Book Review: The Angelic Doctor‏ – By Jacques Maritain

Jacques Maritain The Angelic Doctor.pngLetter TThe Angelic Doctor, as one might well guess from the title, is Jacques Maritain‘s biography of Thomas Aquinas, as well as a treatise on the philosophy of monolithic thinker. The latter portions of the book are especially devoted to discussing the philosophy of Aquinas as it affects us today and laying out what Maritain believes to be the proper course of action for Christians in the face of the various systems of thought which face them.

As noted the first sections of the book are devoted to discussing the life of Aquinas in a purely biographical arena. The life of Aquinas as presented by Maritain is both readable and informative, as well as insightful.

With the life of Aquinas layed out Maritain goes on to speak of his philosophy. As posited by Maritain, “Saint Thomas’ method… is essentially universalist and positive. It aims indeed at preserving all the acquired knowledge of humanity in order to add to it and to perfect it; and it requires the more and more complete effacement of the personality of the philosopher before the truth of the object.” He goes on to note that “The philosophy of Saint Thomas is independent in itself of the data of faith: its principles and structure depend upon experience and reason alone.”

The prime duration of Maritain’s philosophy discussion is the exposition of his Thomism, concluding in a catalog of references to places in which the leaders of the Catholic church have shown support of that Thomism.

Memorable Quotes:

-“Thomism claims to use reason to distinguish the true from the false; it does not wish to destroy but to purify modern thought, and to integrate everything true that has been discovered since the time of Saint Thomas.”

-“The error of the modern world has been to claim to assure the reign of reason over nature by refusing the reign of super-nature over reason.”

-“I mean this in an altogether different sense: that common sense itself is an embryonic and rudimentary philosophy, a philosophy which has not yet reached the scientific state.”

Specific Criticisms

I’m unsure whether my criticisms serve as critiques of this book in particular, or of Maritain’s Thomism, or of Aquinas, or simply of Catholicism. It is possible my critiques are simply a reflection of my Protestantism. Either way they are the places I depart from the thought of the author (whether directly or indirectly).

My chief issue with the philosophy presented by Maritain, and the only one I’ll really bother to get into here, is that it sets up the problem of the Fall as an intellectual dilemma, it is one that he believes can be remedied by the use of the mind (which would make one wonder why there was any need of Christ if man could just think his way out of the trap he’d fallen into). Here are two examples of this mindset:

“A resurrection of metaphysics and a new expansion of charity: before all else this is the prerequisite for the return to human unity, to that unity which was perfect only in the Garden of Eden and in the heart of Christ in Gethsemane, but the longing for which will never cease to haunt us.”

“Now, it is important to realize that nothing below the intellect can remedy this disease which affects the intellect and which sprang from it; it is by intelligence itself that this disease will be cured. If intelligence is not saved, nothing will be saved.”

Within these two quotations we have presented everything which is in opposition to the message of Christ. In short, sin is not the problem. The issue is not one of the soul, or the will, but a simple problem of a diseased intellect – but the bright side is that even though it is the intellect which is diseased, the intellect is capable of curing itself!

A few other minor issues are the idea of a Christian philosophy being capable of existing independent of faith (operating solely on reason), as well as the general trend towards assimilating the ‘truth’ of all other philosophies into some Christian body of truth. The simple question is, ‘what are the qualifiers for bringing new truth into the Christian philosophy?’ Is it simply that which already agrees with Christian philosophy? In this case it would be redundant. Or is it simply acknowledging facts outside those expressly put forth in scripture (and/or tradition in the case of Catholicism).

Gothic Cathedrals & Medieval Symbolism

Notre Dame.pngLetter IIn the realm of thought the twelfth and thirteenth centuries were a time of scholasticism, in the realm of politics a time of guilds and the roots of nationalism, in the realm of religion a time of monastic reform, and in the realm of expression it was a time of the Gothic, in painting, sculpture, and primarily in architecture.

Gothic architecture – most apprehensible in the form of the medieval cathedral – is perhaps the most defining and comprehensive representation of these various trends. As it is stated by Henri Daniel-Rops in his book Cathedral and Crusade, “If nothing of medieval Christianity had survived excepting the cathedrals, they alone would tell us all, or nearly all, that matters about the period in question.” 

In the Gothic cathedral the scholarship, politics, arts, and religion of the period can be seen coming together under the umbrella of Christian ideology.

