Reason & knowing

It is the received view, up here in the High Doganate, that we do not know what we do not know. Granted, this is a peculiarly Catholic view, & may therefore smack of sectarianism; but we cannot find an alternative to it that is at all convincing. We puzzle upon Mysteries that were simply “given,” entirely beyond human comprehension. Not only “we,” but I. The little I know with any certainty has come mostly from that exercise, both inside & outside religion; for though natural mysteries are different in kind from theological Mysteries, they have a similar impenetrable quality. In fact, they deepen, the more that we learn.

This is not so simple a matter as not knowing the answers to empirical questions, such as by what means creatures of one species metamorphose into creatures of another. True enough, having rejected as glib the suggestion of “natural selection,” I have nothing whatever to replace it with; but that is only the beginning of my ignorance. And it is not something I need to know. People lived for centuries without knowing the Earth went much more around the Sun than vice versa, yet the sunsets were the same. They could even make accurate astronomical calculations, on a wrong model of the solar system. With the right rocket technology, but that wrong model, we could have landed a man on the moon. So who really needed Copernicus? (Well, he simplified the math.)

A more fundamental ignorance would be, “What is it that I need to know?” For this would involve cutting through far worse misdirections than were supplied by Claudius Ptolemy’s astronomy, & thus much harder mental work.

Faith comes into this equation, in the most elementary sense, because a few things I obviously do need to know come to me via “penny catechism,” the way the alphabet used to come to children through penny broadsides. I can’t think of any other way the most basic theological, philosophical, & even logical propositions could have reached me, than by flat instruction, for none could possibly be discovered through trial & error, by any isolated man working entirely from scratch.

And since one proposition depends on another, it is very much like the problem of the first biological cell. It involved a number of coordinated propositions, & could not have been assembled one bit at a time. (Only inanimate structures can be assembled like that, solid brick over solid brick, & even then one might be living in Christchurch where the ground liquefies from time to time.)

Instead, I am thinking of the “higher,” or at least, most complex propositions, in what seems like the No Man’s Land between what we need to know, & what we don’t. The perfect example, to my mind, is the apparent answer to a prayer. Is it God’s answer, the Devil’s answer, or just my own stupid projection? I will not vex the reader in this case with several dozen subsidiary questions. In only one, or perhaps two cases in the course of my life could I be reasonably sure. In the others, “I don’t know” would be indicated, together with its moral corollary, “Proceed with caution.”

An example might clarify what I am babbling about here. Once, just after the death of a very close friend whom I’d been attending, I pleaded with God to give me a glimpse of what happens immediately after death. And seemingly in response, I had something like a vision, of my friend Bob having passed through a door still slightly ajar, to a place that was like Earth, but with spatial & temporal dimensions transformed, & a light all-suffusing. And with that, a feeling of peace, that we will know the place; that it will not be entirely foreign to the human. But was this a genuine or a false vision? I do not know.

Note that I am not attempting some radical Cartesian or Baconian or Humean or Kantian critique of reason. As a penny-catechized Catholic, I accept reason more or less at face value. If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, & has the right ambiance, it may be safely labelled. Should it turn out to be a swan, I will change the label, but it will take some work to convince me. Generally speaking, reason is serviceable, unless one’s own misconceptions (about ducks, for instance) get in the way. Generally speaking, the more checkable information one has, the more one knows. In this case, the more one even knows about how the duck looks back at you, & sizes you up. For I am not sceptical of the empathetic reason, though I know it can take us only so far. The Other is the Other after all, even when it is a duck. But ducks & we have a few things in common.

People should realize that the modern attack on Reason came with the Reformation. (Many previous attacks, but none so materially successful.) The notion that reason itself is twisted, & must be rejected as collateral damage from the Fall of Man, provided much of the theological fuel with which torchings of Holy Church were attempted. She had for her part embraced reason from the beginning, as one of the very tests for the “fallenness” of Man. Reason is of God; it is men who are unreasonable. Because we are unchaste, because we do not pursue reason chastely, because we twist it to get the results we want. This, however, is a problem with us. It is not a problem with reason.

Reason, of just this chaste sort, plays a very large role in day to day religion. Let us now take the Sacrament of Penance — “Confession” — for an example, suitable to Ash Wednesday. Preparing for Confession, I may consult some standard list of mortal vices, under headings such as Pride, Envy, Greed, Lust, Wrath, Sloth, Gluttony. But often one is not quite sure, not merely what heading to choose, but whether what one did was really a sin. And from the best spiritual advisers, it turns out the next question isn’t, “What did it feel like?” That is Pride’s bottomlessly subjective dissertation, the one in which we all love to wallow, gluttonously. The question is instead much plainer & more objective: “What did it look like?”

For reason in this case involves a simple out-of-body exercise. Stand outside & look in, as if you were not you, but an impartial, external observer. If it looked like a sin, walked like a sin, quacked like a sin, & had the right ambiance, you have almost certainly got in nailed. The fact you felt badly when you were caught need not come into it.

(This is something I love about the Church’s teaching on sin, & all the liturgical & other practices that follow from it. It is not emotional & theatrical. It is instead logical & reasonable. Nor does it fantasize that men will, as a regular habit, make full & adequate confessions to God. Knowing what men are, the Church isn’t so easily suckered.)

