Published in Faith and the Life of the Intellect, ed. Curtis L. Hancock and Brendan Sweetman (Washington: The Catholic University of America Press, 2003), Chapter 9, pp. 187-209.
James V. Schall, S. J.
Georgetown University, DC., 20057-1200
FROM CURIOSITY TO PRIDE: ON THE EXPERIENCE OF OUR OWN EXISTENCE
The metaphysical proofs of God are so remote from the reasoning of men, and so complicated, that they make little impression; and if they should be of service to some, it would be only during the moment that they see such demonstration; but an hour afterwards they fear they have been mistaken. Quod curiositate cognoverunt superbia amiserunt. This is the result of the knowledge of God obtained without Jesus Christ; it is communion without a mediator with the God whom they have known without a mediator. Whereas those who have known God by a mediator know their own wretchedness.
-- Pascal, Pensées, #542.1
The ground of existence is an experienced reality of a transcendent nature towards which one lives in tension.... There is that openness of the soul in existence which is an orienting-center in the life of man.... We all experience our own existence as not existing out of itself but as coming from somewhere even if we don't know from where.
-- Conversations with Eric Voegelin, 1980.2
In a famous passage at the beginning of his Metaphysics, Aristotle observed that "all men by nature desire to know. An indication of this is the delight we take in our senses; for even apart from their usefulness they are loved for themselves" (980a23-24). This rather laconic passage in one of the greatest of all books is, none the less, on examination, charged with surprise. It is not just that we know but that we "desire" to know. We know that we know; we know that we desire to know; we know that desiring to know is not knowing. And the proof of this "desire" is nothing less than the "delight" we take in our very knowing. The correspondence between knowing something and the delight in knowing something intimates an unanticipated relationship, something that perhaps need not exist but, when it does exist, indicates some kind of plan or order that is already present in us without our causing it. We simply notice that it is there.
Furthermore, we do not just want to "know," but to know something. In the beginning our mind is the famous "tabula rasa," that alive power with nothing in it, a blackboard with nothing written on it. Our mind seeks to be informed, to be written on, as it were. Our very act of knowing itself depends on our first knowing something that is not itself an empty "knowing" but a something out there, something capable of being known. Aristotle already distinguishes here between what is useful for us and what is somehow beyond use, something that is delightful by its own experience, something we would do even if it were not also useful. We would still want to see, he tells us elsewhere, even if we did not delight in seeing. Furthermore, he notices that what is for its own sake is more important than what is useful for something else. The things that are for their own sakes are more worthwhile, more elevated. When we know something, affirm it, we are, on reflection, surprised that things in us are working, that in their working they delight us.
Aristotle is not giving us here a "theory" of knowledge. Rather he is guiding our attention to what it is we regularly do if we would only pay attention, only reflect on our own reality and its constituent activities. From the first, our own reality, which is most immediate to us, is a reality that knows and delights in knowing. We do not begin our knowing, moreover, primarily out of need, or fear, or physical desire, as we might at first suspect. These things too can eventually be things or experiences that incite us to know, but our knowing them is not itself a fear or a desire or a need. Knowing what fear is, for instance, is not the same as being frightened at something. The former is a knowledge and we delight in knowing it. Knowing what fear or need or desire is involves knowing *the fullness of what we already are. We find that we can examine ourselves while knowing. Aristotle compares the light of seeing with the light of knowing. What is not us enlightens us, yet the light is also in us.
There is more. "Nulla est homini causa philosophandi, nisi ut beatus sit," as Augustine put it in The City of God (Bk. XIX, 1). The very reason we philosophize, why we seek to know what is, to know the order of the whole in which we ourselves exist, is in order that we might be happy. Otherwise, we would not take the trouble to know. To be happy means that we are experiencing and directing our given faculties to operate on their proper objects, neither of which have we ourselves made. Aristotle had told us in his Ethics that the reason why we do all we do is precisely in order that we might be happy so that our lives are nothing less than an unavoidable examination of the things that might fulfill this search. "A man who is puzzled and wonders thinks himself ignorant," Aristotle realistically added. (982b37). This recalls Socrates' paradoxical wisdom, the knowing what he did not know.
