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The Oxford Movement’s Critique of Modern Rationalism

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The Oxford Movement was a 19th century movement within the Church of England that eventually developed into Anglo-Catholicism. The movement’s manifesto was set forth in explicit terms in the Tracts for the Times, published from 1833 to 1841.  However a parallel expression of principles took poetic form — in the Lyra Apostolica (1836), an anthology whose principal author was John Henry Newman, and with contributions by several others, including John Keble.

Newman, Keble and the others sought a return to a more authentic and full-blooded Christianity as found in the writings of Church Fathers.  Their critique of rationalism is relevant for our times.

The Introduction to the 1901 edition of the Lyra, written by Henry C. Beeching, excerpted below, explains with admirable clarity and eloquence the Oxford Movement’s critique of modern rationalism and Lockean Liberalism.

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WE must remember what the Liberalism of the Thirties was, if we would understand the indignation with which these men set themselves to repudiate it. It was the Liberalism of rational enlightenment. It believed that the evils and sorrows of humanity would fade away before the instructed intelligence. It was hard, confident, aggressive. It had the easy air of superiority which belongs to those who have never faced the deep underlying issues of life.

It omitted these from its calculation. Everything, for it, was on the surface; was plain; was uncomplicated. The cool reason, the average commonsense, the ordinary experience of the man in the street, were its sufficing standards. It abhorred mystery. It had no touch of reverence, awe, mysticism. It was frankly utilitarian. It was at the mercy of a bland and shallow {xxvii} optimism. Not that it was not doing an immense deal of practical good. It was opening doors of freedom. It was breaking down barriers. It was spreading knowledge. It was extending the range of social happiness. It was widening the old horizons of philanthropic effort. It was relieving men from the burdens and terrors of ignorant bigotry. It was insisting that institutions should do the work for which they were intended. It was bent on applying the test of real use for the public welfare to all the resources of Civilisation, which were locked up, too often, by the selfishness of prejudice, and the idleness of indifference.

But, in spite of all this beneficial activity, Liberalism was felt, by those ardent young men at Oxford, to be their enemy. And it was this, because it left out that which to them was the one fact of supreme importance—the soul.

Liberalism, as it was understood in the days of Lord Brougham, and of Benthamism, knew nothing of the soul’s enthralling drama—its tragic heights and depths, its absorbing wonder, its momentous agonies, its infinite pathos, its tempestuous struggle, its mysterious sin, its passion, its penitence, and its tears. All this Liberalism passed over, as of no account. It was for it a veiled world, into which it possessed no way of entry. It came not into its secret, and moreover, it was content to be excluded. It was inclined to sweep it all aside, as the rubbish of superstition. It was unaware of its own blind-{xxviii} ness. It was confident in its own adequacy to set human life straight, without regard to this disturbing matter.

It was this shallow self-sufficiency which stung the strong soul of Carlyle into fierce revolt. In him, the elements which rational enlightenment fancied it had disposed of, re-asserted their volcanic intensity. Through his voice, humanity defied the comfortable bribes of utilitarianism, and revealed itself once again as the passionate Pilgrim of Time, for ever seeking an unknown and eternal Goal. And this recoil of Carlyle, prophetic in its force, yet empty of any Gospel message, had its parallel at Oxford. . . .  Every fibre of Keble’s soul revolted against any temper that would smoothe over the dark realities of sin, or would cheapen the tremendous issues of human character and human choice, or would rob earth of its imaginative mystery, or would {xxix}trifle with the awful significance of word or deed in the light of Doom. Truth was, for him, no thin logical consistency, but a Vision of Eternal Reality, which smote in upon the conscience of man with the solemnity of a moral challenge.

Liberalism embodied, according to Newman’s analysis, the spirit of rationalism, and the claim of the human reason to sit in judgment upon dogmatic revelation. And, against this, Keble recalled to men the teaching of Bishop Butler on the moral nature of the evidence by which spiritual convictions were reached. To the mere reason, this evidence could not get beyond suggestive probabilities; but these probabilities were used, by the living spirit of man, as an indication of the personal Will of God, which could be read by the soul that was in tune with that Will. So probabilities became certitudes. “ I will guide thee with mine Eye,” was Keble’s favourite example of the mode in which Divine truth touched the soul. By deep glimpses, by rare flashes, by a momentary glance, the Eye of God could make us aware of Truths far beyond the understanding of reason. Such Truths possessed authority, which we could not dissect or critically examine. They were revelations of the mind of Him with Whom we had to deal. So Authority was the key-note of Keble’s thinking, in antithesis to the Reason of Liberal enlightenment. And Authority was shown, as Mr. Balfour has again shown us in our own day, to rest on profound instincts of human nature, which had their roots far down out of sight, and defied rational analysis. Emotion, Imagination, {xxx} Association, Tradition, Conscience, all played their part in the creation of that temper which found its joyful freedom in surrendering to Authority.

