Monday, April 19, 2004

Catholic Apologetic Method, Epistemology, and Open-Mindedness

Compiled and re-edited by Dave Armstrong on 10 March 2003, from various papers on this general subject, written through the years.

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I've traditionally gone back and forth on apologetics. I go in cycles on that, usually in relation to the responses I am getting at any given time. C.S. Lewis wrote something to the effect that the apologist begins to doubt himself the moment his "sure" argument is given, because he is immediately confronted with the "weak pillar" who produced the argument (i.e., himself).

As a Catholic, I of course believe we have the true, apostolic Tradition in all its fullness, which ought to be a self-evident truth (that a Catholic will believe what Catholics believe!). It doesn't follow from this in the slightest that, therefore, no discussion on this subject is possible or worthwhile or fruitful. I hold all my beliefs -- however strong and epistemologically "certain" - provisionally, subject to correction by superior reasoning and additional factual data brought to bear (and for that matter, revelation newly understood) which may come around to overthrow it.

From this opinion I have never wavered since college and my first philosophy course in 1977, and it matters not a whit what one believes at any given time, since this is an attitude which applies to any belief. It changed not at all when I moved from Protestant to Catholic. My Socratic ethos is not at all in conflict with my Catholicism. I am always open to discuss anything with anyone.

Catholicism could turn out to be false by the same exact criteria by which I concluded that Protestantism as a system was found wanting. Obviously, I don't consider that likely at all; I don't expect in a million years to "re-convert" or "un-convert," but it is certainly theoretically possible. And I believe that such an outlook is indispensable for maintaining both an open mind and -- equally importantly -- in order to avoid a condescending, arrogant, "triumphalistic," prideful attitude.
Some Protestants act as if mere assent to Catholic Tradition precludes such discussion from the outset. Not at all. Because the vast "common ground" and "foundational agreement" between all Christians is:
    1) a common acknowledgment that Christianity is an historical religion,
    2) a common heritage of the Bible,
    3) a common respect for the Church Fathers (very broadly speaking),
    4) a common belief that the early Church is in some sense "normative,"
    5) a common respect for the early Councils (also very broadly speaking),
    6) a common ground of "orthodoxy," as defined by adherence to the Nicene and Apostles' Creeds,
    7) a common respect for reason (more or less, depending on denomination),
    8) a common heritage of prayer and spirituality (discounting intercession of saints),
    9) a common heritage of moral teaching.
My general apologetic outlook and method is -- as St. Paul's was (1 Cor 9:19-23) -- to be "all things to all people," another constant in my apologetic approach, whether Protestant (from 1977 to 1990) or Catholic.

I have no formal theological training, and hence am not a theologian in the professional sense. I've never claimed to be any more than just a "popular apologist," a layman writing to laymen (the same was the case for C.S. Lewis, I believe). Nor do I claim to be a scholar, which would be equally foolish and dishonest on my part. On the other hand, I try to maintain scholarly standards, tone, and objectivity, to the extent that a non-scholar is able to do so successfully.

It is altogether good to avoid "vain disputations," "contentiousness," "vain disputation," "striving," "special pleading," "quarreling," etc. Such "discussions" are neither practical, nor helpful, nor fruitful, nor profitable, nor edifying, and are conducted in the wrong spirit. I make every effort to avoid engaging in such practices. I usually use the word "argument" in the literal sense: simply a logical presentation of a position: that is, how it is used in logic.

St. Peter puts it all together in his injunction which has also been a principle I've always sought to uphold as a Christian apologist:
    ...In your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence. {1 Peter 3:15-16; NRSV}
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I would highlight the distinction between philosophy and theology/religion, or -- more broadly -- between reason and faith. I often adopt a philosophical standpoint for the sake of discussion; specifically an epistemological outlook (i.e., philosophical or rational reasons for believing what we do; why we believe it).

In a limited, theoretical (one might say, "human") sense, no knowledge is absolutely positively certain. But that's from the outlook of mere reason and philosophy in and of themselves, not the "eyes of faith," so to speak. Christians possess certainties by faith, which the outsider does not have, and in many cases is not even able to comprehend, let alone accept. But Paul told us to be "all things to all people." When he argued with the Greeks, he used methods and terminologies with which they were familiar. On Mars Hill (Acts 17), he even cited their own poets and philosophers, and argued from what they already believed ("the unknown god") to what they should and could believe, as historically revealed by God in Christ.

In my opinion, when we do apologetics, it is largely an effort of working within the presuppositions of the opponent, in order to convince them. I think this is both standard philosophical technique (i.e., logic and rhetoric), as well as an application of Paul's injunction to understand the seeker/opponent and argue accordingly.