To be puzzled and to wonder about things, evidently, indicate our condition, what we are to be about. On first being ourselves, we begin by not knowing, but we want to know. Our ignorance discontents us but we are pleased that it does. "For it is owing to their wonder that men both now begin and at first began to philosophize" (982b12). The study of the science that has no other purpose but to know is the free science, the first science, the one that exists for its own sake, only to know, and to delight in this knowing what it can know. Aristotle, in a marvelous insight, notes that it is this same wonder that caused men first to philosophize that now causes us to philosophize, to come alive, to become luminous to ourselves by knowing what is not ourselves.
The mind is a faculty of a certain kind of being. There are beings that know and know even when they also sense and feel. These beings are ourselves. "God, having made the heavens and the earth, which do not feel the happiness of their being," Pascal wrote, "He has willed to make beings who should know it, and who should compose a body of thinking members" (#482). We are capable of knowing all that is; we are capax omnium. We are designed so that what is not ourselves can, in the order of our knowing, become ourselves. We are not deprived of all things just because we are limited and finite things in our own make-up. To know is to be and to be ourselves in a fuller manner.
Yet, when we know, we do not change what is known. What is known remains what it is, unless we, with the help of our knowing, act upon it to change it. But if we are capable of knowing all things, including reflectively something of ourselves, of knowing that we too exist, that we too are not nothing, nevertheless we know that we do not cause ourselves to stand outside of nothingness or cause ourselves to be what we are. That we are and what we are, both are given to us. They are the starting points of our mind's searching for what is; they are not the ending points of our own making. We know what we make; but we find ourselves already made, intricately made and ordered. This too puzzles us. What we are seems to bear imprints from beyond what we are, almost as if we were also somehow "words," somehow intelligible in our own uniqueness.
In English, at least, the phrases to be "curious" and to "wonder" can have the same meaning, but often, the former word, curiosity, has a slightly pejorative tinge. It means to be overly meddlesome or prying into things beyond proper bounds. Socrates was accused of this very vice. Perhaps, like Prometheus' stealing of fire from the gods to aid man, there is a kind of defiance or challenge to the gods contained within much of our curiosity. The latter phrase, to "wonder," has a more innocent connotation to it. It is more accepting of what we are, even in our initial not knowing. Wonder indicates an honesty, an admission that we do not know something other than the fact that it is there, without our putting it there. Wonder also suggests that the desire to find out the reasons for things is essential to what we are. Rather it simply is what we are in our fullness or completion. In knowing, we remain substantially ourselves. We do not want to be some other sort of being, even when we know about other sorts of beings within ourselves.
We delight in knowing what is not ourselves as if somehow this knowing of something not ourselves is designed to constitute our perfection, our happiness even. We notice, furthermore, that we do not know even ourselves directly. Nothing is more sobering, or more fascinating, than this realization that we only know ourselves indirectly. We know ourselves, as it were, reflexively in the very process of knowing something else. We are luminous to ourselves only when we are actually knowing what is not ourselves. We are, so to speak, given ourselves because we are given what is not ourselves. This is the grounding of both our dignity and our humility.
Things not ourselves in our knowing make us aware of ourselves, make us aware that it is an "I" that is knowing. My very self knows that I am a self, that I have a soul, that I look out on the world. And what most fascinates us in our own knowing, even of ourselves, is when it is another "I" that is being known. The whole drama of love and friendship, yes of hatred and enmity, begins here. Thus, we seem to disclose an order in our parts that leads everything we encounter back to our knowing faculty, to a power we have, which power, in turn, contains for us all that is not ourselves. Truth, as Plato says in The Republic, is "to say of what is that it is, and of what is not, that it is not." When we say of what is that it is, it is we who say it. That is, the what is, while remaining itself, also becomes luminous in our own to be, in our own reality. We wonder if somehow everything does not belong to us in some way. We wonder about this paradox wherein our seeming paucity of being is related to all actual beings.
