Saturday, January 27, 2007
Edward T. Oakes, S.J.: Reason and Pop Atheism
St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274)
Monday, January 22nd 2007, 10:56 AM
On The Square
The publishing world, it seems, is just as prone to the fickleness of trends and fashions as is, well, the fashion industry. A few years ago, a whole spate of books came out on Pope Pius XII and the Holocaust, most of them flogging (surely not by coincidence) the same dead horse of papal perfidy. More recently, several books arguing for atheism have cropped up on the bestseller lists. I’ve looked at a few, and none of them struck me as even trying to get beyond that old dorm-room chestnut: “If God made the universe, who made God?” Gosh, thanks for bringing that up, Professor Bright. I had never really thought of that before—and now, horribile dictu, I’ve lost my faith!
Needless to say, our recent atheists, without exception, have to drag Darwin into the business. But—also without exception—they end up taking the implications of Darwinian biology so far that their arguments become self-consuming. I am thinking especially of the notion that cultural ideas are only “memes,” that is, self-replicating trends that catch on and take over a culture the way viruses do in the human body. One favorite example would be teenagers who wear baseball caps backwards: An impish adolescent somewhere gets the idea to wear his cap backwards, and soon every boy in the land is following suit.
The next step then is to claim that religion, too, is a meme, and a mighty destructive one at that, the Ebola virus of human civilization. The trouble is, if all ideas are but memes, then so is natural selection, whose cultural influence has its own bloody history to account for. On that, I recommend the reader get a hold of Richard Weikart’s From Darwin to Hitler: Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics, and Racism in Germany, which carefully traces Darwin’s influence on a host of prominent intellectuals in Germany from 1860 to 1939, a genealogy of “memetic contagion” that made Nazi ideology so plausible to so many. (For a fuller review of this truly brilliant book, see my article “Darwin’s Graveyards” in the December 2006 issue of Books & Culture.”)
Tedious and self-consuming as these arguments are, their popularity—if one is to judge by the bestseller lists—did get me to thinking about atheism as a cultural phenomenon. As I always ask my class when I teach contemporary theology: If God exists, why are there atheists? Or rather, and to put more strongly: Since God exists, what makes atheism conceptually possible?
I let my students crack their noggins on that question for a while to prepare them to take up one of the texts in the course, The Discovery of God by the renowned French Jesuit Henri de Lubac, which deals directly with this issue of atheism as made possible by God.
Part of the problem is psychological: even the most knock-down arguments in mathematics fade in the brain after a while, like sand castles on the beach. For example, I would never presume to raise objections against Euclid’s plane geometry, but I’d be hard pressed to reproduce what I learned in sophomore high-school geometry after all these years.
But the problem goes much deeper than the vagaries of human memory. St. Anselm thought he had his own knock-down argument for the existence of God, which later went by the name of the Ontological Argument (which Thomas Aquinas held to be invalid). But however much Anselm was convinced of the argument, he never went so far as to place moral blame on those who rejected it, because for him there was a deeper reality behind the phenomenon of atheism. As he said in the Proslogion (the best translation is here:
Why this, O Lord, why this? Is the eye darkened by its own weakness, or blinded by your light?—Without doubt it is darkened in itself and blinded by you, obscured by its own littleness and overwhelmed by your immensity, contracted by its own narrowness and overcome by your greatness.
As I presume most people reading this site know, the First Vatican Council declared de fide that the existence of God can be proved by reason. At first glance, this seems paradoxical. For if God can be proved through rational demonstration, one would expect the council to adduce this marvelous proof and let it be judged on its own merits. And because of de Lubac’s critique of the “manual Thomism” of the Roman universities in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries (which placed heavy emphasis on rational proofs for God’s existence), one might also think that de Lubac would dismiss the sterile rationalism that some theologians claim lurks behind Vatican I.
But that is not his position at all. De Lubac quite openly asserts that “behind the apparent variations, the skeleton of the proof always remains the same. The proof is solid and eternal, as hard as steel. It is something more than one of reason’s inventions: it is reason itself.”