So when I claim that I am "open-minded" and would consider a possibility (however remote -- and it assuredly is) that Catholicism is wrong, I am going as far as I can go in abstractly arguing philosophically, or "historically." I would contend that the very fact that Christianity is -- by nature -- unavoidably and intrinsically historical and reasonable, and that the apostles (following the lead of Jesus) sought to bring forth real reasons and evidences for faith, presupposes that it is also possible to disprove Catholicism and Christianity in general. If we can offer no proofs from reason, history, OT Scripture, etc., then we are engaging in pure fideism (faith without any reasons whatsoever), in which case, Christianity cannot be disproven, either.

I don't think that this is the case, and that if it were, Christianity would possess far less credibility than it does now, from the perspective of the unbeliever. We already get accused often enough of "pie in the sky" and escapism as it is (not without some reason, given our shoddy and often hypocritical witness as Christians). I think it is part of the glory of the Catholic Church that it is able to be established as true in itself and in its claims, by reason as well as Scripture and history and miracles, and things like spiritual experience.

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Sometimes it is implied that anyone who takes a certain view and defends it is special pleading; therefore not seeking after truth. That would mean that the only honest intellectual stance is agnosticism or skepticism or relativism. This I vehemently reject. One mustn't be so "open-minded" that their brains fall out. It is illogical to believe that once one feels that they have discovered a certain amount of "truth," that they are no longer seeking truth per se. This may be true of certain individuals, of course, but it can't be shown to be generally true, nor does it have to necessarily be true. Others think that because many issues can't be resolved, that therefore all sides are roughly of equal validity. This I forcefully deny. Ideas must be defended on their own, and judgments must be made as to their truthfulness or falsity.

The Christian asserts that one must have faith in order to believe in all of Christianity. And that faith must be granted by God's grace. This is a far cry from mere philosophy, where reason (supposedly and allegedly, but not in actuality) rules all. The Christian also believes in revelation and the supernatural. We are not merely abstract philosophers or hard-nosed empiricists. Those outlooks, in any event, do not themselves rest on unquestionable epistemological grounds and premises. Everyone must exercise faith in some fashion -- in an axiomatic sense.

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If I hadn't had an open mind, open to different viewpoints, I wouldn't and couldn't have moved from nominal Christian (involved in the occult) to evangelical Christian in 1980, or from that position to Catholicism in 1990. I have also -- through the years -- switched from liberal to conservative politics, so-called "pro-choice" to pro-life, and evolutionist to creationist (and possibly I may eventually move to a theistic evolutionist position): all as a result of reading both sides of each contested matter. One can be simultaneously open-minded, while retaining a firm belief in their own particular viewpoint (in other words, strong opinions and an open mind are not mutually exclusive). One must be willing in principle to overthrow one's own views if it is warranted by the evidence, even though in matters of faith it is admittedly exceedingly unlikely.

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Much philosophy (i.e., the false sort) has caused unspeakable harm to society. I think of, e.g., Hegelian idealism / dialectical materialism which devolved into both Communism / Stalinism and Naziism. I see today's almost totally secularized Western Civilization as largely an amalgam of Rousseauian unbridled Romanticism, "Enlightenment" skepticism, and Nietzschean nihilism (with Freud, Marx, Darwin, Malthus, and Sanger thrown in): all quite destructive of public morality, order, and personal happiness and fulfillment, in my opinion.

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Speaking strictly epistemologically, Christian faith is not that different from the "faith" of a scientist in the conclusions of his research. The materialist evolutionist firmly believes that there are hundreds, thousands of cumulative proofs for (materialistic) evolution -- all adding up to a "certainty" for all practical purposes. I would say much the same for the Christian faith and the many supporting arguments, none alone being an absolute proof. Since I think absolute proofs are available for very few things, this doesn't concern me much at all.

In the end, supernatural grace and faith is required, and that is a gift from God. Any man, however, can know that God exists, from what is made, and from their own consciences (Romans 1 and 2). Most apologists and theologians don't think that the fullness of the knowledge of God can be obtained through natural theology alone. Revelation is required. That would certainly apply to the Holy Trinity.

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I try to stick to one major topic at a time, sometimes two. I always avoid replying to the "1001 questions for the Catholic" approach. My belief is that things are best dealt with in depth. Catholicism is a thinking man's religion, and extremely deep: spiritually and biblically. It doesn't easily translate into slogans, catch-phrases, and simple proof-texting. No, it is far more involved than that.