Yet, the difficulty in knowing and knowing accurately and fully does, in fact, make us, as Pascal said, "wretched." Some of our greatest thinkers, like Descartes, because they begin with thinking and not with thinking something, are forced to examine the suspicion that we are simply deceived in all we do. But if it were true that we are deceived in our very faculties, in all we know, we wonder why then we can consider the proposition that "it is true that we are deceived?" Descartes grandiose insight carries with it an implicit contradiction. Why are we not deceived about being deceived? Is it because in fact that, about basic things, we are not deceived unless we choose to be? "There are things and I know them," is the truth Gilson taught us adamantly to affirm in the face of every sort of skeptic, including Descartes.
In what then does our wretchedness consist? Surely it does not consist in knowing the truth of our condition, in knowing what John Paul II called "the whole truth about man." Nor does our wretchedness consist in knowing and in delighting in knowing. For when we know and delight in knowing, we are least wretched and most ourselves. Again to know that we are wretched is itself, like all knowledge, a good. Aristotle said that the greatest of our crimes do not come from hunger, but from a lack of philosophy, or perhaps from the wrong philosophy. The pagans knew of the mystery of our wretchedness. The Jews knew of the Fall. We know of original sin and are surprised that it pertains to us, even when we know that it does. Perhaps the greatest perplexity of philosophy is its inability to propose a solution to the evil that we keep encountering in our souls, generation after generation.
Pascal, aware of these issues, said that what little we could know through genuine curiosity could subsequently be lost by our pride. What did he mean here? He did not mean that we could not know some things, even the proof for God. He knew that there were proofs that, in themselves, did hold water, however difficult the holding. Pascal meant that, at some point, we could impose ourselves on the world as its cause, as the source of its order or at least its potential order. He understood that it was possible for us to want to rival God Himself and to want to set out to do so. This is what pride, superbia, meant. It meant reversing the order of our knowing by making our artistic or creative capacities, legitimate in their own order, to be superior to our knowing capacities that themselves required something else not themselves to flourish, that is, reality itself. Our temptation is to be like gods, not merely in establishing by ourselves the distinction of good and evil, to recall Genesis, but in formulating the distinction between what is and what is not. We wanted to say, in Plato's sense, of what is, that it is not, so that we would not be ourselves dependent on what is in what we do.
Our ultimate wretchedness consists, then, in mis-understanding what we are, in refusing to live what we are. Hell, thus, is not directly a consequence of God's judgment or of the structures of the world, but of our own choice to define what we, and hence the world, are. The worst thing that could happen to us, Plato told us, would be freely to accept a lie in our souls, knowingly to say of what is not, that it is; and of what is, that it is not. But this mis-understanding of what we are, to repeat, is a chosen mis-understanding. It does not happen apart from our willing. It is not neutral or innocent. Here is the source of the real wretchedness that afflicts us, the condition of our wills. Our God, in pride, is, to recall Pascal, without a mediator. Our communion with God, we claim, by-passes revelation. We affirm our own happiness. Our own minds are our only mediators with divinity.
We exchange what is for what what it is we choose to think. And how exhilarating it is! The first chapter of Nietzsche's Beyond Good and Evil is entitled, "On the Prejudices of the Philosophers." In it Nietzsche wrote, excitedly, yet ironically, "... when a philosophy begins to believe in itself, it always creates the world in its own image; it cannot do otherwise. Philosophy is this tyrannical drive itself, the most spiritual will to power, to 'creation of the world', to causa prima."3 It is interesting to observe that this philosophy that "creates the world" begins, in Nietzsche's view, precisely when "it begins to believe in itself." It begins not in power but rather in a "spiritual will."
And this claim of self-mediation, of creating in "its own image," in the actual order of things, invariably leads to pride, to making ourselves to be gods, causa prima, to the freedom to mis-interpret everything that is. It must lead in this direction because we implicitly deny something necessary in ourselves and about ourselves that enables us to know, after our limited manner of knowing, the truth about the real God. It is at this point where philosophy is important. Something evidently also philosophical is presupposed to enable us to know what God might want us to know about His inner life were it freely to be presented to us. The communion, Pascal says, is with the God known without mediator. But who is this "God known without a mediator?" Surely it is the God of pride.