What happens then is that, once this proof is formulated in words, the learned make adaptations and modifications as they encounter objections. But these modifications are for de Lubac in no way part of the incontrovertible proof that he holds to be the common patrimony of mankind: the use of reason itself. Hence de Lubac’s confident conclusion:
All the objections brought against the various proofs for the existence of God are in vain; criticism can never invalidate them, for it can never get its teeth into the principle common to them all. On the contrary, that principle emerges more clearly as the elements with which the proofs are constructed are rearranged. . . . It forms part of the substance of the mind. It is not a path which the mind can be discouraged from pursuing to the end, or one from which it can turn away, afraid of having taken the wrong road. Path and mind are merged together. The mind itself is a moving path.
At first glance, de Lubac might seem to be elevating the place of reason here to such a height that he ends up conceding reason’s right to judge the things of God—the very procedure he found so objectionable in Descartes and Kant. That, however, is not his intent, which is why he so stresses the dynamism of reason. Augustine defined sin as “the heart turned in on itself,” the corollary of which for de Lubac would be: The Enlightenment (at least in its French and German versions) is reason turned in on itself.
What has always struck readers of the Continental Rationalists from Descartes to Kant is how all these Rationalists divide reason from desire (usually called by them, tellingly, the passions, meaning feelings that overwhelm us rather than longings that express our inmost nature). De Lubac, on the contrary, sees reason and desire as parts of the same whole, subsumed under the wider image of “heart,” encompassing them both. And because desire is inherently outward in its aim, thereby testifying to a deficiency in the self, the same holds true of reason. Precisely because we never start off in possession of the truth, we must go out in search of it, always desiring it on the way. And that dynamism aims, however unawares, at God. This is why Thomas Aquinas can say in De veritate: “All knowing beings implicitly know God in everything they know.”
In other words, what all proofs are really reaching for is this common fund of inchoate awareness of the necessity of God already present whenever reason exercises its rational faculties. In one of his many footnotes, de Lubac quotes Maurice Blondel, who makes just this point: Proofs for the existence of God, Blondel says, “are not so much an invention as an inventory, not so much a revelation as an elucidation, a purification and a justification of the fundamental beliefs of humanity.”
That said, de Lubac refuses to countenance faulty reasoning just because an invalid argument is aiming for the same conclusion as do valid proofs. Believers’ faith might well be strong enough to slough off bad arguments for God’s existence, but that should be no excuse for sloth in reasoning: “Where belief in God is concerned, I cannot rest content with a doubtful argument, and an inconclusive proof is as repugnant to my moral sense as it is offensive to my intelligence.” And further: “Even in the most essential matters a sinner may reason better than a saint.” Rigor in reasoning is no sin; rightly realized, it testifies to faith’s underlying rationality.
But even in cases where, say, a Thomas Aquinas trumps a David Hume in the field of argument, the believer feels vaguely dissatisfied:
Why is it that the mind which has found God still retains, or constantly reverts to, the feeling of not having found him? … The temptation is to succumb to this scandal and to despair in proportion as one has formerly thought to have found him: a temptation to deny the light because the veil becomes opaque once again…. The temptation in this case is to underestimate the obstacles, to imagine that serenity is easily acquired, and to confuse the faint clarity of being with the divine light.
Just think what would happen, de Lubac asks, if rational proofs really did lead to certainty: Then we would mistake the proof for God; and, in the manner of the French “enlightened” philosophes, we would in effect end up building a temple, not to God, but to reason. But that is the very definition of reason’s sin, turning inward. We would then make reason the object of our worship, rather than God. (In the midst of the maelstrom of the French Revolution, some Jacobins actually built a “Temple to Reason.”)
But when we turn to God via our rational faculties, we simultaneously recognize both the underlying rationality of our faith in God and yet also reason’s insufficiency to grant us what we really long for: light itself in a dark world. That light, however, only comes from God, not reason. We are pilgrims, and reason is our viaticum —but it is only viaticum. The nourishment this food for the journey provides is salubrious (when the reasoning is correct), but it is not life itself, only the provisions for life, which only God can provide.
Edward T. Oakes, S.J., teaches theology at the University of St. Mary of the Lake.