“THAT’S a Unicorn!”
I’ll never forget the moment in my Intro to Philosophy course at Hillsdale College when Dr. Stephens eviscerated one of the standard “gotcha!” arguments that I had deployed as a high-schooler. Luckily (or unluckily) for my freshman undergraduate ego, I was not the one who put it out there for him to put the blade to. Suffice it to say that any one of us sitting in the classroom on that Michigan autumn day could have blurted it out, and done so with the gusto and surety which are the unique province of college freshmen. But this was a lecture class, see, and that meant that the professor talked and we listened, because he knew things, and we didn’t. He was also a kind man, and I think he intentionally avoided letting any one of us say the dumb thing. It goes like this:
A: There are no such things as moral absolutes.
B: THAT’S a moral absolute! (drop the mic, walk away to the sound of great applause, receive laurel-wreath, revel in the sweetness of victory, and sign book-deal…)
Of course, all of us conservative Christian kiddos there assembled had used that one at some point or another and thought we were pretty smart to have done so. It was axiomatic in our minds that one of the main problems (if not the main problem) with atheists, liberals, postmodernists, &c. (the terms being somewhat interchangeable in our minds) was that they were stupid, having never realized that there had to be moral absolutes. All that one needed to do was carefully aim a logical freight train at them and open the boiler-valve. But then Dr. Stephens, with no regard for freshman life, gored this Adonis of an argument to death like a wild philosopher boar:
…but that’s absurd. Because the person who says that there are no moral absolutes is not making a moral statement; they’re making an existential statement. So to come back by saying “THAT’S a moral absolute!” is a lot like responding to someone who says, “There are no such things as unicorns,” by saying “THAT’s a unicorn!”
We all laughed. Everyone looked to his neighbor and fairly guffawed at the thought of some rube making a category mistake. How droll! Whittaker Chambers famously quipped that “innocence does not utter outraged shrieks; guilt does”; I think this could be re-tooled: “Nuanced wit does not guffaw; the butt of the joke does.” Most of us didn’t really know our category mistakes from a hole in the ground, mind you, but we laughed like we did. Inside our heads, though, Dr. Stephens, dressed in the weeds of Nathan the prophet, intoned with severity: “You are the rube!” We hoped that no one else knew.
And that, I am ashamed to say, was pretty much the first lesson I ever learned in academic humility. That was the first time that I can recall the message that I was not the paragon of truth and right ever getting through to me. Better late than never, I guess. As Socrates says, “he is wisest among you who knows that he knows nothing.” Every day thenceforward, I realized that I was getting wiser as I apprehended the depths of my own stupidity. It was a weird feeling. And it’s never abated. I don’t think I’ll ever get used to it.
Intro to Philosophy with Dr. Stephens ended up being one of the best classes I took in college. Really, there’s no better way for me to say it other than to employ the very pedestrian phrase “one of the best classes I took in college.” I feel like I should mean more than that, but I mean…just that. Je ne sais quois. I’m actually unable to express just what it was about that particular class that was so sublime. And this wordlessness is perhaps the essence of the thing: in Dr. Stephens’ class, I experienced wonder in a marked way. And wonder leaves you wordless. You move on from wonder newly aware that what once seemed like an ability was actually a handicap. Whatever soreness this might entail is overwhelmed, however, by the sensation of having just beheld a fourth primary color. Something that you couldn’t even begin to classify, that you couldn’t even have imagined existing that morning when you woke up, now lives in your head, and you can no longer imagine the universe without it. Wonder is like that.
Minoring in the majors
I didn’t go on to major in philosophy. I bounced around and dilly-dallied and took my dear sweet time until finally declaring a history major halfway through my junior year. Although I had enough credits to get a second major in English, they weren’t in the right English classes. To this day, though, for the sake of ease and being pretentious, I tell people that I majored in history and English. “But tis not true!” as Matthew Arnold once said…
…see? Yeah. What now? English.
In all seriousness, I took to heart (perhaps too earnestly) the crack made by some of my professors that “nobody cares what you majored in, and nobody knows what you minored in.” I took classes that appealed to me, and I took a major because I had to — they didn’t award generalist degrees at Hillsdale. Even though I didn’t major in philosophy, I did take a few classes, and I read a lot of the same material in history and literature classes (I must have read the Republic for four or five different classes when all was said and done). Having majored in history, I can’t really imagine that any study of history (or, for that matter, literature) would make much sense if one were not at least decently familiar with the arc of the philosophical tradition. To a certain degree, the converse is true, as well. Admittedly, this is all conjecture: I’ll never know, because I’ll obviously never be able to compare my actual experience of studying history with another one in which I go at it sans the control variable of a concurrent study of philosophy — that is, unless certain philosophers are right about multiverse theory.
