Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Ratio ad Absurdum



I am absolutely sick to death of hearing the following Catholic meme: “If only people today were more rational and able to think more clearly they would see that the Church is right about (x).” Whether the issue is abortion, contraception, gay marriage, or the existence of God, intellectual Catholics too often seem to be under the impression that in some bygone era public discourse took place primarily on a rational level and that the downfall of our society is being brought about by people's irrational susceptibility to emotional ploys.


Newsflash: the realization that there is a big difference between the art of logic, by which one determines what is true, and the art of rhetoric, by which on persuades others of the truth largely by using appeals to emotion, goes back at least as far as Ancient Greece. There has never been a society in which the majority of men were intellectuals, nor has there ever been a society in which public policy was dictated primarily by rational argument. Stupid ideas have captured the hearts and minds of human beings in every society since the dawn of time. Moreover, the stupidest and least true ideas have often been those that seemed to have the most rational foundation. The Spartan education system, “natural slaves,” Plato's community of women and children, conversion by the sword, social darwinism, eugenics – these are all ideals and institutions that were developed and justified by men of tremendous intellect who were attempting to answer moral and social quandaries through the rigourous application of reason without any sort of sloppy sentimentality or base appeals to common sense.

The argument that reason could save America is based on a mistaken notion of truth: rationalism. Rationalists assume that truth can be arrived at through the a dialectic process in which one begins from sound first principles and proceeds syllogistically to derive all knowledge from them. This is not Christianity – it's modernism. The rational-dialectic model of truth is one that was proposed first by Descartes. It was developed and ultimately found wanting by thinkers like Kant and Hume. It was buried by Nietzsche and Foucault. 

The Church puts forward a completely different understanding of what truth is and how a person arrives at it. Truth, according to Catholic doctrine, is arrived at via the heart not the intellect. '"One believes with the heart" (Rom 10:10). In the Bible, the heart is the core of the human person, where all his or her different dimensions intersect: body and spirit, interiority and openness to the world and to others, intellect, will and affectivity.” (Lumen Fidei) All of our faculties, including our emotions, are implicated in the search for truth because truth is conceived of as a person not as an abstraction. 

Pope Francis, in his recent address to the Brazilian bishops, specifically warned against the temptation to over-intellectualize the faith: "perhaps we have reduced our way of speaking about mystery to rational explanations, but for ordinary people the mystery enters through the heart.” His words remind me of the first time that I attended a Bible study at my local parish. Usually, my Catholic social life revolves around groups of people who are pursuing PhDs in theology and who talk about the faith using quotations from Vatican documents. Back when I lived in Toronto I attended the Oratorian parish that offered masses in Latin, so it was always easy to find people who would understand exactly what I meant when I said things like “communio personarum,” “dictatorship of relativism,” or “ensemble of a fecund conjugal life.” When I moved out to the country I had to attend my geographical parish because the nearest bastion of Catholic intellectualism and liturgical traditionalism was just too far away. I was therefore brought into contact with devout Catholic women, women who have a sincere and heart-felt relationship with Jesus, who talk to Him, and pray to Him, and who want to know the Scriptures, but who have an average reading level. Watching these women grapple with quotations from the Catechism, I realized for the first time that these documents are not in straight-forward accessible English. I also realized that the kind of philosophical reasoning that I use to approach and understand the faith is not comprehensible to the majority.

Nor is my way of doing it superior. I had a rather embarassing moment several months ago when I was working on my series of dialogues. I had just finished writing the dialogue where one of the characters, Ali, complains that the other characters give more weight to her thoughts if she expresses them in academic jargon with a smattering of Greek. I was out shopping with my four year old, and I found myself in one of those little chotchky shops where they sell ylang-ylang hand-soaps and inspiritational calendars. There were a selection of plaques available with cutesy phrases on them like “Friends are like flowers in the garden of life,” “Live as if it were your last day,” “Dance like there's noone watching.” Shuddering silently, I said in the recesses of my thoughts Oprah bullshit. Ali immediately took me to task, translating several of the inspirational phrases into various academic dialects: Foucauldian Postmodernism, High Scholastic, Contemporary Vaticanese. As soon as the idiom changed, they went from sounding like cheesy commonplaces to sounding like profound truths. For the first time, I realized that these little sentimental phrases that folks like my Mom hang on their walls are actually real insights boiled down to the point where they can be accessed by people who never read Kierkegaard. 
 
