In his Spirit of Mediaeval Philosophy, Etienne Gilson considers how medieval Catholic philosophers would have regarded “an exercise of reason that would be purely philosophical and systematically withdrawn from the influence of faith.” According to Gilson, they would have said that it was technically possible, but pointless. Why?
The Christian revelation, he writes, had “profoundly modified the conditions under which reason has to work.” Once in possession of that revelation, how can you possibly philosophize as though you had never heard of it? The only proper response, he says, was to take Christian revelation as one’s intellectual guide. The task of philosophy then became to unfold the contents of revelation in the classic posture of fides quaerens intellectum.
Though Gilson wrote of revelation in a Judeo-Christian context, his point still resonates on secular ground. Even among those who declare no connection with God, reason operates under what amounts to a kind of revelation. These skeptics don’t conceive of revelation in the same way that I do as a Catholic, but for many, the ultimate source of an epistemological “guide” does not matter: Certain perceived facts, or certain foundational positions, hold the same thetical value for them as the Bible does for many Christians. For these men and women, as for the medievals, it might be technically possible to reason “outside” these givens, but why would they? To ask them to reason as if those givens were not true would be akin to asking a Christian to reason apart from the Incarnation. It just doesn’t make any sense.
A few examples will make this clear. Many people (such as my students) believe it impossible to declare anything knowable unless discovered using the scientific method. This group doubts that one religion can be truer than another or that one ethical system is superior to another. Unempirical claims are rejected out of hand. The idea, for instance, that God could enter the world through a human mother, and then die and resurrect, is predetermined to be impossible, a predetermination that precludes further (reasonable) considerations that might suggest otherwise.
However, even their instinctive skepticism is less extreme than the more developed anti-theism of scientists like Richard Dawkins or Lawrence Krauss, the latter of whom recently said, “God is just an invention of lazy minds.” However reasonless that statement is, the effect is the same as that of Christian dogma: in Krauss’ sermonizing about the awesomeness of nothingness, his belief serves the same normative role as does the empty tomb.
What we see, then, is not a neat division between those who believe in some kind of revelation and those who do not. Rather, even the unbeliever takes certain facts or perceived truths as his guide. Reason cannot be used in a vacuum free of suppositions, even if those suppositions linger unacknowledged. Without diminishing the uniqueness of Judeo-Christianity or disputing Gilson’s point, functionally we are left with competing revelations.
As history shows, competing revelations rarely get along. This rockiness results, in part, from the nature of what it means to imbue a particular idea with such authority. For me to be a Catholic, for example, means that I hold certain beliefs about God’s self-disclosure in Jesus Christ and the Church. These are not the kind of beliefs that can be constantly revisited; at some point, they have to be taken as true, as cornerstones for whatever I say, think, and do.
But then I have set myself up for a clash, because I will encounter people like Krauss, who will hold, also with the gravity of revelation, that belief in God is ludicrous. This is not to say that both opinions are equally valid; not at all. But his belief will not be something that he continues to revisit; rather, it will be (to borrow from Charles Taylor) one of the “taken-for-granteds” upon which he builds his life.
There may be instances, of course, where we agree to bracket our beliefs and unpack presuppositions. The Catholic intellectual tradition has done this most impressively, ensuring, as John Paul II wrote in his encyclical Fides et Ratio (1998), that “divine Truth ‘proposed to us in the Sacred Scriptures and rightly interpreted by the Church’s teaching’ enjoys an innate intelligibility, so logically consistent that it stands as an authentic body of knowledge.” But this willingness can only take us so far: in reason’s efforts to show the coherence of faith, it cannot dissolve the nature and meaning of faith altogether. It cannot, in a spirit of compromise, give up God.
Eventually, we reach the limits of dialogue. No matter how many sound reasons I propose for believing in a creator, there will always be someone who deems my position indefensible. There will always be someone who won’t even get to my reasons, presuming the whole project to be rotten. For every John Polkinghorne, there will always be a Lawrence Krauss. For every Francis Collins, there will always be a Richard Dawkins.
And yet in this realization there is something liberating. In confronting the limits of dialogue, we confront the limits of man, the limits of a being who comes from dust. It invites us to make way for grace. Our clash of revelations reminds us that metanoia, the conversion of mind and heart to which Christ calls us (Mark 1:15), is not a human achievement, but God’s alone.
We do not, in the meantime, stand idle. Without renouncing our intellectual tradition, we remember that discipleship is not measured in the success of our arguments. The world is not a jury. The measure of our response to the empty tomb is perhaps best indicated by a picture that circulated throughout the internet after Pope Francis’s election. It is a picture of him, then a cardinal, washing the feet of a patient with AIDS. It brought me to silence: that photo alone was a new kind of introduction to Christianity, a reminder that all our reading and writing amount to nothing if we don’t go and do likewise.
Matt Emerson’s essays have appeared in America, Commonweal, First Things, and on Patheos. He directs admissions and teaches theology at Xavier College Preparatory in Palm Desert, California. He writes at www.ignatianeducator.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.