Tuesday, March 09, 2004

On the Will to Know the Truth (James V. Schall, S.J.)

Subtitle: "Newman on Why Men of Learning Often Do Not Believe"

In keeping with the results of the poll, I thought of this article right away. Psychology of belief or conversion is a vast and complicated and fascinating topic. I've written about it quite a bit in many places. But here is a guest post for now. I have abridged it because it is quite long, but those who want to discuss this in depth should follow the link above and read the entire article:
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Several years ago, in 1990, to be exact, some friends gave me for Christmas the Ignatius Press edition of Newman's Parochial and Plain Sermons. This is a book of almost inexhaustible depth and richness. On taking up this book again, I notice that I had, some time ago, put a mark on the Twenty-Fourth Sermon of the First Series. It is called "On the Religion of the Day." It begins, "In every age of Christianity, since it was first preached, there has been what may be called the religion of the world, which so far imitates the one true religion, as to deceive the unstable and unwary." Naturally, wishing neither to be "unstable" nor "unwary," I want to be sure that I have some idea of the subtleties of this religion of the world, which subtleties evidently can deceive even the elect because they "imitate" the "true religion."

. . . Newman already implies here that no age of Christianity will ever be quite free of this confusion between the true religion and its erstwhile imitators. True religion and truth, no doubt, have difficult going whenever and wherever men dwell. Here, it is intimated that to be successful, the religion of the world must imitate some or other aspect of true religion or else it will never attract anyone. On the other hand, since the imitation is not the true religion, it will contain something that is dangerous, something that will deflect us from the truth while looking rather much like it. We are again surprised that knowing the truth is so difficult. We wonder why.

We suspect at first that truth may be very complex and subtle so that the main problem is simply lack of intelligence or talent, something for specialists, not for us ordinary folks. But we notice, if we are at all sharp, that the cultured and academic unbelievers are many and articulate. It is not the experience of Christianity since its beginnings that the more intelligent one is, the more likely one is to be a believer. Yet, Christianity professes to be and is, more than any other, an intellectual religion, "In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God" . . . Such words from the Prologue to St. John suggest that the world is suffused with intelligence, with word.

. . . We have established a culture of choice not of reason. We do not want to bind ourselves even to truth. At the heart of reality, we hold that things could always be otherwise, not by virtue of their having been created by a divine will, but by virtue of their having no necessary connection with what we choose or limitation of what we want. Things, including our own nature, do not restrict us; we use them as we will. We teach these things in our universities, we live them in our daily lives. We will not admit that anything wrong is the result of what is known or of what is true. Wrong can only mean wrong for me. The "I" acknowledges no other criterion.

Thus, we are perplexed to learn that our happiness consists, according to, say, Aristotle, in knowing and in knowing the highest things. The moral virtues, even in being themselves, are intrinsically ordered to our knowing. We are to know things for their own sakes, simply because it is worthwhile knowing them.

. . . Why is the most dangerous of fallen spirits also among the most intelligent? The Thirteenth Sermon in the Eighth Series of this famous Newman collection is entitled, "Truth Hidden When Not Sought After." It begins with a famous quotation from Second Timothy in which St. Paul disturbingly tells us of those who "turn their ears from the truth," of whose claims to truth shall in fact become mere "fables." Here Newman brings up something that must often cause many to wonder and be concerned about. We know there are intellectual saints. Neither Augustine nor Aquinas, nor Newman himself, nor the present Pope, have need of yielding anything on the line of intelligence to any philosopher or wit of any era. Yet, we also know that Augustine, justly or unjustly, is often said to be the father of most heresies. At one time or another in his life, he embraced about every conceivable intellectual disorder. Thomas Aquinas was not much recognized in his lifetime. Today he is little studied except in a few isolated places. The most intellectual of all popes has unending opposition from what are said to be intellectuals, of indeed intellectuals who call themselves Christians.

. . . Aristotle had already pointed out that a slight error in the beginning of some science or philosophical position would, if not corrected, lead to a great error in the end. That is, this error would continue in the intellectual community. Its disorder would be expanded, developed, organized; its implications would be carried out in reality. Great systems of errors are often based on a very narrow fault or error, one that seems, to recall Aristotle, small in the beginning. From truth, truth follows, but from error anything can follow, as an old saying went. And of course, even truth can be rejected, though always in the name of another claimed truth.

What concerned Newman is not so much the errors themselves, but the fact that they occur most often in the academics, intellectuals, and, yes, in the clerics in so far as they too belong to the intellectual classes. This deviation of intellectuals concerned Newman because, like Aquinas, he was a great defender of truth and its dignity, philosophic or natural truth as well as the truth of revelation. Newman was not concerned, however, to set up some kind of organization or system to prevent this error from being spoken or propagated. Rather he was troubled by the souls of academics, intellectuals, and clerics themselves, in their deviation.

