"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Monday, July 23, 2007

Why I'm a natural theologian

Most people who meet me for the first time are surprised to learn that I am interested in theology. Some who have known me for a number of years think me misguided when I indicate that, at this point in my life, it is my chief interest. The former group assumes that I am, and the latter that I ought to be, a lawyer or a salesman, or at least somebody whose energies should be devoted mainly to acquiring money, prestige, and sex. But those who care to know me for who I am know that I am a natural for theology, where 'theology' is used as a name for an academic discipline, as distinct from that speech about God which only the truly holy can efficaciously utter. Of course I'm not considered qualified to teach theology at the post-secondary level, even though I have taught at several seminaries and touch on theology whatever and wherever I teach. That's because I have never taken any graduate-level course in theology; for reasons having to do with academic and ecclesiastical politics, I chose in youth to pursue the slightly less unmarketable discipline of philosophy. But the philosophy is my point.

When I call myself a natural theologian I mean that I am a practitioner, fitfully, of that branch of metaphysics, and therefore of philosophy, which is known as natural theology. The aim of natural theology is to acquire some knowledge of the divine that does not, logically speaking, require data of special divine revelation (if any) as premises. Here I want to explain, in terms anybody can appreciate, why I made that choice and why it is so worthwhile.

Alluding to Romans 1:20, the First Vatican Council defined: "If anyone denies that the one true God, our Creator and Lord, can be known with certainty in the natural light of human reason through the things that have been made: let him be anathema." Accordingly, as a Catholic I take the Church's word for it that natural theology, as a way of acquiring some real knowledge of God, is possible. But that is reliance on authority, not just on reason. It is not why I originally took up the discipline. I took up natural theology as a student for three reasons.

The first was that I could find no other honest way to decide whether it was rational to profess a religion, and rationality was something I prized given the physically and emotionally chaotic environment in which I was raised. By the time I was 15, the faith of my childhood was no longer adequate for me; I needed to find some basis for an adult faith if I was to have faith at all. And it seemed to me that an adult faith entailed making not only a "reasonable" choice but a "rational" one. What's the contrast?

It is reasonable for some people to cling uncritically to the religion in which they were raised, simply because they lack either the leisure, the inclination, or the native ability to think critically enough to arrive at an adult faith. If they live long enough, life will probably challenge them to go beyond that; and it would be unreasonable for them to refuse the challenge if they're up to it. But some people never experience the challenge, and others who do aren't up to meeting it. Who's to say they are unreasonable for having, or even losing, a childish faith in such circumstances? Not I. But neither did I have the luxury of not knowing better than such people.

I had had Catholic catechesis, accurate as far as it went, and I had a good mind. But I came to need a worldview that was objectively rational, not merely reasonable given my limitations. That was because I had ceased being able to believe that what mattered to my parents, teachers, and friends, or even to myself, mattered period. I could no longer believe that life was worthwhile just because I had a sanguine personality, or because I had been taught it, or because everybody around me assumed it. For a time that left me in something of a void, depressed and rudderless; my mother, whose values were entirely conventional, worried that I studied and brooded instead of dating; but I didn't want to spend my spare time working a boring, menial job in order to get money for dating when I wasn't even sure that life was worthwhile. I read voraciously and worked diligently on a project I would now describe as trying to find sound arguments that that life is worthwhile. Otherwise there was no reason to prefer reality to the drugs that I couldn't afford any more than I could afford the girls.

What ended up convincing me that life is worthwhile was a deceptively simple point: in the final analysis, it's more rational to try to make overall sense of reality than not; whereas the various forms of nihilism, such as atheism and French existentialism, did not make overall sense of reality, and indeed argued that it was irrational to try. Thanks to an English teacher who happened to be a Jesuit scholastic, I had read as much of C.S. Lewis, JRR Tolkien, GK Chesterton, and Dorothy Sayers as I could get my hands on. As much by the power of imagination as by logic, they convinced me that theism made much more sense out of who and what people are than atheism. My high-school religion classes, fashioned just after Vatican II when so many priests and religious were shucking tradition, seemed sterile and pointless by comparison. Yet the salient point has been put well in the context of the current debate about "the new atheism:"

Atheists and theists seem to agree that human beings have an innate desire for morality and purpose. For the theist, this is perfectly understandable: We long for love, harmony and sympathy because we are intended by a Creator to find them. In a world without God, however, this desire for love and purpose is a cruel joke of nature — imprinted by evolution, but destined for disappointment, just as we are destined for oblivion, on a planet that will be consumed by fire before the sun grows dim and cold. This form of “liberation” is like liberating a plant from the soil or a whale from the ocean. In this kind of freedom, something dies.