There is plenty we can know by reason, even without the use of statistics. There indeed must be more that we can know by reason, than we do know, for new things are discovered in the same old data. That, incidentally, is how Catholic doctrines may develop, over time. It is the same old doctrine from the start, but from new experience we suddenly discover an implication we had not seen before. The doctrine in this case has not “changed”; it has instead been more completely comprehended.

The worldview, in which we try reason first, & fight our lazy fatalist habits, is different in kind from the worldview in which everything that happens is attributed to djinns. As Western men & women, we inherit this “rationalist” propensity, perhaps from pagan Greeks, who pioneered in this territory. But the Greeks themselves knew reason was not something they had made, rather something they had discovered. They also knew it was intrinsically divine.

Reason comes down to us, immeasurably enhanced, because the Church bought into it bigtime, from even before the Pauline generation. It is there in Christ who, directly in the Gospels, unhesitantly applies the sharpest reason to the clever people trying to entrap Him. And it has been taught, as part of the “core curriculum” through twenty centuries, so that by now the intellectual heritage of the Greeks — Plato, Aristotle, Theocritus, &c — is inseparable from our Catholic Christian heritage; spliced into the framing of the bark, so to say. (It wasn’t just the recovery of Aristotelian texts from the Byzantine Greeks through the Arabs; for such as Origen & Augustine had already been fully engaged.)

And I left out Socrates who, quite apart from the biographers & admirers through whom we try to “read” him — for like Jesus of Nazareth he wrote nothing down — comes closest to anticipating the Christian point of view, starting from reason. That we learn by direct inquiry; that we start by admitting what we don’t know; that the pursuit of truth requires not just the mind but the whole man. That, reason & unreason war within each human heart. Where, unreason masquerades as reason. That, ideas have consequences in life. Where, they are passed from man to man. That, “philosophy” being not merely thought, but lived — is something profoundly personal.

From a position of real acknowledged ignorance, & proceeding by steps of reason, Socrates was able to get a considerable distance. By pursuing such concepts as “justice” — ruthlessly, in a sense — he came remarkably close to the Christian idea of God. He did not get there. Nevertheless, he taught Plato, & through Plato, Aristotle, things that to outward appearance no merely rational person, even an ingenious Greek, had any business knowing. Being Socrates he stopped at what he could not know. But what he knew, he knew; & he drank the hemlock rather than agree to what he knew was wrong.

Revelation takes us well beyond Reason, yet it is reason that leads to revelation’s door, historically as well as in every other sense. For even in assimilating the content of “Scripture & Tradition” we need minds, to test. It could not be genuine Revelation unless it made sense; unless it was internally consistent & externally coherent; unless we could be sure that its consequences were not trivial or absurd.

From the beginning, the Church rejected such theological try-ons as “by faith alone,” unless that faith was consistent with reason; or “by scripture alone,” knowing the very canon of Scripture required prayerful reasoning to discern, & prayerful reasoning to interpret. For she began her work even before there was a New Testament; being founded not on Scripture, but in Christ. (But of course everything is in practice checked against Scripture, & has been ever since it was available. Every papal proclamation of which I am aware — quite a few by now, including many quite ancient — has been utterly crawling with scriptural references & allusions.)

The Old Testament served the first generation, & was pre-eminent for several more. The earliest Fathers of the Church, as the Rabbis before them, were fully aware that Scripture is replete with things crying out to be misinterpreted by the perversity of men — who aren’t Saints; whose reasoning is neither chaste nor humble; whose learning is seldom even skin deep; & who in the event are seething, not with charity but with anger. Scripture could be twisted against itself — it was often so twisted before their eyes. Every day, to this day, we may watch men turning the screws on reason: big-brained “reformers” who are puffballs of spite; making rules from which they are self-exempted.

And that is precisely why we read Scripture in light of Church teaching — the cumulative interpretive wisdom of so many hundred years. For two millennia now, the Church has had the delicate task of disowning her fanatics, & putting their djinns back in their bottles; of consolidating & teaching, instead, what can be known among reasonable men, who will consent to learn before they try teaching, & are of an instinct to reverence what they have inherited.

For Revelation, too, takes us only so far. It tells us what we need to know, but not everything we want to know. As human beings — fundamentally flawed, yet also strangely exalted in the image of Christ — we characteristically push at the edges. We ask for precision where only approximation is available to us, or analogy from what we have seen; we demand answers to questions that we cannot even formulate coherently. We ask, always, for more than we can get, & as a trading race, think we can negotiate. A proud race, too, we are always bluffing, especially to ourselves. We almost invariably think we know more than we do — until our ignorance is exposed, if not well after.

One of my own Lenten resolutions this year is to find contentment; not only in what I can eat & drink; in what I must do for penance, & give for alms; but also in what I can know. To shake off, if only for a season, this curiously modern neurosis, that aspires to superhuman knowledge, & blinds one not only to what can be known, but even to what is known already. (Or was this not the first mortal sin, of Adam?) To go, ideally, forty days & nights without trying to make any Faustian bargains.