Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Just what's the problem with private judgment?

Dr. Edwin Tait, a thoughtful Protestant coming from an excellent theology school at Duke University, asks the question:

What I'm trying to drive at here is that high-church Protestants like myself see the tradition's role as being one of guidance rather than shedding additional light. Tradition steers people away from false interpretations and points the way toward true ones. It's kind of like saying "hot" and "cold" to someone playing hide-and-seek. What I'd like to see on this board--but rarely do--is a Catholic response to this understanding of tradition. Just how is it insufficient from the Catholic perspective?

I think that's a very fair question, so I set out to give a Catholic answer. I reproduce the more detailed response I gave later in the thread:
---------BEGIN QUOTED RESPONSE--------------

Quote:
I didn't say anything about dogmatic certainty. That is your addition. By "shedding light" I mean simply that Scripture teaches certain things, and these things can be ascertained by reading Scripture.


That is, in fact, all I mean by dogmatic certainty, and I gather it is also all that is meant by formal sufficiency. I mean that you are certain that some particular proposition is theological truth. My point is that you can't be certain that Scripture teaches theological truth. You would merely have some probable opinion that some particular thing that Scripture teaches is true.

Quote:
However, it is astronomically improbable that a single human being could come to all the right conclusions (I am not talking about being certain that one's conclusions are right, which I do not think is important) simply by reading Scripture.


My difficulty is that you haven't actually shown that a human being can come to ANY of the right conclusions, because you haven't shown that interpretation of Scripture gives certain theological conclusions.

Quote:
God could overrule this difficulty of interpretation by inspiring each individual believer to understand Scripture correctly--but God clearly has not chosen to do this.


We agree on that much. But for someone who makes such an admission, it is irrational for that person to think that his reading of Scripture will reveal theological truth. In other words, you've just presented a valid and sound argument for why your interpretation of Scripture can't produce certain theological truth.

JP>> You've just begged the question in terms of formal sufficiency; when you say "additional," the immediate response is "additional to what?"

Quote:
Additional to Scripture?


Scripture is a book, paper and ink, not theological truth. That might seem pedantic, but it's an important distinction, because some agent has to apply a rule to generate formal propositions from Scripture.

Quote:
Jonathan, I'm embarrassed to admit this, but I'm not completely sure what you mean by "formal content" and "proximate object."


Sorry. I've been reading too much Aristotelico-Thomist literature lately. Let's go back to the definition of faith. Faith is a supernatural cognitive faculty establishing a real relation between a person and another real entity (the proximate object; see http://www.nd.edu/~afreddos/translat/aquinas5.htm and also Newman's Grammar of Assent). In that respect, it's like knowledge, which creates a real identity between the knower and the known, so I will use the term "faither" and "faithed" like "knower" and "known" to emphasize the analogy.

When you have certain knowledge of theological truth, it's because you have "faithed" the object of truth, much as when you have certain knowledge about anything it is because you have known that thing. That certain knowledge is the formal content of your knowledge or faith. Here's the problem...

Quote:
If I understand you correctly, then I would say that I get my rule from the consensus of the Church and have no problem admitting this.


That won't work, because the "consensus of the Church" is just like one's "interpretation of Scripture." It is an intentional being; it is a concept that your mind creates based on what it knows. Unless God Himself miraculously put that concept in your head, there is no way that such a thing can be the proximate object of faith, which requires a real relation between the "faither" and an external object. In Catholicism, however, the Church is a real entity; it really subsists in the Catholic Church, and it is a real object of faith. So when you say that you have faith in the Catholic Church, it's because there is a real thing "faithed" by you personally. That's the importance of apostolic succession; it creates and sustains a persistent and real object of faith. Denial of that principle is why Anglican orders are considered invalid in Catholicism.

Scripture could conceivably be a proximate object of faith, but you'd have to be arguing that God was really subsisting in every copy of Scripture, effectively substantiating the charge of Bibliolatry. As it is, the only proper proximate object of faith in Protestantism is baptism, because it is the only knowable divine act left (God's spiritual presence among two or three gathered being real but not certainly knowable). And most Protestants deny baptismal regeneration so that they don't even accept that. Orthodoxy, by contrast, has real proximate objects of faith in a significant degree. But it lacks the unity and completeness of the Catholic Church to form a true subsistence, a completely self-existing entity identified with Christ (John 17, see also http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/1701108.htm), which is what allows it to serve as the true proximate object of faith. Protestantism and Orthodoxy depend on this subsistence for their reality, which is why the spiritual realities in those bodies are not self-subsistent entities but rather accidents in the metaphysical sense.

