Sunday, May 10, 2015

On Reason, Revelation, and Richard Dawkins' Sweaty Upper Lip

In the last few editorials (see here and here), I've focused my attention - and hopefully yours, too, gentle reader - on the often hidden yet vital role philosophy plays in the wider culture. There are a few loose ends I'd like to tie up, however, particularly in regards to the relationship between the natural and the sacred in philosophy, and I think I owe you something more substantial in the way of explanation regarding how philosophy is supposed to serve as a foundation for the ostensibly peaceful coexistence of peoples holding widely differing views on religious matters. In this post, the last in this series, I'll attempt to clarify the above-mentioned relationship so as to make the importance of philosophy in the struggle for the preservation of what remains of western civilization more readily apparent.

In his excellent handbook of Scholasticism entitled An Elementary Course of Christian Philosophy, Br. Louis de Poissy provides us with the following concise thesis:
Natural Theology is that part of philosophy which treats of God and his attributes, as far as they can known by the light of reason. It differs from Sacred Theology in that the latter studies God and His attributes by the light of divine revelation.
Simply put, there are two ways of learning about God, and two kinds of knowledge in regards to God:
  1. Things which can be known about God only through means of divine revelation, e.g., that He is one God in three Divine Persons.
  2. Things which can be know about God even if we are ignorant of divine revelation, e.g., that He is omnipotent.

That there exists one Godhead in three Divine Persons is something we would not know if God had not revealed it to us. That God is omnipotent, however, is something we can know about God simply by considering what it means for God to be, i.e. that He must possess the power to bring forth all things from nothingness, as well as the power to continually sustain all things in their existence. That is to say, omnipotence follows from God's very being, i.e. from His being God. We needn't appeal to Sacred Scripture to demonstrate that this proposition is true.

The first category of things is the domain of sacred theology; the second category is that of natural theology. Of course, some things which can be known by the light of reason, such as God's omnipotence, can also be objects of divine revelation. Recall, for example, the word of God revealed through the prophet Isaiah (44:24):
I am the Lord, who made all things, who alone stretched out the heavens, who spread out the earth by Myself.
Thus, God's omnipotence can be studied as a proposition both of sacred theology and of natural theology. However, while nothing in sacred theology contradicts what we can know about God through the light of reason - sacred theology is profoundly reasonable - there is much in sacred theology which falls outside the scope of natural theology, as sacred theology approaches the holy mysteries of God. Sacred theology, therefore, is superior to natural theology, as it contains the latter implicitly while surpassing it in terms of explicit informative content.

A similar relationship also exists between other branches of philosophical inquiry. For example, while moral philosophy studies natural law, i.e. those laws which can be discovered through the light of reason, moral theology studies divine law, i.e. those laws which are revealed to us through Sacred Scripture. And just as a certain proposition, e.g. that God is omnipotent, can be treated under both natural and sacred theology, a particular law, e.g. that murder is a criminal offense, can be treated as both a natural law and a divine law.

For Catholics, both reason and revelation are perfectly reliable sources of true knowledge, and we have always made use of both sources to inform the life of both the Church and the State. The role of the Magisterium, however, plays a crucial role here, as it alone possesses the God-given authority to decide matters pertaining to the correct interpretation of revelation. Without the Magisterium, it would be every man for himself, and the unity of the Church as a human institution would be irreparably damaged. This is essentially what happened in the wake of the Protestant Revolt of the 16th century: having abandoned the Magisterium of God's Church, the Protestant revolution shattered into numerous sects, each claiming to possess the correct interpretation of God's word - a process which has continued down to the present day. Already at the time of the American Founding Fathers, there were a dozen or more major branches in the Protestant family tree of heresy. Thus, rather than serving as a fountain from which certain knowledge could be drawn, revelation had come to be seen as a source of disunity and strife among Christians. As far as the interpretation of divine revelation was concerned, society was hopelessly fragmented, and from such a condition, no religious nation - let alone a Christian one - can emerge. With revelation having been cast aside due to the corrupting influence of evil men, all that remained to the Founding Fathers was the light of reason.

What does all this have to do with the ostensibly peaceful coexistence of peoples in a pluralistic society? Three things.

First, modern America was able to attract and accommodate people of virtually any religious creed because it defended the propositions of natural theology and upheld the dictates of natural law, i.e. those things upon which any person of sound mind could agree, and it remained emphatically neutral regarding the teachings of revealed religion, i.e. those things which can only be known by the decree of religious authority. For example, "In God We Trust" did not appear on American currency by accident. But it would be a grave error to assume that the God of the Bible, the God of Abraham, the God of Revelation is being referred to here. He's not. It's the God of the philosopher, the God of Aristotle and Plato, the God of the Cosmological Argument in which the Founding Fathers placed their trust. Many of them - nearly half of the generals in the Continental Army and a good third of those who signed the U.S. Constitution - were Freemasons, for whom "God" meant the "Grand Architect of the Universe". Christians are often eager to overlook this important part of America's intellectual and spiritual patrimony - to their own detriment.

