In a guest post on Artur Rosman’s blog last year, I wrote that I could no more abandon Catholicism than I could “kill my parents with my bare hands and eat their flesh.” But of course “let him who thinks he is standing see to it that he does not fall.” There is nothing absolutely impossible about my falling away from the Faith. Perseverance in the theological virtue of faith is an unmerited grace that can be lost.
An example of such a possibility is the anonymous author of the blog Entirely Useless, who was a Catholic from a milieu similar to my own, but has through philosophical reflections come to the conclusion that the Catholic faith (and indeed “religion in general” [whatever that might mean]) is not true. In a recent post he makes some personal remarks on his path. I want to say at the outset that I think our anonymous friend is entirely sincere in his thinking. Philosophy is a difficult enterprise for embodied intellects, and the sources of error are numerous. I do not think that he is “foolish, wicked, arrogant, or possessed by demons,” and I am sorry that such insults have been thrown at him. I even find something to admire in the courage with which he has followed the logic of his positions even though they have led to “serious negative consequences for [his] social and personal life,” since he is now seen by many of his friends and relatives as a traitor.
I do, however, want to question one claim that he makes by applying it to my own case. Entirely Useless quotes Gregory Dawes about a ‘ministerial’ use of reason, in which philosophical arguments are used to assist the faith, but are considered a priori not to be able to threaten the truths of the faith. In a previous post he had quoted Dawes at greater length to argue that such a use of reason is unserious:
It follows that while the arguments put forward by many Christian philosophers are serious arguments, there is something less than serious about the spirit in which they are being offered. There is a direction in which those arguments will not be permitted to go. Arguments that support the faith will be seriously entertained; those that apparently undermine the faith must be countered, at any cost. Philosophy, to use the traditional phrase, is merely a “handmaid” of theology. There is, to my mind, something frivolous about a philosophy of this sort. My feeling is that if we do philosophy, it ought to be because we take arguments seriously. This means following them wherever they lead.
Now, there are two points that I would like to make about this. The first has to do with what exactly it means for philosophy to be the handmaid of theology. I certainly hold that she is, but in a slightly different sense from the one expounded by Dawes. Dawes (apparently following a certain interpretation of Luther) thinks that it means that reason an sich is to be the servant of an irrational (or at any rate non-rational) interior testimony of the Spirit. But I would see it rather as unaided reason serving reason aided by grace. The difference may seem to be small, but I think it is actually quite great. On my account faith is a strengthening of the intellectual faculty in us, allowing us to come to some truth that we could not attain without such strengthening (even though the attainment lacks something of the perfection of knowledge in the strict sense). I do not see anything contrary to the dignity of reason for its natural use to be subordinated to its supernatural use.
The second point that I would make would be on Dawes’s claim that to do philosophy seriously one must follow arguments wherever they lead. In a certain sense this is obviously true. But in another sense it is false. As the author of Entirely Useless very well knows, philosophical argument ought to proceed from what is more known to what is less known. It ought to unfold and explain what is contained in our first common conceptions of reality that are the most certain, but at the same time the most vague and confused of the things we know. It ought not to explain them away by means of more distinct, but less certain, secondary conceptions. Thus, for example, Aristotle in the Physics certainly takes the arguments of Melissus and Parmenides on the unity and immobility of being seriously in the sense that he carefully examines their evidence, and tries to see what led them to think thus. But he does not take them seriously in Dawes’s sense. That is, he is not open to being persuaded by their conclusion. And the reason is that the reality of plurality and motion in the world is more known to us than any of the abstract premises from which Parmenides and Melissus are working. There is nothing unserious about Aristotle’s approach. On the contrary there would be something unserious about approaching the question with an agnostic attitude toward the reality of plurality and motion. Similarly, there is something profoundly unserious about Descartes’s project of universal doubt, because it effectively takes certain abstract secondary conceptions as being more known to us than our common experience of the sensible world.
But what about the Christian faith? In one sense the Christian faith is certainly not “more known” than the truths that we know by natural reason. Indeed, in the strict sense of Aristotelian ἐπιστήμη it is not knowledge at all. Nevertheless, it has a property of ἐπιστήμη namely certitude. Whence comes this certitude? Entirely Useless has a great many posts on two kinds of evidence for the Faith: 1) preambles of the faith, that is demonstrations from natural reason for the existence and attributes of God, and 2) external signs of the credibility of Christian revelation, such as miracles, martyrdoms, conversions, consistency throughout the ages etc. Now both of these kinds of evidence are important. The preambles help us to understand the contents of Faith, and have also led certain persons to embrace the Faith (Edward Feser, for instance, was led to his conversion by a consideration of the preambula). External signs of credibility are also important— many persons have been converted or strengthened in their faith by witnessing miracles, for example. But neither of these is the primary source of the certitude of the faith for those who believe.
But nor is such certitude based on an entirely incommunicable interior witness of the Spirit. Certainly it is impossible without such illumination, but what such illumination enables is an encounter with Christ, as a witness who is both external and internal. It enables us to “see His glory.”
Speaking for myself, my certitude rests on having “seen,” that glory. That is— on an encounter with the witness that is of such a kind as of itself to make His witness entirely credible. I know that the author of Entirely Useless has never been much of a disciple of Hans Urs von Balthasar. I disagree with Balthasar on many things myself. But Balthasar’s theological aesthetics seem to me to be quite true and profound on this point (even if sometimes slightly overstated). In vol. 1 of The Glory of the Lord Balthasar refers to a line from the Christmas Preface:
For through the mystery [or sacrament] of the Word made flesh a new light of your glory has shone upon the eyes of our mind, so that, as we recognize in Him God made visible, we may be caught up [rapiamur] through Him in love of things invisible.
To see the glory of Christ is to be moved by that light to love the invisible realities of God, and to believe in them with an overwhelming certitude. Such certitude exceeds the natural power of reason, but it is not therefore irrational, it is the pinnacle of reason in this earthly life, and the faint inchoatio of the eternal vision of God in beatitude.
The glory of Christ is “visible” not only to those who saw Him in His earthly life, but also to those who encounter Him in His Church, through the written testimony of scripture, and even more through the unwritten reflection of His glory in the life, preaching, and sacraments of the Church.
You have not seen him but you love him, and now, not seeing him but believing in him, rejoice, with a joy which is inexpressible and glorious, as you win what is the end of faith, the salvation of your souls. (1 Peter 1:8-9)
What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have watched and our hands have felt, concerning the word of life; and the life was revealed, and we have seen and attest and announce to you the life everlasting which was with the Father and was revealed to us; what we have seen and heard we announce to you also, so that you also may share it with us; and our sharing is with the Father and with his son Jesus Christ. And we write you this so that your joy may be complete. (1 John 1:1-4)
It is no longer because of your talk that we believe; we ourselves have heard, and we know that this is truly the savior of the world. (John 4:42)
Looking at my own life, I can see how easy it would be to consider my approach to these questions “unserious;” as determined not by the evidence, but by my loyalty to my community, as tainted by what I called “confirmation bias.” But to me (as I tried to explain in my Cosmos The In Lost piece), the opposite seems evident. It would be unserious in me to approach arguments based on natural evidence as though they could ever disprove the overwhelmingly powerful evidence of the Faith. Presumably the author of Entirely Useless will disagree. But perhaps we can at least agree on this much: neither of us is “foolish, wicked, arrogant, or possessed by demons.”