Because Protestantism has no external object of faith, Protestant faith is necessarily confused, irrational, and circular, effectively a faith in one's own mental disposition. That's the "private judgment" peril of which we Catholics so often speak; it is an attempt to judge theological truth with no real and certain basis. Basically, we believe your faith has no object, so while you actually have the faculty of faith (given in baptism), it isn't actually being directed to anything other than yourself. It's the theological equivalent to Descartes, denying the knowability of everything but himself, and it's wrong for the same reason.
----------END QUOTED RESPONSE-------------------

It occurred to me that the discussion above might also be helpful to illuminate the recent post by Fr. Patrick on Energetic Procession. I think the above quote from Tractate 108 on John also provides some insight in to St. Augustine's view of Christ and the Church. The unity of the Church, for Augustine, IS Christ Himself (cf. the Bride as wholly joined to Her spouse), and it appears to me that he has in mind derivative functions both for individuals and for local churches, in that they are identical to Christ in some respect as members, but that Christ Himself only subsists in the wholeness of the Church. That is why I theorize that he believes that Sacraments are valid even outside the confines of the Church (N.B., this metaphysical distinction between subsistence and simply existence would be difficult to grasp in Platonic/Neoplatonic terms, which is why I expect that the Eastern Fathers would be at best confused by it). If there is some definite real but not subsistent member-function, then the member does not cease to function derivatively even when it ceases to manifest its inherent unity. But only the Catholic Church is subsistent unity, because only She manifests unity in all Her functions and is a self-sustaining unity; the unity in all other churches is merely an accidental unity between particular functions received derivatively from the subsistence of the Church. This also helps to explain the gross misunderstanding that some Protestants have of the Catholic Church, betraying massive confusion on the underlying metaphysical and theological concepts.

(P.S., After re-reading that thread last linked, it might be overly charitable to say that there is simply confusion about the object of faith, because David King appears to have severe difficulties even in using the natural faculty of reason given the numerous errors in logic displayed there; see also these comments (e.g., de facto excommunication is an oxymoron, infallibility is obviously possible for created entities). On the Pseudo-Isidorean Decretals as substantially reproducing an existing belief, making them essentially a non-factor in the concept of papal authority contra the now-rebutted assertions of Dollinger et al., see Ulrich Horst. Perhaps this thread would be a better example of the inability of Protestants to comprehend the need for a proximate object of faith. Note that the questions "of the atheist" in that thread are valid and sound arguments for the irrationality of Protestant faith; pointing out that atheists also make these arguments does not actually answer them).

15 Comments:

At 3:31 PM, Blogger Tim Enloe said...

I have to admit I don't understand what you're driving at here. You argue against Edwin that

the "consensus of the Church" is just like one's "interpretation of Scripture." It is an intentional being; it is a concept that your mind creates based on what it knows. Unless God Himself miraculously put that concept in your head, there is no way that such a thing can be the proximate object of faith, which requires a real relation between the "faither" and an external object.

and then you point to Apostolic Succession as an external object upon which a faith relationship between knower and known can exist. You then just baldly (so it seems) claim that Protestantism has no such external entity, and that its faith, while probably sometimes real faith, has no object and is like Cartesian egocentrism. This doesn't make sense to me. Edwin said the consensus of the Church was his criterion of judgment, and you just baldly (so it seems) say "That won't work" and then just baldy (so it seems) discourse on how it's all subjective for Protestants but all objective for Catholics.

I try really hard to follow you, Jonathan, but sometimes it really does seem like you're just preaching to the Catholic choir and, no doubt because you've dealt with so much Protestant quackery, just failing to take responsible Protestant answers seriously.

 
At 9:55 PM, Blogger Reginald de Piperno said...

Thanks for this post, Jonathan.

Though I find it to be very difficult to follow completely, Googling for help in following what you are saying led me to this page which helped me get me a little closer (though I'm not over the hump yet).

Is this accurate? The proximate object of faith is what stands between me and the remote object of my faith, which is divine truth, and which serves as the means by which I know those truths to which I give assent? Consequently if that proximate object of faith is subjective, it cannot provide objective certainty about divine truth? Hence the "Bible alone", or the "consensus of the Church" or of the Church Fathers cannot serve in an objective sense because what that consensus is cannot be objectively determined apart from a living proximate object of faith?

