Wednesday, January 6, 2016

The American Chesterton, IX: “Not Because It Is True”

In 2001 on the death of Mortimer Adler, the noted “Great Books Philosopher” at the age of 98, columnist Paul Greenberg presented his analysis of why (in his opinion) Adler had lapsed into semi-obscurity.  As he said,

Mortimer J. Adler (1902-2001)
“Adler’s obscurity in his later years was not just a sign of increasing age and its burdens, but of changes in society — mainly a dangerous lessening of interest in the power of ideas.  The result is that we have become susceptible to the worst ideas, or even the absence of ideas, for we are deprived of the habit of struggling with them regularly. . . . we waste ourselves debating facts, which should be ascertained rather than argued, and having to rediscover what the ancients knew.  Often enough by bitter experience. . . . That many today never heard of Mortimer Adler or the Great Books, and many others may have to be reminded of who he was, is not a good sign for a cohesive, democratic, tolerant, learned and above all thinking society.”  (Paul Greenberg, “Mortimer Adler: A Funny and Great Little Man,” The Item, July 6, 2001, 10A.)

As we have seen, Adler’s concerns echoed those of G.K. Chesterton, Ronald Knox, and Fulton Sheen, particularly in the area of Academia and the general understanding of the basic principles of common sense in the modern world.  The whole concept of what it meant for something to be true had changed, as Sheen noted in both God and Intelligence and Religion Without God.

Jesus before Pilate: "What is truth?"
In particular, as Greenberg noted, the “lessening of interest in the power of ideas” affected how facts are treated.  Facts were no longer something to be verified, dismissed if false, and accepted if true, then used as input to the development of ideas.

No, facts were now to be evaluated on the basis of their utility to whoever had the power to force others to his or her will.  Opening up the door to a veritable flood of utter nonsense, what mattered was how many people could be persuaded or forced to accept a useful fact, regardless whether it was even a fact in the first place.  Might, as in politics and economics, now made right in philosophy.

Part of the reason for this was the incidence of what we can call an inadequate Aristotelian-Thomist logic on which a semi-Platonist concept of ideas had been superimposed.  By going from the general to the particular (instead of from the particular to the general), anything that appeared to conform to a subjective and preconceived notion was deemed true, while anything that did not conform — despite its objective verifiability — was deemed false if it did not fit into the subjective preconception.

What that means in English is, having changed what it means for something to be true, people simply took what they wanted to be true, and forced it onto reality, rather than make their understanding of truth conform to empirical evidence (what your senses tell you) and logical argument (what your reason tells you).  Thus, you don’t believe something to be true because you have tested it and verified (ascertained) it, but because you find it useful.

Sheen: contradiction is nonsense.
The possibility that something is neither true nor false, but nonsense — what Sheen discovered when writing God and Intelligence — was no longer considered.  “Nonsense” — something contradictory or irrational — became another word for “falsehood.”  This is especially the case when dismissing what others who disagree with you have to say.

Take, for example, the statement, “If God can do anything, then He can make a weight so heavy He can’t lift it.”  The statement is based on a contradiction that violates the first principle of reason.  That is, the statement declares that God can both “do” and “not do” (i.e., “be” and “not be”) at the same time under the same conditions.  The statement is therefore neither true nor false, but nonsense.

The statement is, nevertheless, taken as “true” by atheists because it presumably proves the whole concept of God is nonsense, instead of merely the statement itself.  At the same time, it is taken as “false” by theists because there are things about God human beings cannot understand.  In both cases, the faith of the atheists and that of the theists contradicts reason, leaving nonsense.