Pascal hints that it is the God without the Cross; that is to say, our theories require another kind of God than the one that is. "Come down from the Cross and we will adore you!" were words shouted at the Crucifixion, words that, had their taunts been actually carried out, would not have resulted in the said adoration of the shouters. These words again hint at the ultimate temptation, namely, that those who "know" God in some sense as philosophers, that is, without a mediator, refuse to accept the way God in fact deals with men when they begin to suspect, even as philosophers, what it is. The Word made flesh who dwells amongst us establishes the communion with the God that is, with He who is. The knowledge of our wretchedness, of our inability to know what we truly want to know, is, however, precisely what enables us to know God who in fact takes on our wretchedness. The mystery of suffering, of the Cross, even in the philosophic order, is the beginning of wisdom. "Man learns by suffering," as Sophocles wrote.
If we wonder and if we are puzzled, it is because we seem to encounter an order, the structure of which we do not yet understand. We can, to be sure, impose our order on things. We can claim that our order is identical with the order of things or, more likely, establishes the only order they have. This is what ideology and pride are all about. We can impose an explanation on things that does not arise from things themselves but from ourselves. It arises from ourselves because we despair of finding reason in things or because we refuse to admit that there is an order addressed to us, an order of which we are not the cause. We see that an order alien to us, that is, an order we did not make, may require of us, since we are part of that very order, a reordering of how we live. There exists a tension between our order and what is. We notice this tension when something in our own explanation does not square with what is not ourselves, with what is. The very fact that we must revise our theories indicates that they are subject to testing from outside ourselves. But it also suggests that we do know something. The most important thing about us is not our curiosity or our wonder, but what we conclude as a result of their incentive in us.
We are, it is said, question-forming animals. Some would even suggest that this is our highest definition of ourselves -- man, the animal who questions, animal quaerens. Linus is scrunched down in his bean-bag seat reading a book. Lucy, his usually petulant sister, is standing placidly behind him. "You don't care anything about anybody!" he admonishes her out of his book. Suddenly steamed up, he leaps out of the seat, points his finger at her, and yells, "You never show any interest in what anyone else is doing.... You never ask questions." In the next scene, he carries on eloquently, more soberly, "You never ask me what I'm reading, how I'm doing in school, where I got my new shoes...." Looking right at Lucy who retains her unmoved expression, Linus' rhetorical embellishment again grows, "You never ask me what I think about something, or what I believe, or what I know, or where I'm going, or where I've been, or anything!" Finally, having said his piece, Linus walks away, still muttering, "If you're going to show interest in other people, you have to ask questions." In the next to the last scene, Lucy is standing all by herself, looking rather contrite but bemused. In the final scene, Linus is back on his bean-bag seat reading. She walks up to him, bending toward him familiarly. As he turns slightly around, obviously with some consternation in his eyes, Lucy asks him, "How have you been?"4
If we reflect on these amusing scenes, we find all the great questions there -- even, above all, the fact that there are questions, puzzles, wonderments. Questions are expected, questions about what we think, about what we are, about what we believe. Interest in people means asking them questions. Lucy's question -- "how have you been?" -- is, of course, in context, the most difficult question of all for us to answer, even more difficult than what one believes or knows or does. Lucy asks Linus the "being" question. It could mean, "how did you come to be?" Or more probably, "give me an account of your inner self, of the state of your being." One suspects that to answer Lucy's question adequately we need to be ourselves divine. This is why, after all his flourish, Linus is not prepared for it.
What do we believe? What do we know? These are indeed philosophic questions, but, as Linus shows us, questions that are fundamental for everyone, even non-philosophers. St. Thomas says that one of the reasons for revelation was the general condition of men in this present life, the difficulty of knowing, the limited time we have to know, the busy-ness of life that makes knowing so distracting and difficult. Chesterton says that Christianity is "democratic" in this sense that recognizing the rarity of good philosophers, it did not leave everyone else in the lurch when it came to ultimate things. Yet, Christianity is also directed to the philosophers, to the limitations of their knowing, to the wretchedness that envelops even the philosophers.
Faith and the intellectual life of man are often posed as if they were in conflict with each other, as if we had to choose one or the other. We could not be both philosophers and believers. We must, it is said, walk by faith or by reason, but not by both. Kierkegaard, in a famous phrase, itself designed to recall St. Augustine's famous phrase, when asked why he believed, responded, "credo quia absurdam." St. Augustine had explained, "credo ut intelligam." Christian thought in particular, and this is what is perhaps most unique about it, has always juxtaposed the two ideas "fides quaerens intellectum" and "intellectus quaerens fidem." They belong together. If we believe, we are still to use our minds; indeed we use them better. If we think, we wonder about what it is that we cannot seem to figure out even with the best of our own powers and efforts. Knowing also leads to wondering.