{xxxvi} . . . .Newman, who has denounced the attack of Liberalism so vigorously, finds the weak and worldly defence of the traditional Conservatism as repulsive and as dangerous.

Italics added. Source: John Henry Newman, John Keble, et al. Lyra Apostolica. (Introduction by Henry C. Beeching.) London, 1901.

Written by John Uebersax

December 12, 2016 at 10:57 pm

Plato’s Proof of God’s Existence

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MOST anyone who’s taken a course in the history of Western philosophy has run across the famous ontological argument proof for God’s existence associated with St. Anselm of Canterbury.  Actually several versions of the ontological argument have appeared over the centuries, the simplest one being:

  1. By definition, God is a with every perfection.
  2. Existence is a perfection.
  3. Hence God exists.

One of the most interesting things about these arguments is that they have attracted so much attention despite the fact that they are basically unconvincing.

Please don’t mistake my intentions.  Of course I believe in God; I only mean that these arguments, analyzed at the logical level, aren’t very good, and everyone knows that.  The strange thing is that, despite this, the ontological argument has been ceremoniously taught to philosophy students for at least a millenium.  It’s as if to say, “We don’t really have a good logical proof for God’s existence, but rather than abandon the project let’s practice with a second-rate one.”

Curiously, all this overlooks the fact that we do potentially have at our disposal a much better philosophical proof of God’s existence.  To call it a proof in the sense of a logical proof might be technically incorrect — it’s really more of a demonstration. [Note 1] Nevertheless, regardless of how we classify it,  its evidential value for supporting a belief in God is, I believe, substantially stronger than that of the ontological argument.  This experiential argument comes from Plato’s dialogues, most notably, the central books of the Republic and Diotima’s speeches in the Symposium.  It is illustrated as follows:

  1. Consider some beautiful thing — say an incredibly beautiful sunset, the kind that totally absorbs you in a profound sense of beauty, awe, and wonder..
  2. Now, instead of pausing in that experience alone — which is our usual tendency — elevate your thoughts still higher and consider that this is not the only beautiful thing.  There are many other experiences equally or more beautiful as this one.
  3. Then consider that there must be something in common amongst all these experiences — in exactly the same way that there is something in common for all triangles, all horses, or all trees.  That is, each of these things has some defining principle or principles, some essence.
  4. Consider further that a defining essence has, at least in theory, some existence outside of its instantiation in actual examples.  Hence we may conceive of the abstract “Form” of a triangle, which would exist even if somehow we were able to remove all physical triangles from the world.  If so, we may also suppose that there is some Form of Beauty, which is the principle that all beautiful things have in common; and that this may potentially exist independently of all beautiful things.
  5. Moreover, Beauty is not the only good.  There are also such noble things as Truth,  Virtue, Excellence, and Justice — which we also unhesitatingly consider good, which delight or assure us, and which can bring us very deep levels of satisfaction.
  6. And, just as with Beauty, we may suppose that there is some essence or Form for each of these other things: a Form of Truth, a Form of Virtue, of Excellence, of Justice, and so on.
  7. And finally, we may contemplate the possibility of some principle or essence which all these different Forms of good things have in common.  This, too, would be a Form — the Form of Goodness.
  8. God is defined as that being than which nothing can be more Good.  Therefore God is the Form of Goodness.

For me, this comes very close to being a fully logically persuasive argument for God’s existence.  But — perhaps more importantly — it can also be approached as a contemplative or spiritual exercise.  That is, as Plato himself presents this line of thought, one is not so much trying to logically convince oneself, as to elicit, by performing this exercise, an elevation of the mind to an awakening or remembrance (anamnesis) of an innate, intuitive understanding of God.  We might call this an experiential proof, or an anagogical proof.

It is, of course, up to each one individually to investigate this method and to determine how well it works; but I will add another thing. Not only does this demonstration supply evidence of God’s existence, it may also promote the development of a sincere gratitude for and love of God.  As one contemplates the nature of Goodness, that is, as one begins to become more conscious of the principle that, if there are good things, there must be a Form of Goodness, one also becomes amazed at the very idea that there is such a thing as Goodness.  And also that we, as human beings, seem particularly attuned to crave, seek, and experience Goodness.  It is quite remarkable that we have this word and this concept, ‘good’, such that we may apply it a huge variety of things and experiences.

