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Wednesday, January 20, 2016

The American Chesterton, XV: The Outline of Sanity

In the previous posting in this series we examined the problems Fulton Sheen addressed with God and Intelligence in Modern Philosophy.  These were the new concept of God and religion, and the triumph of the will over the intellect, that is, the rejection of reason.

Fulton Sheen
Although by Sheen’s estimate these had, by 1925, been gathering force for half a century, it still seemed possible to bring a halt to their progress, and restore common sense — reason — to its rightful place.  It also seemed possible, indeed (in Sheen’s opinion) probable, that this restoration could only come from the last bastion of common sense and reason left on earth: the Catholic Church.  Chesterton and Knox shared this opinion.

The time seemed ripe.  Pius IX had identified the problem as early as 1846 and had taken some steps, most notably the First Vatican Council.  Leo XIII had made great strides with his first encyclicals in the late 1870s and, especially, Rerum Novarum in 1891.  With their strictures against the dangers of modernism, both Pius X and Benedict XV seemed to have halted the modernist aspect of the scourge in its tracks, at least within the Catholic Church, although it was still rife in Academia.

Pius XI: the Peace of Christ in the Kingdom of Christ
Most significantly, Pius XI, from his ascension in 1922 made it clear that he was going to make “the social question” a central focus of his pontificate and work to establish “the peace of Christ in the Kingdom of Christ.”  This does not mean the establishment of a theocracy — “king” and “kingdom” are not even the right words, but the closest human analog to what Jesus meant (John 18:37).  Rather (as we have shown elsewhere), Pius XI had in mind a state of society in which life, individual and social, conforms to the natural law of temperance, fortitude, prudence, and justice.

As a strict Aristotelian-Thomist, and consistent with the social doctrine of Leo XIII, Pius XI was clear that the natural law is distinct from the supernatural law of faith, hope, and charity.  The supernatural virtues fulfill and complete the natural virtues, but do not and cannot replace or substitute for them.

Thus, Christ in Catholic belief is true God and true man.  He thereby combines the natural infinite perfectibility of each human being with the realization of that perfectibility through the supernatural infinite perfection of God.  As true man, Jesus “rules” His kingdom by providing the exemplar for natural virtue, conformity with which guides individual and social life.  As true God, the Christ provides the exemplar for supernatural virtue that guides religious life.

Paradox: Jesus before Pilate puts man before God.
Pius XI clearly did not advocate replacing justice with charity, however often those seeking accommodation to the modern world redefined the terms.  Yet that is the very thing, in so many words, socialism claims to do.  In so doing, socialism replaces God with man as the chief focus of religion, even (at times) of worship, and changes the institutions of the social order — especially the State — from tools to aid human beings in becoming more fully human, to ends in themselves.

It does not appear that Sheen truly appreciated the social aspect of papal social doctrine.  That is not surprising, as he was the quintessential individualist.  Individual, not social, virtue was his forte.  God and Intelligence reflects this orientation.

On reading Treasure in Clay, his autobiography, it is clear that Sheen believed it was only necessary to present the case for the restoration of God and of reason with clear logic and evidence, and others would be persuaded, each person making the decision for him- or herself.  The institutions within which that decision has to be made were not his concern — except when they clearly were not in conformity with the natural law or guided by the supernatural law.

Sheen simply did not take into account the effect that flawed institutions — especially Academia — can have on people’s thoughts and actions, and inhibit or even prevent human beings from acting in accordance with their own nature.  As he was fond of saying, “Right is right if no one does it.  Wrong is wrong if everyone does it.”

That, however, takes nothing away from Sheen’s genius or his achievement in God and Intelligence.  Accepting others for their strengths and not condemning them for their weaknesses, we accept the fact that Sheen created a powerful weapon in the struggle to restore God, man, and reason to their proper places.

That, in fact, was the reason for God and Intelligence — not to “update” Aristotelian-Thomism or modernize it, but to employ its timeless truth to what Sheen saw as the two most important problems in the modern world, the transformation of God and religion, and the downgrading and rejection of the intellect.  As he explained in the Preface in a passage that clearly anticipates (and possibly inspired) G.K. Chesterton’s “The Dumb Ox”,

Aquinas: the perennial philosophy.
“The five arguments for the existence of God have not been treated, because they have been thoroughly dealt with by others, and also because contemporary philosophy calls rather for a treatment of their substitute notions, such as religious experience and hypothesis.  Thus, while positive expositions of Scholastic doctrine look towards the traditional, this work looks rather to the solutions which traditional thought may bring to modern problems.  It seeks to make St. Thomas functional, not for a school, but for a world.  It is only accidentally that St. Thomas belongs to the thirteenth century.  His thought is no more confined to that period of human history than is the multiplication table.  Truth is eternal though its verbal expression be localized in time and space.  If need makes actuality, then St. Thomas was never more actual than he is today.  If actuality makes modernity, then St. Thomas is the prince of modern philosophers.  If a progressive universe is a contemporary ideal, then the philosophy of St. Thomas is its greatest realization.  Modern Idealism needs the complement of his realism; empiricism needs his transcendental principles; philosophical biologism his metaphysics; sociological morality his ethics; sentimentalism his theory of the intelligence; and the world needs the God he knew and loved and adored.”  [Emphasis in original.] (Sheen, God and Intelligence, op. cit., 13-14.)

