“The whole object of travel is not to set foot on foreign land; it is at last to set foot on one’s own country as a foreign land.” G.K Chesterton – Tremendous Trifles
Any journey requires at least some planning… and a map. We are looking for a particular destination (the Truth’s “Home”) from among possible candidates and will need to explore the network of roads to find it and distinguish it from the pretenders.
While we have gone over several reasons in previous posts to posit Truth as our goal, we are now supposing that our target can not only be identified and beheld in some manner, but that it is locatable in space and time. While there certainly are enough religions and philosophies out there that make this claim over and against the others, the supposition is at the same time both familiar and fascinating. In one sense, it is clearly a habit of humanity to have pursued and attempted to communicate “bedrock reality” as it can be apprehended. In another it is startling that any group or individual in any age can raise their hand(s) and claim, “look no further, we have the key to the mystery of life.”
1 Kings 8:27 (RSVCE): 27 “But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain thee; how much less this house which I have built!”
While this is a paradox, it is certainly not a contradiction… we have no difficulty recognizing truth mixed with error in different proportions when we look to different sources around us… this presupposes we have a built in “homing device” so to speak. When we discern these things we really are unconsciously pointing to a pre-existing standard for comparison. Therefore we certainly could reason from those particulars to the existence of an inerrant instantiation of Truth. We can reason that, as each of our innate desires correlate to definite objects, it is reasonable and justified to expect one here as well…
“The Christian says, ‘Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well, there is such a thing as water…’ If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.” C.S Lewis – Mere Christianity
What’s being proposed here is that while truth underlies all things, the truth itself can be distinguishable among those things it undergirds. Our built in movement towards truth is evidence suggesting that it could somehow be accessible within the framework it upholds… just as an author may conceptually enter his own work as a character. We see this “incarnational” moment in “The Surprise” as the ‘author’ of a play within the play breaks into his own production after the ‘actors’ have marred its original design…
“And in the devil’s name, what do you think you are doing with my play? drop it! Stop! I am coming down!” GK Chesterton – The Surprise
In light of all this, committing to the journey precludes accepting the landscape and rules of the road, even if only in a de facto way. We could complain about the road conditions, the layout of the road network or even the landscape that prevents smoother travel, but this is just a delay tactic. The available infrastructure conditions the decisions required and questions raised. We are finite and must start from somewhere and not in a vacuum. If we deny that, we have “proven too much”… namely if primary external experience cannot be admissible as a starting point, one’s right to make any kind of truth claim at all is taken out at the source. Another way to say this is that if nothing is given and everything is our own construct, there really is no principle to lean on… no data for the intellect to work upon. Everything is a shallow, meaningless game that leads nowhere.
“To this question ‘Is there anything?’ St. Thomas begins by answering ‘Yes.’ If he began by answering ‘No,’ it would not be the beginning, but the end. That is what some of us call common sense…” G.K. Chesterton – St. Thomas Aquinas
Much could be said here about epistemology (a systematic approach to how we come to any “knowledge,”) and how we can trust data obtained by our senses (even if they require much assistance.) For now though, the whole business can really be boiled down to its core: If one truly wants a demonstration of the validity of sense data, let that request for a demonstration be proof enough… as what demonstration would be acceptable that didn’t itself make use of, directly, indirectly or by thought experiment, any kind of sense data.
“‘There is an Is.’ That is as much monkish credulity as St. Thomas asks of us at the start. Very few unbelievers start by asking us to believe so little. And yet, upon this sharp pin-point of reality, he rears by long logical processes that have never really been successfully overthrown, the whole cosmic system of Christendom.” G.K. Chesterton – St. Thomas Aquinas
The reason for the focus on establishing the validity of the external world is that it offers us the “possible residences” that will serve as the focal points of our search. We may wonder about houses that have been demolished, or those yet to be built, or even if we might venture to build our own, but further reflection will hopefully show at least the remoteness of those as possible options. Certainly if the Truth had a home, it should by definition have endured to this point. The notion of building one ourselves really would only make it our home, and absurd on the face of it given our obvious finiteness and contingency.
“Go and tell my servant David, ‘Thus says the Lord: Would you build me a house to dwell in?” 2 Samuel 7:5
An intriguing suggestion could be that the home isn’t yet built, and that looking through the available options might be your classic wild goose chase. But, being the cause behind all things, it would be reasonable to consider that there must be, even if in a hastily pitched tent, the “True Voice” from time immemorial. It’s form might develop in such a way that we might perceive different stages or phases of it’s development over recorded history, but through all the tumult we should find substantial continuity from the start in the essential features of the dwelling. It would seem then that what we are looking for should actually be among the currently available options and not something pertaining exclusively to the past or the future.
