With the arrogance of youth, I determined to do no less than to transform the world with Beauty. If I have succeeded in some small way, if only in one small corner of the world, amongst the men and women I love, then I shall count myself blessed, and blessed, and blessed, and the work goes on. -- William Morris

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

The Beauty of Catholic Certainty Part I

Thomas Aquinas held that faith is the most certain of all forms of knowledge, even more certain than the first principle of human reason (e.g., De Veritate q.14, a.1, ad.7, Scriptum super libros sententiarum q.1, a.3, qc.3, ad.1). There are two avenues upon which we can illuminate the beauty of such a claim. The first avenue concerns the notion of faith, while the second concerns the notion of certainty.

Faith is a term that, like beauty (cf. Beauty’s Long Road to Calvary on this blog), has suffered at the hands of modern thought, overly driven as it was with concern for human knowing at the neglect of human ‘being’. Again, for the sake of balance, we must admit that Descartes, and Kant especially, bequeath to us a legacy of insightful analysis and synthesis focusing upon the nature of human thought and understanding. However, it is no great secret that their influence tilted things too much in the direction of the mind, and as that splendid philosopher Etienne Gilson remarked, “once you start philosophizing in the mind, you can never get out” (“Vade Mecum of a Young Realist,” Philosophy of Knowledge, Roland Hande and Joseph P. Mullally, (eds.) (Chicago: J.B. Lippenott co., 1960).

This may be why it is so very difficult for the person of today to conceive the nature of faith in any terms other than ‘what I myself believe.’ This not only reduces faith to mere subjective assent, but it goes further insofar as it de facto neglects those ‘objective’ propositions that are necessary for any assent: all assent is a willful commitment to truths, or Truth, that precedes and exceeds the individual mind. There can be no purely subjective assent because there can be purely subjectively conceived notions (a truth that was, with a certain irony, especially illuminated by none other than Kant himself).

Oddly, though, many today are quick to claim that there is no need for assent when it comes to the truths involved in the natural sciences. With a dogmatic mindset arguably more intense than anytime in history, many people today seem to affirm, with a virtual religious faith, that science provides the highest truths, and as such is the most certain kind of knowledge. This affirmation is so prevalent that it is identified with the assurance of a self-evident proposition free of any need for critical examination: ‘this is science,’ the claim can be overheard, ‘how can we possibly refute this?’

Here we can detect a first point. To the extent that the reception of all knowledge involves assent to principles beyond that knowledge itself, it requires an element of trust and belief, elements more associate with the notion of faith. Now, lest we be accused of committing fideism, we should briefly remark that the degree of trust is primarily determined by the kind of object that beckons our knowledge of it. Aquinas, following Aristotle, maintained that there are exhaustively three categories of objects, which then generated the three exhaustive categories of the sciences: natural philosophy (what today is called 'natural science') investigates objects that require sensible matter both to exist and to be understood (e.g. a tree); mathematics investigates objects that require sensible matter to exist, but not to be understood (e.g., a number); and metaphysics investigates objects that never require sensible matter, though matter may sometimes be involved (e.g., potency).

But both Aquinas and Aristotle also held that no science could be the source of its own principles (truths which guide its inner logic), and therefore must borrow from higher sciences. This fact points to an always present element of uncertainty whenever knowledge is driven by its natural curiosity to know the end and cause of things. Of course, the degree of uncertainty is minimized when this natural curiosity is eliminated, as when a scientist, for example, is content merely to discover the parts of a cell, and ceases to wonder how they emerged or why they are thus. But as a multitude of examples demonstrate, this elimination of uncertainty leads to a rationalism that elevates reason to a divine status. And so to avoid either rationalism or fideism we must declare, in union with Church teaching, that reason and faith constitute a harmony of human knowing. But we can also add that because the principles of the faith come from a source not stained with original sin, they are superior to our faculty of reason, which is everywhere burdened by the weight of original sin. (The skeptic could certainly prod: how could you possibly have certainty that faith comes from such a source? But this question, because it is asked within a context that already assumes the superiority of reason, is itself undermined by its own skeptical assumptions: the skeptic wants a rationally certain proof for all truth claims, but fails to see that he himself is incapable of granting rational certainty to human reason – it must be always assumed.)

