On learned ignorance

The piece I wrote in Catholic Thing today (here), which had to be held over from my usual Friday (I had forgotten that yesterday would be Right to Life March in Washington), has already proved incomprehensible to more than one reader. Indeed, an editor described it as, “nosebleed high.” I was just rereading it, up here in my ivory tower, with my guest for morning coffee, who was Nicolaus Cusanus (1401–64).

It was he who wrote the treatise, De Docta Ignorantia (“On Learned Ignorance”), which says something similar but in at least 50,000 more words. The thesis, over-simply, is that our inquiries into nature and supernature must be girded about with real humility. We should pursue reason with every instrument in our toolbox, but we should also remain constantly aware of their, and our limitations. The truly learned man will be, because he must be, a learned ignoramus.

(There is more to it than this, for Nicolaus has built a system from his ignorance, but to go further I should have to fling about terms like theologia negativa, and coincidentia oppositorum, and names like Pseudo-Dionysus and Eriugena, and take more flak from aggressive lowbrows.)

Though a figure of the late Middle Ages, when scholasticism had deteriorated into verbal gamesmanship, he is generally counted as a Renaissance thinker, aspiring to wrap some flesh back around the driest philosophical bones. He personally enjoyed much preferment in the Church (becoming bishop and cardinal and a grand canon lawyer), which these days is a reason to suspect anybody. Worse, his works seem not even to have been very controversial, another bad sign.

But as he was saying to me this morning (between the lines) that is because his contemporaries were fools, and some of the brightest among them were emotional (warmed-over Meister Eckhart) “mystics,” straying into the genuinely irrational. They didn’t really care what he said, or what anyone said, who lacked the populist, “New Age” flavour (that led to the Reformation). We forget that the latter-day gnosticism that our own more sober heads decry, will always need thorough denunciation; that it offers an easy way out to any serious thinking, and is implicitly false.

That does not change the hard fact that in thinking through high theological questions (or “modern scientific” ones for that matter), we are boxed into our finitude. The most important things we can’t know, by our own efforts, whether we might ourselves be Thomists, Scotists, Post-Structuralists, whatever.

When it comes to something off every possible chart — God, specifically — we can only know what we are told. This is the point I was making; the point shared, I think, even by such encompassing thinkers as Origen, or Augustine, or Thomas Aquinas, or every other Catholic Christian great. (Notice how I slighted that know-it-all, Luther.)

One may, of course, reject Revelation (and go to Hell for it). Or one may accept the Revelation of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, on His own (“catholic”) terms, and act accordingly. But any way you look at it, the choice is finally between this Revelation, and the Total Cosmic Blank. Christian faith goes beyond — far beyond — the rational arguments of any philosophers. It is not on the level of an intellectual conclusion, but that of an all-encompassing premiss. Faith even precedes reason!

Ideas may have consequences, for all I know. (I don’t see many examples.) But this premiss has a consequence, that is life or death. It is not only on the question of abortion, but on every conceivable question, that we must Choose Life.