In the Flock: Faithful…and Enlightened?

Polyester Slacks of the Damned by

The new look of faith?

Can one be a thinking person and a Christian? A Catholic? Plenty of people, starting with “the new atheists,” would have us say no. Their arguments tend to be shrill, superficial, and increasingly passe. For the believer, polite trivialization of faith is a far more difficult thing to deal with. Lots of folks appreciate religion for its cultural and sociological benefits, but take it too seriously? No thanks. Serious piety is kind of like polyester pants: embarrassing. Not something to be railed against, exactly – but definitely something pitiable.

Recently, Gary Gutting, who teaches philosophy at Notre Dame, reflected on just this sort of trivialization:

An old friend and mentor of mine, Ernan McMullin, was a philosopher of science widely respected in his discipline.  He was also a Catholic priest.  I don’t know how many times fellow philosophers at professional meetings drew me aside and asked, “Does Ernan really believe that stuff?”  (He did.) Amid all the serious and generally respectful coverage of the papal resignation and the election of a new pope, I often detect an undertone of this same puzzlement.  Can reflective and honest intellectuals actually believe that stuff?

“Yes” says Gutting, though in a qualified way. He gives a sense of his own journey of faith and intellect. In addition to being a Catholic, Gutting is also a student of David Hume, a major figure in the Scottish Enlightenment who was no friend of faith.1 Enlightenment and faith have for centuries been seen at loggerheads. Gutting attempts to bridge this divide on three grounds, drawing on his own Catholic education:

First, it is utterly important to know, to the extent that we can, the fundamental truth about human life: where it came from, what (if anything) it is meant for, how it should be lived.  Second, this truth can in principle be supported and defended by human reason.  Third, the Catholic philosophical and theological tradition is a fruitful context for pursuing fundamental truth, but only if it is combined with the best available secular thought.

In this light, the intellectual respectability of Catholicism comes from its small-c catholicity, that is, its universality. Both new atheists and those generally condescending towards religion are correct that doctrines of faith cannot be empirically or rationally proven. (Incidentally, most believers would say the same thing.) Faith is a theological virtue – lying beyond the realm of reason, but not in conflict with it. Catholicism’s small-c catholicity contains, among other things, a universal interest in anything that is true, and in the best methods available for finding truth. That means understanding as much as possible the best of philosophy, math, physics, biology, networks…and on down the line.

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  1. The Enlightenment, among other things, offered a strong critique of religion both its truth claims and its practice. The term Enlightenment was coined to distinguish that period from the dark and “superstitious” periods that preceded it.

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