The Public Square
The word-mavens”William Safire, for instance”routinely complain about the use of intriguing when engaging, fascinating, or just plain interesting would do as well. The complaint is justified. But intriguing is the right word to describe current discussions about the relationships between brain, mind, knowing, and consciousness. These discussions engage one’s attention to a marked degree, and edge into the realm of mystery. At least they engage my attention and open my mind (using that word in the ordinary sense) to wonder. On these questions there are two new books that are to be warmly welcomed: John R. Searle, Mind, Language, and Society: Philosophy in the Real World (Basic) and Edward Pols, Mind Regained (Cornell University Press). There are basic agreements between them but equally basic disagreements, making the two in combination an excellent introduction to a set of questions of considerable significance for philosophy, ethics, religion, and theology. Both are written in a manner accessible to the educated reader with no specialized training in those several fields.
John Searle of the University of California at Berkeley is surely among the most respected philosophers of our time and writes regularly on science and philosophy in the New York Review of Books . Against the academically trendy postmodernists and deconstructionists, he declares himself to be a philosophical realist. Just to put my cards on the table at the beginning, he writes, I accept the Enlightenment vision. I think that the universe exists quite independently of our minds and that, within the limits set by our evolutionary endowments, we can come to comprehend its nature. On the major philosophical issues, he subscribes to what he calls, borrowing a computer metaphor, the default position, meaning by that the views we hold so naturally (pre-reflectively) that it takes mind-bending effort to let oneself be argued out of them. The default position includes the belief that we have direct perceptual access to the world that exists independently of us; that words such as tree and rabbit typically have clear meanings that make it possible to talk about real objects in the world; that statements are typically true or false, depending on whether they correspond to determinable facts in the world; and that there are real relations in which one phenomenon, called the cause, accounts for another, called the effect.
Such views may seem pretty obvious, indeed commonsensical, to the sane reader. Searle, however, doesn’t like the word commonsense, in part, it seems, because he doesn’t want to insult those who disagree with him by suggesting they don’t have it. But I’m not sure it helps to speak of the default position, since the computer metaphor may suggest that there is something very wrong with their mental hardware. In any event, Searle’s defense of human reason”what he calls the Enlightenment vision”is a salutary antidote to the fashionable irrationalities of Derrida, Foucault, Rorty, and a host of others who in various and implausibly ingenious ways contend that reality (in quotes) is something that we are making up as we go along. Most of Mind, Language, and Society is devoted to exposing the incoherence and frequent fatuities of the enemies of the Enlightenment vision.
Why does the default position of realism have so many enemies? I do not believe that the various challenges to realism are motivated by the arguments actually presented, Searle writes. I believe they are motivated by something much deeper and less intellectual. People resent being subject to and answerable to a dumb, stupid, inert material world. Why shouldn’t we think of the real world’ as something we create, and therefore something that is answerable to us? If all of reality is a social construction,’ then it is we who are in power, not the world.
Upon Closer Examination
Searle’s is an interesting suggestion, but I am not sure it bears close examination. If the will to power is present in almost everything, and it is, it may help to explain the antirealist impulse. It probably does, at least in part, but a little further thought leads to the recognition that such power is itself a delusion and pretense”my fiction with which I contend against the fictions of others. If my supposed power has no relation to a real world independent of myself, I am totally powerless. What I call my socially constructed power is just whistling in the dark, and all my contentions with the constructions of others are finally no more than a whistling contest.
But in proposing this further consideration I may be assuming that the postmodernists are more self-critical than Searle thinks they are. He may have the more realistic assessment of their capacity for clear thinking. In any event, Searle recognizes that his psychological explanation of antirealism is not sufficient. Pointing out the psychological origins of antirealism is not a refutation of antirealism. It would be a genetic fallacy to suppose that by exposing the illegitimate origins of the arguments against realism, we somehow refute the arguments.
Searle makes a bracing case for philosophical realism understood as the Enlightenment vision. But like many, perhaps most, of those whom he calls the educated members of our civilization at the turn of the millennium, intellectual inquiry stops at the edge of certain dogmatic boundaries. When it comes to some truths about how things really are in the world (emphasis his), we are no longer dealing with matters of philosophical analysis but with the results of modern science. As far as we know anything at all about how the world works, there are two propositions of modern science that are not, so to speak, up for grabs. They are not optional . . . . These are the atomic theory of matter and the evolutionary theory of biology. He does not make an argument for these propositions or dogmas; they are simply assumed by the educated members of our civilization at the turn of the millennium. But of course these propositions have everything to do with philosophical analysis, as we shall see in discussing Edward Pols’ Mind Regained . The two dogmas as asserted by Searle determine his philosophical materialism, his understanding of cause and effect, and his atheism.
On these questions, Searle’s is an engaging but thoroughly unconvincing instance of beyondism. He says we are beyond the conflict between materialism and what he calls dualism, and then he opts for the default position of materialism. He says we are beyond the debate between atheism and theism, and then he opts for the default position of atheism. He even has a section titled Beyond Atheism in which he notes that earlier philosophers of his disposition, such as John Stuart Mill and Bertrand Russell, thought it necessary to mount polemical and eloquent attacks on traditional religion. That was then, this is now. Nowadays nobody bothers, and it is considered in slightly bad taste to even raise the question of God’s existence. Matters of religion are like matters of sexual preference: They are not to be discussed in public and even the abstract questions are discussed only by bores.