Once we can get past the assumption, widespread as it is erroneous, that faith is merely subjective belief, we can begin to see how faith, in the Catholic tradition, has been understood as ‘that which is proposed for assent.’ This objective pole can only be legitimated as certain when it acts in harmony with the subjective dimension: the principles of the faith (objective) draw the assent of the believer (subjective) in the always-arriving harmony of the Church, which consists of the entire community extended over time constituting a living narrative. It is this narrative logic, or perhaps we might say narrative logos, where the notion of certainty finds greatest illumination.

Like faith, certainty is a concept that today suffers from the tyranny of the mind. Modern thought won a number of benefits for humanity, but it also generated a deep suspicion and fear of all things mysterious and unknown. In the face of such fear, it is hastily assumed that one must find a rational foundation of certainty in order for any belief system to prove worthy of our assent. This would explain why so many turn to science, even though it comes with the high price of denying those realities that do not fall under its purview (what we Catholics in the creed refer to as the “things unseen” cf. also Rom 1: 20).

Still others have opted for a mathematical sort of logic believed capable of refuting anything that contradicts the first principles of reason (e.g., the principle of non-contradiction, the principle of identity etc.). This option, itself not without plausibility, has tended to move its proponents in a very defensive and largely reactionary direction. The result is that its potential for light is tragically eclipsed by shadows of suspicion: suspicion of subjectivity, suspicion of the role of the subject, and especially suspicion of anything even slightly connected to the notion of relativity. This further tends toward a reduction of all things religious and theological to moral propositions, where anything even remotely relative is burned like a Salem witch, judged as it is by the solid certainty of the first principles of human reason. But where does that leave us when we read the words of Aquinas, for whom faith is more certain than even these?

Many label the current era with the (highly overused and hardly understood ) term ‘postmodernity’. As a reaction to the tenets born from modern thought, tenets that can be described as the will to solid foundations and the espousal of the universal over and against the particular, its hallmark claim is that all absolute claims to truth are merely disguised wills-to-power because no one can legitimately claim a privileged position on truth. A simplistic way out of this would be to point out the obvious logical inconsistency: how is this postmodern claim itself not guilty of the very criticism it levels? This kind of rebuttal only returns us to the mathematical certainty provided by the principles of logic. And a simple glance at the western world reveals that this kind of certainty, rather than stimulating attraction to the faith, seems to turn people into disciples of the almighty microscope.

In our next post, we will suggest how an aesthetic logic, energized by the beauty of the faith given in and through Christ, is capable of illuminating the certainty of the Catholic faith beyond the mathematical certainty that many faithful Catholics too easily adopt. To be sure, this is not a declaration that apologetics and solid logical thinking are to be eschewed. It is, rather, to reinvigorate a sense of logic that once, in premodern eras, lived inside beauty, and served an apologetics of redemption that hearkens back to the dawning of the Church: defense of the faith was not about being right, but about illuminating its beauty, even if it led to death, in order to extend the attraction of the Lord to those who have not yet fallen in love with him.

Labels: ,


  • At 8/24/2006 2:41 PM, Blogger Henry Karlson said…

    Brendan, I look forward to the second part of your work, and want to read the whole before I make many comments.

    Truly, the scientism of the modern world is dead, but, our culture still lives in its wake. Most people seem to follow its fruits.

    I find it interesting that many of the changes that have occured in post-modern thought allow for a re-examination of the Christian faith, but too few follow up with it. C.S. Lewis once wrote that a belief once abandoned should not be seen as false unless it had certainly been proven to be false. Post-modernity seems to have forgotten this when it comes to religious faith: it believes modernity's abandonment of the faith is enough to denounce it. What they come up in return is uncertain subjetivism with no root to hold onto. Nothing is certain -- even mathematical certainty has died, with the declaration that mathematics is but a human enterprise based upon human constructs.

  • At 9/05/2006 5:56 AM, Blogger Henry Karlson said…


    Are you almost finished with Part II? I am eagerly awaiting your post!

  • At 9/07/2006 12:03 PM, Blogger Brendan Sammon said…


    Part II of this topic harbored some prerequisites that I just now posted.
    Thus, part II will be next!


Post a Comment

<< Home