That doesn't sound quite right, but maybe my problem is that I'm nearly over my head here :-) Obviously I'm trying to synthesize what you have said with what the Catholic Encyclopedia is saying about the rule of faith. Can you help a poor soul who is trying to grasp this? :-) Thanks!

 
At 10:23 PM, Anonymous Interlocutor said...

What was the proximate object of faith for believers in the OT?

 
At 11:58 AM, Blogger Michael said...

Mr Prejean,

this seems like a good post to me, but I'm not surprised that people are confused. It's a problem: people say they want good solid arguments against their positions, but in order to understand the arguments they need to be able to grasp a vocabulary and conceptual structure which, in light of their positions, seems pointless and prima facie false to them--which they don't do. I've never conversed with a Protestant who had a decent grasp of scholastic terminology and principles. I assume some of them exist, because there are non-Catholic professionals in medieval philosophy. But outside that world, most people don't bother learning about this stuff unless they're already Catholic or on the way.

So it seems people don't really understand Catholic doctrine until they're already at least sympathetic to it--not because it's unintelligible for them but because it's hard and until then people don't have the motivation to do the work. It's so much easier to attack the popular (misre)presentations of Catholic doctrine.

 
At 12:03 PM, Blogger CrimsonCatholic said...

In one way, I regret having ripped this from its original context, because I think it lacked some clarity vis-a-vis Edwin's original question. His original question was as to why many Catholics found his position untenable, and I simply wanted to answer that question as clearly as possible, not to make a normative statement but simply to describe the reality of Catholic belief. However, since it has provoked comments, it reinforces my belief that this is a subject of acute interest, which is why I brought it over in the first place. Let's see if I can be clearer in what I meant.

To Tim's points first:
You then just baldly (so it seems) claim that Protestantism has no such external entity, and that its faith, while probably sometimes real faith, has no object and is like Cartesian egocentrism. This doesn't make sense to me. Edwin said the consensus of the Church was his criterion of judgment, and you just baldly (so it seems) say "That won't work" and then just baldy (so it seems) discourse on how it's all subjective for Protestants but all objective for Catholics.

Subjective and objective is not really the question; those terms are themselves a product of the later notion that something existing as a distinct mental object means that it exists in reality. That's actually the sort of confusion that makes it difficult to understand the place from which the Catholic is coming, because it is really a distinction in the KIND of object, whether it exists or is merely intentional. From the Catholic understanding of what faith is (see the link to St. Thomas's definition), the object of faith must be a definite and knowable mystical entity identified with God's own acts; it cannot be merely intentional. The object must be the thing itself, not a description of a thing. Newman's Grammar of Assent strikes me as a contemporary account of this venerable Scholastic concept.

The question is then whether the thing in which faith is actually had is some real, concrete, external entity, or some intention, description, or interpretation in the mind. "Consensus" and "meaning" seem to me to be necessarily intentional terms, so I don't see how someone can have faith in the Aristotelico-Thomist sense in either of them.

This is not to say that I believe all, most, or even more than a miniscule fraction of Catholics know that their reasons for antipathy to Protestantism are based in the Aristotelico-Thomist understanding of faith. After all, giving a metaphysical account of one's beliefs is a difficult endeavor that by definition has no practical benefit, so most people are content to live their entire lives never having any significant amount of knowledge that is neither confused nor improper. But on the Aristotelico-Thomist account, it isn't that they don't HAVE that knowledge; they just don't know that they have it. That's why they react with hostility to what they intuitively perceive as error, even though they are unable to articulate what the error is. At a gut level, they "just know" something is squirrely and circular about having faith in an idea or a proposition (consensus of the Church, meaning of Scripture), but their knowledge is too confused to be of much help in explaining it. Edwin was evidently frustrated at having encountered this phenomenon, so I wanted to give an account of what I believe these Catholics have in mind, even if they aren't capable of expressing it.

Now perhaps someone might take issue with this characterization. For example, one could follow Jean Gerson in arguing that faith is really "affective piety" rather than a cognitive faculty or Gabriel Biel in sharply dividing dialectical knowledge from faith. One could take the transcendental Thomist approach, arguing that theological knowledge is a product of the recognition of one's own openness to God. One could take the presuppositional approach, arguing that there is no true knowledge apart from God's grace, effectively that the will determines the capacity for knowing. One could argue for innate ideas and the sensus divinatis, as Calvin did, or a priori truth, as Kant did, or "common sense realism," as Reid did. On all of those views, the answer is different, and I take all of those answers seriously. But in the end, I consider the Aristotelico-Thomist view correct and those others wrong, as do many Catholics either explicitly or implicitly. That is why I suspect most Catholics consider the Protestant account untenable.

