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.

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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. 

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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).