While it was practical and originally expressive – a feat of both engineering and symbolic innovation – the most notable aspect of the Gothic cathedral is in how it embodies the culmination of the Christian energy of the medieval period, an energy exceeding that any other age, both in the clergy and in the laity.

This vigor of the lay people is particularly noteworthy, both as it stands in opposition to what came before it and in its significance and how it ties into the overall significance of the Gothic cathedral. 

Origins of the Gothic 

The Gothic cathedral originated around 1137 and saw its high point during the thirteenth century. The cathedral came about both to satisfy practical concerns as well as concerns of expression.

Practically there were a number of reasons for the development of the Gothic away from the Romanesque architecture which preceded it. One practical concern regarded the lack of aesthetic appeal and the propensity for the low roofs of the earlier Romanesque churches to catch fire due to the fact that they had to be made out of wood. A greater practical concern was simply for space. One the one hand space needed to be limited due to nature of the city; the surface area of cities needed to be as small as possible due to the need of building walls and moats. On the other hand space needed to be maximized in order to make room for people inside the churches.

Abbot Suger of France is generally attributed with being the hub of the innovation that is Gothic architecture. In his work On Consecration he wrote concerning this matter of space, stating that due to the smallness of the early basilica of St. Denis it was often “completely filled, disgorged through all of its doors the excess of the crowds,” such that “the outward pressure of the foremost ones not only prevented those attempting to enter from entering but also expelled those who had already entered.”Talmot france romanesque.png

While this might be an exaggeration it still makes clear that the thick and heavy walls of the earlier Romanesque style did not allow for ample space in which to move. It was this basilica of St. Denis that Abbot Suger would resolve to reconstruct.

The style instigated by Suger would employ vaulted ceilings and pillars reinforced by flying buttresses which would allow the architects to do away with the need for the thick walls so typical of the earlier Romanesque style. This need for only minimal walls not only allowed for a much more economic use of space but also allowed Suger the use of windows as had never been seen before. The strength of the columns and reinforced vaults furthermore allowed for an almost purely vertical manner of building which brought with it impossibly high ceilings made of stone, which not only served to give the building an airy and open feeling but also removed the previous vulnerability to fire seen in the lower wooden roofs of the Romanesque style.

milan-cathedralThese facts serve to give an ever so slight glimpse into the period surrounding the building of the cathedral, of what sort of issues it faced, and where it was at technologically.

It was not only practical concerns which motivated Abbot Suger to reconstruct the basilica of St. Denis. There were also philosophical concerns in which one can see the first of the primary aspects of the period coming together under the umbrella of Gothic architecture, that of scholarship.

Philosophy of the Gothic 

One of Suger’s greatest sources of inspiration were the Neo-Platonic writings of the Pseudo-Dionysus, a sixth-century Christian mystic from Syria. For instance in Pseudo-Dionysus it may be found that “Light comes from the Good, and light is an image of this archetypal Good… it gives them all a share of sacred light.”

It is from such passages as this that Suger finds not only justification for the great windows of his cathedral but also a symbolic aspect to the light which those windows allowed.  Yet it is not only the symbolism of light which Suger finds in the Pseudo-Dionysus, but also a justification for the aesthetic endeavor as a whole.

dionysiusThe earlier Romanesque churches not only had few windows but were also scarcely decorated; yet from Pseudo-Dionysus came the view that “The Beautiful is therefore the same as the Good, for everything looks to the Beautiful and the Good as the cause of being.” Here is found solid justification for the great beauty which Suger attempted to instill into Gothic architecture.

This is not merely an identification of the beautiful with the good, it is also an attempt at transcendence in the scale of being; in keeping with the Neo-Platonic view it was thought that through this light and beauty one may ascend the scale of being, the physical world being a reflection of the heavenly one. Thus Suger may be seen writing that:

“When – out of my delight in the beauty of the house of God – the loveliness of the many-colored stones has called me away from external cares, and worthy meditation has induced me to reflect, transferring that which is material to that which is immaterial… and that, by the grace of God, I can be transported from this inferior to that higher world in an anagogical manner.”

Here the Neo-Platonism of the period can be most clearly seen, this hope of climbing the scale of being, with the Pseudo-Dionysus calling for “the return upwards by those of lower status.” This is one aspect of the intellectual and scholarly pursuits of the period. Another loose glimpse can be seen in the aforementioned architectural ingenuity, which in turn required a great logical ingenuity.

saint-isaacs-cathedralThis logical ingenuity combined with the philosophical principles which laid behind the architecture have prompted some to refer to the Gothic cathedral as “a Summa Theologica in stone and glass.”