Lewis: God is not a convenience.
The insertion of contradiction and the nullification of the concept of nonsense is particularly devastating, even destructive — shades of Knox’s “destructive grace” as we termed it earlier — when it comes to matters of faith.  As C.S. Lewis had the demon Screwtape explain to Wormwood when advising the Assistant Tormentor on the Satanic benefits of getting people to abandon truth as the reason for doing anything,

“[T]he Enemy [God] will not be used as a convenience.  Men or nations who think they can revive the Faith in order to make a good society might just as well think they can use the stairs of Heaven as a short cut to the nearest chemist’s shop.  Fortunately, it is quite easy to coax humans round this little corner.  Only today I have found a passage in a Christian writer where he recommends his own version of Christianity on the ground that ‘only such a faith can outlast the death of old cultures and the birth of new civilizations.’  You see the little rift?  ‘Believe this, not because it is true, but for some other reason.’  That’s the game.” (Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, op. cit., 108-109.)

In light of this, it is ironic that there are a significant number of people today who have been drawn to the Catholic Church because of its social teachings.

Now, there is nothing wrong with that.  It is, in fact, laudable — as long as it doesn't stop there.

Aquinas's thought cannot support contradiction.
The problem is that some converts (including nominal Catholics who undergo a “reversion” or inner conversion) assume that the preconceptions they bring to the table are correct understandings of what the Catholic Church teaches.  They begin forcing what they have previously accepted as true without proof or argument on to a foundation that might not be able to support it, especially within the Aristotelian-Thomist framework, which simply cannot support contradiction of any kind.

When the inevitable contradictions appear, such converts and reverts become perverts tailoring what the Church teaches in matters of faith and morals to conform to their untested assumptions, often distorting them completely out of shape.  When others disagree with them — especially when those others present empirical evidence and logical argument — the enthusiastic (in Knox’s sense) response is to reject reason, and go with a personal faith, calling into question the personal faith of those who disagree with them.

This is not to say that what people believe should not be a part of their personal, family, and civil life.  One’s faith not only should, but must be a part of everything one does, just as each person must have a consistent and sound philosophy to be able to develop more fully as a human person.  That is not the issue.  The issue is whether one is integrating his or her faith into every aspect of life . . . or whether one is changing the absolutes of one’s faith to conform to what one finds “useful.”  As Lewis had the demonic adviser Screwtape say,

“Certainly we do not want men to allow their Christianity to flow over into their political life, for the establishment of anything like a really just society would be a major disaster.  On the other hand we do want, and want very much, to make men treat Christianity as a means; preferably, of course, as a means to their own advancement, but, failing that, as a means to anything — even to social justice.  The thing to do is to get a man at first to value social justice as a thing which the Enemy demands, and then work him on to the stage at which he values Christianity because it may produce social justice.”  (Ibid., 108.)

Tawney: Anglican Christian, Fabian Socialist.
As a case in point, we know of at least one noted Catholic commentator who was drawn into the Catholic Church because he found the writings of the Anglican Christian socialist and Fabian Society member Richard Henry Tawney (1880-1962) persuasive.  This was evidently because Tawney said what the commentator wanted to hear.   Influenced by what comes across as a violent hatred of capitalism, this individual assumed as a matter of course that Catholic social teaching (the understanding of which he derived from a Protestant socialist involved in “Esoteric Buddhism”) is simply an ethical form of socialism.  This had to be under another name, of course, since the Catholic Church has condemned socialism in no uncertain terms, and tends to look askance at syncretism, that is, combining different forms of religious belief, such as Esoteric Buddhism and Christianity.

The fact that an Anglican Fabian socialist could hardly be considered an authoritative source for understanding Catholic teaching that opposes socialism was brushed aside, along with the clear and unequivocal condemnations of socialism and New Age thought by the popes.  A twist to the mind here, a turn around the corner there, and the thing was done.  Something becomes “true” because it is perceived as useful for gaining one’s ends, not because it is objectively factual.

Of course, mere contradiction by itself soon wears thin and becomes obvious for what it is: an exaggerated sense of one’s self, a supreme lack of humility that can overcome even truth and reason itself in furtherance of one’s own ends.  Just as socialism and New Age thought needed each other, something else was needed to complete the overthrow of reason and common sense.

That is precisely what Fulton Sheen found in the philosophical and theological movements of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as we will see in the next posting in this series, and what he set out to counter and correct in God and Intelligence.


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