“Wisdom is radiant and unfading, and she is easily discerned by those who love her, and is found by those who seek her. She hastens to make herself known to those who desire her. He who rises early to seek her will have no difficulty, for he will find her sitting at his gates.” (Wisdom 6:12–14)
If the suggestion about a home not being built yet sounds familiar, it is because it’s been a theme of previous posts… it’s a close cousin of indifference and/or discouragement, namely agnosticism. It’s an option you may have already committed to move away from if you’ve read this far, but the closing remarks of this post will hopefully confirm that decision. Speaking of options, its time we take inventory. Beginning with broad strokes, the following religions/ worldviews are considered in this journey:
Polytheism / Dualism
the “God of the Philosophers”
This list certainly doesn’t cover all the subdivisions and ecclesial details, but the intent is to explore these as well, should we venture into the “neighborhoods” above. Not listing all of the individual endpoints is not intended to give a false sense of the ease of our task… it clearly isn’t easy at all. Rather it is to demonstrate that we can approach this in an ordered way, not having to simultaneously deal with all of them at once. Whole “branches” of this “decision tree” can be pruned by answers to key questions that we approach systematically… proceeding from the most fundamental to the most nuanced. If we succeed in ruling out agnosticism (the apparent absence of a home,) the first fundamental question would posit whether Truth is either a set of abstract laws (plus chance) or personal (involving intellect and will.) This would mean examining the option of Atheism first (with a potential stop over at the waypoint of Buddhism as it is sometimes considered a “ceremonial/ religious” atheism. If one were to decide for some non-theistic worldview, our need to explore any of the subsequent options on the list would be unnecessary. If one affirms the alternative, things could get interesting, finding ourselves surprised by Truth…
“Christian faith is not a system. It cannot be portrayed as a complete, finished intellectual construction. It is a path, and it is characteristic of a path that it only becomes recognizable if you enter on it and start following it.” Josef Cardinal Ratzinger-Truth and Tolerance.
It may be a formality, but to ensure we clear the hurdle of agnosticism, it may be profitable to examine Pascal’s wager. This thought experiment is too often mistaken for an attempt to prove the existence of God (/Truth), when it really functions best as an exposition of the “irrationality of fence sitting.” This is ultimately the argument anyone in “doubt” or “without knowledge” (what the term agnosticism actually means – “a” without and “gnosis” knowledge) ought to concern themselves with. In one sense it is admirable to admit that one is sincere about their doubt, but not seeking sufficiently in this regard is demonstrably a stance “against knowledge.” We can see this if we examine the four possible outcomes in the Pascalian style approach… either God exists and you are open to seeking, God exists and you are not open, God does not exist and you are open, and God does not exist and you are not open. As we examine these scenarios, we need to keep in mind the limited nature of this ephemeral lowercase l-life. If you look at things pragmatically, the choice is obvious and rational. If you substituted the options with: whether there was an underground tunnel that leads to freedom from prison (true / false); and your commitment to finding it (present / not present) it might be even easier to grasp. If you do not look for the passage, you remain in prison. Seeking and finding is clearly the best option, but what if it isn’t there to find? Should that deter us? Not in the least. It is still preferable to the “not looking” scenarios for many reasons, one of which is obtaining purpose that is outside of any meaningless pursuit we can invent for ourselves. Not seeking in this limited life highlights the illogical position of the agnostic… it’s like trying to kick a field goal on the last play of a football game when you need a touchdown… because a touchdown is highly unlikely. The moment an agnostic decided to “go for it,” they cease to be agnostic and become a seeker.
Some have criticized Pascal’s wager using the “mercenary objection.” The objection arises from the sense that the individual believes only on the basis of self interest and not because of the truth of the underlying object. This is one of the reasons that the individual’s response is rephrased here as “seeking” vs “believing.” The process of honest seeking has done wonders to purify any questionable motivations… plus, when you’re at the South Pole, a step in any direction gets you closer to the North Pole.
Another objection to this framework is the difficulty of this entire task. It has prompted many to ask, “If God existed, why would it not be more evident?” This is sometimes called the “problem of Divine hiddenness.” While that is a loaded question, with different faith traditions having differing perspectives. Perhaps this closing remark from Pascal himself can help provide some food for thought…
Willing to appear openly to those who seek him with all their heart, and to be hidden from those who flee from him with all their heart, God so regulates the knowledge of himself that he has given indications of himself which are visible to those who seek him and not to those who do not seek him. There is enough light for those to see who only desire to see, and enough obscurity for those who have a contrary disposition. Blaise Pascal – Pensées
We may multiply examples of this concept of hiddenness in humanity’s collective imagination from fairytales featuring princesses looking for a frog to turn into a prince, to movies featuring royalty concealing title and wealth while searching for a bride. These common themes point to the proposed mystery of free will that will also need further treatment as we look ahead.
Hope you are enjoying the ride so far… on the horizon it appears we are approaching Atheism’s city limits, a town with a growing population these days… let’s see if there are any shape shifting frogs around in the next post.