Faith and Reason

It used to be that Christians saw no conflict between Faith and Reason. C.S. Lewis, in THE DISCARDED IMAGE, remarks that if there is any characteristic medieval attitude, it was not “superstition” or fear of the intellect and reason, but rather a mania for order, rationality, and “tidying up”. He says that of all modern inventions, the one the medieval mind would have most admired is the card file. Medieval Christians deeply believed in the rationality of the universe because they deeply believed that the universe was the creation of the Logos and could therefore be understood by our reason and the secondary causes with which he invested creation traced out and their connections understood by our minds, made in his image and likeness. That is why Latin Christendom invented the sciences, because they held these beliefs.

This results in some surprises for moderns, (who get all their information about what they condescendingly call the “Middle Ages” from TV and movies), such as the surprising news that both Augustine and Aquinas (two men separated by nearly a thousand years yet jumbled together by moderns as “Dark Ages thinkers”) had no problem with what we would later call the theory of evolution. Augustine suggests that God invested creation with the power to unroll (evolvere) over time and express the potentialities placed in it by God from the start. Thomas, agreeing with this, gives a heart attack to fundamentalist Christians today who fear the possibility that matter is self-organizing and will, if we figure out how it happened with living things, “eliminate God”. St. Thomas says “rubbish” to this fear and counters that this is what matter has always done because it was created by God and invested by him with the power to do this:

“Nature is nothing but the plan of some art, namely a divine one, put into things themselves, by which those things move towards a concrete end: as if the man who builds up a ship could give to the pieces of wood that they could move by themselves to produce the form of the ship.

— Commentary on Physics II.8, lecture 14, no. 268

Because of this extreme confidence in the solidity and rationality of God’s world, whether natural or supernatural, Thomas is serenely confident that all truth is God’s truth and that there is therefore nothing the sciences can possibly discover about nature (of which God is Creator) that will threaten what God the Redeemer of Nature has revealed about Supernature.

So medievals would go on to invent that most supremely medieval form of argument, the Disputatio, and that most supremely medieval way of conducting it: the quodlibetal.

For those unfamiliar with it (and particularly for those drunk on the idea that medievals were irrational rubes filled with fear of Reason), the idea was to really and truly allow a question to be held up to rigorous scrutiny, not for the purpose of Winning an Argument, but for the purpose of getting at, or as near as possible to, the truth of a thing. To argue meant, for them, to clarify (the literal meaning of the word). The goal was to find out what the truth is, because all truth came from God and the goal was to know God better through the world he had made and through revelation (which were two modes of the same divine operation).

So the idea was really to let the strongest opposing arguments to a given proposition be stated and then replies to those objections given. The form is always the same:

Whether X is true

It would seem that X is not true because of Objections 1, 2, 3… etc. (These must stated as strongly as possible here, preferably in the words of those who champion the objections. No straw men allowed or you are a lazy, dishonest slacker who is not really trying to get at the truth of things.)

On the contrary, I answer that X is true because [insert basis for argument here]

Replies to objections 1, 2, 3 here.

To see this method in copious detail and dealing with thousands and thousands of questions you never thought to ask, read St. Thomas Aquinas. Most people seem to never get past his question “Whether God exists?” Many people are unaware that it is not even the first question he asks. First, he asks what the nature and extent of sacred doctrine is and answers ten question about that. Then he asks whether the existence of God is self-evident (and answers “no” in direct contradiction to St. Anselm). Then he asks whether the existence of God is demonstrable and answers “yes”–thereby making clear that the mere existence of God is not an article of faith but of reason. Then he finally gets down to the question “Does God exist?

It is at this point that the postmodern mind can often embrace, as it so often does, the contradictory complaint that, so far from being superstitious and prone to emotional flights of fancy, medievals were “dry as dust” and far too hyper-rational and boring. That’s because we lack their passion for order and “tidying up” that Lewis speaks of. We don’t really want our disputes to happen for the sake of getting at truth. We want them for the sake of getting at power. And this is, ironically, particularly true of conservatives who regard themselves as Guardians of Western Civilization and Stuff Like Medieval Philosophy, but who have almost entirely handed themselves over to a pagan love of nihilistic raw power for power’s sake. Here is an entirely representative sample of what passes for “argument” in Right Wingery now:

Ben Shapiro (and a zillion right wing “thought influencers” just like him) makes his living telling brainwashed people what those they hate think without ever once letting those he accuses speak for themselves. The idea of doing as a medieval would do and stating his opponent’s case as strongly and as honestly as he can never enters his mind, because he doesn’t care about truth in the slightest. He cares about winning and creating Unit Cohesion in his Cult of Personality so that they will be Good Soldiers and crush his enemies. Thus, he is wholly unprepared for when the people he maligns tell him, “We don’t think that” and the only thing he and his cult of personality can think to do is shout them down, silence them, and refuse to let them say what they actually do think. This, from the “Champion of Free Speech”.

Now the reason for this is clear: the alleged champions of Traditional Values, such as Shapiro, or FOX News, or right wing Christian propaganda organs long ago lost their faith, not only in reason, but even in their religion (Shapiro, though not Christian, upholds the supposed “Judeo-Christian” synthesis that is suppose to guard us from The Libs, but the song remains the same for his Christian MAGA allies). They have abandoned the belief that God is a God of truth who reveals himself through Creation or Revelation, or that Reason really should be trusted. They live in a universe where the Strong win and create their own truth of the moment.

The result is a subculture that is as much at war with the Jewish and Christian theological traditions as it is with Science. Both Faith and Reason are regarded merely as grab bags for accessorizing their nihilist will to power. Both theology and science are discarded, mocked, and rejected as “liberal”, “socialist”, “woke”, “politically correct” and contemptible the moment they stand in the way of the right wing Will to Power.

Of which more tomorrow.

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3 Responses

  1. Oh, that’s endearing. Ben Shapiro’s thoughts are destroyed. DESTROYED AND TWICE DESTROYED. Pay attention now, kids: when conservative arguments are DESTROYED, this is an example of honestly and strongly stating the opponent’s case. Absolutely amazing, as we are told by internet bozo Jason whatever of the ”nasty rightwingers do it, so I can do it too nanananana” toddler morality cult.

  2. “That is why Latin Christendom invented the sciences”

    al-Khwarizmi, Alhazen, Shen Kuo, and a great many others including a very long list of ancient Greeks, would all like a word.

    I can imagine the warm feeling that a devout Christian gets when an atheist historian credits Christianity for all that is good in western culture, but please don’t let that blind you to the fact that Tom Holland overstates his case in Dominion. He has a habit of simply ignoring counterarguments to his thesis, which got tiresome as it became more and more obvious in the later chapters of his book. Having read Dominion, I’m feeling no inclination at all to read any of his other works.

    – joel

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