The counter-argument of the reductionist will not do here:  he or she might say, “What we consider good merely derives from sensory, practical, and survival considerations; it’s all explained by Darwinism:  we desire and prefer certain things because they are advantageous.”  But that does not explain, among other things, why some of the things we consider most good – say a heroic sacrifice of some noble person – is not materially advantageous.

If, then, we accept that there is something deep and fundamental in our nature such that we seek goodness (which is to say, in effect, that we are moral beings) and also that there is some Author and Source of Goodness, and, further, that it is our destiny as immortal souls to enjoy an eternity of ever greater Beauty and Goodness, then naturally our gratitude to this Supreme Being is spontaneously aroused.

Therefore Plato’s ‘proof’ of God’s existence as the Form of the Good is not only logically appealing, but effective at the level of emotion and devotion as well.

Finally, there are definite connections between Plato’s wish to prove the existence of God, and the many proofs he supplies throughout the dialogues for the immortality of the human soul.  A new article (with some of the leading ideas raised here developed more clearly) considers that topic.[Note 2]

Notes

1. The word ‘proof’ means to try or verify something.  Not all proofs are logical.  Ones proves a gold coin by biting it.  Making evident to ones senses, whether physical or intellectual, that something is real is a valid form of proof.  The point of this article is to suggest that in theology one should not automatically equate proof with deductive syllogisms.

2. Since originally making this post I’ve discovered a few related references.  Most relevant is: Daniel A. Dombrowski, A Platonic Philosophy of Religion: A Process Perspective, SUNY Press, 2005.  Chapter 5 (‘Arguments for the Existence of God’) suggests that a precursor to St. Anselm’s ontological argument can be found in Books 6 and 7 of Plato’s Republic.  There are some similarities between Dombrowski’s discussion and the present one, such as an emphasis on the Form of the Good, but also major differences.  The main difference is that whereas Dombrowski  uses the Form of the Good and the principle of directly intuited knowledge (noesis) to construct a deductive logical proof for God’s existence, I believe Plato employs these principles to present an experiential proof.

The Allegorical Meaning of ‘Doubting’ Thomas

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Today the Catholic Church commemorates the Apostle, ‘Doubting’ Thomas. Thomas doubted that Jesus had resurrected until he saw him and touched him in the flesh. Eventually he saw and touched Jesus, and then believed. But in response Jesus said, “Blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.”

Thomas can be interpreted allegorically as symbolizing a certain tendency of our ego to be overly rationalistic and to insist that material facts and logical proofs are the only genuine basis for belief. This doubting disposition denies the experiential reality of other valid forms of knowledge, like intuition, insight, Conscience, inspiration and faith (pistis). Significantly, Thomas means ‘twin’ in Aramaic. Our ego is like one of a pair of twins, the other being a more intuitive, authentic, or higher self.  The ego must learn to loosen its overly tight control.  We must admit to ourselves that sometimes we have valid knowledge from extra-rational faculties.

See if you can catch your own inner ‘doubting Thomas’ in action.  For example, perhaps there is some article of Christian faith which you believe is true, but which your rational mind doubts or about which complains that logical proof is lacking.  Your rational mind says, “You claim to believe this thing by ‘faith’. But what is this ‘faith’?  How can it be seen, touched?  How can it be proven to exist at all, much less be demonstrated to be reliable?”  But despite this, the part of your mind responsible for conviction, for deciding “do I or do I not genuinely believe this to be true?”  has the conviction.  And by conviction we mean the same kind of ‘belief-in-the-trueness-of’ that a closely reasoned argument supplies.  Consider the logical syllogism (1) if A then  B, (2) A is true, (3) therefore B is true.  If we know propositions (1) and (2) are both true, then we believe with absolute certainty that the conclusion (3) is true.  That feeling of certainty is what is meant by conviction.  I am merely suggesting that, if one examines ones thoughts closely, one may detect cases where one has the strong conviction of some article of faith, and that this conviction or convincedness is essentially the same as what is felt for a conclusion that is proven by explicit logic, as in the above example. But the conviction produced by faith is such that it is not accompanied by awareness of a rational argument that proves, in a logical sense, the belief.

Obviously not all forms of ‘unreasoned’ belief are of this character.   It is possible to believe something on mere superstition, because it is flattering, or because of wishful thinking.  Religious beliefs based on these things are not genuine faith, even though an ignorant person — namely one who does not know what true faith is — may claim otherwise.   Atheist writers find ample ammunition from such examples with which to discredit religion. True faith, however, is not like these other things.  It is characterized by genuine conviction; these other cases produce, at best, a shallow delusion or pretense of conviction.