Candidly, if you know me very well (especially if you’re one of my housemates from junior and senior year), you were probably smirking as you read the foregoing. Certain confreres especially will be thinking back to discussions from “The History and Philosophy of History” (HST 500 — yeah, we took the 1.0 release of that class) in which we discussed “principles of selection and arrangement” in the writing of history. Admittedly, my little story thus far has redacted such details as my being a horrendous slacker, partying too much, being depressed out of my mind more often than not, boomeranging between and among existential crises, and flirting with…all the girls. But the story is still true. Speaking of multiverse theory, there are a plethora of valid ways to complete the sentence, “College was mainly about….” Not an infinitude, but certainly a plethora. From among them I have chosen philosophy, at least for present purposes.
College was mainly about philosophy. This is no personal boast; it is, in fact, a succinct description of my alma mater. The college that I went to — or, to echo the wisdom of her president, Dr. Larry Arnn — the collegium of which I was a member was about the business of philosophy. Still is. Hillsdale College, for all her flaws, is all about the love of wisdom. And that’s what we were galvanized to be about when we were there. Yes, you could take it as a class — and I daresay you’d be better off if you did — but even if you didn’t, philosophy, the love of wisdom, was the vascular tissue which made all of the classes live and which lived through them. It was in a very real sense the final cause of everything we were learning. Therefore it should come as no surprise to anyone who knew me then or knows me now to learn that my greatest interest is, without a doubt…
But…why? I haven’t even mentioned theology yet. Well, it’s simple, really. In college I kept my faith. But I had to chase it down first.
Yes, yes, I am aware that it was more the Faith finding me and chasing me down (and administering righteous beatings), and that saying “first” makes the activity sound a) punctuated and b) finished, neither of which is true. But from a human existential perspective, my Christianity was not inevitable. I could have left the Church, but God kept me. No, He didn’t “keep me from leaving”; He just…kept me.
God kept me. Wisdom didn’t. See, wisdom visits you, but she doesn’t stay with you forever; in fact, she leaves you in the lurch at odd intervals throughout your life (or, as the case was, throughout the semester). After awhile, the jig is up: you realize (to quote the philosopher Yorke) that you do it to yourself, you do. And that’s what really hurts, is that you do it to yourself — just you and no one else.
After awhile, you realize that Lady Wisdom is impersonal. It’s hard to love her. We humans are just not much good at loving anything or anyone that doesn’t love us. “Loving wisdom” ends up being a one-way street. You fawn over her but she never seems to return the affection. Of course, it doesn’t start out that way. At first it seems like she’s really interested in you. Get to know her, though, and the sickening realization starts to dawn upon you that the two of you really don’t have as much in common as you thought. A bad breakup follows. And then you’re alone, and it’s not good for man to be alone, no matter what Sartre said in that one play of his that you quoted in a paper once but never read. So you get cynical, and you start smoking Natives and drinking Grand MacNish out on the front porch, even though it’s six degrees below zero. And this isn’t after you work on your thirty-page term paper(s). It’s instead.
You can’t handle the truth
Very well, then — why theology? How theology? How now, brown cow? In good time. First, a working definition is in order.
What is theology? In the most rudimentary terms, theology is God-talk. And that definition is about as helpful as a hole in the head. It could be further elucidated as “speech or language about God,” but you’re not going to carve much with that blunt of a tool. Except maybe a hole in your head or that of a close friend. Brief definitions really seem to fall short here. With that said, ever since I first encountered the short encapsulation from the Egyptian monastic Evagrius Ponticus, I’ve not been able to gainsay it: “If you are a theologian, you will pray truly. And if you pray truly, you are a theologian.” I find that so arresting.
When he catches a glimpse of Goodness, Truth, and Beauty, the philosopher wants more — and this is understandable! After all, goodness is so good, truth so true, and beauty so very gorgeous. But as the philosopher Jagger says, you can’t always get what you want. When faced with the same, the theologian can do nothing but pray. “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high, I cannot attain it” (Psalm cxxxix, 6).