 We won’t go into an exhaustive overview of God and Intelligence.  Our goal is to get people to read the book, not provide a “Cliff Notes version” so that they can parrot some critic’s opinion instead of the author’s intent and meaning.  The interested reader should by now have an adequate orientation to understand Sheen’s arguments and aim, but without being spoon-fed a very difficult subject.  He or she will have to work and form his or her own opinion.

Having said that, we can (and will) give Sheen’s basic solutions to the two problems so the reader knows what to look for.  Perhaps paradoxically, although this discussion is about his first book, God and Intelligence, Sheen gives the best response from an Aristotelian-Thomist perspective to the new concept of God and religion in his last book, Treasure in Clay.

Samuel Alexander: God evolves
Sheen related how Dr. Samuel Alexander tricked him into a public debate before hundreds of students when Sheen thought he was invited to a private conversation.  With a little uncharacteristic but pardonable sarcasm since Alexander had sneered at Sheen’s understanding and intelligence (the usual tactic when someone doesn’t have a real argument), Sheen recounted,

“Dr. Alexander began: ‘Well, what would you like to know?’  I realized, for the first time, what it must be like to sit at the feet of Divine Omniscience.  I said: ‘You do not believe that God is Infinitely Perfect, do you?’  He said: ‘Have you read my books?”  I said: ‘Yes, I have read them twice.’  ‘Well,’ he said, ‘if you ever read them with any degree of intelligence, you would know that I believe that God is perfect.’”  (Sheen, Treasure in Clay, op. cit., 25-26.)

Sheen was not one to take the implied insult lying down.  Instead, he did what an honest debater does: he presented his understanding of Alexander’s position, thereby proving that he did, in fact, completely understand what Alexander had said:

“I then explained that Dr. Alexander’s position seemed to me to be that God was an urge, or nisus, always one level above the present level of evolution.  [A common theosophical concept embodied in New Age thought — ed.]  ‘When there was only Space-Time, God was a chemical; when chemicals came into being God was the ideal of plant; when plants came into the universe, God was the ideal state of an animal; when there were animals God was the ideal state of man; now that there is man, God is an angel.  Someday we will reach that state.  God will keep moving ahead as the Urge of the universe.’”  (Ibid. 26.)

At this, Alexander had the grace to admit, “Yes, that is my theory; you understand it perfectly.”  (Ibid.)  Sheen then continued, correcting Alexander’s conception:

Knox: urge to novelty a sign of enthusiasm.
“I said: ‘Well, Dr. Alexander, your God is not yet perfect; He is on the way to perfection.  A Perfect God would be One Who has at each and every moment of His Being the fullness of perfection.’  ‘I’ve never had that put to me that way before,’ he said.  I asked him if he would be interested in reading the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas.”  (Ibid.)

Alexander then intellectually damned himself and all of Academia.  He replied, “No, I would not be interested because you become known in this world not through Truth, but through novelty, and my doctrine is novel.”  (Ibid.)

Sheen’s response to the rejection of reason is a bit more esoteric, not being presented in his inimitable anecdotal style, but still to the point.  This was in response to modernism’s and the New Age’s logical fallacy, “Our faith beforehand in an uncertified result is the only thing that makes the result come true.”  (Raywood Cellars, The Next Step in Religion (1906), 160. Cited in Sheen, God and Intelligence, op. cit., 49, emphasis in original.)  That is, something is true because we believe it, rather than we believe it because it is true.  As Sheen summarized Aquinas’s reliance on reason as the foundation of faith in God and Intelligence to correct this profound error,

Aquinas: contradiction is nonsense.
“No thesis in the philosophy of St. Thomas is clearer than that which asserts that all knowledge rests upon a single first principle. To it all other principles of thought may be reduced. Upon it all depend for their validity. Without it there can be no certitude, but only opinion. (I-II q. 94 art. 2; C. G., lib. 2 c. 83; Post. Analy., lib. 2 lect. 20; 1 d. 35 q. 1 art. 3 ad 2. [Note in text. “C. G.” refers to the Summa Contra Gentiles; “Post. Analy.” refers to Expositio Libri Posteriorum Analyticorum.]) Whether we choose to express this absolute, first principle in the form of an affirmation — the principle of identity — or in the form of a negation — the principle of contradiction — it matters not. The point is, that unless our knowledge hangs upon this basic principle, it is devoid of certainty. Wherefore, causality — efficient, formal, material or final — must attach itself in some manner to the principle of identity. In the Thomistic view, the connection is immediate. Its very immediateness gives to the notion of causality the absolute necessity and complete universality of the ultimate principle.

“He who denies causality must ultimately deny the principle of identity and the principle of contradiction — and this is mental suicide.  (“Quia etsi non possunt demonstrari simpliciter, tum Philosophus primus tentat monstrare eo modo quo est possibile, scilicet, contradicendo negantibus ea, per ea quae oportet ab eis concede, non per ea quae sunt magis nota.” — Post. Analy., lib. 1 lect. 20. [Note in text.]) It is to assert that that which has not in itself and by itself its reason of being, is its own reason of being; or, in other words, is and is not, under the same formal consideration.” (Sheen, God and Intelligence, op. cit., 197.)

Translation: In Aristotelian-Thomism, there are three basic categories of thought.  There is truth, there is falsehood . . . and there is nonsense.  A contradiction, attempting to combine truth and falsehood, turns out to be neither, and must be rejected as nonsense, even if you don’t know what is true or false.  Modern philosophy, however, has admitted nonsense as a legitimate area of knowledge, thereby committing “mental suicide,” or (as Chesterton put it), “the suicide of thought.” (Chesterton, Orthodoxy, op. cit., 30-45.)