To Reginald's question:
Is this accurate? The proximate object of faith is what stands between me and the remote object of my faith, which is divine truth, and which serves as the means by which I know those truths to which I give assent? Consequently if that proximate object of faith is subjective, it cannot provide objective certainty about divine truth? Hence the "Bible alone", or the "consensus of the Church" or of the Church Fathers cannot serve in an objective sense because what that consensus is cannot be objectively determined apart from a living proximate object of faith?

It might help to dispense with the term "objective" and "subjective," since as I mentioned, even things that exist only in the mind can be "objectified" or "reified." It's simply a question of knowledge coming only from a relation to what actually exists. We know truths by actual things; likewise, we know divine truth by faith in an actual entity. If by "subjective," you mean something that only exists in the subject (i.e., intentional being) then that's OK. But note that there is plenty of knowledge existing in the subject that bears a real relation to other existing things, so there is "subjective" knowledge (in the sense of being in a subject) that is nonetheless real knowledge. My point is that knowledge about "consensus" or "meaning" or whatnot has no real referent for knowledge, because "consensus" and "meaning" are statements of one's own intention about something, not the thing itself. If knowledge is only a real relation between a knower and some known thing, then purely intentional objects do not express knowledge.

That doesn't sound quite right, but maybe my problem is that I'm nearly over my head here

Sounded good to me. You just need to get down this distinction between real being and intentional being (beings of reason, as they are also called).

interlocutor:
What was the proximate object of faith for believers in the OT?

Whatever happened to be God's actual mode of action at the time. The most conspicuous example of a proximate object of faith was the Ark of the Covenant, carrying the copies God had Moses make of the tablets he wrote with His own finger (Deut. 9-10). But there were others to whom God spoke and through whom God took actions and made promises, including angels, prophets, and righteous men. Many are collected in Hebrews 11. But, as one might expect, all of those objects were inferior to that object of Christian faith, Christ Himself in His Body, of which these previous actions were mere signs from afar.

 
At 1:00 PM, Blogger CrimsonCatholic said...

I've never conversed with a Protestant who had a decent grasp of scholastic terminology and principles.

My point was really that few Catholics have a grasp of these matters, so they can't provide much in the way of assistance. But as I said, it's the nature of human beings that most will not undertake the effort to study metaphysics. I would only wish that people in that condition would stay away from these gadflies, who are simply making noise and who aren't capable of listening to reason even when presented to them. It's a sufficient answer to point to the real object of one's faith, Christ in His Church. Giving a defense (apologia) doesn't mean that you have to provide an answer to every half-baked, irrational rant against the Church. It simply means that you point to the real object of your hope and let that object speak for itself to a sincere seeker of truth. If "Jesus lives!" is not a sufficient reason for the hope within us, then it's not clear to me what could be.

 
At 4:55 PM, Blogger CrimsonCatholic said...

Just to be clear, although it should be manifestly apparent, "these gadflies" was certainly NOT directed at Edwin or Tim. I meant the folks who are constantly riling up people on the Catholic Answers and Envoy forums, for example, which tends to produce questionable and sometimes offensive anti-Protestant polemics, creating exactly the problem Edwin identified. I suppose that people do occasionally encounter an argument that grieves them to some extent, but I would much prefer that they would ask someone with more experience and wisdom rather than trying to learn something by the "iron sharpens iron" technique. If your edge isn't all that sharp in the first place, then it's certainly not going to be honed by battering against another blunt object. Bottom line: if you don't know the answer, refer the question to someone who does, and preferably not in a public forum.

 
At 7:09 AM, Blogger Tim Enloe said...

Jonathan, to borrow for a moment from a typical Protestant way of thinking (which perhaps I haven't gotten past yet), how is identifying the True Church from amongst so many claimants, not an "intentional being?" What makes your identification of the True Church as Catholicism more than an intentional reality? What connects your identification of the True Church to "a definite and knowable mystical entity identified with God's own acts," and why would Edwin's identification of "consensus" not fit that? In short, how do you tell the difference between a merely "intentional" being and "some real, concrete, external entity"?

I'm not trying to be ornery, honest. Likely the problem is that I haven't studied metaphysics in great detail, and am certainly not able to hold my own at this point in discussions of Thomistic thought.