The logical ingenuity was not the only thing that factored into the cathedral being deemed such; the goal of the architects in conveying the basics of Christianity also contributed greatly. As Pope Gregory the Great had said quite some time earlier “what writing presents to readers, this a picture presents to the unlearned who behold, since in it even the ignorant see what they ought to follow; in it the illiterate read.”

Gregory is addressing images on a smaller scale, though in the cathedral this idea can be seen stretched to its maximum potential, the walls, ceilings and stained-glass windows filled to the brim with biblical scenes, depictions of the saints, moral allegories and images of agriculture and the sciences alike, leading the thirteenth century writer William Durandus to note that the cathedrals – and specifically the windows therein – were “Holy Scriptures, which expel the wind and the rain, that is all things hurtful, but transmit the light of the True Sun, that is, God, into the hearts of the Faithful.”stainedglass-sainte-chapelle

This points both to the cathedral as an “encyclopedia of human knowledge”
where “the first aim of their art was not to please, but to teach.”

A final implication for the academics of the period seen in the cathedral is the movement of education from being primarily the realm of the monasteries to a larger role of the cathedral school. With the increasing urbanization of the period towns began to be the center of social life and also now played a part in the intellectual sphere. Education became no longer limited to the clergy and the scholarly hub of the monasteries could be seen moving into the laity, who often attended the cathedral schools.

Gothic Architecture & Politics

The Gothic cathedral not only exemplifies the philosophical and scholarly mood of the period (or at least an aspect thereof), but also the political state.

A symbolic reading can give a rough glimpse of the medieval political-religious state.

The earlier Romanesque churches with their thick stone walls and minimal decorations or windows were reminiscent of the castles of the period, pointing to the role of the church militant; as E.H. Gombrich puts it the symbolism here points out that “here on earth it is the task of the Church to fight the powers of darkness till the hour of triumph dawns on doomsday.”

Yet the church was moving from a period of being the church militant to being the church triumphant.

The crusades were less active, the Vikings were becoming either quelled or settled, the Hanseatic League was making the seas safer, guilds were developing and the Muslims were being pushed back so as to only be a menace on the frontiers. Yet not only was it a triumph of the church or the state, the clergy or the laity alone, but of both.ausbreitung_der_hanse_um_das_jahr_1400-droysens_28

While Gregory VII had worked to assert the Church’s authority over the civil rulers, Abbot Suger sought more of an alliance between the two, the monarchy as seen in Louis VI and the bishops of France.

This was not merely a domination of the civic rulers by the church, but a cooperation – just as educational thrust began to move to the cities and thereby blurred the scholarly lines between the clergy and the laity, so did the architecture of the Gothic cathedral symbolize this move. This is most readily witnessed in the ‘triumphal’ arch, a type of arch originally used in Roman times under which victorious emperors marched, and which in the cathedral was moved from the nave of the church (where only the clergy would be admitted under to) to the entrance, where everybody would pass beneath.

There was also another dynamic to the politics of building cathedrals which is particularly noted by the thirteenth century bishop of Auxerre, William Seignelay, who determined to rebuild his church “so that it might not be inferior to these others in form and treatment.”

Thus the fact that the clergy were involved in politics is of great significance where the building of cathedrals can be seen a way of increasing political sway; furthermore, the building of magnificent churches helped increase the status of not only the bishop of the cathedral but of the city as a whole. Perhaps the most significant aspect of this striving for status is that it demonstrates the seeds of nationalism within the medieval period.

Through the building of the cathedrals the laity and the upper classes sought not only to glorify God, but also to show their own civic pride.

Art and the Gothic

The Gothic started out as architecture, and is best seen in the architecture, but it also eventually moved into the mediums of sculpture and of painting, especially given that these two types were often employed in the cathedrals themselves.

dentelle-de-pierre-cathedralThis was not the first time in history that sculpture and painting had been used to adorn buildings, especially religious buildings. The Greeks and Romans quite some time before had done similarly, though there was a key difference between the motives of the Greeks and Romans and that of the medieval Christians.

Whereas the Greeks and Romans sought to build up the human form and bring out the beauty of the body in their art, for the medieval Christians the sculpture and painting was more a means to an end. As has already been mentioned the pursuit of beauty played into the philosophical leanings of the period, and furthermore served as a means of conveying the story of Christ and the saints for the illiterate.

