Tuesday, March 16, 2004

Psychology of, & Reasons for Catholic & Christian Belief


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C. S. Lewis presupposed the existence of natural law and morality in his apologetics and argues that Christian morality merely builds upon what is already known by pagans and heathen (what he calls the "Tao" in his appendix of his book, The Abolition of Man).

St. Thomas Aquinas makes a (rather famous) clear distinction between natural law and revelation or faith. He argues, for example, that men can know that God exists from creation, but that a doctrine like the Holy Trinity can only be known through supernatural faith and revelation.

I think (as anyone would fully expect) that the theistic proofs are compelling and the atheist ones implausible and fallacious, yet I believe that the "psychological" aspects of belief (all sorts of belief, not just religious faith; i.e., epistemology) and the many many complex influences which make one believe what they do, "nullify" --in large part --, the clearness of the objective proofs qua proofs.

In effect, then, it would not be such a clear thing, either way, once these other non-philosophical influences and factors are taken into account. Nor (for largely the same reason) is it so straightforward (as some atheists seem to think), that if a person is presented with a fantastic miracle, that they automatically believe in God or Christianity. That is not the biblical teaching, nor what we have learned from human experience and history. And that is because every person comes to the table with a host of prior belief-paradigms and theoretical frameworks, and experiences, including the emotions and the will, which are not to be underestimated, either, in their effect on beliefs, in all people, of whatever stripe.

I think any belief is extremely psychologically and intellectually complex. I don't question anyone's sincerity or intellectual honesty. That's not the issue. Both sides have to come up with some reason why the "other guys" aren't convinced by the same evidence.

We all see things through an interpretive grid. We emphasize and tend to see and not see certain things according to what our prior position is. This is natural and it is not necessarily a bad thing. It simply is. It is the way brains and minds function: how they make sense of reality, and construct and organize the outer reality (whatever it really is) abstractly for themselves. I often see a parallel in philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn's classic analysis: The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. We all have paradigms that guide our perceptions. That is true in theology as well as in science. One has to overthrow the paradigm to see things fundamentally differently. And before that happens it is extremely difficult to even see, let alone comprehend another framework, theory, or worldview.

And this is because worldviews and theories start with different assumptions. Then the house is built upon those foundational assumptions. Therefore, I don't have to assert that Protestants are "dishonest" or "stupid" because they can't see what I take to be evident realities about certain of the Fathers' views on various doctrinal matters, and so forth. They see what they have been conditioned to see, based on their own presuppositional grid.

And the Catholic does the same from his Catholic grid. I have never denied this. I believe it about all fields of knowledge, across the board. I understand the Protestant position on this because I used to hold it myself. I can see both sides, having held both. I think it is a worthwhile exercise, however, to compare two paradigms and try to determine relative plausibility and factuality.

I regard Christian faith as an extraordinarily complex phenomenon, arrived at (apart from the absolutely necessary and definitive grace of God, of course; speaking strictly of the human, intellectual reasons one would give for having adopted Christianity) by many, many factors, some of which are rational in nature, some not; some intellectual, and others "psychological" or "environmental."

Some critics of the Catholic Church seem to think that Catholics believe Catholicism is "clear as day" and that anyone who doesn't see this and convert is a scoundrel, dishonest, pulls the wings off of flies, etc. I have responded that I follow Cardinal Newman's philosophy. For Newman and for myself, conversion (to Christianity in general or to Catholicism in particular) is an extraordinarily complicated process.

In a limited, theoretical (one might say, "human") sense, no knowledge is absolutely positively certain. But that's from the outlook of mere reason and philosophy in and of themselves, not the "eyes of faith," so to speak. Christians possess certainties by faith, which the outsider does not have, and in many cases is not even able to comprehend, let alone accept.

So when I claim that I am "open-minded" and would consider a possibility (however remote -- and it assuredly is) that Catholicism is wrong, I am going as far as I can go in abstractly arguing philosophically, or "historically." I would contend that the very fact that Christianity is -- by nature -- unavoidably and intrinsically historical and reasonable, and that the apostles (following the lead of Jesus) sought to bring forth real reasons and evidences for faith, presupposes that it is also possible to disprove Catholicism and Christianity in general. If we can offer no proofs from reason, history, OT Scripture, etc., then we are engaging in pure fideism (faith without any reasons whatsoever), in which case, Christianity cannot be disproven, either. I don't think that this is the case, and that if it were, Christianity would possess far less credibility than it does now, from the perspective of the unbeliever.

Sometimes it is implied that anyone who takes a certain view and defends it is special pleading; therefore not seeking after truth. That would mean that the only honest intellectual stance is agnosticism or skepticism or relativism. This I vehemently reject. One mustn't be so "open-minded" that their brains fall out. It is illogical to believe that once one feels that they have discovered a certain amount of "truth," that they are no longer seeking truth per se. This may be true of certain individuals, of course, but it can't be shown to be generally true, nor does it have to necessarily be true.

One must be willing in principle to overthrow one's own views if it is warranted by the evidence, even though in matters of faith it is admittedly exceedingly unlikely.

Like Bishop Butler (Analogy of Religion) and Cardinal Newman, my epistemology and religious faith (insofar as it is connected with reason) is based on (in Baptist theologian Bernard Ramm's words) "brute fact . . .The ultimate data of religion must be of the same stuff as the ultimate data of science." This has always been my view, for 21 years now, and it didn't change when I became a Catholic. It didn't have to. I have developed it through the years, of course, but it hasn't fundamentally changed.

My own view on philosophy is essentially syncretistic. My apologetics are based in the notion of accumulated evidences adding up to a great deal of overall plausibility, which is, in turn incorporated into the faith which goes beyond reason.


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