 
At 9:57 AM, Blogger Contarini said...

Jonathan,

I would have appreciated being told that you had reproduced our discussion on your blog, partly because I like to know when my name is being used on the Internet, but far more because I find the subsequent discussion fascinating.

I'd like to clarify a couple of things: I'm not frustrated with Catholic objections so much as simply eager to explore more fully what the differences are. I've heard some very intelligent critiques of the Protestant "Great Tradition" theology with which I identify myself (such as Cardinal Dulles' speech at a colloquium at Drew in 2004 in honor of Tom Oden's retirement). But Jonathan has, I think, articulated very clearly and precisely what the basic issue is, and I thank him for that.

I am not in fact totally ignorant of Thomism, but the exact way Jonathan was using "proximate object" was escaping me. Had I used my time with Fr. Mahoney better, I would no doubt be less confused. Alas for my misspent youth (misspent in large part engaging in religious arguments on the Internet, so obviously I haven't put it entirely behind me!).

Edwin

 
At 12:40 PM, Blogger CrimsonCatholic said...

First things first...

I would have appreciated being told that you had reproduced our discussion on your blog, partly because I like to know when my name is being used on the Internet, but far more because I find the subsequent discussion fascinating.

I apologize for not letting you know. I remembered that Catholic Answers disliked links to discussions elsewhere, and I was planning to email you to let you know, and I got busy and let it slip my mind. I'm really so booked right now that I don't know which way is up, which is why even my rare entries have been so uneven lately, but this topic was so interesting to me that I didn't want to just leave it. Not a good excuse, but it's the only one I have!

To Tim's points:
Jonathan, to borrow for a moment from a typical Protestant way of thinking (which perhaps I haven't gotten past yet), how is identifying the True Church from amongst so many claimants, not an "intentional being?" What makes your identification of the True Church as Catholicism more than an intentional reality? What connects your identification of the True Church to "a definite and knowable mystical entity identified with God's own acts," and why would Edwin's identification of "consensus" not fit that? In short, how do you tell the difference between a merely "intentional" being and "some real, concrete, external entity"?

The last question is one that very likely would not have occurred to anyone before Descartes and Kant. This notion of skepticism or dubiousness of one's own knowledge is a decidedly modern invention, and it is more or less THE question in philosophy of the last couple of centuries. Alas, I believe this is only an indication of how badly philosophy has gone astray.

As much as we might equivocate on the two, there is a difference between actual knowledge and knowledge of a purely intentional being like Harry Potter or the resurrection of the phoenix. You seem to be raising the question that one might or might not know whether something actually exists. True, but one must think that SOMEONE has in order to deal with the matter as an existent. One might wrongly believe that someone else has personal experience of an actually existing thing (see, e.g., some of the Fathers of the Church regarding the resurrection of the phoenix). But even in that case, one's own knowledge is not proper, and the uncertainty is precisely in the fact that one has merely been told of someone else's experience rather than experiencing it himself. Effectively, one's own knowledge is then only as good as the knowledge from which one has received it; it is an image of an image.

I am Zubirian enough to think that the definition of reality or real entity can extend beyond a pure individual substance to structure as well, so I don't mean to dismiss structure as something that can really be known just as the essence of a particular thing can be known (and indeed, the Zubirian definition of essence includes this). But even then, the structure must be a real property of the thing in itself, not merely a positivist construction of the mind. The trouble I have with consensus is that it is accidental; it is not even an assertion about the thing in itself, about its essential reality. It is simply a positivist collection of what people happen to have said or an assertion that these happenings are providential, which amounts to the same thing from the perspective of natural theology. There is no intelligible reason for it, no reality that is the base of the knowledge.

Thus, to answer the first two questions, the claims themselves are different kinds of claims. The claim of a reality might be true or false, but it is a claim about something intelligible in reality, an existence, not an accidental unity imposed by the mind on existing things. For a really concrete example of the difference between the two, contrast Kant's a priori notion of space with today's understanding of space as a physical thing. For Kant, space is just an idea; for Einstein, space exists and is knowable as existing. One might view Protestantism as the claim that there is no essential unity in the Church, so that the Church's unity is always and only intentional and accidental.

Re: Edwin's points, I appreciate that I have evidently done more good than harm, but in an effort to ameliorate the harm, I have a couple of responses:

I'd like to clarify a couple of things: I'm not frustrated with Catholic objections so much as simply eager to explore more fully what the differences are.