What the Educated Can Believe
Impatience with abstract questions might be viewed as a deficiency in a philosopher, especially one who proposes to explain how things really are in the world. The fact that Searle dismisses abstract questions about God as boring no doubt explains why he has not given serious attention to such questions, which he manifestly has not. The smugness and insularity of a world of discourse in which the following passage is presumably thought to be intellectually coherent would be cause for astonishment, were its kind not so frequently encountered. Searle writes:
For us, the educated members of society, the world has become demystified. Or rather, to put the point more precisely, we no longer take the mysteries we see in the world as expressions of supernatural meaning. We no longer think of odd occurrences as cases of God performing speech acts in the language of miracles. Odd occurrences are just occurrences we do not understand. The result of this demystification is that we have gone beyond atheism to a point where the issue no longer matters in the way it did to earlier generations. For us, if it should turn out that God exists, that would have to be a fact of nature like any other. To the four basic forces in the universe”gravity, electromagnetism, weak and strong nuclear forces”we would add a fifth, the divine force. Or more likely, we would see the other forces as forms of the divine force. But it would still be all physics, albeit divine physics. If the supernatural existed, it too would have to be natural.
For us, the educated members of society. What a fine ring of invincible complacency that has. It is a phrase that Schleiermacher used almost two hundred years ago in describing the cultured despisers of religion. Note also Searle’s assertion that, no matter what turns out to be the case, it would have to be a fact of nature like any other. That certitude has already been determined by the aforementioned dogmas that, as he says, are not up for grabs, and indeed are not subject to intellectual challenge or inquiry. The word God in Searle’s discussion, needless to say, has nothing to do with what serious thinkers from Plato to Aquinas to Balthasar have meant by God. But then, Searle has told us that those who think seriously about such questions are bores. Which presumably gives him license to be supremely unserious, as in the above paragraph that may kindly be described as non-sense.
I know nothing about John Searle’s history, but there is a deep and evident animus at work here. Religion is no more than superstition and deserving of unbridled derision. His tone is that of the village atheist of yesteryear, now, one might have thought, almost an extinct species. For us, the educated members of society (if I may borrow a phrase), the vulgar exhibition of ignorance and hostility is an embarrassment. It is disconcerting to watch a distinguished professor of philosophy at a leading university as he thinks he is clinching an argument by pointing out that human credulity has played a part in religion. In Italy he lived near a church where a statue of Mary was found buried in a garden, and people used to believe (hee-hee) that it had fallen from heaven. That was then, this is now.
Even if the statue were found in the gardens of the Vatican, Searle writes, the church authorities would not claim it had fallen out of heaven. That is not a possible thought for us because, in a sense, we know too much. The in a sense is a nice qualifier, but it does not seem to qualify anything. Obviously, the statue’s falling from heaven is a possible thought because John Searle thought it”not seriously, of course”in order to reject it. But his real clincher is the Shroud of Turin, the dating of which, according to radioactive tests, is still disputed. Whatever the right date, Searle concludes with this: But, and this is the point, why do we assume the tests are more to be believed than the miracle? Why should God’s miracle be answerable to carbon 14? Simply at the level of Logic 101, it seems not to occur to Mr. Searle that the point of the tests is to determine whether it is a miracle, for if it is not a miracle there is no miracle to believe in or not believe in. Of course, we could have an interesting discussion about what is meant by a miracle. But we have already been told that people who discuss such things are bores, except, presumably, when Mr. Searle discusses them. If I understand him correctly, he believes he has the advantage in understanding such matters because he knows they are undeserving of serious thought. I think I mentioned that he is professor of philosophy at Berkeley, a school of no little renown.
Thinking About Our Thoughts
But I do not take back what I said earlier. Mind, Language, and Society is an intelligent argument for philosophical realism and a telling polemic against the antirealists, crippled only by an Enlightenment vision of a relentlessly dogmatic and reductionist force. The reductionist belief system within which Searle is constrained could not be more explicitly stated. In an intellectual world far removed from Searle’s, the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote witheringly about a God of the gaps in which the word God is no more than a placeholder until we get a better explanation. John Searle subscribes to what we might call philosophy of the gaps. Philosophy, he says, is concerned with questions that we do not yet have an agreed-on method of answering. When science provides an answer, we will no longer need philosophy. A good example of this is the problem of the nature of life. This was once a philosophical problem, but it ceased to be so when advances in molecular biology enabled us to break down what seemed a large mystery into a series of smaller, manageable, specific biological questions and answers. I hope that something similar will happen to the problem of consciousness.
For all the interesting things that John Searle has written about mind and consciousness, both here and elsewhere, his dogma so cripples his thought that, in principle, he cannot explore possibilities other than those with which he begins. His Enlightenment vision is, in fact, an iron cage. It would seem that his demystification has to end up in the mystification that all our thinking can in fact be broken down into something less than thought, which means we only think we think, or, more precisely, we have neither mind nor consciousness. There are neural firings in the brain that we call thoughts, but, if there are only neural firings, it becomes exceedingly difficult to know who or what are the we who call them thoughts. As Stephen M. Barr recently wrote in these pages, we should pay close attention to the best minds of our time, but we may be permitted to ignore them when they tell us they have no minds. It would seem that it is only by virtue of his inconsistencies”inconsistencies that, for the sake of his sanity, we may deem felicitous inconsistencies”that John Searle does not explicitly say that he has no mind at all. When, as he hopes, the mystery of mind and consciousness is broken down by science into a series of smaller, manageable, specific biological questions and answers, how would we know whether they are the right questions and answers, and what in this context would knowing mean? Mr. Searle’s well-intended defense of realism finally evaporates into the mists of unreality.
A very different treatment of these questions is offered by Edward Pols, longtime professor of philosophy at Bowdoin College, in Mind Regained . His essay is marked by a breadth of vision, clarity of expression, and unembarrassed humility before what we do not, and perhaps cannot, understand. Against postmodernist fashions, Pols, too, is a determined realist. His previous book was Radical Realism: Direct Knowing in Science and Philosophy . His realism, however, is not confined by the iron cage of dogmatic reductionism. He urges us to pay close attention to the phenomenon of the mind as we actually experience it in discerning and thinking about reality. The mind as experienced should be admitted as evidence in our thinking about the mind. For Searle and many others, the story of philosophy really begins with Descartes and systematic skepticism about the relationship between mind and reality. Everything prior to and counter to the Cartesian starting point is, with varying degrees of insouciance, dismissed as obfuscation”or more simply, as boring.
