(This is a rewrite of what was originally posted yesterday as, “For The Fourth Sunday of Advent”; I wasn’t happy with the way that post turned out, but still thought it had potential and thus decided to give it a second shot at the risk of committing a blogging faux pas)
I talked the other day about the importance of commitment and responsibility in the shaping of our lives. And they are important because they are our way of managing a connection with things that are above and beyond us. Now we are all aware that the world, existence, truth, life, even the communities we live in are things that are bigger than what our minds can grasp. Hence it’s not the case that we can entirely relate to them on our own terms. I can’t say, “I’m committed to the truth on the proviso that I find it agreeable/understand it.” Because the truth is something larger than our own bundle of desires and intellectual capacities. If we want to have some real connection with the truth we have to rather have a commitment to the truth even before we know what it can be.
And this is perhaps in a nutshell the failure at the core of the Enlightenment project: it can only approach truth, as it pertains to politics, religion, morality, etc. to the extent that it can have it on terms entirely salutary to our own individual reason. It will accept as true only that which has some absolute rational foundation that is totally accessible. But as was of course discovered, once we start on that path we quickly find that we do away with knowledge altogether. Or, what is worse, apparent reality becomes a construct of our rational minds, and the ‘real’ world becomes something elusive. “The world is my representation” says Arthur Schopenhauer at the beginning of his work, The World as Will and Representation. The world becomes a representation, an idea, because the categories of existence that were once larger than us have been completely absorbed into our minds.
But fortunately most people do not think this way: most people are capable of naturally believing that they live inside something that is bigger than them. I don’t experience reality as a video being run in my mind, but rather as something that I am participating in even before my mind starts to have a grasp on what goes on.
Just about every heresy against reality is reductive. It tries to take a complicated situation and water it down into something easily digestible. Marxism, for example, with its interest in reducing all our lives to material processes. And while natural selection is a fine explanation of our biological origins, it becomes laughable when used as a theory of all human action. These things at best talk of a representation, a picture of the world; they have a more tenuous grasp on the real thing. Sanely coping with the world requires acceptance of it on its own freakish, abnormal terms.
Hence, contrary to what so many sceptics say, it is salutary that religion, our relationship with the infinite, takes the form of faith. “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” said Carl Sagan. But if anything is bigger than us, it is God, and if we cannot even have a sane relationship with our spouses without getting beyond our mere ideas about them, how can we expect to do the same with Him? Or, to quote Thomas Aquinas,
Another benefit that comes from the revelation to men of truths that exceed reason is the curbing of presumption, which is the mother of error, for there are some who have such a presumptuous opinion of their own ability that they deem themselves able to measure the nature of everything; I mean to say that, in their estimation, everything is true that seems to them so, and everything is false that does not. So that the human mind, therefore, might be freed from this presumption and come to a humble inquiry after truth, it was necessary that some things should be proposed to man by God that would completely surpass his intellect. (Aquinas, Thomas. Summa Contra Gentiles Book One: God. London: University of Notre Dame Press, 1975. P. 70)
While the claim is often made that accepting orthodoxy is to put limits on your mind, it is more closer to the truth to say that they establish a necessary breathing space for the mind; a reminder that the truth is something out there, not in here.
But of course it’s also said that reality is too complicated for something like Christianity to be true, that it attempts this very reduction. Yet, as Chesterton, Tolkien and Lewis pointed out, the whole thing has the uncanny feel of people being caught in the middle of something that is very real. It does not seem like a conspiracy theory that finally ‘explains’ everything, but is rather like a revelation in a story where the characters discover that the situation is far more strange, complicated and wonderful than they thought. All the other explanations of what was going on in that corner of the world 2000 years ago have the air of a theory, offering a simpler picture of Jesus than the strange, convoluted one we get in the Gospels. But the Gospel stubbornly refuses to be reduced away, and the way to sanity remains the wild adventure that it should be.