“A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth; this has been exactly reversed. Nowadays the part of a man that a man does assert is exactly the part he ought not to assert: himself. The part he doubts is exactly the part he ought not to doubt: the Divine Reason.” GK Chesterton, – Orthodoxy.
This blog is principally concerned with apologetics, specifically one that seeks to propose for consideration the truth of the Catholic Faith and the difference it’s sincere practice makes to us individually and collectively. As the name of the blog suggests, this involves both preparing for (“tilling”) and defending (“keeping”) the seed of Truth transmitted via evangelization of the Gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Gospel means “good news” and that it most certainly is as it proposes for acceptance an outpouring of grace that exceeds our wildest expectations, in the face of whatever condition we have put ourselves in. In spite of this it is often the case that this seed can fall on soil that may not be conducive to its taking hold. As this “unpreparedness” in the hearer is often not freely and fully chosen, a certain amount of “landscaping” is not only useful, but is arguably an act of justice that takes the form of a spiritual work of mercy. This work entails a tilling that is often a prerequisite to, and a keeping that is a follow up of, successful evangelization. These can often be taken together as two sides of the same coin… much like that maxim in sports that the “best defense is a good offense,” except in reverse here with the best offence being a good defense. In this case what is meant is that the believer’s act of defending the faith can simultaneously provide the tools to facilitate the tilling that a seeker might be open to. This brings us to the scripture verse that most embodies the apologist’s task:
“Always be prepared to make a defense to anyone who calls you to account for the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and reverence.” 1 Peter 3:15
This “weeding” and/or “excavation” of errors and misconceptions makes room for the Truth to work. Notice that apologetics doesn’t make your decision to assent to Truth for you, just like directions to the beach don’t literally get you there and force you to swim. As a result apologetics doesn’t seek to bring one to a 100% proof, leaving no room for faith, and thus curtailing free will… thank God for that! It simply attempts to carve away what does not belong to Truth and present an outline to interlocutors that is compelling but not coercive. The knowledge that the desire for Truth is innate in every person protects us from over or under reaching when it comes to apologetics. The goal is for those we interact with to arrive at the same conclusion expressed by those who listened to the woman at the well in John’s Gospel:
“It is no longer because of your words that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves and we know indeed that this is the Savior of the world.” John 4:42
Establishing clarity about the role of rational debate in a religious context at the outset is key, as the enterprise of apologetics is often construed as being opposed or unrelated to the subjective/experiential dimension that faith has been reduced to. Somewhere along the line in human history, a “Cold War” between faith and reason was posited and accepted (predictably) by the secular, and (strangely) by many religious alike. Much can be said about how this happened, but here I’d just like to examine whether or not this should be the case. It seems that, since the rational demonstrations of logic cannot get off the ground without “givens” as a starting point, not only could faith and reason be reconciled, but it would be absurd to consider them as unmoored. Another word for “givens” is that taboo “d” word… yup you guessed it: dogma. Since, by definition, dogma cannot be derived, it is foolish to dismiss any particular one out of hand in an analytical sense. One must really make the effort to provisionally treat it as true in order to work out its implications. If you’ve never coached a soccer team before and have to decide on a formation, you can’t play some games without one to determine which is most appropriate… you have to start with one you haven’t tested for yourself. This might require listening to mentors and watching a lot of other games, but translating this to your specific situation involves a certain amount of faith.
So reason is not reason without faith, but there is reciprocation as faith is authenticated and ordered by reason. Reason without faith devolves into mere rationalism, as faith without reason is mere fideism. Though fideism and rationalism appear as opposing forces, they achieve similar outcomes if followed in isolating, dividing and devaluing humanity. Seeking a faith / reason compatibility is necessary for the flourishing of the human person both materially and spiritually. There are a number of analogies to illustrate the point. One in particular that is helpful can be found in ongoing scientific research on whether physical light is a wave or a particle, (as experiments have shown it to behave as either in different situations.) This is something that, at the time of this post, is a mystery to us. The question is, should being confronted with such a limitation in understanding cause one to deny what is known about light, or that its existence is somehow illusory? Such a denial appears absurd in this instance, but if we are honest we will see that it is commonplace in modern discussions about religion and philosophy. Mysteries are tolerated in some fields, but despised in others. Why? If one dispensed with a given proposition because they didn’t fully understand it, no learning would ever take place. This how faith and reason coordinate. In order to grow, one must see the counterintuitive (not to be confused with “contradictory”,) as an opportunity to investigate, not a roadblock or dead end. I don’t mean that something is true because it’s counterintuitive, but that enduring paradoxes are mysteries to explore, ones with rich rewards, whatever the outcome. Either you open yourself to a truth that can help you live better, or you expose something harmful that ought to be avoided. It’s a win-win. Seek (with the stereoscopic vision of both faith and reason,) and you shall find.