That's my error, then. It's one of the perils of having to fill in missing emotional content. What I read as exasperation was evidently just curiosity.

I am not in fact totally ignorant of Thomism, but the exact way Jonathan was using "proximate object" was escaping me. Had I used my time with Fr. Mahoney better, I would no doubt be less confused.

Personally, I have found that many Catholic authors simply take this matter for granted. It wasn't until I was meditating on the Letter to the Hebrews in an effort to better explain the Catholic understanding of faith that I came across St. Thomas's passage. That explanation helped me to see the connection that I presented above in light of Aristotelico-Thomism, but until I read that Scriptural passage interpreted in this light, I found it very difficult to explain how "faith" differed in the Catholic and Protestant contexts.

 
At 6:47 PM, Blogger Tim Enloe said...

I hope I'm not picking at nits, but it seems to me that the notion of the dubiousness of one's own knowledge predates Modernity. The Ancient world had its share of "skeptics," most notably Sextus Empiricus, from whom the 16th and 17th century "skeptics" got much of their conceptual apparatus and against which persons like Descartes were so violently reacting. Augustine deals with the question himself, as in his famous answer to a very similar question as the one with which Descartes wrangled centuries later: "si fallor, sum" ("If I doubt, I am"). But this may be picking at nits; that is, it may not touch your more basic points.

I hope, however, that your more basic points do not include the, um, dubious notion that Protestantism itself is simply a form of "skepticism." That sort of argument is founded on definitional differences between realism and nominalism, and is often colored by bad understandings of both--even by people who ostensibly hold the respective views. Nominalism particularly often gets a bad rap from "Scholastic" Catholics, and as the last 60 or so years of research into Nominalism shows, it's usually unjust. But maybe that's not to your point, either.

At any rate, I just don't see how your arguments aren't reversible. That is, how are Catholic claims about theology and history not equally dismissable as "simply a positivist collection of what people happen to have said or an assertion that these happenings are providential, which amounts to the same thing from the perspective of natural theology"? You seem to be just assuming there's something ontologically self-evident about Catholic claims, and so non-Catholic claims are just simple nonsense running clean contrary to the very warp and woof of reality.

Your appeal to "natural theology" particularly stands out here--as if there's only one, clear, systematically-obvious rendition of natural theology, and fortunately for you it's one-to-one identical with Catholic claims, rendering all opposing arguments simply nonsense on their face. And that's where a person has to ask who are you talking to and what is your point, because if all you're going to do is say "This is true, period" and then turn away from any contrary view, there's only monologue possible.

Nominalism has a lot of problems, granted, but one thing it incisively points out (or rather, has incisively pointed out historically) is the problematic nature of many realist claims, particularly ones like "which form of government is the best?" and "how do we know things?" To the extent that you seem to me to be advocating a strong form of realism untempered by a substantial recognition of the limitations of the human mind regarding claims about knowledge and truth, I just simply can't process your claims as being necessarily bothersome to my religious perspective.

Anyway, I acknowledge I'm out of my depth here. I haven't studied metaphysics in detail. I may just be wasting your time. It's just that a lot of what you say, like your claims elsewhere about the sinless Church, just makes me uneasy in a way I can't articulate well. And with all due respect and hoping I don't give offense, but I repeat that a lot of it seems to me to be just preaching to people who are already going to agree with you about such things as the fundamental irrationality and unworkability of Protestantism. Which is fine, of course, if your purpose is only to talk to those who already agree with you. It's your blog, and your "dime."

 
At 5:59 PM, Blogger CrimsonCatholic said...

I hope I'm not picking at nits, but it seems to me that the notion of the dubiousness of one's own knowledge predates Modernity.

It's not nit-picking, and I agree with that. It's simply the habit of answering them on their own terms that seems to be the peculiar attachment of Modernity. The ancients and early Church Fathers tended to be a good deal more ruthless with skeptics, going so far as to attack skepticism as a moral failure. Somehow, Locke's standard of epistemic responsibility doesn't seem to be on quite the same level, although it is a shadow of the same notion.

I hope, however, that your more basic points do not include the, um, dubious notion that Protestantism itself is simply a form of "skepticism." That sort of argument is founded on definitional differences between realism and nominalism, and is often colored by bad understandings of both--even by people who ostensibly hold the respective views. Nominalism particularly often gets a bad rap from "Scholastic" Catholics, and as the last 60 or so years of research into Nominalism shows, it's usually unjust. But maybe that's not to your point, either.