Pols takes very seriously the moment in human thought that began with Descartes in the seventeenth century and reached its climax in the exchange between Hume and Kant at the end of the eighteenth. But he views it only as that, a moment in the much longer and larger history of human reflection on the nature of the world and our part in it. Pols treats Descartes with great respect, even reverence, and in Mind Regained offers a marvelously lucid exposition of the Meditations , making the point that moderns who take their Descartes without what he had to say about God and infinity are simply not taking Descartes seriously. Descartes, Pols suggests, would not recognize his thought in what many contemporary textbooks present as the Cartesian turning point.
Pols begins his story at the beginning. For the West, the conceptual shape of this study of mind was formed by such great philosophical doctrines as those of Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, and Thomas Aquinas. That doctrinal tradition culminates in the medieval notion of the mind of a creative God, a notion whose power in the West is hard to overstate. For a long time the notion was as important in science as in religion and morals; and although its importance for science gradually diminished after the eighteenth century, it remained a vital force for our culture in general all through the nineteenth century. The perception of the human mind as participating in the mind of an other is deeply entrenched in our culture, and careful reflection upon that perception leads to a consideration of causes”material, efficient, formal, and final”that cannot reduce the mind to something less than we know it to be. From antiquity until the present, Pols writes, certain highly complex entities have seemed so impressive that their functions do not seem to be adequately accounted for if they are regarded as mere assemblages of more basic entities. That perception undergirds and is essential to the idea of human beings as rational and moral agents.
Playing Billiards with Mozart
I cannot do justice to the elegance of Pols’ argument in this space, but he contends that reason compels the conclusion that there is an ordering power intrinsic to nature that cannot be adequately explained in scientific terms and that the ordering power intrinsic to nature works also in human purpose (emphasis his). These are, admittedly, bold assertions, but they are derived from close attention to the mind itself. By the mind itself, Pols writes, I mean the full concreteness , the full actuality , the wholeness of mind, the lived reality of mind. He illustrates his point by an imaginative but convincing reconstruction of what was happening when Mozart was playing billiards and taking time out from the game to write down musical passages he was composing in his head, and what is happening in our minds when we read about Mozart doing that. One can abstract what is undeniably a piece of what is happening, such as the central nervous system or neural synapses in the brain, but one has not thereby captured what is happening. Although the central nervous system is a thing of flesh and blood and so concrete enough, it is then being considered in abstraction from the full concreteness of mind itself. It is simply arbitrary to declare that this piece, separated from all the other pieces of what is happening, is the explanation of the whole.
Much of modern philosophy, says Pols, has made a negative judgment about the mind. But there is a curious incoherence in this judgment. In short, he writes, the negative philosophical judgment about the powers of the human mind was reached by the study of mind itself”a study conducted of course by mind itself. I call the judgment negative because its most profound claim is that the mind cannot get at reality, at what is the case, at what is independent of mind’s own capacity to believe or to construct. It needs to be emphasized that the negative judgment still hovers over science itself, even as it did in the days of Hume and Kant. If that judgment is taken seriously, science cannot be exempt from it. An incapacity on the part of the mind to know what is real in independence of the mind’s own construction is a general incapacity. It is thus a paradox that the negative judgment has turned attention away from the study of the mind itself to the scientific study of the infrastructure of mind. Pols’ contention is that the mind’s study of the mind must pay attention to the mind itself. The alternative, although he does not put it quite this way, is that we tell ourselves we are studying the mind while determinedly ignoring, or even denying, the mind that is being studied and, most important, the mind that is doing the studying.
Pols is deeply respectful of science, and of the scientific method as conventionally defined, and he is also keenly aware of its limitations. In one section he spells out the eight steps, or principles, in the received scientific doctrine of causality, concluding with these: 6. Causality has no telic [purposeful] feature, although human beings tend to attribute teleology (final causality) to nature. 7. Causality has no form-creating feature, other than that expressed in the laws of nature. 8. Agency as such, whether divine or human, forms no part of a scientific causal explanation: although human agency is often appealed to in commonsense causal explanations, agency itself is subject to causal explanation in the sense of the preceding principles. Agency is thus something to be explained, not something that is in itself explanatory. The last point is crucial. What agent is to explain that there is no agency? Which brings us back to some of the best minds of our day telling us they have no mind.
The Knower and the Known
With respect to the negative judgment of the mind, Pols sums up his case with the observation that it is futile and incoherent to try to achieve an absolute separation of the knower from the known:
With this phase of our reflective turn we overcome the negative philosophical judgment about the power of our minds which has gradually developed in the course of the epistemological era that is coincidental with modernity”including that last jaded period of modernity which now masquerades as postmodernity. The negative judgment led to the dismal conviction that we can know neither other beings nor ourselves directly and so cannot know any causal significance they may have. It contributed to the gradual discrediting of a complex and nuanced doctrine of causality which, whatever its limitations, left some explanatory room for morality, art, and religion. It left us with a scientific doctrine of causality for which it is impossible to provide a satisfactory philosophical justification. To speak more precisely, it condemned us to oscillate between the conviction that the scientific doctrine is a thoroughly adequate replacement for all the older views of causality and the suspicion that it is a useful pragmatic device whose writ must be carefully circumscribed. It is time to set aside the negative philosophical judgment once and for all.
Between the arguments of Searle and Pols a decision must be made. Pols’ is the more aesthetically and intellectually attractive, in that it is marked by modesty, a seriousness that eschews flippancy, a readiness to engage alternative explanations, and a refusal to take refuge in fundamentalist dogma”whether religious or scientific”that is finally a form of fideism. The subtitle of Searle’s book is philosophy in the real world, but it is Pols who attends to the mind as we actually experience it in the real world. He is the uncompromising realist in refusing to accept less than a conclusive argument that that experience is delusory. (And it is impossible to imagine what such an argument might look like.) Most important, Pols can understand and explain the intellectual moves made by Searle, while Searle steadfastly ignores the moves made by Pols.