Also in contrast to the earlier Greeks and Romans, the artists of the Christian period came from the laity, which once again emphasizes the new increased significance of the laity in the church. In this facet of the arts can also perhaps be seen the first seeds of the return the golden ages of Romans which became the central theme of the Renaissance.

This focus on the artistic and the beautiful would also serve as part of the downfall of the style as it began to be seen has having “passed from its purity to undue elaboration.”

Religion and the Gothic

The religion of the period is naturally exemplified in the religious buildings of each age, yet more-so than any other church structures the Gothic cathedrals give a clear image of the religion contained therein.

Perhaps the most noteworthy aspect seen in the cathedrals is the great zeal of religion which was seen in the Christianity of the period.

As has been noted already with the scholarship and with the politics, Gothic architecture was not only a signifier of the clergy, but of the laity as well, and it is no less so here. The twelfth century Abbot Haimon as quoted by Daniel E. Bornstein gives an account of men and women both rich and poor volunteering their efforts in the constructing of the cathedrals, dragging wagons “with their loads of wine, corn, oil, lime, stones, beams, and other things necessary to sustain life or to build churches.”

Everybody wished to show their devotion to the faith by helping in the construction of the cathedrals – or as is said again by the William Seignelay in the thirteenth century, “the construction of new churches everywhere heightened people’s zeal.”

Dunblane Cathedral interior.pngThe zeal was such to bring the free donations of the sculptors, painters and architects along with the patronage of the wealthy. In short, there was an underlying unity in a common system, that of Christianity. It is this extraordinary thrust of energy from the laity that is perhaps most distinctive glimpse given by the Gothic cathedral.

Yet another way in which the religious mood of the period – as well as its theological leanings – can be seen the Gothic cathedral is once again through the sheer beauty which the builders attempted to instill into it.

For the Christians of the period the chief purpose of the church service was the celebration of the sacrament of communion, or the Eucharist. The doctrine of transubstantiation taught that the literal body of Christ became manifest during the celebration of this ceremony, and thus in combining with the Neo-Platonic justifications for the great beauty of the Gothic cathedral is the justification found in wanting the cathedral to be acceptable for the earthly appearance of Christ.

The cathedral needed to be a fitting setting of the miracle of the transformation of the wine and bread into the blood and body of Christ in the Eucharist therefore extra care was given to make it as much as possible a true reflection of the heavenly Jerusalem as taught by the Pseudo-Dionysus.

Finally there was a strong focus on the religion as being public, it was meant to draw in the public and to keep religion public.

This was not simply in contrast to the household god type religion of the pagans, but also served practical purposes within the church. For one it helped to keep the populace away from heresy, as religions which were kept private were likely to draw suspicion of being heretical, all the more-so with the twelfth century being one of the periods of inquisition.

Private worship was seen all the worse because as has been noted, the primary purpose of the service was the celebration of the Eucharist. Only a priest was seen as qualified to perform this act, and only the cathedral seen as a worthy place of its being performed. The cathedral can thereby be seen as upholding not only a distinctly public aspect to the Christianity of the period, but also one in which the priests are the sole bearers of the Eucharist, the chief means of grace.aquinas

It is thus that the cathedral can be seen as exemplifying nearly every major aspect of medieval life. On the mundane plane it shows the level of technical advancement, a level of logical ingenuity comparable to that of the Summa Theologica of the same period.

The Church and the Gothic

Beyond this, the Gothic cathedral is the exemplary example of the union between the clergy and the laity and the overall mindset of the period.

The cathedral allowed for status to be gained both by the bishop as well as the city as a whole. Furthermore the development of the cathedral signals a period when the religious zeal was such that the laity could rise up – even if under the direction of a bishop – and create such great wonders of both architectural and aesthetic triumph.

In the Gothic is seen the first distinctly Christian architecture, an architecture which was closely tied to the civilization of the city.

Apart from simply being a symbol of nearly every aspect of medieval civilization, one must also ask whether the Gothic offers any lasting lesson or applicability to the contemporary scene. On the one hand it might be concluded that this sort of movement could not be instituted from the top down, given that it was the zeal of the laity which was perhaps the driving force behind the endeavors – a zeal not only for the things of Christianity buts also the seeds of a nationalistic zeal for their regions, where through the construction of such wondrous buildings status could be raised and pride could be demonstrated.

europe_12thcentury_1884-300x216Yet all of this was possible mainly due to the monolithic mindset of Christianity which was instilled into the period, a mindset which brought together the civic and the religious and presupposed most of the dogmas of Christianity.