The fact that intellectuals feel the need to sneer at such simple explications of truth is hardly a point in our favour. On the contrary, our knee-jerk reaction against emotional appeals, against appeals to empathy and common wisdom, is really just a form of elitist pride. In lamenting that others cannot reason as we do we join in that damnable prayer of thanksgiving that we are not like other men.

10 comments:

  1. Preach it sister!

    When I was a Protestant, I used to cringe at the worship song that used the refrain "Open the eyes of my heart God." What a cliche, right? That is, until I realized that "eyes of my heart" was an idea taken from the very words of that ol' sentimentalist St. Paul.

    It strikes me that what you are saying is very simply illustrated by the Incarnation. God, the ultimate and transcendent Logos, given to us as a helpless human baby. Beautiful.

    Thanks for this - spot on.

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  2. Lol! Wonderful. Thanks.

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  3. There's a prayer that Cranmer translated from the Sarum Missal for the 1549 version of the Book of Common Prayer that Anglicans used unchanged for over four centuries (and continuing Anglicans such as I am still use), which contains this :"...cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration f thy Holy Spirit..." The Episcopal Church revision of 1979 well illustrates the 'rationolatry' of modernists in declaring that illogical and sunstituting, "...cleanse our thoughts and our hearts...", All that to say that I really like what you've said here. "Pure reason" is so very often the object of a subtle idolatry.

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  4. Very keen insights about intellectual pride. I would add familiarity with famous philosophers as a device for looking smart.

    I find it helpful to remember that intellect can't and won't save us. God never asked us to understand Him, only to love Him. Our comprehension of sophisticated philosophy and theology is ONLY useful inasmuch as it helps us to be better Christians. Otherwise, it's all ultimately as worthless as "clashing cymbals" and "resounding gongs" when we stand before the Judgment Seat.

    Let's not forget that Jesus gave the keys to the kingdom of heaven to a fisherman, but chastised the scribes and scholars!


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  5. "The argument that reason could save America is based on a mistaken notion of truth: rationalism" - that claim seems too hasty by far. First of all, "reason could save America" isn't even an argument. It's just an assertion which could feature as the conclusion of any number of arguments and could correlate with any number of notions of truth.

    "Rationalists assume that truth can be arrived at through the a dialectic process in which one begins from sound first principles and proceeds syllogistically to derive all knowledge from them. This is not Christianity – it's modernism. The rational-dialectic model of truth is one that was proposed first by Descartes." - Really? So how would you describe Aristotle's model?

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  6. "intellectual Catholics too often seem to be under the impression that in some bygone era public discourse took place primarily on a rational level and that the downfall of our society is being brought about by people's irrational susceptibility to emotional ploys." - It seems to me that you're working with (and failing to clearly distinguish) two separate issues here: intellectual elitism ("there has never been a time when most people were intellectuals," etc.) and intellectual defeatism ("as history shows, intellectuals are likely to have the dumbest ideas"). I like your reflections on the first point; not so much on the second.

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  7. "Newsflash: the realization that there is a big difference between the art of logic, by which one determines what is true, and the art of rhetoric, by which on persuades others of the truth largely by using appeals to emotion, goes back at least as far as Ancient Greece." - Again, this is too hasty. One doesn't determine the truth simply by the use of logic - no one believes that. And the art of rhetoric includes the use of logic just as much as it includes a consideration of appeals to emotion (not to mention character).

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