Thus Pols’ argument is able to give an account of Searle’s argument, whereas Searle refuses to engage the argument of Pols”and of Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, and a good many contemporary philosophers. What Mozart thought he was doing as he played billiards and what you think you are doing as you read these words has, for Searle, no explanatory force. Your thinking is the object to be explained, but there appears to be no explaining subject. Put differently, the explaining subject, the rational agent, disappears into the fundament of the (as yet to be scientifically determined) explanation. Those who think that this poses metaphysical puzzles deserving of careful exploration are for John Searle and the educated members of our civilization at the turn of the millennium to be dismissed as bores.
Three final points. I do not know what religious conclusions, if any, Edward Pols draws from his argument. He does not say. His essay is, at most, a prolegomenon to theological reflection, just as Searle’s is intended to preclude such reflection. Second, it is not adequate to say, as Pols does, that the realism he champions leaves some explanatory room for morality, art, and religion. This sounds once again like morality, art, and religion that is of the gaps”for the time being, until we achieve a fuller explanation. Pols’ argument, it seems to me, not only invites but demands the explanatory employment of morality, art, and religion”in short, attentiveness to the mind as experienced in the real world. Morality, art, and religion are not short-term expedients until some better explanation of the real world comes along. They are irreplaceable and irreducible in the real world as experienced, as well as in any world we can imagine, recognizing that our imagining is part of the real world as experienced. I am not sure whether Pols would disagree with that. Third, one should not leave this subject without noting that the caricature of religion and theology offered by thinkers such as John Searle is too often a caricature handed them by religious thinkers who, as we are reminded by the recent encyclical Fides et Ratio (Faith and Reason), do not respect the imperatives of thinking clearly. But that is another big subject, also aptly described as intriguing.
The Magisterial We
Bishop Joseph Fiorenza is getting off to a rocky start as president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB). Brows were furrowed by the speech in which he criticized anyone who suggests that some bishops are more fervent in their devotion to the Magisterium than others. It’s hard to know what to make of that. Bishops frequently express their views on many subjects, as they surely should, and presumably they speak with the intention of being heard. Are people to pretend that they do not hear what they hear, or to refrain from drawing conclusions from what they hear? Is it disrespect toward the episcopal office to think, for example, that John Cardinal O’Connor might be somewhat more favorably disposed toward the teaching and pastoral initiatives of this pontificate than, say, Archbishop Rembert Weakland of Milwaukee? I can’t imagine that either of them would think so.
Bishop Fiorenza goes on to insist that the bishops must speak with one voice. On the deposit of the faith, to be sure, but bishops are first of all teachers in the local church that is their diocese, and teachers do not all teach in the same way. Surely he does not suggest that bishops should remain silent and let the NCCB or its president speak for them.
Then there was Bishop Fiorenza’s speech at the Los Angeles Gathering for Jubilee Justice. He strongly and rightly stated, Racism is a sin”a sin that divides the human family and violates the fundamental dignity of those called to be children of the same Father. But he then went on to say: We were dismayed when Proposition 209 abolished affirmative action in California a few years ago, and we are alarmed as other states consider similar legislation. Who, as Tonto might put it, is the magisterial we here? The bishop continued: We hear the sound of racism among those who suggest too much is being given to racial minorities by way of affirmative action programs. At times, protestations claiming that all persons should be treated equally reflect the desire to maintain a status quo that favors one race and social group at the expense of the poor and nonwhite. I can imagine that some might hear the sound of spiritual pride and judgmentalism in that characterization of support for Proposition 209.
Among the millions of California voters there are no doubt some racists, but are a majority of Californians, including substantial numbers of blacks and Hispanics who voted for 209, fairly described as racists or as people desiring to maintain their own advantage against the poor and nonwhite? Does the bishop, who insists upon the importance of sensitivity and listening to others, really not know that many people of all races, ethnicities, and classes oppose quota systems because, inter alia, they believe they are demeaning to those whom they aim to help, are in conflict with the constituting principles of the American order, are inevitably incoherent and impossible to administer fairly, are unjust to disadvantaged Americans who do not qualify by virtue of their bloodline or skin color, and are a divisive distraction from policies that might better bring the marginal into the mainstream of opportunity and responsibility?
Certainly he must know that. And certainly he must know that the vicious misrepresentation of the views of others”as is also the case with racism”divides the human family and violates the fundamental dignity of those called to be children of the same Father. Bishop Fiorenza has been president of the NCCB for only a short time. His election indicates that most of his peers have confidence in him. His is an important voice, among several hundred others. We (that’s the editorial we) share the hope that that confidence will be vindicated as he learns to speak more carefully, accurately, and charitably of those with whom he”although not necessarily the we of the NCCB”is in disagreement. It is a matter of sensitivity and listening. Or, as used to be understood, a matter of simple honesty.
Evangelicals and Catholics to the South of Us
Latin America was very much on the minds of those who gathered here in New York in 1992 to initiate the project that became known as Evangelicals and Catholics Together. Nowhere in the world is the confrontation between evangelical Protestants and Roman Catholics so intense, and typically hostile, as in the countries of Central and South America, including the Caribbean. As discussed in my book Appointment in Rome , the ECT vision was vigorously proposed at the 1997 Synod for America convened by Pope John Paul II. Prior to the synod we in ECT had organized meetings with Latin American bishops both here and in Bogota, Colombia, which is the headquarters of the council of Latin American bishops conferences (CELAM). Every step of the way we had the strong encouragement and personal participation of Edward Cardinal Cassidy, president of the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity. To the great gratification of all concerned, the Pope’s apostolic exhortation, Ecclesia in America , which was issued last January and sums up the work of the synod, strongly endorsed the vision of Evangelicals and Catholics working together for the evangelization and reevangelization of Latin America.