I am a Socratic, who engages in dialogues. I think that dialogue is a great way to find truth and to learn, and to challenge one's own premises and opinions. If someone shows me I am wrong in a dialogue, I am more than happy to admit it (thankful, even), because the goal is truth, not "victory" or "embarrassing the other guy." Truth is its own reward. I converted in 1990 precisely due to my love of discussion (in terms of the initial cause of the process beginning, and speaking on a strictly human level). I started an ecumenical discussion group, and by the end of the year, due to that and much reading, I had converted to Catholicism. I had no idea this was going to happen. It was simply another instance of me following truth wherever it led and changing my mind on something (which I have done many times in my life). It was an extraordinarily exciting process to go through.

I like to put my lengthy dialogues on my website, too, so that others can develop critical thinking, see both sides of an issue fairly (without one side distorting the other -- not necessarily deliberately, but due to the natural biases that we all have -- and creating straw men), and make up their own minds. This is my favorite apologetic methodology, and it also has pedagogical value, too, I think.
I try to see the person underneath: their heart and soul. I couldn't care less how much or little "book knowledge" someone has, if they are a seeker of truth. I've debated many people with doctorates, but when they are off their subject of expertise, they are just like anyone else. 

As Socrates said, the person who admits that they know little can learn a great deal, because they know that they don't know. The person who thinks they know everything (and many Protestants seem to think they know more about Catholicism than most Catholics do) can learn nothing, of course (as Jesus said, "Because you say, 'we see,' your blindness remains"). I also agree with Socrates' opinion that good discussion can only occur when people are open-minded, willing to follow truth wherever it leads and to grant the good faith and sincerity of their opponent, and when they have some base of friendship within which the discussion can take place.

As an apologist, my job is to try to explain and defend Catholic doctrine to the best of my ability. I always seek to do that on a "popular" level, as opposed to Ivory Tower, academic-type stuff -- though some people tell me that my writing strikes them as somewhat on an advanced theological level. I just write (in dialogue) what comes into my head. It flows very naturally for me (I often think that writing has many parallels to the composing of music, and I speak of following my "muse"). Some people may benefit from it; others will not, or they won't like my style. 

That's true of any writer and any writing, of course. I don't do what I do to become popular, but to follow my calling from God.

Like Bishop Butler (Analogy of Religion) and Cardinal Newman, my epistemology and religious faith (insofar as it is connected with reason) is based on (in Baptist theologian Bernard Ramm's words) "brute fact . . .The ultimate data of religion must be of the same stuff as the ultimate data of science." This has always been my view, for 21 years now, and it didn't change when I became a Catholic. It didn't have to. I have developed it through the years, of course, but it hasn't fundamentally changed.
My own view on philosophy is essentially syncretistic. I am not a Thomist; I never have been, anymore than Newman was. I love St. Thomas, and especially the cosmological argument, which he essentially began, but I'm not a Thomist. And if a choice must be made, I lean more towards nominalist assumptions than realist (more so after my recent research), particularly in my Alvin Plantinga-like views (he is a well-known and important Reformed philosopher) that there are no absolute proofs of God or, indeed, of anything, in a certain sense.

My apologetics are based in the notion of accumulated evidences adding up to a great deal of overall plausibility, which is, in turn incorporated into the faith which goes beyond reason. My view is much like that of the pope's. Catholics don't think that one has to adopt some philosophy to do theology. Pope John Paul II is a phenomenologist. Augustine was a Platonist; Aquinas an Aristotelian. Pascal was a fideist to some extent; Kierkegaard maybe the first existentialist. Newman was in the Butlerian-Lockean stream, I suppose. We can have different philosophies, but philosophy isn't theology. That is my main answer to this thought and way of thinking. Thomism or Scholasticism is not the official philosophy of the Church. We have no official philosophy, and never have. Philosophy is the handmaiden of the faith, not a sort of necessary "handbasket" that faith must reside in.