In the world today the same sort of mindset cannot even begin to be said to be present, rather what is seen is a splintered mindset in which no one narrative may rise to the forefront.

Furthermore the religious is not merely separated from the civic and political aspects of life, but any alliance between the two is seen as a distinctly negative thing. In terms of the benefits that the cathedral gave to the medieval period, it seems that most of them ended shortly after the era of the cathedrals. It is thus that the cathedrals were uniquely suited to their time.

The benefits of the cathedral through the role of acting as Scripture to the illiterate would have certainly been beneficial in any time prior, yet that method of communicating these various philosophical notions faded quickly with the advent of the Reformation, where with the return to the sources and the rise in literacy removed much of the need for the images of the cathedral.

The philosophical basis and religious zeal also uniquely suited the cathedral to its time. No longer would many Christians argue that light or beauty helps raise the worshiper closer to God and most would no doubt view the construction of such buildings as a waste of money which could be used elsewhere. Giving glory to God through the arts is a method which is seen as being less legitimate.

In spite of all of this there is still a great lesson to learn from the cathedrals, to include that the faithful can achieve great things when they are sufficiently inspired and perhaps raises the question of what sort of effort Christians should be putting into making their sanctuaries beautiful.

The Gothic brings forth the question of how contemporary Christians might bring their own philosophical notions and religious symbolism into the development of their churches. Gothic cathedrals have served to inspire a certain majesty for many hundreds of years, and their legacy is worth noting.

Book Review: God and Philosophy – By Etienne Gilson

Gilson God and Philosphy.pngletter-god and Philosophy is author Etienne Gilson‘s history of philosophy as regards its relationship with the idea of God and the demonstration of his existence. The text is divided into four sections: God and Greek Philosophy, God and Christian Philosophy, God and Modern Philosophy, and Contemporary Thought, roughly following the progression of thought from the Milesians through Augustine and Aquinas to Descarte, Spinoza, and finally Kant, Comte, Einstein and Huxley.

The history of philosophy presented by Gilson is very well done, yet it is the analysis and critique found within each of the sections which makes the text truly worthwhile. Here we see the tension of the Greeks between philosophy and religion, the medieval wrestling with metaphysics that they borrowed from the Greeks, the Enlightenment in turn borrowing from the scholastics in reconciling their science, and finally the scientists disregarding metaphysics and wondering why their science cannot answer questions that it is no designed to ask.

All in all Gilson’s text is a lucid, insightful and fairly accessible text regarding the way that the world has approached the notion of God, the difficulties in reconciling him with the philosophies of the day, and the shortcomings of the various systems in confronting the question. I’ve chosen a rather large number of memorable quotes as I feel they can better sum up the position and the merits of this text than I can through summation.

Memorable Quotes:

-“The great curse of modern philosophy is the almost universally prevailing rebellion against intellectual self-discipline. Where loose thinking obtains, truth cannot possibly be grasped, whence the conclusion naturally follows that there is no truth.”(pXV)

-“The Greek gods are the crude but telling expression of this absolute conviction that since man is somebody, and not merely something, the ultimate explanation for what happens to him should rest with somebody, and not merely with something… Mythology is not the first step on the path to true philosophy. In fact, it is no philosophy at all. Mythology is a first step on the path to true religion: it is religious in its own right.”(p22)

-“Human reason feels at home in a world of things, whose essences and laws it can grasp and define in terms of concepts; but shy and ill at ease in a world of existences, because to exist is an act, not a thing.”(p67)

-“Modern philosophy has been created by laymen, not by churchmen, and to the ends of the natural cities of men, not to the end of the supernatural city of God.”(p74)

-“The essence of the true Christian God is not to create but to be.”(p88)

-“The true reason why this universe appears to some scientists as mysterious is that, mistaking existential, that is, metaphysical, questions for scientific ones, they ask science to answer them. Naturally, they get no answers. Then they are puzzled, and they say that the universe is mysterious.”(p123)

“Why should those eminently rational beings, the scientists, deliberately prefer to the simple notions of design, or purposiveness, in nature, the arbitrary notions of blind force, chance, emergence, sudden variation, and similar ones? Simply because they much prefer a complete absence of intelligibility to the presence of a nonscientific intelligibility.”(p130)