As this balance is so particular, errors made in either direction cause us to lose focus and stumble. Those who wish to de-emphasize the rational might see the insistence on truth / argumentation as a cold / sterile obsession. That climate of opinion we can chalk up to the faulty and widely held presupposition that truth is essentially a set of abstract propositions that require merely intellectual assent. Though I affirm this cognitive dimension, it isn’t the full story. How could the underlying truth (in its fullness) of our dynamic universe with its diversity of life, including human beings who exhibit a gratuitous capacity for reason and freedom, itself be an inert and lifeless abstraction? One doesn’t need to be a theologian to see this point… all that is required is the common sense notion that there can’t be more in the effect than in the cause. So if we see intellects and wills in the universe what should we find in the underlying / continual Cause. While this necessitates further development (in a future post,) for now it might move us in a different direction than truth as merely “impersonal propositions,” all the while preserving these propositions as rungs on a ladder that are already participations in an ultimate personal Truth:
“For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood.” 1 Corinthians 13:12
But If we admit a truth with an intellect and will, we might encounter a different objection from the other extreme. The avoidance of the first objection only leads us inexorably to the second: The unsettling reaction to a less “sedentary” truth. Some of us may not like the idea of a personal Truth. This one true God that could make demands of us and invest us with a purpose we didn’t invent for ourselves. This anxiety is often due to anthropomorphizing God, “endowing” Him with our capriciousness, which is certainly unwarranted. All of this seems to point to some distance that’s been placed between us and God… something acknowledged independently by almost all civilizations, but that Catholic doctrine refers to as the Fall. We can try to ignore this anxiety easily enough, trying to enshrine certain regular patterns we observe in the universe as abstract realities without intentionality. While we certainly should recognize and discover these patterns, ignoring the implied intentionality is bridge too far. If truth remains abstract, it stands to reason that man could (and some say, should) strive to remake everything in his own image. It ultimately leads to barbarism, violence and destruction:
“The real trouble with this world of ours is not that it is an unreasonable world, nor even that it is a reasonable one. The commonest kind of trouble is that it is nearly reasonable, but not quite. Life is not an illogicality; yet it is a trap for logicians. It looks just a little more mathematical and regular than it is; its exactitude is obvious, but its inexactitude is hidden; its wildness lies in wait.” GK Chesterton, – Orthodoxy.
If we are honest with ourselves, we can admit that we enter this life with a quandary. Alone among the species, we are insatiable, not settling into a pattern. We can be intentional about our seeking and take it seriously, or let ourselves be tossed about as we go through life. For those who believe, the temptation is there to caricature the notion that God loves us as we are (which I certainly believe,) and dismiss the journey. True Love does love us as we are, but loves us too much to leave us there. Sure there are dangers and obstacles when one takes up the challenge, but this is not an issue when we rely on the Lord, who wants more than anything to help us both directly and through His Church:
“We destroy arguments and every proud obstacle to the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ” 2 Corinthians 10:5
The Christian story is that the Son of God bears the brunt of this fallen world, so He can restore, guide and power us towards what we are meant for… nothing short of union with Him. For those who do not believe, the prospect of this view, along with a deep sense of how much we cling to our autonomy, should fly in the face of the notion that believing in a personal God is actually a comforting “story” we tell ourselves and that adherents to such “myths” are just uncritical when it comes to this question. A more sober assessment would be that of CS Lewis, who expressed that “… man’s search for God is like the mouse’s search for the cat.” Notwithstanding this, I invite you to initiate that search, taking the ultimate questions seriously, with the confidence that whatever the answer, there is nothing that could be more important. The challenge issued here is to begin to see absolute Truth as food and light, and not an impediment to freedom. Whether one knows it or not, ignoring Truth means one doesn’t want to know if there is a better “place” out there while refusing the strength to get there if there is. One doesn’t break out by dismissing Truth, one breaks in, further and further into a prison of one’s own making. The big lie is that somehow closing in on ourselves is better than admitting we’re not at the center. The next step is opening that door, locked from the inside and venturing out on the “Via Apologetica.”