However, no serious attempt was made either to engage in dialogue with or refute the contentions of those Catholic theologians who argued that some propositions identified as "Modernistic" were true. The response of the Magisterium was rather to condemn, silence and punish. Even Newman was for a time distrusted by Roman authorities! To this day, while sometimes lauded as the greatest Theologian since Aquinas, he is still not canonized. Of course, this may have something to do with his suspect sexuality!
Biblical exegesis necessarily suffered, with every report of the miraculous dismissed as spurious. In response, the Pontifical Biblical Commission was founded, with an agenda to set the strictest limits on the practice of scientific scriptural analysis.
In the swinging sixties the "relevance revolution" took hold. This was a cross between Positivism and Relativism. If an individual felt that something wasn't relevant to his or her life then it was legitimate for them to dismiss it as not "true for me". The spirit of subjectivism took hold of the Fathers of the Synod then called by Pope John XXIII, and major compromises or readjustments of Liturgical and Doctrinal matters followed. Some may have been justified, others were certainly not. While the relaxation of doctrinal discipline was a good thing, it was not replaced by a calm, restrained, mature and self-critical dialogue along the lines recently called for by the late Cardinal Bernadin. Rather the Church became consumed by a "process of self-destruction" [Pope Paul VI] in which almost anything went and change and novelty were proposed as good in themselves.
Many of the propositions condemned by Pius IX and Pius X are now commonly believed by "Liberal Catholics", though various feeble attempts to re-impose doctrinal discipline have been attempted. Even the typical conservative is tarred with modernism. Prayer with heretics and infidels is officially approved; Marxist analysis infects the Church's "Social Teaching"; error is given rights; original sin, hell and the bodily resurrection are hardly mentioned; the Trinity is treated as a pretty form of words rather than an objective - though analogical - account of God's inner life.
"After Vatican Two, the first experts scrapped the last five hundred years of the Church's history as being 'Tridentine', all wrong, and a stumbling block to the return of the 'separated brethren'.
Then those same experts scrapped the five hundred years of catholic tradition between the eastern schism and the protestant 'Reformation'.
Then they told us that the only period that counted was the first five hundred years.
Then that was scrapped too, and we were back to the Gospel times; but not the Gospels of faith - not even the objectively historical Gospels - but a fanciful version thereof that reflected liberal protestant tastes: a jewish rabbi
named Jesus, who considered himself to be a mere man, who tried to reform jewish life upon liberal-protestant lines, and who was killed for being mistaken to be a would-be king. Then later generations turned him into a
Messiah, a Christ, a Son of God, a high priest, the founder of a Church, and even a god!
Of course the appropriate liturgical and devotional and architectural and catechetical changes had to be made to match the continuous scrappings of whole time periods of organic growth of Catholic Tradition. I know, as I was there!
What the post-conciliar experts should rather have done, was to add some positive insights onto the Tradition:
building upon it - rather than manipulating it, mutilating it, then scrapping it; and replacing it with pseudo-history and pseudo-world-religion.
Many young people are not longing for a ghetto, but for the true, unbroken, whole, organic and living Catholic Tradition, which alone respects, mirrors and transmits to us the Christ of the Gospel. Not one year of the Church's history, let alone five hundred, can be scrapped. They are all interwoven like a tapestry, and cannot be separated without risking the death of the whole Tradition.
I sincerely believe that Pope John XXIII was childishly optimistic back in 1960. Were he to rise from the dead and see the state of the Church today, he would cry bitter tears of regret."
[Private Communication from a Catholic Priest (Sept. 2006)]
"This inner rapprochement between Biblical faith and Greek philosophical inquiry was an event of decisive importance not only from the standpoint of the history of religions, but also from that of world history – it is an event which concerns us even today. Given this convergence, it is not surprising that Christianity, despite its origins and some significant developments in the East, finally took on its historically decisive character in Europe. We can also express this the other way around: this convergence, with the subsequent addition of the Roman heritage, created Europe and remains the foundation of what can rightly be called Europe." [Pope Benedict XVI "Faith, Reason and the University: Memories and Reflections" (Meeting with the representatives of science in the Aula Magna of the University of Regensburg, 2006)]This work was continued by their disciples, the Eastern Fathers and in the fullness of time gave rise to the formulae of Trinitarianism and Incarnationalism. St Augustine finished the job, as far as the Western Church was concerned. Much of his presentation is taken for granted by both Protestants and Latin Catholics. His teachings concerning the nature of grace and free-will, for example, were the back-drop for much of the theological contention characteristic of the "Reformation" and "Counter Reformation".