-“Yet the fact that final causes are scientifically sterile does not entail their disqualification as metaphysical causes, and to reject metaphysical answers to a problem just because they are not scientific is deliberately to maim the knowing power of the human mind.”(p132)

-“We do not need to project out own ideas into the economy of nature; they belong there in their own right. Our own ideas are in the economy of nature because we ourselves are in it. Any and every one of the things which a man does intelligently is done with a purpose and to a certain end which is the final cause why he does it… Through man, who is part and parcel of nature, purposiveness most certainly is part and parcel of nature. In what sense is it arbitrary, knowing from within that where there is organization there always is a purpose, to conclude that there is a purpose wherever there is organization?”(p134)

Specific Criticisms

I don’t really have any criticisms of this text. There are a few random bits that I either failed to understand or disagreed with, such as the assertion that science has been successful in coming to a “perfectly consistent philosophy of the mechanical universe of modern science” and this somehow shows that the pure philosophical positions are somehow found more truly in science than Christianity.

Book Review: Faith Beyond Reason, A Kierkegaardian Account – By C. Stephen Evans


faithbeyondreasonAll throughout history, and especially since the Enlightenment, the question of how we know what we know has been a big question. Within Christianity this has played out in the debate of how faith and reason interact – is one to have precedence over the other, and if so, how does this work itself out practically.

In his book – Faith Beyond Reason, A Kierkegaardian Account – C. Stephen Evans provides his contribution to this discussion. Tracing the history of his thought through Aquinas to Kant to Kierkegaard (with special focus no the latter), Evans formulates an account of what he calls ‘responsible fideism’, that is “fideism that can be rationally defended.”

The primary theme of Evans is the outworking of this responsible fideism, discussing the ways in which faith is both above reason and the ways in which it is against reason. The first aspect is framed in a discussion of whether there are limits to reason and whether we can come to know these limits – Evans concludes that there are and that we can, and in lie with Aquinas and Kant asserts that there are many aspects of faith which are beyond the scope of reason.  The second aspect is primarily built upon Evans’ reading of Kierkegaard, and is set in the context of the Christian doctrine of the fall (and thus the noetic effects of sin). In this latter discussion Evans distinguishes between reason as it works in its ideal state and reason as it works in its concrete state (that is, in its actual workings in the fallen human); it is only reason in it’s concrete state, it’s state of fallenness, that faith may be said to be properly against reason.

Evans conclusion is that “perhaps it is best to describe such a faith as faith beyond reason rather than against reason, since there is no necessary conflict with reason, but only a conflict with reason that has suffered damage but refuses to recognize this. The metaphor of ‘beyond’ aptly conveys the thrust of the historic Augustinian view of faith seeking understanding. What is sought is in some sense beyond, or one would not need to seek it… to understand is to know the truth in the way it should be known. From the fideistic perspective, faith that seeks this understanding is also the faith that heals reason so as to make it possible to move towards understanding. Faith both seeks and enables understanding. Faith enables human beings to move beyond the limitations of finite, fallen human reason.”(p153)

All in all Evans book is a very good read. Despite taking on a topic that is usually bogged down with dense philosophical language and obfuscation, Evans is very readable and his thought very accessible. While his book might not make for a great introduction to the discussion of epistemology and the relationship between faith and reason, it will make for a great resource in grasping this issue once the basic terms are understood. All in all it’s a good, refreshing light read given the subject matter covered.

Memorable Quotes:

-“There is a kind of circularity present when I ask myself how I know what I know. I cannot certify that this knowledge is genuine without assuming some knowledge of the same general sort. I could not, for example, test my sensory faculties to see if they are reliable without employing those very sense faculties and thus assuming they are reliable. There is no internal guarantee that I am not mistaken, and my belief that I have knowledge reveals my already-present commitments.”(p46)

-“Furthermore, it is hard to see how a logical contradiction could serve as the ‘boundary’ or ‘limit’ of reason as the incarnation is supposed to do. To recognize a ‘square circle’ as a formal contradiction one must have a fairly clear grasp of the concepts of ‘square’ and ‘circle’. In one sense at least, therefore, such a concept falls within the competence of reason. The point of the incarnation, according to Kierkegaard, is that it is a concept that reason cannot understand. This is so not because reason has a perfectly clear grasp of what it means to be God and what it means to be human and properly judges that the two concepts are logically contradictory. In fact, just the reverse is the case. Human reason is baffled both by human nature and by God. It is further baffled by the conjunction of the two concepts, but not because reason has a real understanding of either what it means to be human or what it means to be God. The incarnation may appear or seem to human reason to be a logical contradiction, but it is not known to be such, and the believer does not think that it is a formal contradiction.”(p83)

