Saturday, September 15, 2007

Catholic Pyrrhonism as anti-Thomism

Anti-Catholics have, from time to time, hung their hats on the claim that Catholic arguments amount to radical skepticism, essentially asserting that Catholic apologists simply rely on arguments that would deny certain theological knowledge altogether. This is sometimes justified by comments of Protestants of history in response to Catholic Pyrrhonism. What is important for Catholics to remember is (1) even when such techniques were used, they were still within the context of a natural theological program and (2) such techniques were intended as a reductio ad adsurdam to undermine the confidence of people who held these beliefs. In that respect, it is little different than the way in which the Calvinist Pierre Bayle used Pyrrhonist techniques, so the anti-Catholic charge proves too much if it proves anything. But one important thing to note is that this type of "meeting the opponent where he is" was entirely antithetical to the Scholastic approach, which focused on the truth that people already knew rather than trying to attack their position by attacking their confidence in knowing truth.

Here's a good description of the situation by Harry M. Bracken in "Bayle's Attack on Natural Theology: The Case of Christian Pyrrhonism" from Scepticism and Irreligion in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries, Richard Popkin (ed.) (available at Google Books):

Catholic theologians generally maintain that natural reason, human reason unaided by any revelation, can discover certain truths relevant to religion, e.g., the existence of God. Thomas Aquinas, for example, called such "naturally" discovered truths "preambles" to the faith. With the Reformation and the reappearance and wide dissemination by Catholics of the writings of Sextus Empiricus, a new form of natural theology arises in the course of the development of the Counter-Reformation. Thus in Montaigne or Huet, sceptical arguments are employed to destroy intellectual pride and rational pretense, so that one finally becomes totally humble. Once one's mind is a blank tablet, God may choose to write His revealed truths upon it.

In this fashion, Pyrrhonism paradoxically becomes a part of natural theology. Natural reason in the guise of Pyrrhonism is given a role in preparing one to receive religious truth. Thus the tropes of Sextus Empiricus emerge as sixteenth-century version of Thomas's preambles of the faith, albeit with this difference: Thomas took his arguments in natural theology to be constructive preparations for faith. Moreover, natural theology has always been one claim in the Church's general claim to be the world's preeminent Teacher and the custodian of the human means which may facilitate the action of the divinity. It is in this context that Christian Pyrrhonists offer a sort of "negative" natural theology. They do not wish to be any more committed to the "truth" of Pyrrhonist claims than Sextus had been, but like him, they appreciate that the tropes nevertheless have an effect on our psyches. A (negative) natural theology, while not giving us a human means to acquire a religion, nevertheless may facilitate its acquistion. By purely natural means, we are put in a state of mind which is more receptive to the acceptance of God's Word. Such natural means do not coerce the action of God, but they do prepare us for that divine intervention. The use of scepticism as a preparation for faith may fit well within the Catholic tradition, but it is not acceptable to those Calvinists who seek to remain true to Calvin's principles.

But as Bracken himself pointed out, this doesn't really fit with Catholic natural theology either, which constructively builds on truth and corrects error. In fact, what it shows is that where Catholics have deviated from the philosophia perennis, they have undermined their own apologetics efforts. We are still paying today for the lack of discipline during the Counter-Reformation. If there were ever a warning for why sticking to the Scholastic program of reason in natural theology is essential to Catholic apologetics, this would be it.


At 11:11 AM, Blogger Lee Faber said...

Matters seem just as bad today, as we have Marion and the other pomo theologians attacking natural theology as onto-theology and maintaining negative theology in its place, with halfhearted attempts to preserve aquinas from the charge...

At 4:01 PM, Blogger Richard Froggatt said...

Hi Jonathon,

I have to probably read this one or two more times to let this sink in, but; does this mean that asking a question about the canon, or how you know which books are in the canon actually hurt rather than help the Catholic argument?

At 1:45 AM, Blogger CrimsonCatholic said...

I agree, but Marion has been amenable to correction from time to time, so hope springs eternal!

Although I did not have that in mind with this particular post, that topic has been of some concern to me lately. I am particularly troubled that the question of how one knows the canon is being treated as an argument. That could be a valid argument IF the answer is used to demonstrate that what the Protestant in question knows is not an adequate basis for certain knowledge of the quality of Scripture as divine revelation, despite being a genuine form of knowledge. Likewise, Israel before Christ had a genuine knowledge of Scriptures, but knowledge that was darkened, shadowed, and ultimately inadequate to reveal the divine character of Scripture except in a limited way. In each case, the goal is not to denigrate what knowledge of Scripture these people gleaned through faith but to point out the limits of this knowledge. I fear that too many Catholics want to skip ahead to what people need to understand the nature of divine revelation, but without giving adequate respect to the level of knowledge people already possess, without clearly articulating what that need is (particularly with respect to an "infallible interpreter"), and without motivating that need in knowledge that is already within their grasp. But if they just read the punch line without grounding that judgment in existing knowledge, their efforts are doomed before they begin.

In the end, there is only one way to refute error, and that is by appealing to truth that the person already knows. Jesus did this when confronting the Pharisees (John 5:39) and Sadducees (Matt. 22:29) with Scripture. St. Paul did it with the pagans in the Areopagus, when he pointed out the inscription to an unknown god (Acts 17:22-23). St. James did the same when he wrote that people did well to believe God was one but also noted that even demons could believe this and shudder (James 2:19). And this was also the approach of St. Thomas, who emphasized the need to approach people where they were and to teach them according to their own knowledge.

In short, yes, I think we need to be extremely careful with that argument in particular to avoid failing to convince and, even worse, making the Catholic faith the object of mockery. Unless we approach our evangelical and apologetic task as increasing knowledge rather than breaking it down, it is difficult to see how we can really accomplish much. In the end, all truth comes from God (James 1:17), and we cannot break truth with truth, for as the Lord Jesus said, "the Scripture cannot be broken" (John 10:35).

At 6:02 AM, Blogger Richard Froggatt said...

Hi Jonathon,

I agree with you 100%. I know that in the particular conversation that I was having, I see that we know the canon due in large part to the witness of the Church; but I don't agree with the return argument that I keep getting which is that "without an infallible interpreter they're being tossed about" because I believe that they are grounded in what they believe is truth.

I guess my complaint is the denial of the witness of the Church in one area and the rejection of that witness in others. That and the misconception/misrepresentation of the function of infallibility.


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