Second, post-modern America is falling apart precisely because it has stopped defending the propositions of natural theology and upholding the dictates of natural law, and has failed to remain neutral regarding the teachings of revealed religion. Everywhere one looks, the forces of deconstructivism are taking a sledgehammer to the intellectual and moral foundations of American and modern western society, with the natural anthropology of the human person, human sexuality, and the natural institution of marriage being merely the latest aspects to come under attack. The separation of Church and State is no longer satisfactory; now, the very mention of God - regardless of revelatory creed - is considered offensive to secular ears and in need of being expunged from the public consciousness. America has long since stopped attracting and is quickly becoming incapable of even accommodating people of faith; it is instead intentionally repulsing and alienating them - both within its own borders and around the world.

Third, this wave of deconstructivism can be halted by forcefully restating the principles of sound philosophy, including natural theology and natural law, in the public square. To my more incredulous readers, I offer but one example: William Lane Craig. Remember a few years back, when everyone was talking about "the New Atheism"? Remember how liberal magazines were brimming with breathless reports of the imminent sounding of the death knell of a reasonably defensible faith in God? Ever notice how the "Four Horsemen" (i.e. Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennet and Sam Harris) have become quiet as church mice as of late? (And, yes, I know that Hitchens has since gone on to his eternal reward.) One important contributing factor to this turn of events is the fact that William Lane Craig publicly debated three of them, and gave them all sound thrashings, while Richard Dawkins simply refused to undergo the same humiliation - which was in itself to concede a humiliating defeat. Lane's terrifying weapon? A slightly modified version of the Cosmological Argument. As unlikely as it might at first seem, these luminaries of godlessness positively withered in the face of something resembling a Scholastic argument. Which is not to say that the argument can't be met with thought-provoking counter-arguments. Rather, these gurus of the New Atheism were simply out of their depths, and thoroughly incapable of offering anything in the way of a coherent rebuttal. They spent years cutting their teeth on arguments drawn from sacred theology - Dawkins wrote several books devoted almost exclusively to attacking Sacred Scripture - but were floored when they ran up against a genuine argument from natural theology. Attacking the Bible was no longer an option, as Lane didn't need to appeal to Scripture to make his claim. They had to meet him on rational grounds, and they failed miserably. Result: the New Atheism is dead.

And William Lane Craig is - with all due respect - a Protestant. Catholics have 2000 years of intellectual and spiritual patrimony, including the work of some of the brightest minds the world has ever known, and yet we're attempting to defend and propagate the faith in the public square with anecdotal tales of personal encounter and emotive dialogue. It's like sending the Boy Scouts of Troop 194 when you have the 1st Marine Special Operations Battalion ready and at your disposal. We have every reason to go on the offensive and demand that the secular state recognize what people throughout history and irrespective of culture or creed have recognized as true and good. That's not advocating for religion; that's simply defending common sense.

With that being said, while there is no pressing need for Catholics to retreat from the public square and to hole up in a defensive position, we are faced with a more profound question: Should we? That is to say, if saving western civilization in its current form were up to us, should we attempt to do so? Because, let's face it, barring divine intervention, America as we know it will never be a Catholic country, and Europe will never return to its Catholic roots. America is non-Catholic - perhaps even anti-Catholic - by design. It was founded on the principles of rationalism divorced from revelation and guided in large part by the spirit of Freemasonry, with its future success depending largely upon a return to those same principles and that same spirit. Is this really something Catholics ought to work towards preserving? Or should we rather be saving up our energies for the effort of rebuilding once the coming storm of revolt and chaos has passed?

Will it be a natural death after all?


  1. I've been a fan of William Lane Craig for years. He moves forward, using logic. He repeats his well thought out position and does not allow his opponents to side-track him. There are a few youtube videos of him way back when, on Firing Line with Buckley for example. He simply made a fool of Peter Atkins (I think I have the name right - Chemist/Atheist from Oxford) who maintained that science had 'done away with' philosophy. He said something like, "I think philosophy is dead." And Craig countered with, "oh, you THINK do you?" Buckley just leaned way back in his chair and grinned!
    Where, in the Catholic world, are our William Lane Craigs? So many good Protestant debaters and apologists out there. We've been stuck with Tony Blair, and poor Cardinal Pell! There is a wonderful old guy named John Lennox who has some great stuff on line - he's a Math whiz from Oxford who really knows his stuff - albeit not Catholic. And he's a loveable old teddy bear and a joy to listen to.


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