Believe, That You May Understand

Few would argue with the claim that modernity has not been kind to the Western Christian Church. But, the Church would claim, it’s not their fault. It, the Church professes, is right; it has the truth. Everyone else is wrong, or at least misguided by the allure of “scientific rationalism”. Perhaps they have a point, but most would be pretty skeptical about it. That’s just the problem, claims the Church: skepticism, doubt, leading to disbelief.
A recent article, “Believe, That You May Understand”, written by the Most Reverend Charles J. Chaput, archbishop of Philadelphia, in recognition of the twentieth anniversary of Pope John Paul II’s 1998 encyclical Fides et Ratio (“Faith and Reason”) is in this contention. Archbishop Chaput chides the materialistic, individual autonomy, tolerance, and bemoans the absence of the intellectual and moral discipline that a community shaped by the classical virtues instills. I read “classical virtues” to mean Church teaching.
Fides et Ratio offers a remedy to this perverse individualism and the breakdown of common sense that precedes it, according to the archbishop. Well, possibly. But only if you accept the Church’s definition of terms and its approach to knowing “truth”: “Human beings are more fruitful and authentic in their relationships and inner lives when they know they’re bound by a truth beyond themselves. Fides et Ratio describes the connection between truth and human freedom. Knowing what’s true makes us free to be ourselves, to live for what’s real, and to appreciate the dignity of others. True knowledge of persons leads to an expansion of human love.
Human reason is naturally oriented toward exploring life’s deepest realities. We search for what is ultimate. We want to find the real origin of things. We ask why. This search, according to the Church, leads us to the question of God. Wherever men and women discover a call to the absolute and transcendent, the metaphysical dimension of reality opens up before them; in truth, in beauty, in moral values, in other persons, in being itself, in God. But, says the archbishop, our modern rationality too often adopts a crippling kind of skepticism that imprisons us within the world of politics, economics, and technology.”
I’m sure the archbishop is correct, from the Church’s vista. His one perversion here seems the result and impact of the skepticism that he contends imprisons “us”. Many, if not most, would agree the skepticism is clearly real. But if looked at closely, again by most, it primarily imprisons the Church, or at least challenges it. The skepticism may be largely a product of modern culture, emphatic upon issues political, economic and technological, as opposed to the traditionally religious, but any question of why on the part of “us” seems unfair. The skepticism is there because of the Church’s seeming inability to compete successfully—even modestly so—with modernity (scientific rationalism) for the hearts and minds of modern Western people. That’s the simple if unfortunate fact of the matter.
Further, according to the archbishop (who here may be channeling the thoughts of author Charles Taylor), we live in a disenchanted world; a world made by human hands, rationalized and technocratic. It’s a world without transcendence. In it, we protect ourselves from the inconvenience of God, his demands and his invitations. What happens to human reason in the absence of any reference to God, is predictable, says the author. Its horizons lower. It—human reason— becomes a tool of the modern science. A materialistic philosophy results, scientism, which regards as true knowledge only that which is achieved by modern empirical research, i.e. scientific rationalism. I agree with the archbishop, or Taylor here.
But, as opposed to the Church’s argument of the tragedy about all this, most would view it as the accumulation of conditions, incrementalism, leading to progress. By progress I mean improvement in human existence, and in the conditions of human life as consciously experienced. Where in the last millennium, at least, can the Church point to any contribution to mankind leading to “progress”, as above defined? Why must religion oppose that which makes our lot materially better and for so many easier on our life’s journeys? What can the Church point to in this connection and demonstrably say it too has contributed to or participated in this progress? The Church has fought progress for centuries because it challenges its world-view teaching. The so-called truths of religion. For the church, what was declared truth 2,000 years ago remains true today, even when rationalism, scientific or other, casts great doubt upon it, from what we cumulatively know and how we understand today. A static vs. a more dynamic view of reality.
Yes, Western modernity is a disenchanted world for many, perhaps most, if by enchanted you mean supernatural. Materialism as a philosophy is in most instances demonstrable, with evidence supporting it. Christian Biblicism as a philosophy is not demonstrable and is without tangible or empirical evidence supporting it. What supports it is faith, belief in its idea, its god. That is what has always supported it. But un-corroborated belief does not constitute truth, other than in an individual subjective manner. That was acceptable when Western mankind knew nothing else and the Church dominated most aspects of human life. That’s not the case today in most of the West.
So until the Church is able to develop a “scientific rationality” in support of its view and understanding of truth, their only line of defense is to attack the fundamentals of empirical progress: defending the enchanted; attacking the disenchanted. When singing to the choir, as in the archbishop’s case here, that will probably work. Their arsenal otherwise looks pretty empty. I wish that were not the case.
St. Augustine’s famous profession Crede ut intelligas, “Believe so that you may understand”, is almost impossible to swallow in a world of modernity as viewed through the eyes of the Church and of “us” as well.
What a pity.
Thomas Richard Harry
July 2018

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