The writing of Aristotle were re-discovered by secular scholars in the closing years of the Medieval period. Two notions became popular: that the (supposedly) more sophisticated, naturalistic, empiricist analysis of Aristotle was superior to that of Plato, and that it was incompatible with orthodoxy. In response to this current of opinion, St Thomas Aquinas endeavoured to produce a synthesis of Catholicism with Aristotelianism. It is debatable just how successful Aquinas was, and in particular exactly how authentically Aristotelian was the system that resulted. Nevertheless, his attempt to engage with secular thought was well intentioned.
St Thomas' work certainly had the effect of maintaining and indeed reinforcing the credibility of the Catholic Faith. On the other hand, it can be argued that the Liberalism now endemic in Western Christianity is the natural outcome of the "Reformation", which itself can be traced back through the "Renascence" and St Thomas' work to the introduction of Aristotelian empiricism into Theology. Even more radically, it might be said that the trouble goes back even further: to Augustine and the Eastern Fathers, and their appropriation of Platonic language and thought patterns. As a Platonist, myself, I would dispute this latter assertion!
Personally, I believe that there is no choice for the theologian but to engage with secular thought and to seek to use contemporary language to both articulate and analyse the Gospel. It is this conviction that has motivated much of my own writing. It is however necessary to exercise due caution. Language and philosophical or scientific paradigms are not neutral and adopting a particular stance or mode of analysis generally prejudices the outcome of any investigation or discourse. Some philosophical systems, for example Marxism, are simply erroneous and so incompatible with the Gospel. I believe that as long as personal integrity; and due respect for both the Living Apostolic Tradition and the Magisterium are maintained, all will be well.
"In the Western world it is widely held that only positivistic reason and the forms of philosophy based on it are universally valid. Yet the world’s profoundly religious cultures see this exclusion of the divine from the universality of reason as an attack on their most profound convictions. A reason which is deaf to the divine and which relegates religion into the realm of subcultures is incapable of entering into the dialogue of cultures. At the same time, as I have attempted to show, modern scientific reason with its intrinsically Platonic element bears within itself a question which points beyond itself and beyond the possibilities of its methodology. Modern scientific reason quite simply has to accept the rational structure of matter and the correspondence between our spirit and the prevailing rational structures of nature as a given, on which its methodology has to be based. Yet the question why this has to be so is a real question, and one which has to be remanded by the natural sciences to other modes and planes of thought – to philosophy and theology. For philosophy and, albeit in a different way, for theology, listening to the great experiences and insights of the religious traditions of humanity, and those of the Christian faith in particular, is a source of knowledge, and to ignore it would be an unacceptable restriction of our listening and responding. Here I am reminded of something Socrates said to Phaedo. In their earlier conversations, many false philosophical opinions had been raised, and so Socrates says:'It would be easily understandable if someone became so annoyed at all these false notions that for the rest of his life he despised and mocked all talk about being - but in this way he would be deprived of the truth of existence and would suffer a great loss.' [Plato "Phaedo" (90d)]The West has long been endangered by this aversion to the questions which underlie its rationality, and can only suffer great harm thereby. The courage to engage the whole breadth of reason, and not the denial of its grandeur – this is the programme with which a theology grounded in Biblical faith enters into the debates of our time.'Not to act reasonably (with logos) is contrary to the nature of God', said Manuel II, according to his Christian understanding of God, in response to his Persian interlocutor.It is to this great logos, to this breadth of reason, that we invite our partners in the dialogue of cultures. To rediscover it constantly is the great task of the university."