The past year has witnessed unprecedented progress in advancing that vision. CELAM has established a working relationship with the various Protestant associations in Latin America, and they have together projected an ambitious program to advance reconciliation among Christians. One early result of this effort is A Message to the Churches, issued on May 14, 1999, from a meeting in Quito, Ecuador, of thirty Catholic and Pentecostal leaders (evangelicalism in Latin America tends to be strongly Pentecostal), plus ten representatives from what are called the historic churches (e.g., Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian). Herewith a few excerpts from the statement signed by participants from sixteen Latin American countries:
Here in the heart of the City of Quito, built upon a mountain (Matthew 45:14), we have lived, as on a new Tabor, the experience of the meeting with the transfigured Lord. His presence in our midst (Matthew 18:20) has caused the curtains (Matthew 27:51) and the walls of separation to fall, which for many years prevented us from recognizing one another as brothers and sisters in Christ.
Gathered together in one house, we have met face to face and we have placed in each and every heart and mind our story, our personal encounter with the Risen Lord and the power of the Holy Spirit who calls us day after day to a more evangelical and committed life. With great surprise, we have discovered the beauty of our distinct ecclesial traditions which have the same root in the one Lord (Ephesians 4:4-6), present and living, yesterday, today, and forever (Hebrews 13:8).
In a genuine climate of love and brotherhood, marked by frequent and intense moments of prayer, as was found in the first community in Jerusalem, our sorrows which are the result of a long history of prejudices, misunderstandings, mutual rejections, including experiences of aggression or mutual exclusion, have been brought to light. We have agreed furthermore that there are doctrinal differences which are not easy to overcome, but we are deeply convinced that we have to continue walking in search of unity in diversity.
We promise to search together for new and lasting roads of convergence, with the conviction that we have been called by Jesus Christ to interpret the Latin American kairos , and with the power of the Spirit to share in mission and to be faithful to the prayer of Jesus that all may be one so that the world might believe.
That language will sound conventional to many readers, but in the context of Latin America it is without precedent and utterly startling. The Quito declaration will almost certainly stir controversy, as ECT has also been controversial, notably among Evangelicals, in this country. There much more than here, evangelization has in the past meant evangelization against rather than with the other side of the Catholic/Protestant divide. Moreover, Quito is not a one-shot event. As is the case with ECT here, CELAM and the various Protestant groups involved have committed themselves to a long-term program that will address not only practical cooperation but also the outstanding doctrinal differences, underscoring that the unity we seek is not unity at the price of truth but unity in the truth. In terms of the Christian mission, there are few more heartening developments at the beginning of a new millennium.
Chesterton and the Thereness of It
I try not to read too much Chesterton, or at least not too much at one sitting. He has a way of insinuating himself into a writer’s manner, leading either to pretension or despair. To try to write like him makes one look silly, and knowing that you can’t write like him is very depressing. These thoughts are brought to mind by Joseph Pearce’s great big new biography, Wisdom and Innocence: A Life of G. K. Chesterton (Ignatius). Mr. Pearce is clearly in love with his subject, so there is nothing here aimed at deflating Chesterton’s reputation, which will no doubt disappoint bien pensant readers for whom a worthy biography must expose the unworthiness of the life examined. Biography as pathography is all the rage. The same critics might also complain that there is an inordinate amount of direct quotation of Chesterton, but I am inclined to the view that it is perfectly in order when it is Chesterton who is quoted”especially when much of the material is culled from private letters and other sources previously unpublished.
Pearce’s Chesterton is very much the Catholic Chesterton. And, as the title indicates, so is another recent biographical study by David W. Fagerberg, The Size of Chesterton’s Catholicism . Chesterton and C. S. Lewis are frequently compared as Christian apologists, and one meets people beyond numbering who were decisively influenced by these writers in their course of conversion. In the case of Chesterton, however, the conversion is, more often than not it seems, not just to Christianity but to the Catholic Church. The phrase just to Christianity, of course, puts one in mind of Lewis’ Mere Christianity . Alan Jacobs of Wheaton College has suggested (The Second Coming of C. S. Lewis, FT, November 1994) that there was a certain guile in the mereness of Lewis’ Christianity. Lewis combined the intellectual panache of Oxford and Cambridge with a one-size-fits-all Christianity that required no uncomfortably specific decisions about church, sacraments, and the sometimes embarrassing baggage of the Christian community through time, also known as tradition. I think there is considerable merit in Jacobs’ argument, and it has a great deal to do with why Lewis, unlike Chesterton, is so very popular with Protestants, and especially evangelical Protestants.
Chesterton exulted in the specific, the particular, the thus and soness and thereness of things. What others viewed as embarrassments of the Catholic tradition he embraced as an opportunity to demonstrate that something manifestly wrong was, upon closer examination, but the shadow side of something greatly right. From childhood on, it seems that Chesterton had a keen appreciation that almost everything could be perceived as being otherwise. That is to say, the way we perceive reality is not abstractly universal but dramatically contingent. The key thing is to see what is there. This understanding is at the heart of his Saint Thomas Aquinas: The Dumb Ox , a book that the distinguished Thomist, Etienne Gilson, called one of the greatest ever written on the Angelic Doctor. (I had long been familiar with Gilson’s praise of the book but thought it was in the nature of a courteous aside or maybe a book blurb. Pearce provides the full text of what Gilson said, and his praise of Chesterton’s treatment of Thomas obviously reflects his very considered judgment.)
To say that Chesterton’s reality was dramatically contingent is in no way to suggest that he would have any sympathy for the fashions of postmodernity in which reality is socially constructed. Quite the opposite is the case. For Chesterton, the truth was never in quotation marks. It was more like Dr. Johnson’s kicking the stone in response to Bishop Berkeley’s philosophical construction of reality. Although in Chesterton’s case it was a matter of being kicked by the stone, by the very thereness of things. From early on, he was aware of the seductive possibilities of being deceived by worlds of our own imaginative creation. Although it is not the point that Pearce is making, this is evident in a passage on Chesterton and homosexuality.