-“We accept as reasonable what we are taught as reasonable, and those who control society also control what is transmitted through teaching.”(p94)

-“Objective evidence may be neither necessary nor sufficient for faith. However, it doe not follow from this that objective evidence is simply irrelevant for faith, or that the believer will have no concern for evidence.”(p110)

-“… hence religious truths are not only above but go against human reason as it concretely functions, even though such truths may not be against reason as it ideally functions. On this view faith requires the transformation of the person so that the damage done to reason can be repaired or at least alleviated.”(p152)

Specific Criticisms

While on the whole I did enjoy my reading of this book, it is far from being perfect. Perhaps the first and most annoying thing that I came across in the book is Evans’ misrepresentation of some of the thinkers in the book (such as Cornelius Van Til). While Evans does preface his discussion of the various thinkers with the statement that he may not be discussing the final thought of these individuals, it’s still annoying when he then proceeds to misrepresent them. I do not think that this is by any means intentional on his part, I still found it bothersome.

The second, and perhaps more important, criticism is that of his argument against irrationality. In his second chapter ‘Fideism as Irrationalism’ Evans states that “I shall argue that these particular claims are irrational and indefensible…”(p17) and then at various points through the rest of the book mentions how he has proven in Chapter 2 that this sort of fideism is irrational. The problem here is that this sort of fideism is asserting itself as irrational – it is hardly an argument against an irrationalist system to say that it is irrational.

Book Review: Escape from Reason – Francis Schaeffer

schaefferThe caption for this book is “a penetrating analysis of the trends in modern thought.” The goal of the book is to provide an brief overview and outline of the past 800 years of theological/philosophical progress – especially as relates to the development of the modern theological climate (though note that the book was published in 1968) – with the intention of giving the reader an understanding of the current landscape so that they may better communicate the truths of Christianity into the generation in which they’re living. It is an attempt to help a generation of Christians “to speak meaningfully to its own age.”

To start off, the book is very short, and at 94 pages can be read fairly easily without having to dedicate too much time to it. The world which Schaeffer sets up is one in which there is a dualism between man and truth, between the rational and the irrational. The eternal questions of how one may find meaning in the world, how far reason can take the mind, and how we can know anything are the things we have to figure out.

In this attempt create an outline of modern thought Schaeffer begins with Aquinas and attributes the first creation of this duality to him, he then progresses up through Kant, Hegel, Kierkegaard and Barth while taking detours to discuss the trends as they flow through art, literature and film. The over-riding principle that Schaeffer sees as developing is one of an increasing separation of man from rational truth, ending in a complete wall between man and his ability to form a unified field of knowledge; as Schaeffer notes, “Modern man has given up his hope of unity and lives in despair – the despair of no longer thinking that what has always been the aspiration of men is at all possible.” It is the loss of a unified answer for knowledge and life which tries to jump the gap from rationalism to meaning through any way possible, whether a ‘leap of faith’, drugs, nonrational experiences and feelings.

On the whole Schaeffer does have a good point to make. In the most general of ways his outline of philosophical history speaks truth, but it needs to be taken wit a spoonful of salt. His general mood is correct, and his feelings towards various thought trends are also correct, such as the trends towards “faith in faith” and using the terms God and Jesus more for their connotations than for their orthodox meanings. The gap which he describes is one which needs to be addressed and he is right in his position that in order to effectively communicate to a generation one must understand their thought patterns (this is most relevantly posited in the gulf between parents and their children during his time-frame, where the children are being educated in increasingly skeptical worldviews where truth is being forced to give way to relativism and subjectivism). Finally, he’s got some interesting insights into art and literature.

The issue with the text is that while he gets various things correct and the overall message of the book is acceptable, his scholarship is dubious at best. The caption designates it as “a penetrating analysis of the trends in modern thought” when in fact it feels as though Schaeffer simply took what he knew to be true about the theological landscape and patched together a sketchy outline of philosophic history based on the vague impressions he had of each theologian. “Penetrating” is hardly the word I would use – it’s more like a cursory outline that one might formulate after reading a philosophy textbook.