I was, to be sure, prepared to accept the death of what is thus said to die; what I could not accept was the earnest belief of the atheists that it was somehow more rational to see reality that way than to be a theist. The theists had a reasoned answer to the question why the world, and we, exist; the atheists could only try to persuade me that the question is unanswerable. But proving a negative is notoriously difficult. It seemed to me then, and still seems to me, that the atheists had only one argument: unlike religion, science has a consensual, publicly accessible method for testing claims to knowledge; therefore, it is more rational to accept a purely scientific worldview than a religious one. But the argument struck me, and still strikes me, as a non-sequitur. From the fact that only science gives us such a method, it does not follow that science is the only reliable way of acquiring knowledge. All that follows is that we should rely on science to evaluate the kinds of knowledge-claim that science, as a method, can evaluate. But that supplies no reason to believe that only what can be known scientifically can be known at all, i.e., the thesis now called 'scientism'. Given the inner world first limned for me by the British writers in question, I was compelled to believe that true empiricism had to be wider than the advocates of scientism allowed. And I could find no argument for atheism other than scientism.

So, I was now a rationally convinced theist, and that itself involved the doing of natural theology. I was relieved because I now had reason to participate actively in life; I was also challenged, because the Hound of Heaven was still after me. Thus the question for me became what sort of theist I should be. As a college freshman, I decided to double-major in philosophy and religion largely in order to answer that question. Since ideas have consequences, and wrong ideas about ultimate things have very bad consequences, the question struck me as vastly more important than that of what career such disciplines could equip me for. (My father was pleased by my choice, since he thought the intellectual discipline I would learn would equip me to follow him in a career in law. I didn't have the heart to disappoint him by telling him I was much more attracted to the clergy; in any event I didn't have to tell him, since I could never interest the Catholic clergy in accepting me into their ranks. Indeed, several of the priests I later consulted about the matter seemed much more interested in my body than in my mind or soul—a fact which itself turned out to be a grave challenge to my ongoing intellectual project.) But I had gradually become convinced that only monotheism, as opposed to pantheism or polytheism, was philosophically defensible. The question then became what sort of monotheist to be.

The three major monotheistic religions are Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. It didn't take me long to decide for Christianity. Having arisen from the Judaism that preceded it and persisted despite the Islam that came after it, Christianity seemed incomparably fuller and richer than either, incorporating even what seemed true in the various pagan religions. It seemed to me that, if the one true God did reveal himself to humanity, this was more likely to be the full story than the alternatives. So then the question became what sort of Christian to be.

I couldn't help noticing that the two main Christian alternatives to my native Catholicism, Protestantism and Orthodoxy, didn't seem to put much stock in the discipline that had helped convince me that life is worthwhile. As best as I could tell at the time, most of their representatives held that we cannot arrive at any knowledge of God without already being committed to the truth of Christianity. In other words, natural theology is an illusion, and to persist in the illusion is to corrupt the Faith. Of course, I gradually learned that the picture is more complicated than that. Some Protestants have done, still do natural theology explicitly, and I have read a good many of them; some Orthodox, including some of the Eastern Fathers, have done what is in effect natural theology, but without characterizing it as that; and I've read some of them too. But even having learned all that, I find no reason to abandon my youthful impression that only Catholicism explains why natural theology is both possible and worthwhile. So, once I decided to remain Catholic for that and other reasons, I had further reason to do natural theology, if only so as to deepen my acquaintance with my own tradition.

But the third and clinching reason I kept at it came from the political philosophy I also studied and debated in college. It seemed to me, as to nearly everybody else at Columbia, that the West in general had only learned relatively recently the social importance and the moral necessity of religious freedom. The Catholic Church herself had only acknowledged it within my lifetime. Yet for reasons I explained yesterday, secularism as a political ideology also seemed to me untenable—a conclusion that set me sharply at odds with my professors and most of my fellow students. So the question for me then became: How can one expound a basis for the moral legitimacy of the state that is neither theocratic nor secularist, i.e. that required neither imposing a particular religious tradition on people nor dispensing with God altogether? The only answer I could find was the sort of thinking summed up in Thomas Jefferson's phrase "the laws of Nature and of Nature's God"—in other words, the natural law as promulgated rationally by the Higher Power, the God, knowable to some extent by human reason. Only in the Catholic tradition was that notion seriously and systematically developed, and it depended in part on that natural theology for which the Catholic tradition had always maintained an important place. And so my chosen discipline bore, at least for me and for some Catholic thinkers, considerable political significance. Given the challenge of Islamism today, it retains that significance.

I don't expect this little autobiography to convince my readers to become natural theologians. But I hope to have exhibited why that discipline is both a reasonable and an important one to pursue.
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