If you accuse me at this point of blurring the lines, I won’t fight you. I am doing exactly that. I’m suggesting that much of what you have thought of as philosophy has, in fact, been theology in this primal sense. That’s almost surely a good thing. And, for good or for ill, the converse is likely true as well. But don’t ask me for specific instances of such conflation. I’m a dyed-in-the-wool Kirkian; as such I can only diagnose the problem in the vaguest of terms and then propound exactly zero solutions…
Even so, I’ll try to make another parabolic pass at a definition:
Theology is to the Church as philosophy is to the world. Before you jump all over me, let me insist that mine is no Manichaean division — the world is not essentially evil, just as human nature is not essentially evil, but rather corrupted. Philosophy is good, too. It’s an expression of the Law, the permanent “Is” and the eternal “Ought”, and the Law is holy, righteous, and good. But you are not.
Whatever else the Law does, it always accuses you. It is true that it also grants clarity to the vision, yes. But the thing that you’re going to see most crisply and clearly with that Law-clarified vision is your reflection in the mirror that it holds ever and anon before your face. And you’re not going to like what you see. We must never forget that without the Gospel, the Law is no guide. It is a mute and soulless idol. It speaks no comfort to those who are perishing; it’s a curb, a mirror, and a millstone.
The great irony of the human experience, though, is that man sans Gospel is almost always a far more fulsome devotee of the Law-as-guide (or at least of his truncated image of it) than is the Christian, even though it is not really guiding him in any ultimate sense, not really shepherding his soul. “Nonsense!” you might say. “Some of the greatest philosophers that ever lived were Christian saints!” This is true. Do remember, though, that even the Angelic Doctor, St. Thomas Aquinas, compared his Summa Theologica (and not just it, but all his works) to straw at the end of his life.
There is another, equally robust Christian tradition which has been hesitant to praise Lady Wisdom. One thinks of the one bit of Tertullian that every Hillsdale College student knows: “What hath Athens to do with Jerusalem, or the Academy with the Church?” For all which is problematic about this (and there is plenty that is), one can detect something of genuine humility in this reflex. Even if not all Christians exhibit this hesitance, many of us are at least reluctant (and indeed somewhat unable) to claim a net salutary effect of the Law-as-guide in their own lives. If a Christian is neither hesitant to praise wisdom nor at all doubtful of whether he lives according to her dictates…well, then I’ll never understand him, and he probably would never understand me.
But I digress…
God is not wooden
It’s not much of an overstatement to say that all of my classes eventually morphed into theology classes in terms of what I finally took away from each one them. It’s difficult for me to describe how this metamorphosis took place. But it did. Or, rather, it is more correct to say that they were morphed, and that they were morphed into one big Theology Meta-Class. I certainly can’t put my finger on a definite point when that “happened,” because in retrospect it seems like they were always teaching me theology. Then again, you know what they say about hindsight.
I obviously do not mean that the content of each of my classes was theology — far from it: I actually only took one class that was technically under the REL/THL designation, but I took it for ENG credit (it was a class on C. S. Lewis). Rather all of my classes taught me the habit of theology, and they did so more through what they took away from my mental landscape than what they added to it. In history I was interested in what was not proven, what did not succeed, and what proof and success were, respectively, not. I learned who or what was not vindicated. In literature, I gravitated towards the tragic, the comic, and the absurd. All in all, I learned apophatically, by what the historian John Lukacs speaks of as “the reduction of untruth.” Most importantly I learned what God was not and what was not God; what God could not be said to be doing; what He couldn’t be blamed for. I learned how not to think and speak about God. On good days, the result was enervating; on bad days, it was terrifying.
As children we are rightly scolded for saying “oh my God” — the classic example of taking the Lord’s name in vain. I never adopted this habit — to this day, I can’t bring myself to say it. As an undergraduate, however, it was progressively dawning on me that I had taken God’s name in vain in far worse ways through assumptions about Him of which I was not even cognizant. By the time I was a junior, I was becoming anxious over the rate at which so much of my “knowledge” about God was falling apart. I was becoming an epistemological agnostic. Not a skeptic — I didn’t feel smart enough to be a skeptic, and I probably wasn’t. I was just cautious about asserting anything to the point where I was constantly dumbfounded.
“If it occurs to you that everything you have believed about God is untrue and that there is no God, do not be upset by it,” Tolstoy writes in Path of Life, the last book he published before his death. He goes on:
This has happened to a lot of people. However, do not think that just because you have stopped believing in the God you used to believe in that this means that there is no God. If you do not believe in the God you used to believe in, it only means that there was something incorrect about your belief. If a savage stops believing in his wooden god, it does not mean that there is no God — only that God is not wooden. We cannot understand God; we can only get closer and closer to an awareness of him, Therefore, discovering that we have made a crude concept of God is to our benefit. This happens so that we can come to a better and more refined awareness of what we call God (Leo Tolstoy, The Path of Life; trans. Maureen Cote; Nova, 2001; 35).