As a schoolboy, Chesterton encountered the usual homoerotic undercurrents, and was fascinated for a time by a fellow who played at being a diabolist. GKC later wrote, I have since heard that he died; it may be said, I think, that he committed suicide; though he did it with tools of pleasure, not with tools of pain. God help him, I know the road he went; but I have never known or even dared to think what was that place at which he stopped and [so I] refrained. We can play at being devils or the Devil’s playmates. It can even be exciting. But it is false and therefore it is deadly. Long before John Paul II and Vaclav Havel popularized the phrase, Chesterton’s was a passion to live in the truth. The phrase is but a riff on the words of Jesus, You will know the truth and the truth will make you free. The alternative to being free is to be dead. Chesterton was exuberantly free. And, he would quickly add, he was free because he was bound to be free, being bound by the truth.
The Master of Paradox
To speak of being bound to be free is to indulge a trope that, let it be admitted, Chesterton sometimes overindulged, his beloved paradox. It is no disrespect to note that frequently the Chestertonian paradox does not bear close logical examination, being more verbal sleight of hand than substance. On the other hand, a man standing on his head and waving his legs, which is Chesterton’s image for a paradox, doesn’t bear close logical examination either. The spectacle, if it means anything at all, is to point to something in the vicinity of the spectacle. But the paradoxical phrase bound to be free does stand up to the most rigorous examination, if it is understood that the binding is to the truth. For Chesterton, Christianity, by which he means Catholic Christianity, frees because it is, quite simply, the truth about everything.
Paradox, Chesterton insisted, does not obfuscate but illuminates. When praised for his mastery of the paradoxical trope, Chesterton responded that God, not he, is the master of paradox. His friend Maisie Ward explained it this way: What it amounted to was roughly this: paradox must be of the nature of things because of God’s infinity and the limitations of the world and of man’s mind. To us limited human beings God can express His idea only in fragments. We can bring together apparent contradictions in those fragments whereby a greater truth is suggested. If we do this in a sudden or incongruous manner we startle the unprepared and arouse the cry of paradox. But if we will not do it we shall miss a great deal of truth. Chesterton’s discovery was that Catholicism is large enough and various enough to accommodate all the paradoxical combinations by which the fullness of truth is revealed. The Church is, he said in a typically fetching formulation, the trysting place of all the truths in the world.
A trysting place is where lovers meet, and Chesterton’s was a lifelong affair with the truth that has entered into liaison with all the truths in the world. But to pull this off you have to actually live in the trysting place, which means to live in the truth, which means to live in Christ, which means to live in the Church that is the presence of Christ through time. The Church, he asserted, is ever so much larger from the inside than from the outside. To the modern mind and its notion of freedom, becoming a Catholic was to enter into an obedience that narrowed one’s horizons. Chesterton contended that precisely the opposite is the case. Obedience (from the Latin obedire ) means responsive listening, and the invitation of the Church is an invitation to the high road of freedom. How could there be anything confining about listening and responding to an invitation to dance with all the truths in the world? Obedience, for Chesterton, is not a matter of closing down one’s critical faculties but of putting them in proper order. Doctrine and dogma provide a framework for intellectual inquiry that is otherwise random, impulsive, and idiosyncratic. To become a Catholic, he wrote, is not to leave off thinking but to learn how to think.
David Fagerberg treats insightfully the ways in which those who resist entering into the trysting place of Christ and his Church often seem to be fearful of a closed and confining space. One might say they are claustrophobic. Fagerberg agrees with Chesterton, however, in suggesting that the more common phenomenon is that people resist because they are agoraphobic. They are afraid of the wide-open public spaces that freedom calls home. The Catholic Church does not so much provide a refuge and resting place as it launches one into all the worlds”spiritual, mystical, intellectual, historical”that are engaged by all the truths in the world. Faith as adventure is at the heart of Chesterton’s exuberance. Chesterton surely understood that there is a wideness in God’s mercy, but his characteristic accent was on the wildness in God’s mercy. If you are living in the truth, you can with defiant, almost swashbuckling, confidence take on all comers. James Joyce, not the most orthodox of Catholics, said the Catholic Church is Here Comes Everybody. I don’t know if Chesterton ever commented on that way of putting it, but my hunch is that he would have rather liked it. A church that is not marked by paradox, that trims history and the excesses of life and thought to fit its preferences”in short, a church that is not wild”could not be the trysting place of all the truths in the world.
The Chief Idea
Even as a boy, Chesterton says, he had this intuition that any theory or attitude that deadened the experienced wildness of things must, to that extent, be false. I had a strong inward impulse to revolt . . . . But as I was still thinking the thing out by myself, with little help from philosophy and no real help from religion, I invented a rudimentary and makeshift mystical theory of my own. It was substantially this: that even mere existence, reduced to its most primary limits, was extraordinary enough to be exciting. Anything was magnificent as compared with nothing. Even if the very daylight were a dream, it was a day-dream; it was not a nightmare.
That was Chesterton the schoolboy. As an old man, shortly before he died in 1936, he wrote about what I hope is not pompous to call the chief idea of my life. I will not say the doctrine I have always taught, but the doctrine I should always have liked to teach. That is the idea of taking things with gratitude, and not taking things for granted. Perhaps it is more a sensibility than a doctrine, but anyone who has read much Chesterton knows he taught it, and continues to teach it, with powerful effect. A life lived well is a life lived in response to grace, and from gratitude flows the wildness of wonder enough for an eternity.