In all of this back and forth between reason and faith, we are mindful of St. Thomas's phrase that "grace builds on nature." He assures us that "nature and grace are not contradictory." The proof of his assurance is to show us one case in which they are. If things of God appear to be "absurd," or if, to use St. Ignatius' phrase, "what is black is said (by faith) to be white," we are aware that the black and the absurdity are never understood to indicate chaos or disorder or lack of intelligence. What is absurd turns out, after long examination, to lead to something that makes sense, something that we would not otherwise have known without wondering about, examining what is revealed. If grace builds on nature, nature is something that must be attended to in its own order, for its own sake. Even the philosophical denial that there is a nature, an order of secondary causes, is a philosophic statement that can and must be examined with the same reason that proposes and justifies the denial.
If we are going to have an intellectual life at all, therefore, it is necessary, to recall Linus' admonitions, to pose questions to oneself and to others, to pose and to listen to and examine the answers given to the questions. Those who merely question with no expectation of or concern for answers are not really questioning. They have already taken a view of the world that sees it as intrinsically chaotic or irrational. Revelation is not designed to destroy reason, though it may indirectly have the effect of revolutionizing reason, especially a reason proud in its own independence. The status of reason addressed by revelation is in fact to become more, not less, reasonable. No doubt, it will seem unjust to the philosopher to learn that his lack of belief, his serene autonomy as a philosopher, may in fact be what most prevents him from being a philosopher, assuming that a philosopher is not someone who refuses to look at or think about something simply because it is said to be revealed. The refusal to examine revelation is part of the refusal to examine all that is. The philosopher remains someone willing to look at, think about whatever is.
What role does faith have in the intellectual life? The answer I will suggest here is that revelation will make the intellectual life more intellectual. At the same time, it will make it less prone to substitute its own speculations about unanswered questions for more plausible and sensible answers to the same questions presented by revelation. Both revelation and philosophy do claim to be, purport to be explanations of reality. They cannot simply ignore or deny each other's claims on the grounds that their origins are different.
What is being said here? In Lecture Nine of "University Teachings," in The Idea of a University, Newman wrote: "Christian truth is purely of revelation; that revelation we can but explain, we cannot increase, except relatively to our own apprehensions; without it we should have known nothing of its contents, with it we know just as much as its contents, and nothing more. And as it was given by a divine act independent of man, so it will remain in spite of man."5 Without the contents of revelation, Newman emphasizes, we should know nothing of its particular contents by ourselves. We would be thrown back on philosophy alone for an explanation of things. Once we know something of the contents of revelation, it is possible for us to examine what they might mean and how they might relate to things about which philosophers have thought. In other words, it is possible to compare what revelation has proposed to man with the claims of other religions and philosophies about these same issues. It is possible to make a rational judgment about the plausibility and superiority of one to the other on grounds that are, properly, philosophic.
What is revealed is given apart from any contribution of man and will remain what it is. Does this position mean that the non-believing philosopher is, by definition, unable to deal with revelation? Not quite, I think. In one sense, no doubt, philosophy can organize itself, once it knows something of what revelation says of itself -- this is public knowledge, after all -- so that it is impossible to believe because within philosophy certain positions are deliberately or implicitly taken that make belief impossible. In this sense, the rejection of revelation stands on philosophic grounds whose premises can be examined for their truth.
Christianity, for example, is to some degree dependent for its credibility on miracles. We are long familiar with certain notions of science that are said to make it impossible to know or accept miracles or their possibility. Since this or that scientific theory is true, it is said, miracles are not possible. One preliminary Christian response to this position would be that since miracles, on the basis of evidence, do happen, there must be something wrong with the "theory" that denies their possibility. Reductionism means, in general, that we can only hold what our methodology allows us to hold. Reality is a function of our methods, not of itself. The problem here, of course, is not with miracles but with methodology, hence with philosophy.
Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular has been a religion in which philosophy played a special role. Christianity, unlike Islam and Judaism, was not a revelation of a law but of a teaching, a truth. What mattered was not primarily the observance of the dictates of a law but what was understood about God, man, and the world. Revelation was intended for everyone, including the philosophers. Indeed, in the Christian scheme of things, the philosopher performed a particularly important role. He was not, as Newman indicated, to change what was revealed, which did not properly fall under his jurisdiction or competency except to the extent that revelation did present itself as a coherent body of knowledge or understanding that could be fruitfully examined.
The Christian Creeds and explanations of Christian beliefs and practices have long been reduced to orderly and intelligible concepts, themselves analogously or directly related to the subject matter they express. They may yet be capable of more clarity or perfection but as they stand they represent a tremendous work of reason reflecting on, further explaining what was revealed. This corpus is not something the true philosopher, concerned with all that is, can simply ignore as if it did not exist. Any deliberate refusal to confront these articulated positions indicates a refusal of intellect to examine all that is, to examine its own object.
It is said since at least Henry VIII that the British Crown bears the title Defensor Fidei. Whether it has done a good job at this noble task leads to remarkable reflections involving the papacy and the abidingness of doctrine over the centuries. It may even lead to the conclusion that the faith has not been adequately defended by this institution. Strictly speaking, the philosopher, unlike certain kings, would not want to be called a "defender of the faith." The faithful man who is also a philosopher does not admit that the two "sides" in him, reason and revelation, are incoherent. He does not wish to be an Averroist in any form. This rejection of any "two truth" theory wherein, within the same soul, contradictories could be true is typically Thomist in philosophy and theology. That is to say, philosophy and revelation, since they reside in the same being, have an intimacy and coherence within the same person that allow for a retention of their distinction of origin and purpose and their inner relationship. The philosopher does not want to, nor can he, reason from his rational analysis to the truths of the faith such that he can assure us, by reason, that revelation is thinkable. The philosopher's own modus credendi cannot be the approval by his own reason of the truths of revelation, as if it were his reason that makes them thinkable. Some things the philosopher still must believe, even when he understands under the impetus of revelation.
Thomas Aquinas talked of certain philosophical truths that he called the "preambula fidei." One of the shocks that medieval theologians, Christian, Muslim, and Jewish, got from the discovery of the Greek classics, particularly Aristotle and Plato, was that the human mind, on its own, as it were, seemed to be able to know much more about the highest things, including God, than they had ever anticipated from reading the Books of Revelation themselves. Many theologians even wondered if Plato in particular did not have some sort of private revelation that would have guided him to his great explanations of the Good and the Beautiful and the Just. They were reluctant to admit that his lofty knowledge was the product of mere reason.
Aquinas, looking at Aristotle, did not think that one needed to resort to revelation to explain the extraordinary power of the human mind as instanced in an Aristotle. Indeed, Aquinas thought rather that it was not to the glory of God to downplay the works of God, especially those lodged in man. What this means in practice is that the work of the philosopher is at its best a great work. One might even expect that the meeting of reason and revelation might require in some sense that the best in philosophy be articulated before we might appreciate fully what is revealed. It is a perfection of the natural intellect, as it were, to arrange itself before truth, before what is, in such a way that it can be prepared to receive revelation after the manner in which revelation can be received by philosophy. Revelation is never received by philosophy as if its conclusions must be accepted by reason. Rather it is received by philosophy as if its conclusions are in fact at least possible or plausible answers to questions that reason has already asked itself but could not adequately resolve by itself.
The philosopher is said to seek a knowledge of the whole within which he himself exists. His questions, ever prodding, come from within the whole. They are his questions about his existence, his purpose. Even if he understood the whole, he would be aware that he is inside this same whole and not outside of it in a position to establish what it is in the way it is. If we speak of philosophy having limits, we do so against the background of the capacity of the mind to know, as Aristotle defined it, "all things." If philosophy is the love of wisdom, the love of truth, it does not want to deceive itself. It does not want to will what is not to be true merely to justify its own claim to know all things. This imposition of its own will on reality as its explanation would somehow skewer the mind's own direction towards what is.