[Emperor Manuel II Paleologus "Seventh Conversation with a Persian" (1391)]
Those truths which may seem to be self-evident are, I suspect, nothing more than axiomatic syllogisms. "One plus One equals Two" is true, by definition, within a simple system of abstract integer arithmetic. It does not follow that it is true in the sense of "corresponding with objective reality". Indeed, as far as the physical universe is concerned: the more that "plus" signifies anything, the less accurate is the equation. The interactions between the first "One" and the second "One" (think of the masses of two electrons) tend to affect the value of the "Two". Much of physics is concerned with accounting for such interactions, on the basis that they can be analysed in terms of other delineable and non-interacting things. So: masses do not add because of forces; velocities do not add because of relativity; volumes of liquids do not add because of surface tension, and so on. The root problem here is that while on the one hand the only real numbers are the positive integers (no-one could ever see "five thirds of a Zebra") on the other hand the only things that are properly characterized by the positive integers are particles, and these are exactly the kind of things for which association implies significant interaction.
As a physicist, I evaluate the truth of any proposition by testing it against experience and observation. This is roughly what is meant by empiricism. However, following Popper's analysis, I do not believe that experiment can ever determine truth. This for two reasons. First, the interpretation of any observation is richly influenced by the theoretical perspective and expectations of the observer. Hence the significance of some fact may be misconstrued, over- or under-rated. Second, no number of confirmations of a theory can amount to its certain proof . There might always be some as yet unexplored or even unenvisaged circumstance in which it fails.
It is much easier to disprove a theory than prove it; though even this is problematic. What constitutes a disproof is itself theory laden. What may appear to be a disproof of some theory may in fact amount to the disproof not of the theory under test but of some piece of "back-ground knowledge" that has been presumed to be true and was not meant to be under investigation at the time. Discerning the significance of experimental evidence is an art form in its own right!
From this it follows that establishing a view of the world cannot be a neat process. Induction is invalid and potentially misleading. Deduction, though valid, requires axioms: which are not available! Knowledge advances, but always in a Cloud of Unknowing. Progress can only be made by guess-work and intuition. Empiricism is an act of faith. It is based on the conviction that the world is comprehensible and coherent, unlike a nightmare or "Tom and Jerry" cartoon. This metaphysical conviction is empirically justifiable in no way, except that it works. It is the basis of all Western Civilization's science and technology.
Hence, I assert that in every aspect of human knowledge of the real world (I except mathematics here, without meaning any disrespect) faith necessarily precedes knowledge. Physics is as dependent on faith as is Theology. The more abstract reaches of physics: string theory, super symmetry and General Relativity and so on have much of the feel of metaphysics! The significant difference between Physics and Theology is that much of the subject matter of Theology cannot be tested empirically: this makes Physics a (Natural) Science and excludes Theology from this category, according to Popper's demarcation.
In Theology, Divine Revelation (the Apostolic Tradition) and to a much lesser extent and in an ancillary manner the Magisterium, generally plays the role of experiment: that of falsifying erroneous theories. However, sometimes the practical experience of the Community living and praying the Apostolic Tradition has a bearing. Both the laity and hierarchy must continually reflect on and compare this experience with the prevailing understanding of "The Deposit of Faith" and if necessary this understanding be encouraged to develop.
Rather than three categories of knowledge: self-evident; empirical and faith based, I contend that there are only two: Cosmological and Theological. These differ only in their subject matter, not in their species. Both require the exercise of faith. Both are rational. Both are deductive. Both are based on an epistemology of falsifiability. Cosmological knowledge pertains to those things with which an observer can interchange mass-energy. Theological knowledge pertains to God: who is no-thing, beyond the Cosmos, and with whom physical interaction is hence impossible.
My God, I confess that you can enlighten my darkness.
I confess that you alone can.
I wish my darkness to be enlightened.
I do not know whether you will;
but that you can and that I wish, are sufficient reason for me to ask.
I hereby promise that by your grace which I am asking,
I will embrace whatever I at length feel certain is the truth.
By your grace I will guard against all self deceit
which may lead me to take what nature would have,
rather than what reason approves.
John Henry Cardinal Newman