. . . Newman's point is clearly that intellect as such is often a temptation to pride and that many an academic or intellectual is consumed by it. But intelligence as such is a worthy thing. The fact that some, like St. Augustine or Aquinas, are Christian and intelligent would suggest that the essential concern that we have, whether we be an ordinary person or an intellectual, is how we live, how we respond to the graces we receive. It is not our IQ's that will save us, even though we are made to know, to know the truth, and to delight in it.

But it is true that what makes a difference is the way we live. Aristotle already said that our ability to see the truth often depends on our virtue. If we are disordered in our ends, in our choices, we will spend our lives not pursuing truth but rather in shrewdly using our minds to justify what we want to do. Yet, Newman warns us that faith is not easy, even though it is a grace and a gift. We can thus be somewhat disdainful of the academic skeptics while at the same time neglecting the real effort and work it takes for us to know what we ought to know.

. . . The society is filled, in all sorts of disciplines, with the baptized who display Ph.D.'s after their names. Yet their religious and philosophical background is almost at the level of a seven year old, if that. Often the highly-degreed reveal the simplest and crudest misunderstandings of basic truths of theology or history. If one's secular knowledge is in radical disproportion to the level of one's religious knowledge, there is bound to be trouble. (This is a problem I have dealt with in my Another Sort of Learning.) What Newman says on this point is quite blunt.

Let us consider for an instant how eagerly men in general pursue objects of this world; now with what portion of this eagerness do they exert themselves to know the truth of God's word? Undeniably, then, as is the doctrine that God does not reveal Himself to those who do not seek him, it is certain that its truth is not really felt by us, or we should seek Him more earnestly than we do. Nothing is more common than to think that we shall gain religious knowledge as a thing of course, without express trouble on our part.


No one expects to learn anything else without effort and discipline, so it is Newman's point that religious knowledge is not something that arrives from nowhere, without any effort on our part.

. . . Lest we think that Newman is speaking of a time utterly unlike ours, let us listen to his description of the man's mind who gives his justification for not honestly thinking through the validity of religious truth. Such truth is difficult to come by because it makes demands on us. We suspect that it will demand of us things we are not presently prepared to undertake. It is difficult because we have conjured up ready-made intellectual excuses that protect us in our implicit refusal to consider truth.

The present confused and perplexed state of things, which is really a proof of God's anger at our negligence, these men say is really a proof that religious truth cannot be obtained; that there is no such thing as religious truth, that there is no right or wrong in religion; that, provided we think ourselves right, one set of opinions is as good as another; that we shall come right in the end if we do but mean well, or rather if we do not mean ill (p. 1665).


These positions, of course, while written a century and a half ago, constitute an almost perfect contemporary intellectual description of what most of our contemporaries hold.

Newman's remedy for this condition is, we are astonished to learn, obedience, the most annoying of the commands that the Lord gives to the intellectual of any age. Newman warns us, however, about judging others, even the proud. "Unless we have faithfully obeyed our conscience and improved our talents, we are no fit judges of them at all" (p. 1666).

. . . If truth must first be sought after, as Newman tells us is the case, our seeking of it must recognize that truth first calls us. We do not create it. We find it, after having looked for it because we know that we do not possess it by ourselves.

This advice to obey, honestly follow conscience, and pray, we know, is not spoken to us by someone who does not know what intelligence and its temptations might be. Newman reminds us that there are those who are believers and who are also intellectuals. We need not be surprised that many intellectuals do not believe, or believe in false gods. This is neither new or unexpected. Yet, it is a betrayal of that good that intelligence can provide for others who do wonder about things and seek illumination about truth from those who claim to know.

But more is available to us about truth than we often are willing to admit if we have not formulated properly the questions for which our minds seek answers. We are all already redeemed, even those who reject redemption. The way is open, what is lacking is not grace, which is sufficient. Understanding our actual condition is the first step in our quest to know why truth is hidden when not sought after. "We are not under the law of nature, but under grace; we are not bid to do a thing above our strength, because, though, our hearts are naturally weak, we are not left to ourselves. According to the command, so is the gift. God's grace is sufficient for us" (p. 1668).

The primary sin of the intellectual is not the rejection of reason. The rejection of reason is normally the consequence of the rejection of grace, for once this is rejected then we must create fables to explain why reason and revelation, grace and nature, do not in fact fit together.
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For further study of Cardinal Newman, see my Newman Page: the most extensive collection of Newman links on the Internet.

Other related pages:

Scientific Materialism, Intelligent Design, and the Cosmological Argument

General Christian Apologetics and Worldview

Philosophy and Christianity

Agnosticism, Atheism, Humanism, and Secularism

C.S. Lewis: 20th-Century Christian Knight

G.K. Chesterton: The "Colossal Genius"

Also, two of my books (available for $6 each in Microsoft Word 97 format: sent to your e-mail):

Mere Christian Apologetics

Christian Worldview vs. Postmodernism

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