Pride, we intimated earlier, means that we make ourselves the cause for the existence of and distinction in things. Perhaps it can be said that pride is the vice most dangerous to the philosopher. Surely Augustine and Paul thought this to be the case. On the other hand, the things that are most close to divinity are naturally the most delicate and, for that reason, the most dangerous. At the same time, they are the most glorious. The whole enterprise of creation as it is understood from the revelational side seems to intimate to us that the most dangerous creatures, both of men and angels, are the most spiritual ones. This is why, most often, it seems that certain moral and philosophical positions seem to be most rashly defended. For, if they are refuted or shown to be inconsistent or contradictory, it means that the possibility at least of the truth of revelation is unavoidably presented for rational consideration. The struggles of the philosophers thus are not usually or simply philosophical quibbles. They are most often last ditch stands that are openly or covertly seen as the only remaining reasons why our lives as we have lived them are justified, why they ought not to be changed because of what is revealed to us.
The intellectual life, no doubt, must be taken with some pleasantness if we are ever to see its relation to revelation. Evelyn Waugh recounts the story in his, for our purposes, marvelously titled autobiography, A Little Learning, in which he shows what a "dangerous thing" it is. He is in his college days at Hertford where the, to Waugh, distasteful subject of school spirit comes up. Waugh was suspected of a lack of said enthusiasm there. During a Freshman rally, a young man to whom Waugh refers as a "tipsy white colonial" -- which I suppose could be an American -- invaded his rooms threatening him and demanding to know "what he (Waugh) did for the college?" "I drank for it," was Waugh's quick and witty reply.6 Some questions thus have unexpected answers, answers that delight us. It is perhaps too not far-fetched to suggest that the relation of reason and revelation is like this, that our legitimate questions are given unexpected answers that delight us, or at least should delight us if we will them. Be that as it may, the unexpected answers bear with them a delight that often contrasts with the despair or solemnity of the question as originally and frequently asked in philosophy, itself still arriving, in spite of its multiple proposals, at no proper or feasible solution from reason alone.
If we look at revelation as philosophers, we cannot simply pretend that it does not exist, that some articulated, orderly presentation of its content is not a presence in the world for our consideration. It is present as something handed down, something that is consistent, coherent, unchangeable in its foundations, something that did not originate in philosophy and did not claim to do so. Whatever our final judgment about it may be, not to acknowledge its inner coherence and the terms of its self-understanding is to deny our philosophic vocation to consider all that is. While it is true, from the revelational point of view, as Newman noted, that this content and the fact of revelation's existence in the world has nothing to do with human initiative, none the less, it is addressed to human understanding and intellect in the sense that it can be understood and reflected on by philosophers who are not also believers in the revelation, though by the latter too.
Just as Christians can understand something of Judaism or Islam or Hinduism, so philosophers can understand something of the teachings or understandings offered by the great religions explaining themselves. Christianity in particular has been attentively reflected on by philosophers so that it does not stand without inherited philosophic depth. Contrariwise, believers are not free simply to ignore the claims and methods of the philosophers. This is not to deny that there may, in principle, be things in philosophy or in the human explanations of the revelational traditions that are not true. The philosophers and the theologians, taken as a group, do, on certain basic points, contradict each other. Sorting out these contradictions is one of the essential aspects of the adventure of truth, one of the reasons why philosophy remains essential to revelation's complete mission in the world. These contradictions may well mean, indeed in some cases must mean, that certain positions are not true and must be identified as such. But the judgment that something is not true does not mean that the position at issue had no meaning, that it was not a "plausible" error, so to speak. As an exercise in thought and reflection, error is well worth knowing. Indeed, as Plato and Aquinas imply, we cannot really know the truth of things unless we can also account for the errors related to the articulated truth. The real adventure of philosophy and theology is, in part, the understanding of positions that are "almost" true or that are true but only when seen in a whole context.
The link between reason and revelation cannot be, and is not presented to be, a necessary relationship such that human reason can "prove" the truths of revelation. For human reason to be able to do this "proving" would imply that this reason is, in fact, a divine reason. Nevertheless, human reason is a reason and as such capable of responding to the divine reason if in fact it is presented to it in some fashion. And while belief in the truths of revelation requires grace, what is revealed does not demand the denial of intellect, but fosters it. Since it is a fact of divine revelation that it need not have happened, human reason can find no "necessary" reason why it must have happened. This is why Aquinas will call many of his reasons for believing to be, on the philosophical side, "suasive," and not "necessary."