No, I'd not be prone to oversimplify like that either, although I confess some sympathy for the basic idea. My point was simply that a lot of Catholics have something very close to that in mind.

At any rate, I just don't see how your arguments aren't reversible. That is, how are Catholic claims about theology and history not equally dismissable as "simply a positivist collection of what people happen to have said or an assertion that these happenings are providential, which amounts to the same thing from the perspective of natural theology"? You seem to be just assuming there's something ontologically self-evident about Catholic claims, and so non-Catholic claims are just simple nonsense running clean contrary to the very warp and woof of reality.

Far be it from me to say that the claims are ontologically self-evident. But they are ontological claims, which is to say, the claim itself is a claim that there is a real metaphysical thing out there, which invokes the law of non-contradiction: it either exists, or it doesn't, and there is no middle ground. If one accepts the Catholic understanding of faith (which many Catholics do, at least unconsciously), then any faith claim entails having knowledge of something that exists. As you correctly point out, on a different understanding of faith (say, a nominalist notion), this might not be the case. And even granting the Catholic understanding, it's possible that I believe that I have knowledge of an existing thing that does not, in fact, exist. My point would simply be that, because the claim is ontological, so would the answer have to be. Such an answer would have to argue that the Church, as conceived by Catholics, does not exist, not merely that one doesn't know whether it exists, since most Catholics believe that they do know it to exist. That's why most Protestant responses go over like a lead balloon.

Your appeal to "natural theology" particularly stands out here--as if there's only one, clear, systematically-obvious rendition of natural theology, and fortunately for you it's one-to-one identical with Catholic claims, rendering all opposing arguments simply nonsense on their face.

It doesn't render all non-Catholic claims nonsense; Eastern Orthodoxy would not be nonsense on this reading, for example. It might well render Protestant claims nonsense, but that's a descriptive statement rather than a normative one. Even that only shows that the discussion ought to take place on the level of what counts as natural theology, because that is an absolutely core difference. I suspect the Catholic argument vis-a-vis Protestantism would be much like the argument vis-a-vis modernism, i.e., that it grants too much to skepticism.

To the extent that you seem to me to be advocating a strong form of realism untempered by a substantial recognition of the limitations of the human mind regarding claims about knowledge and truth, I just simply can't process your claims as being necessarily bothersome to my religious perspective.

That may well be; I am just trying to point out that, likewise, your claims aren't going to register as viable on the Catholic mind. Regarding the limitations of the human mind, I suspect that someone like Jacques Maritain would point out that the judgment that there are limitations of the human mind is itself based on certain truth and knowledge about reality, so that a critical realism does not mean doubt about these matters. From Maritain's perspective, nominalism solves a problem of its own creation, one that didn't need solving in the first place.

And with all due respect and hoping I don't give offense, but I repeat that a lot of it seems to me to be just preaching to people who are already going to agree with you about such things as the fundamental irrationality and unworkability of Protestantism.

I take no offense, and in response, I would only say that I am at this point merely attempting to be descriptive rather than normative. The point is not to conclude that Protestantism is irrational and unworkable, but to observe that many Catholics have reasons (articulated or not) to think that it is, and dialogue is unlikely to be fruitful without addressing those reasons. IOW, one has to assess before one can address.

 
At 6:40 PM, Blogger Tim Enloe said...

Ok, Jonathan, that makes more sense to me out of what you've said in this thread. Just to be clear myself, I have no sympathy for skepticism, and I think one of the biggest problems with Modern Protestantism is precisely that it is MODERN. It lives and moves and has its being within a complex matrix of Cartesian egocentricism and Lockean standards of "reason" and anti-Humean positivism--and all in ways I can't trace out as well as I'd like, but which I can see in just enough detail to severely disturb me.

To borrow some words from Edwin on the Catholic Answers thread to which you link, I'm pretty much wandering around inside the Protestant playground looking through the fence at Catholicism, trying to see better, trying to understand better. Nevertheless, once again I find myself hampered in discussion with you by a severe lack of having read many of the relevant materials. Sigh.

On the (probably foolish) supposition that once I begin my graduate studies in a few weeks I will have some time here and there to read extra-curricular material, what would you recommend on the natural theology arguments you are summarizing?

 
At 8:23 AM, Blogger CrimsonCatholic said...

