Two minds

26 03 2020

Although in general I have thought Chesterton overrated, I appreciated and have recommended to friends his book, St. Thomas Aquinas: The Dumb Ox. As I read it years and years ago, I remember only a few passages. This one, however, is the first one I think of when mentioning that book:

Siger of Brabant said this: the Church must be right theologically, but she can be wrong scientifically. There are two truths; the truth of the supernatural world, and the truth of the natural world, which contradicts the supernatural world. While we are being naturalists, we can suppose that Christianity is all nonsense; but then, when we remember that we are Christians, we must admit that Christianity is true even if it is nonsense. In other words, Siger of Brabant split the human head in two, like the blow in an old legend of battle; and declared that a man has two minds, with one of which he must entirely believe and with the other may utterly disbelieve. To many this would at least seem like a parody of Thomism. As a fact, it was the assassination of Thomism. It was not two ways of finding the same truth; it was an untruthful way of pretending that there are two truths. And it is extraordinarily interesting to note that this is the one occasion sentences, which is a thing like the tone of a man’s voice, is suddenly altered. He had never been angry with any of the enemies who disagreed with him. But these enemies had attempted the worst treachery: they had made him agree with them when the Dumb Ox really came out like a wild bull. When he stood up to answer Siger of Brabant, he was altogether transfigured, and the very style of his sentences, which is a thing like the tone of a man’s voice, is suddenly altered. He had never been angry with any of the enemies who disagreed with him. But these enemies had attempted the worst treachery:they had made him agree with them.

Recently elsewhere I expressed the thought that one cannot uphold the moral and dogmatic system of any given faith without upholding as well its traditional cosmology and anthropology. If a religion can get the nature of the universe and man so blatantly wrong, I would reason, what makes anyone think that its ethics or ideas on God would be at all accurate? Of course, how one approaches these questions is substantially related to one’s emotional and psychological investment in a chosen faith. One man’s inconsistency is another man’s mystery, depending on one’s loyalties. Various attempts have been made in Catholicism in particular to reconcile the evolutionary timeline now widely accepted by even religious people with the descriptions in the opening of the Book of Genesis. These range from the eccentric readings of Teilhard de Chardin to the more orthodox interpretations of the contemporary Vatican. Mostly these attempts discard the literal interpretations of the sacred books to only maintain the bare kernel (supposedly) needed for a particular metaphysical or theological argument. In other words, they just ignore the Bible altogether and run with whatever they need to keep a particular doctrine (original sin, the primacy of heterosexual sex, etc.) afloat.

Aquinas’ victory against Siger of Brabant was thus a temporary one. For all intents and purposes, people today think that something can be true religiously but false in terms of secular reason. Or rather, one no longer looks to religion at all to explain the nature of one’s daily reality. The Red Sea may have parted, and Jesus may have walked on water, but in terms our actual lives, it’s all mathematics, physics, and chemistry. We may not even know how these things work, but we have faith in them all the same because they “deliver the goods,” literally. It’s not that there are two truths now: it’s that there is one truth (science) and another subordinate truth for things that science cannot explain. There is normal life, with religion as fire insurance for those who feel they need it.

It is thus no surprise that many freed from atavistic allegiances discard religion altogether. We will leave these folks aside and continue to talk about believers. The faithful cannot help but feel conflicted, but few have the emotional urge or intellectual honesty to engage with their cognitive dissonance. Religion then passes into the realm of good feelings or a “burning in the bosom”. While the orthodox believer might mock the “spiritual but not religious” agnostic, his own religious system is weakly propped up by inconsistency and perhaps wilful ignorance concerning the principles backing his core beliefs. His dogmas are completely disconnected from the world around him, and become increasingly diluted with the passing of each generation.

The question can be posed by the believer: If religion is so incredibly wrong about the nature of the stars or how humanity emerged in history, why would God be worth a damn? Was God lying in the Bible? Was He expressing truths that we cannot comprehend using symbols, and what would be the point of the literal interpretation being so divergent from actual reality? Is God a deceiver? For all of the use of Aquinas to defend reason in Christian religious circles, Aquinas could probably not imagine how wrong his views were concerning physical reality. It would simply not be in his mental wheelhouse to fathom the possibility.

If we left things there, it would be rather conclusive that secular rationalism won. But of course it hasn’t. As I write this a medieval-style plague has paralyzed the world. While we believe we know the biological mechanics of viruses in general, that is little consolation in the face of this particular virus that has caught our world off guard. For the militant secularist, this is a slight detour on the now Eternal Path of Progress. The average person, encompassed in a cycle of want and consumption, just wants a cure to be able to return to normal. For the more thoughtful, perhaps, the fact that entire nations are being brought down low by an invisible organism speaks to how fragile our mechanistic vision of the universe really is. It’s as if the old system was brought down, but a hollow if shiny one was erected in its place.

We have thus been stripped of our ancient religious defenses, but left with not much else but the illusion of speed and pyrotechnics. If we go fast enough, we won’t have to think about death. If we build enough gadgets to fill our lives, we won’t have to think of our empty universe. Something has to give. It seems to me that Christianity stripped itself of its own ancient symbolism, content to have Science do the heavy lifting of infusing a coherent cosmovision into the minds of its believers. Thomas may have been declared the victor, but Siger of Brabant is the man behind the curtain we are not supposed to pay attention to. Perhaps another reason why I have a hard time taking Catholicism seriously.

 


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2 responses

27 03 2020
ARC

Btw, I know you said in a previous post that you don’t feel like blogging consistently, so I just wanted to say that I like you blog a lot and will enjoy your posts however often you feel like putting them up!

26 03 2020
Karl

It strikes me that the only coherent way to reconcile evolution with Genesis is to state that the former is a post-Fall phenomenon, along with illness, predation, death etc. I’ve seen very few Catholics prepared to go this way, but it seems more of a thing in Orthodox circles.

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