From the side of reason, however, itself looking for answers to its own legitimately formulated questions, revelation appears as but another possibility, or at least as another plausible answer to a perplexity that has remained unresolved by the philosophers. But it is a "possibility." In this lies the peculiar disturbance that all proper revelation gives to closed philosophic systems unwilling even to consider its possibility. And this refusal is what turns good philosophy into bad philosophy, into the embrace of contradictions it will not admit. The "bad conscience" of modern philosophy in particular consists in its unwillingness to admit that revelation appears as a response to its own best efforts. Nietzsche had it right: "Every profound thinker is more afraid of being understood than of being misunderstood. The latter may perhaps wound his vanity; but the former will wound his heart, his sympathy, which says always: 'alas, why do you want to have as hard a time of it as I have?'"7 The "wounded heart" and the "hard time" are perhaps signs of the despair of the philosopher, the "profound thinker," who has not discovered the truth and yet knows, again in his heart, that the path is of his own making.
The philosopher, in rejecting the "reason" contained within revelation, moreover, can always find some kind of alternate reason to justify his rejection. His dismissal of revelation will necessarily result in a counter-proposal or thesis to account for the original question. This philosophical alternative itself will be in some degree untrue and hence will have consequences within the order of reason itself, ultimately within the world when its prescriptions are carried out in time and place in ways that the philosopher did not anticipate. This is why, in modernity, there is a close correlation between the rise of ideology and the rejection of revelation or attenuation of faith.
How is it that Voegelin put it?
“Great masses of Christianized men who are not strong enough for the heroic adventure of faith,” Voegelin wrote,
become susceptible to ideas that could give them a greater degree of certainty about the meaning of their existence than faith. The reality of faith as it is known in its truth by Christianity is difficult to bear, and the flight from clearly seen reality to gnostic constructs will probably always be a phenomenon of wide extent in civilizations that Christianity has permeated.8
Ideology bears with it not the simple unknowing of the philosopher but the deliberate refusal to accept one plausible explanation of valid human questions. Both Voegelin and Nietzsche seem to think that Christian or former Christian thinkers are most susceptible to deviant or gnostic philosophic alternatives.
The reason for this susceptibility may very well be, as Strauss maintained, that the elevated expectations of faith remain even when faith itself becomes weaker.9 Hence, philosophy strives desperately to discover alternatives to the rejected or forgotten answers of revelation to the legitimate questions of philosophy. Thus, while revelation directs itself to reason, it does not command or necessitate it without grace and consent. It does leave the lingering sense that things do in fact fit together somehow because philosophy is at its best when prodded by revelation. It is, as it were, better than itself. But it does not and cannot, even under the prodding of revelation, forget its own humble origins in its Socratic not knowing, in its Thomist negative theology by which, as Josef Pieper said, we know the perfections of God only by denying the limits of the perfections that we do know.10 The experience of our own existence causes us to wonder both about why we are and why anything at all is. Our curiosity can lead us to pride in which we close ourselves in ourselves. We cannot remain closed within ourselves without justifying ourselves, justifying ourselves to the world, to the whole, to reason. Reason can examine what revelation says of itself, what it says about God, about eternal life, about resurrection, about virtue, about evil. It can also see that its own ponderings lead it to a wondering about things that it does not seem able to know or conclude. It can recognize that revelation's statements about itself are at least plausible answers to questions that arose independently of revelation.
Here lies the narrow gap, here is found the flickering light that philosophy can see, that can assure it that revelation is not totally implausible. The "heroic adventure of faith," as Voegelin called it, may be less tortuous than he postulated, however difficult it remains. "The flight from clearly seen reality," after all, is very the opposite of the trends and instincts both of Incarnation and of the philosophy of what is that it accepts from the philosophers and on which it bases itself. Revelation, in the end, is as much an affirmation of and concern for what is in all its human and material reality as it is a response to philosophy's own unanswered questions, questions that always arise from man's experience of existence in the world and from his unavoidable wonderments about its cause.