I have become a devotee of Jacques Maritain for his sheer clarity on this subject, although there are other authors who say much the same thing. Introduction to Philosophy is cheap and quick; Degrees of Knowledge is the long and involved version. Van Til specifically mentions the former work as an exemplar of the Roman Catholic view, so reading it was illuminating as to the drastic differences between the view.

If you are looking more particularly at St. Thomas and the interpretive tradition of Cajetan and John Poinsot, I would recommend Ralph McInerny's Praeambula Fidei. McInerny interacts in detail with some of the more prominent Thomists who tend to mute some features of St. Thomas's thought that are, at least in my opinion, the major source of controversy between Catholic and Reformed theologians on the subject of natural theology. After reading McInerny, I understood why it had been difficult for me to see the boundaries between the two views, in that the views he critiques (Gilson, Owens, Wippel) emphasize revelation to the point of practically making it a prerequisite to natural theology, in a matter somewhat analogous to what Van Til does with truth generally. McInerny's interpretation marks a hard break from that sort of thinking, and indeed, once the break is made, it becomes clear why the Aristotelico-Thomist version can grant nothing to the presuppositional view.

 
At 3:34 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Man, this thread gives new meaning to the phrase "over my head."

I hesitate to buttinski and make a total fool of myself. All I can do is beg y'all to be charitable if I do--even if I come across as one of those poor benighted dumb clucks who apparently frequent the Catholic Answers forums. ;) (I myself do not hang out there, BTW.)

Re the "consensus of the Church": Again, pardon my ignorance; I assume this is a technical term, and y'all know exactly what it means...but I'm not sure I do. If you mean the Nicene and Chalcedonian consensus on the Trinity and the Incarnation, well, that's fine as far as it goes. But doesn't it get dicier when we get to soteriology? What's the "consensus of the Church" there? I mean, I think I know the consensus of the Catholic Church on the question. But I assume that, when Edwin says "consensus of the Church," he means more than just the Catholic Church. He includes the major Christian traditions of post-Schism and post-Reformation Christendom...right? (Edwin, correct me if I'm wrong.) But the problem is that those great traditions have NO consensus on soteriology. It is precisely over soteriology that Catholics and Protestants are divided. (Yes, over ecclesiology as well, but, historically, if I'm not mistaken, the soteriological horse came before the ecclesiological cart.) Even East and West differ on some crucial aspects of soteriology, if one is to believe Orthodox apologists like Frederica Matthewes-Greene.

And speaking of the Orthodox: If anyone follows "the consensus of the Church," they do...right? Well, not necessarily. From what I'm told, there is a rather sharp debate underway among contemporary Orthodox regarding the nature of the afterlife. Does the departed soul enter a sort of intermediate state between Heaven and Hell until the Final Judgment? OR does the departed soul ascend to Heaven via an obstacle course of aerial tollhouses, at each of which it must battle and overcome demons in order to reach Heavenly bliss? Both sides furnish patristic support for their positions.

Well, it seems to me that "what happens to me after I die" is a pretty basic, crucial question for Christians...yet an ancient and venerable Christian body, Orthodoxy, apparently has no consensus on the answer.

I'm sorry I'm rambling here. I am no good at all at abstract reasoning; I tend to think very concretely. And, so for me, when someone talks about "the consensus of the Church," I immediately ask, "What's that? What's it mean? The consensus of what Church? If it's the consensus of all of Christendom--well, is there such a consensus? And, if there is, what does it look like? What is its content? What does this consensus say about, say, the Atonement? Or about the relation between Grace and Free Will? Or about the Real Presence?"

Frankly, I'm not convinced there is such a thing as "the consensus of the Church," if we are referring to "Church" as some broader tradition comprising Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and Magisterial Protestantism. Even if you narrow this to the consensus of the undivided Church, the consensus of the first seven ecumenical councils, that's no good, either...because very serious questions arose (especially WRT soteriology) after the conclusion of the seventh council. (Which, IMHO, is precisely why it's so arbitrary and historically untenable to stop at those seven; Christians didn't suddenly stop asking vital questions nor did the Holy Spirit suddenly cease operating at the conclusion of II Nicaea.)

Anyway, again, sorry for beebling on...but the bottom line is: What the heck is the consensus of the Church? How can it guide us when it itself seems rather chimerical and difficult to pin down?

If this is a dumb question--if "consensus of the Church" is indeed a technical term whose definition you all agree on--please pardon my ignorance and, of your charity, enlighten me. Thanks!

Diane

 

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