Wooden gods, though. They can be so comforting…
I think that at this point, I’m going to mail it in and call for a Part II, for which I will need some time to prepare. In the interim, though, I will leave you with an excerpt from the book which dominated the second semester of my junior year: John Henry Cardinal Newman’s The Idea of a University. When I pick up again in Part II, I will discuss some of the thoughts which Newman develops in Discourse 3, “The Bearing of Theology on Other Branches of Knowledge.” I offer Part 7 of this discourse here for your enjoyment.
Questions or comments? I don’t have an 800 number, contrary to what my mates from the Donnybrook will tell you. But there is a comment section…
John Henry Newman: “The Bearing of Theology on Other Branches of Knowledge,” The Idea of a University; Discourse III, Pars vii
“Now what is Theology? First, I will tell you what it is not. And here, in the first place (though of course I speak on the subject as a Catholic), observe that, strictly speaking, I am not assuming that Catholicism is true, while I make myself the champion of Theology. Catholicism has not formally entered into my argument hitherto, nor shall I just now assume any principle peculiar to it, for reasons which will appear in the sequel, though of course I shall use Catholic language. Neither, secondly, will I fall into the fashion of the day, of identifying Natural Theology with Physical Theology; which said Physical Theology is a most jejune study, considered as a science, and really is no science at all, for it is ordinarily nothing more than a series of pious or polemical remarks upon the physical world viewed religiously, whereas the word ‘Natural’ properly comprehends man and society, and all that is involved therein, as the great Protestant writer, Dr. Butler, shows us. Nor, in the third place, do I mean by Theology polemics of any kind; for instance, what are called ‘the Evidences of Religion,’ or ‘the Christian Evidences;’ for, though these constitute a science supplemental to Theology and are necessary in their place, they are not Theology itself, unless an army is synonymous with the body politic. Nor, fourthly, do I mean by Theology that vague thing called ‘Christianity,’ or ‘our common Christianity,’ or ‘Christianity the law of the land,’ if there is any man alive who can tell what it is. I discard it, for the very reason that it cannot throw itself into a proposition. Lastly, I do not understand by Theology, acquaintance with the Scriptures; for, though no person of religious feelings can read Scripture but he will find those feelings roused, and gain much knowledge of history into the bargain, yet historical reading and religious feeling are not science. I mean none of these things by Theology, I simply mean the Science of God, or the truths we know about God put into system; just as we have a science of the stars, and call it astronomy, or of the crust of the earth, and call it geology.
“For instance, I mean, for this is the main point, that, as in the human frame there is a living principle, acting upon it and through it by means of volition, so, behind the veil of the visible universe, there is an invisible, intelligent Being, acting on and through it, as and when He will. Further, I mean that this invisible Agent is in no sense a soul of the world, after the analogy of human nature, but, on the contrary, is absolutely distinct from the world, as being its Creator, Upholder, Governor, and Sovereign Lord. Here we are at once brought into the circle of doctrines which the idea of God embodies. I mean then by the Supreme Being, one who is simply self-dependent, and the only Being who is such; moreover, that He is without beginning or Eternal, and the only Eternal; that in consequence He has lived a whole eternity by Himself; and hence that He is all-sufficient, sufficient for His own blessedness, and all-blessed, and ever-blessed. Further, I mean a Being, who, having these prerogatives, has the Supreme Good, or rather is the Supreme Good, or has all the attributes of Good in infinite intenseness; all wisdom, all truth, all justice, all love, all holiness, all beautifulness; who is omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent; ineffably one, absolutely perfect; and such, that what we do not know and cannot even imagine of Him, is far more wonderful than what we do and can. I mean One who is sovereign over His own will and actions, though always according to the eternal Rule of right and wrong, which is Himself. I mean, moreover, that He created all things out of nothing, and preserves them every moment, and could destroy them as easily as He made them; and that, in consequence, He is separated from them by an abyss, and is incommunicable in all His attributes. And further, He has stamped upon all things, in the hour of their creation, their respective natures, and has given them their work and mission and their length of days, greater or less, in their appointed place. I mean, too, that He is ever present with His works, one by one, and confronts every thing He has made by His particular and most loving Providence, and manifests Himself to each according to its needs: and has on rational beings imprinted the moral law, and given them power to obey it, imposing on them the duty of worship and service, searching and scanning them through and through with His omniscient eye, and putting before them a present trial and a judgment to come. “Such is what Theology teaches about God, a doctrine, as the very idea of its subject-matter presupposes, so mysterious as in its fulness to lie beyond any system, and in particular aspects to be