Vatican II illustrates this very well. Its documents do not read like Thomist treatises at all. Rather, the prevailing influence was a movement which was quite distinct from Thomism, called Ressourcement, which drew from older thinkers like Newman and Mohler, and included Catholic intellectuals such as Peguy, Claudel, Romano Guardini, Karl Adam, Louis Bouyer, Jean Danielou, Hans Urs von Balthasar, as well as Cardinal Ratzinger and John Paul II himself. This is the general school of thought into which I place myself. I'm not particularly Thomist except for my love of the cosmological argument. My mentor initially was Fr. Hardon, a Jesuit. I learned about Catholicism by reading several of the above writers and people like Thomas Merton, who is the furthest thing from a Thomist (he was a Trappist mystic), and G.K. Chesterton (much more like Dickens than Aquinas).
Speaking of the pope, if he is tied to any philosophical school, it is certainly the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl and Max Scheler. According to his biographer George Weigel (Witness to Hope, New York: Harper Collins, 1999, 127-129):
'The phenomenologist . . . [is] interested in the experience as a whole, the psychological, physical, moral, and conceptual elements . . . It was phenomenology's determination to see things whole and get to the reality of things-as-they-are that attracted Karol Wojtyla . . . [he] had become convinced that the answers were not found in the neo-scholasticism of Father Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange . . . The net result would be what Wojtyla would call, years later, a way of doing philosophy that 'synthesized both approaches': the metaphysical realism of Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas and the sensitivity to human experience of Max Scheler's phenomenology . . . Wojtyla also agreed with Scheler's claim that human intuitions into the truth of things included moral intuitions, a certain 'knowledge of the heart' that was, nonetheless, real knowledge . . . [this reminds one of Augustine and Pascal, as well as Newman] The question Wojtyla posed in his habilitation thesis was whether Scheler (and, by extension, the phenomenological method) could do for contemporary Christian philosophy and theology what Aristotle had done for Thomas Aquinas.'
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Epistemology has always been a fascinating subject of inquiry for me (particularly the process by which one arrives at axioms or premises). I am very fond of Alvin Plantinga. I particularly like Peter Kreeft among living Catholic apologists. I am a great admirer of Cardinal Newman and Bishop Butler (a huge influence on Newman), Aquinas, Pascal, Augustine, and (lately) Anselm. C.S. Lewis has been my favorite writer for many years.

I love learning new things and exploring new ideas (and especially history of ideas). My broad "category" is evidentialist, yet with many elements in my thinking that don't strictly fall into that category. Oftentimes, my positions on things of this nature cannot be put in one box, and incorporate elements of different schools of thought. I regard Christian faith as an extraordinarily complex phenomenon, arrived at (apart from the absolutely necessary and definitive grace of God, of course; speaking strictly of the human, intellectual reasons one would give for having adopted Christianity) by many, many factors, some of which are rational in nature, some not; some intellectual, and others "psychological" or "environmental."

I believe faith and Christianity are reasonable and credible due to a great many factors and "cumulative evidences," which -- taken together, like strands of a very strong rope -- are conclusive and give warrant to faith and certainty. I don't think Christianity (or the reasons for being a Christian) can be reduced to philosophy (philosophy is the "handmaiden of faith") and I think that believers have inherent, definite knowledge within them, put there by God (and only God). There is no tabula rasa. In that sense I am more "Platonic" or "presuppositionalist" than "Aristotelian" or "Thomist."
I also think the unbeliever possesses the knowledge of God, and all that it means to be made in His image, whether he acknowledges it or not. But unbelievers lack supernatural faith, and this colors their outlook severely, giving them ultimately a fundamentally different epistemology from a Christian in many ways. Despite that, I do think there is indeed some common intellectual ground with unbelievers, which is fertile for what Francis Schaeffer called "pre-evangelism."

I am partial to the cosmological argument (tied in with Big Bang cosmology) and the teleological argument (tied into Intelligent Design), though lately I have become fascinated with the ontological argument, and have learned quite a bit about it. My position is that no theistic proof succeeds in "proving" God's existence, but that all taken together form a very strong plausibility for faith, and establish it as far more reasonable than any alternative viewpoint (and, of course, not self-contradictory, as all other positions ultimately are). Faith is ultimately God's gift. But the apologist seeks to remove roadblocks to faith and show that faith is reasonable and not at all contrary to reason (though it obviously transcends mere reason).

My goal as an apologist (both Catholic and "generic Christian" -- depending on the audience I am writing to or interacting with) is to bring the ideas of apologetics and philosophy of religion and theology down to a popular level, yet without sacrificing content or intellectual vigor, and with the desire to stimulate the critical faculties of readers. The great apologists all do this (Lewis, Chesterton, Schaeffer, Plantinga, Kreeft).

I am not an academic myself, but I have often been accused of being one, because I've been doing this so long, and have many writings circulating around. In any event, I attempt to do popular apologetics as opposed to writing primarily to intellectuals. I'm sort of in-between the two worlds, I guess, but my target audience is always the popular one: the average Christian in the pews (who needs to have their faith bolstered and honest questions and difficulties answered), or the person who wants to look into Christianity and find a basis in reason for it. For myself, when I am exploring ideas and the history of ideas (which I love to do, with a passion), I like to hang around places where I can be challenged and stimulated (and perhaps issue a few challenges myself now and then).

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What sense does it make to defend something (which is what "apologist" means) if we are out trying to be persuaded all the time, and never persuading? This is theologically-liberal gobbledygook; it is certainly not biblical or apostolic Christianity. Paul wasn't out to be persuaded; he was out to proclaim the Good News and apostolic Tradition of which he was absolutely certain. We are to imitate him. We, too, have a message to proclaim, and we contend that it is the same message of Paul, passed-down faithfully and preserved most completely (in more developed form) by the Catholic Church, and in large part to more or less degrees by other Christian communions as well.

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