He was impatient with the prissy, the proper, the excessively neat. Which no doubt explains in part his affinity for Hilaire Belloc. Pearce tells the delightful story of novelist Henry James paying a visit to GKC, which is interrupted by the arrival of Hilaire Belloc, just back from tramping through Europe and in a typically raucous mood: Henry James had a name for being subtle; but I think that situation was too subtle for him. I doubt to this day whether he, of all men, did not miss the irony of the best comedy in which he ever played a part. He left America because he loved Europe, and all that was meant by England or France; the gentry, the gallantry, the tradition of lineage and locality, the life that had been lived beneath old portraits in oak-paneled rooms. And there, on the other side of the tea-table, was Europe, was the old thing that made France and England, the posterity of the English squires and the French soldiers; ragged, unshaven, shouting for beer, shameless above all shades of poverty and wealth; sprawling, indifferent, secure. And what looked across at it was still the Puritan refinement of Boston; and the space it looked across was wider than the Atlantic.
Chesterton and George Bernard Shaw were regular and friendly sparring partners in diverse forums, and one encounter produced this from Chesterton: Shaw’s misunderstanding of Shakespeare arose largely from the fact that he is a Puritan, while Shakespeare was spiritually a Catholic. The former is always screwing himself up to see the truth; the latter is often content that truth is there. Chesterton was much impressed by the thereness of things, and it had everything to do with his becoming a Catholic. Before his conversion, he wrote to an Anglican friend: As you may possibly guess, I want to consider my position about the biggest thing of all, whether I am to be inside it or outside it. I used to think one could be an Anglo-Catholic and really inside it; but if that was (to use an excellent phrase of your own) only a Porch, I do not think I want a Porch, and certainly not a Porch standing some way from the building. A Porch looks so silly, standing all by itself in a field.
Later, he would write his mother to explain his conversion: I have thought about you, and all that I owe to you and my father, not only in the way of affection, but of the ideals of honor and freedom and charity and all other good things you always taught me: and I am not conscious of the smallest break or difference in those ideals; but only of a new and necessary way of fighting for them. I think . . . that the fight for the family and the free citizen and everything decent must now be waged by the one fighting form of Christianity. Immediately after Chesterton’s reception into the Church, Belloc wrote him about his own reasons for being Catholic. The words of Belloc are, in tone and substance, surely Chestertonian: And as to the doubt of the soul, I discover it to be false: a mood, not a conclusion. My conclusion-and that of all men who have ever once seen it”is the faith. Corporate, organized, a personality, teaching. A thing, not a theory. It.
A Good Argument
Today such sentiments might grate against ecumenical sensibilities. As a faithful son of the Church, Chesterton, and I suppose Belloc, would have gone along with the development of doctrine at the Second Vatican Council which recognizes that, while the Catholic Church is the Church of Jesus Christ most fully and rightly ordered through time, there are many beyond its boundaries who are, whether they know it or not, truly but imperfectly in communion with the Catholic Church. At the same time, I expect he would be impatient with styles of ecumenism that are reduced to niceness and take the edge off the one fighting form of Christianity. Not that Chesterton was a quarrelsome person. On the contrary, all testify to his civility and affability in the many disputes he relished. The trouble with a quarrel, he said, is that it interrupts a good argument.
A good argument must be about truth, and ecumenism that is more about negotiating differences than about discovering the truth is not very interesting. I have no doubt that Chesterton would agree with Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, who writes that our disputing ancestors were in reality much closer to each other when in all their disputes they still knew that they could only be servants of one truth which must be acknowledged as being as great and as pure as it has been intended for us by God. Also, the alternatives to Catholicism that Chesterton knew were the Church of England and the Methodist chapel, anodyne forms of the faith unsuited to his spirited mind and soul. Were he an American, he might have found his fighting form of the faith in, say, the Southern Baptist Convention or Missouri Synod Lutheranism. But there the fights are about such a small and selective part of all the truths in the world. So still today it would likely be the case that Chesterton could settle for nothing less than the capacious trysting place and company of combat that is the Catholic Church.
While he said that tradition is the democracy of the dead, he did not have any use for democratic governance in the Church. The Church is about truth, and truth is necessarily hierarchical. It is a very different matter in the civil realm. There Chesterton was a great democrat, but he didn’t think much of the way democracy worked in aristocracy-ridden England. The problem, he said, is that, while the people get to vote, they don’t get to pose the questions to be voted on. If things continue as they are, There will be less democratic value in an English election than in a Roman saturnalia of slaves. For the powerful class will choose two courses of action, both of them safe for itself, and then give the democracy the gratification of taking one course or the other. The lord will take two things so much alike that he would not mind choosing them blindfold”and then for a great jest he will allow the slaves to choose.
As the chief voice of the Distributist League, GKC advocated, with wavering energies throughout his life, an alternative to both capitalism and socialism. He understood himself to be in line with Catholic social teaching, specifically the teaching of Leo XIII in Rerum Novarum , and tried to be definite about the kind of capitalism that must be opposed. When I say Capitalism,’ I commonly mean something that may be stated thus: That economic condition in which there is a class of capitalists, roughly recognizable and relatively small, in whose possession so much of the capital is concentrated as to necessitate a very large majority of the citizens serving those capitalists for a wage.’ He recognized that capitalism can mean many different things. Lenin and Trotsky believe as much as Lloyd George and Thomas Aquinas that the economic operations of today must leave something over for the economic operations of tomorrow. And that is all that capital means in its economic sense. In that case, the word is useless. My use of it may be arbitrary, but it is not useless.
The ideas of economic distributism were never thoroughly developed, and perhaps could not be. But he relentlessly insisted that there had to be a better way in which ordinary people could take charge of their life and property, or, in the language of contemporary Catholic social teaching, be the artisans of their own destiny. The impulse of distributism, one might suggest, is to work out more fully the economic implications of the doctrine of subsidiarity-or as the 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus puts it, the subjectivity of society. Today’s admirers of Chesterton who are also proponents of democratic capitalism tend to forgive him his economic views. In fact, those views may not be so distant as many think from what is rightly affirmed in today’s capitalism, which is notably distant from what Chesterton meant by the term.