simply external to nature, and to seem in parts even to be irreconcileable with itself, the imagination being unable to embrace what the reason determines. It teaches of a Being infinite, yet personal; all-blessed, yet ever operative; absolutely separate from the creature, yet in every part of the creation at every moment; above all things, yet under every thing. It teaches of a Being who, though the highest, yet in the work of creation, conservation, government, retribution, makes Himself, as it were, the minister and servant of all; who, though inhabiting eternity, allows Himself to take an interest, and to have a sympathy, in the matters of space and time. His are all beings, visible and invisible, the noblest and the vilest of them. His are the substance, and the operation, and the results of that system of physical nature into which we are born. His too are the powers and achievements of the intellectual essences, on which He has bestowed an independent action and the gift of origination. The laws of the universe, the principles of truth, the relation of one thing to another, their qualities and virtues, the order and harmony of the whole, all that exists, is from Him; and, if evil is not from Him, as assuredly it is not, this is because evil has no substance of its own, but is only the defect, excess, perversion, or corruption of that which has substance. All we see, hear, and touch, the remote sidereal firmament, as well as our own sea and land, and the elements which compose them, and the ordinances they obey, are His. The primary atoms of matter, their properties, their mutual action, their disposition and collocation, electricity, magnetism, gravitation, light, and whatever other subtle principles or operations the wit of man is detecting or shall detect, are the work of His hands. From Him has been every movement which has convulsed and re-fashioned the surface of the earth. The most insignificant or unsightly insect is from Him, and good in its kind; the ever-teeming, inexhaustible swarms of animalculæ, the myriads of living motes invisible to the naked eye, the restless ever-spreading vegetation which creeps like a garment over the whole earth, the lofty cedar, the umbrageous banana, are His. His are the tribes and families of birds and beasts, their graceful forms, their wild gestures, and their passionate cries. “And so in the intellectual, moral, social, and political world. Man, with his motives and works, his languages, his propagation, his diffusion, is from Him. Agriculture, medicine, and the arts of life, are His gifts. Society, laws, government, He is their sanction. The pageant of earthly royalty has the semblance and the benediction of the Eternal King. Peace and civilization, commerce and adventure, wars when just, conquest when humane and necessary, have His cooperation, and His blessing upon them. The course of events, the revolution of empires, the rise and fall of states, the periods and eras, the progresses and the retrogressions of the world’s history, not indeed the incidental sin, over-abundant as it is, but the great outlines and the results of human affairs, are from His disposition. The elements and types and seminal principles and constructive powers of the moral world, in ruins though it be, are to be referred to Him. He ‘enlighteneth every man that cometh into this world.’ His are the dictates of the moral sense, and the retributive reproaches of conscience. To Him must be ascribed the rich endowments of the intellect, the irradiation of genius, the imagination of the poet, the sagacity of the politician, the wisdom (as Scripture calls it), which now rears and decorates the Temple, now manifests itself in proverb or in parable. The old saws of nations, the majestic precepts of philosophy, the luminous maxims of law, the oracles of individual wisdom, the traditionary rules of truth, justice, and religion, even though imbedded in the corruption, or alloyed with the pride, of the world, betoken His original agency, and His long-suffering presence. Even where there is habitual rebellion against Him, or profound far-spreading social depravity, still the undercurrent, or the heroic outburst, of natural virtue, as well as the yearnings of the heart after what it has not, and its presentiment of its true remedies, are to be ascribed to the Author of all good. Anticipations or reminiscences of His glory haunt the mind of the self-sufficient sage, and of the pagan devotee; His writing is upon the wall, whether of the Indian fane, or of the porticoes of Greece. He introduces Himself, He all but concurs, according to His good pleasure, and in His selected season, in the issues of unbelief, superstition, and false worship, and He changes the character of acts by His overruling operation. He condescends, though He gives no sanction, to the altars and shrines of imposture, and He makes His own fiat the substitute for its sorceries. He speaks amid the incantations of Balaam, raises Samuel’s spirit in the witch’s cavern, prophesies of the Messias by the tongue of the Sibyl, forces Python to recognize His ministers, and baptizes by the hand of the misbeliever. He is with the heathen dramatist in his denunciations of injustice and tyranny, and his auguries of divine vengeance upon crime. Even on the unseemly legends of a popular mythology He casts His shadow, and is dimly discerned in the ode or the epic, as in troubled water or in fantastic dreams. All that is good, all that is true, all that is beautiful, all that is beneficent, be it great or small, be it perfect or fragmentary, natural as well as supernatural, moral as well as material, comes from Him.”