In my previous post I discussed how mimetic opposition might cause us to take on the spirit of those whom we oppose. We unconsciously adopt their modes of thought and action as we seek to overcome them, adjusting our own approaches in ways that make us begin to resemble our opponents. This resemblance can be masked by the fact that we still maintain certain tenets of our opposition, however, allowing us to delude ourselves into believing that we are engaged in the same project with which we began. I worry that Dr. Lu’s argument against “healthy homoerotic love” operates within this delusion, both in its approach to “homoerotic desire” and also in its approach to truth. This post will address the question of truth.
Perhaps the most remarkable—and most distinctively modern—claim made by Dr. Lu comes in her proposed solution to Christians’ insensitivity towards those with “SSA” (same sex attraction). She argues, “But the appropriate corrective can only be a clear explanation of Catholic sexual morals and their relevance to the issue of SSA.” As a preliminary matter, it is significant that she limits the issue of insensitivity solely within the realm of sexual morality, rather than advocating a comprehensive and multidimensional approach. In this way, her approach mimics the specialization and fragmentation characteristic of modern academia. A deeper issue can be found, however, in this statement’s more general approach to truth.
We typically attribute the phrase “knowledge is power” to the sixteenth century philosopher Francis Bacon. The centuries following Bacon, especially during the Enlightenment, made this statement an intellectual, political, social, and cultural presupposition characterizing modern life and inquiry. During this period, philosophy was “liberated” from its place as the handmaiden of theology. Largely under the influence of Descartes, knowledge was prioritized if it could be pursued in an intellectual vacuum, “freed” from personal subjective experience. New forms of scientific inquiry prioritized “truths” that were quantifiable, demonstrable, and repeatable on large scales, whether they be historical, geographical, or sociological. And a new technocratic age emphasized the ways in which objective, analytical, and notional truths would be man’s salvation.
Even John Paul II notes the new value of certain forms of knowledge in Centesimus Annus:
“In our time, in particular, there exists another form of ownership which is becoming no less important than land: the possession of know-how, technology and skill. The wealth of the industrialized nations is based much more on this kind of ownership than on natural resources.”
That is a very rough sketch of some philosophical movements over the last few centuries, and much more could be said. One thing that could be taken from this sketch, however, is the popular conclusion that notional truths would be man’s salvation. Another is the conclusion that the highest truths are those which can be subjected to hard analytical inquiry and separated from personal experience.
Under this framework, it makes sense that many theology departments prioritize historical fact-finding and sociological analysis in their approach to biblical texts. Christ’s biblical teaching on morality was too unclear to rise to the level of a modern “science,” as evidenced even within the Gospels by His listeners’ constant confusion. And the narrative structure of the Bible creates a challenge for those obsessed with the Enlightenment project of getting things “right.” The Bible seems to resist attempts to reduce it to any single analytical framework, even if we believe that it has a unity and integrity binding it together.
This also extends to the study of great Christians. Though he was an extremely accomplished poet in his time, virtually no theological course today on Thomas Aquinas will include his poetry. This reveals quite a bit about the current state of Thomistic inquiry. This inquiry, like the analytic “objectivism” of many academic disciplines, has little space in its curriculum for personal, non-technical, and supra-notional explorations. It emphasizes forms of knowledge that can be easily dissected and weighed, which are “philosophically precise,” and which can be used as weaponry in gaining intellectual domination.
According to Plato, this is a distorted and inhumane form of intellectual inquiry, the reduction of knowledge into little bits and pieces that can be used in a battle for intellectual superiority. It’s sophistry. Likewise, John Henry Newman criticizes logicians for being more “set upon concluding rightly, than on right conclusions… After all, man is not a reasoning animal; he is a seeing, feeling, contemplating, acting animal.” But in a world where syllogistic analysis is deemed more “true” than personal experience, it makes sense that we would prioritize the dissective work of analytic “theology” over the co-creative work of story telling, whether the story be the Gospel story or the personal accounts of today’s Christians.
Dr. Lu writes of “the Spiritual Friendship movement”: “It’s difficult to define this group, especially since their questions and positions are not always formulated in a philosophically precise way.” This can be seen as a criticism, since she states that the “only” appropriate response to today’s problems of sexuality can be a “clear explanation.”
The writers at Spiritual Friendship disagree. Their inquiries are frequently grounded in story telling, and this is deliberate. Stories not only capture the human spirit in ways that syllogisms cannot, but they also evidence Christian witness in ways that Enlightenment emphasis on disinterested rational thought has sought to destroy (likewise, Dr. Lu criticizes the erotic for its “strong tendency to diminish our capacity for disinterested rational thought,” thus casting suspicion on the ecstatic experiences of Christian mystics). And they more clearly imitate the narrative and personal witness handed down in Scripture and imitated by the moral imaginations of such writers as Dante, John of the Cross, Therese of Liseux, and even Aquinas (who supposedly referred to his Summa as “straw”). When measured against the Scriptural, and even early Christian, account of “witness to the Good News,” these accounts are more properly theological than any “philosophically precise” cut-and-dry syllogistic straw.
In arguing otherwise, Dr. Lu casts herself as distinctively modern. She presents notional truths as the key to salvation, in contrast to a more complex reality of personal experience, especially experience in story telling. I wouldn’t deny the importance of notional knowledge and syllogistic reasoning. As an attorney with a background in philosophy and classical languages, I value analytical and syllogistic reasoning. I am engaging in such reasoning in these posts. But I would deny that they are the “only” response to our present crises. Such a claim wouldn’t just make me modern. It would make me non-Christian. From a Christian perspective, these argumentative essays might be helpful. But, in the order of things, they are not particularly impressive and should ultimately be left behind in the pursuit to live creatively. My time would probably be better spent writing a children’s story.
CS. Lewis has remarked on the danger of apologetics:
“I have found that nothing is more dangerous to one’s own faith than the work of an apologist. No doctrine of that Faith seems to me so spectral, so unreal as one that I have just successfully defended in a public debate. For a moment, you see, it has seemed to rest on oneself: as a result, when you go away from that debate, it seems no stronger than that weak pillar. That is why we apologists take our lives in our hands and can be saved only by falling back continually from the web of our own arguments, as from our intellectual counters, into the Reality-from Christian apologetics into Christ Himself. That also is why we need one another’s continual help – oremus pro invicem.”
The reliance on notional truths and syllogistic arguments is not only weak but also frequently dangerous for the spiritual life and destructive of the Christian Truth. But another aspect of her approach, the way in which she relates “moral clarity” to the person, might render her project not only modern but also futile. In my next post I will discuss how Alasdair MacIntyre cautions us against a vacuous pursuit of ideas.
More in this series:
You can find this post and others like it in my collection of writings, “I Desired You: Volume 2.” Available here.