No League of Tribes
Another and more serious obstacle to the appreciation of Chesterton is his alleged anti-Semitism. Joseph Pearce’s forthright treatment of that charge should put it to rest once and for all. Chesterton shared conventional English prejudices about Jewish influence, prejudices which today would be called anti-Semitic. This was exacerbated early on in life when a Jewish financier brought a lawsuit that entangled his family and friends in considerable unpleasantness. But, as a prominent rabbi wrote upon Chesterton’s death, When Hitlerism came, he was one of the first to speak out with all the directness and frankness of a great and unabashed spirit. Blessing to his memory!
Long before anyone could know the unspeakable horror to which it would lead, GKC was appalled by the barbarism of the Nazis, and particularly by their anti-Semitism. In 1933 he wrote that a measure of nationalism, understood as patriotism, can be a good thing. But the racial spirit is a restless spirit; it does not go by frontiers but by the wandering of the blood . . . . You can have a League of Nations; but you could hardly have a League of Tribes. When the Tribe is on the march, it is apt to forget leagues”not to mention frontiers. He was among the first to perceive the connections between racial theory, eugenics, anti-Semitism, and the tribal impulse toward Lebensraum . He did not live to see his perception confirmed by World War II and the Holocaust.
Today it is often forgotten how very respectable were eugenics and related racial theories at the beginning of the century. In 1913, Chesterton vigorously attacked the Mental Deficiency Act, which had the strong support of the Church of England. The public committee advocating its passage was headed by the archbishops of Canterbury and York. Bishop Barnes of Birmingham was a spokesman on behalf of the Christian case for eugenics, and he proposed: Christianity seeks to create the Kingdom of God, the community of the elect. It tries to make what we may call a spiritually eugenic society . . . . When religious people realize that, in preventing the survival of the socially unfit, they are working in accordance with the plan by which God has brought humanity so far on its road, their objections to repressive action will vanish. Chesterton recoiled with all his being from the notion of a eugenic society, spiritual or otherwise.
On these questions, too, his Catholic spirit was brought to bear. He reveled in the messiness of Catholicism. A significant difference between the Protestant and Catholic ways of being Christian, he suggested, is indicated by the fact that the Protestant generally says, I am a good Protestant,’ while the Catholic always says, I am a bad Catholic.’ Near the end of his life, he responded to a letter writer who brought a long list of charges against the Catholic Church, including its tolerance of a vast horde of criminals, prostitutes, and other disreputable types who hang on to its fringes. True enough, says Chesterton, and an interesting fact it is. They cannot get the Church’s Sacraments or solid assurances, except by changing their whole way of life; but they do actually love the Faith that they cannot live by . . . . If you explain it by supposing that the Church, though bound to refuse them Absolution where there is not amendment, keeps in touch with them and treats their human dignity rather more sympathetically than does the world, Puritan or Pagan . . . that also probably refers to a real fact. It is one of the facts that convince me most strongly that Catholicism is what it claims to be. After two thousand years of compromises and concordats, with every sort of social system, the Catholic Church has never yet become quite respectable. He still eats and drinks with publicans and sinners.
David Fagerberg and I were both Lutherans who later entered into full communion with the Catholic Church. Unlike Fagerberg, I was not conscious of Chesterton being a major influence in that decision, but perhaps he was by my side on the journey more than I realized. Certainly I look forward to good conversation with him in that inn at the end of the road, over a steak, a pint of ale, and a fine cigar. But, for the purposes of this preliminary reflection, let me leave it to Mr. Fagerberg: Chesterton said saints are medicines because they are antidotes, claiming the saint restores the world to sanity by exaggerating what the world neglects. Chesterton was this author’s antidote: the one who exaggerated things which had been neglected . . . . He can feel like a walking overstatement to someone who does not need the elixir, but to someone who does, he is an exact dosage. I have not written this for the purpose that it necessarily have the same effect on anyone else, only to repay my own debt by honoring a friend. Chesterton is a very good friend to have in the communion of sinners made saints.
Proposing Democracy Anew”Part Two
Last month I discussed what I called the first proposition in rethinking and renewing democracy for the century ahead: The sovereignty of the democratic state is answerable to a higher sovereignty . A second proposition is this: In a democratic society, we live under several, and sometimes conflicting, sovereignties. In a democratic society there is an ongoing debate over the truths about the human person and human community on which democracy rests. These include the self-evident truths alluded to in the Declaration of Independence, truths about persons created equal and endowed by God with certain inalienable rights. The rich Christologically-based anthropology contained in, for instance, the 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus can make an invaluable contribution in fleshing out and giving a more secure foundation to the constituting truths of the democratic order. That anthropology is not just for the domestic consumption of Christians. As with all Christian truth, it is genuinely public in character, and we must work at communicating it in ways not confined to the sphere marked religion. In the century ahead, that is an imperative task for those who have confidently internalized the teaching of the Church.
Abraham Kuyper, an early-twentieth-century Dutch Calvinist theologian and politician, wrote insightfully about spheres of sovereignty. Closely connected to certain understandings of natural law, the concept of spheres of sovereignty derives from an awareness that there is inherent in the nature of human beings and societies certain functions that have their own integrity, and that integrity”or sovereignty”must be respected. Thus, for example, family, economic life, politics, and of course the life of faith have their own spheres, and the course of justice is to coordinate these spheres in the service of the common good. As a good Calvinist, Kuyper insisted that what is true of nature is reinforced also by the mandates of revelation. Also as a good Calvinist, he had a keen appreciation of the catastrophe of the world’s fall into sin, and the consequences of that for what we call nature. One consequence is that spheres intended to be coordinated are all too often in conflict with one another. Although it seems that John Paul II never read Abraham Kuyper, there is a striking similarity”allowing for Calvinist and Catholic differences