That said, the book is not without merit. If you take everything at face value you’ll come away misinformed, but at least you’ll come away motivated to engage the thought-trends where they are (since I’d say that even if his history is skewed he’s got a good hold on the present), hopefully you’ll even come away motivated to read the source-texts of the authors which Schaeffer condemns as creating the current theological climate – you’ll probably be happy to find that many of them have very valuable things to contribute to the conversation, some are even an orthodox, and few are the heralds of irrationality and mysticism that Schaeffer makes them out to be.

Memorable Quotes:

-“These things are never merely theoretical, because men act the way they think.”

-“The early scientists also shared the outlook of Christianity in believing that there is a reasonable God, who had created a reasonable universe, and thus man, by use of his reason, could find out the universe’s form.”

-“Today there are almost no philosophies in the classic sense of philosophy – there are anti-philosophies.”

-“Once the historic Christian answer is put away, all we can do is to leap upstairs and say that against all reason God is good.”

Specific Criticisms

1) Early on in the book Schaeffer makes Aquinas the foundational starting point for the progress of rationalistic philosophy. He states that “In Aquinas’s view the will of man was fallen, but the intellect was not… Mans’ intellect became autonomous… philosophy also became free, and was separated from revelation.” A few things here, on is that Aquinas had an exceptionally high view of revelation; to assert that man can know things through reason is not to make reason autonomous. Furthermore, if man’s will is fallen then one can’t help but have the intellect affected.

Aquinas did not ‘set philosophy free from revelation’ as Schaeffer posits – indeed, philosophy had been free for quite some time, I’d give it at least 1500 years or more. Afterall, if anything, Aquinas served simply to bring the thought of Aristotle back into play. Note that Aristotle was a philosopher over a thousand years before Aquinas and he had no place for revelation in his philosophy. As Chesterton would argue “St. Thomas did not reconcile Christ to Aristotle; he reconciled Aristotle to Christ” and acknowledge that there is a root in part to wisdom in the real world rather than solely intangible truths of Platonism. What he would point out is that if the unbeliever is to be proved wrong, it should be done so on their own grounds (as proving them wrong on somebody else’s ground does no good). At most in Aquinas we have a subordinate autonomy, which is hardly equal to Schaeffer’s weighty claim – if he allowed his philosophy to step away from his theology it was grounded in an absolute certainty of the truth of God, that since God is true the facts of necessity can lead to nothing other than Him; and yet he still held the place of revelation in the knowledge of God (for otherwise the uneducated masses would have no hope of coming to know God).

2) Another point of poor scholarship on Schaeffer’s part is in his view of thought pre-Aquinas. He tries to point out that the heavenly things were all important for those early thinkers, but then creates a dichotomy in saying that nature was just a backdrop for them. If we’re talking about the superstitious folk here the case is nothing of the sort, nature wasn’t just a backdrop, nature was what was heavenly – filled to the brim with spirits and gods and nymphs. If we’re talking about the philosophers we can look to Maurice de Wulf (author of ‘A History of Medieval Philosophy’) noting that “The earliest Grecian philosophers confined themselves to the study of the external world.” Again, Schaeffer simply seems to have not done his research, but is rather relying on the feel he gets from a few pictures to make a generalization about over a thousand years worth of philosophy.

The closest he might have to a valid point here would be that much western thought in Europe pre-Aquinas was dominated by Plato, which gives priority to the realm of ideas (what Schaeffer might interpret as ‘heavenly things) over the physical world (which Plato asserts as being modelled on the world of thought).

3) Schaeffer states that modern man has given up hope for a unified system of knowledge. While it is true that modern [secular] man has acknowledge the lack of a unified system, they haven’t given up hope; a point which can be made by referencing Hawkings ‘A Brief History of Time’. Science is still searching for this unified system, specifically in reconciling the general theory of relativity with quantum mechanics (that is, the way normal to really big things operate in terms of gravity versus the way very tiny things operate).

4) Schaeffer posits that, in regards to the middle class who are generally unaffected by philosophical and theological shifts “they still think in the right way – to them truth is truth, right is right – but they no longer know why.” I’d simply disagree. If anybody knows why truth is truth it is the down-to-earth middle class, those unaffected by the rampant skepticism of the past century. They know why truth is truth, the fact that they can’t express it in philosophical form isn’t an argument against them (and to use it as such is to near begging the question).