Prayer over the Offerings for the Assumption

Let this oblation of our devotion ascend unto thee, O Lord: and, at the intercession of the most Blessed Virgin Mary assumed into heaven, may our hearts, enkindled with the fire of thy love, continually yearn after thee; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Friday, May 17, 2013

All Roads Lead To, Part IV: The Consolation of Philosophy

This, as you can see, is Part IV. Here are links to Part I, Part II, and Part III.

Considering the turmoil I was in, apostasy would have been a very understandable reaction. I did try to abandon my faith; but it would not abandon me, for three reasons. One of those reasons was, obviously, God -- He does have a tendency to land at the top of the initiative roster somehow.

A second was that being religious was simply the sort of person I was. Interestingly, that seems to be something I've partly grown out of only as a Catholic. Catholicism is so mammoth, so blatantly and entirely independent of me, that it enables someone of my type to let go of being religious. I'm not espousing here the "Jesus without religion" stuff that you see among some Protestants, from the quite appealing Rick James to the insufferable Rev. John Shelby Spong; but there is a personality, a type, that is religious in mode and not simply in belief -- the sort of Protestant who litters his conversation with "Praise the Lord" and posts Bible verses as pointed status updates, or the sort of Catholic with five pro-life bumper stickers who shakes his head in disgust if he sees somebody wearing a Rosary like a necklace. But I digress. My religion was woven into me, and so was my religiosity -- to abandon those things I would have had to undergo a metamorphosis as extreme as a caterpillar going into the chrysalis and emerging as a butterfly, and I just wasn't ready for something that drastic. Handling the realization that you're gay is hard enough without anything else in the picture.

But the third reason was that, after examining Christianity, I believed it. (I did also believe it during the examining, but I did my best to keep objective and not let my beliefs determine my conclusions.) I went from rationality to theism, from theism to Christianity, and ultimately from Christianity to the Catholic Church -- foundation, pillars, arches, and bell-bearing spire.

My reasons for progressing from rationality to theism were mostly variations on a firm belief that nothing comes from nothing. This not only means that there always had to be something: Bertrand Russell may, for all I know, have been right in saying that there could have been an infinite regress of dependent beings (though my instincts definitely side with Aristotle in feeling an infinite series of things, other than numbers themselves, to be ridiculous). It also means that all things that exist must have a cause at least as great as, if not greater, than themselves.

Where this becomes problematic for the scientific materialist, I feel, is the phenomenon of intelligence. St. Augustine's memory, intellect, and will* seem to me to be manifestly non-material things, and human beings, if nothing else, exhibit these things. For conscious intelligences to exist: there must always have been a series of other conscious intelligences bringing them into being; or they must have been self-existent; or there must be some intelligent being capable of bringing them into existence who has done so. For me, the first two explanations seemed quite unsatisfactory, and also, being many rather than one, seemed to violate Occam's Razor. I chose the third, and was content to call that conscious intelligence God -- the word seemed no worse than any alternative. It was from there that my thin theism progressed into the more robust form set forth by most theists in the West, drawing on Judaeo-Christian and Platonic roots.

Other arguments could be cited -- such as the cosmological argument, that the universe exhibits order, and that order which can be discovered by a mind has been put there by some mind.** Or the argument from aesthetic experience, put best (to my mind) by Peter Kreeft: "There is the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. Therefore there must be a God. You either see this one or you don't."

Quod Erat Demonstrandum.

But I shall leave those arguments aside; they can be found in the works of C. S. Lewis, as everybody doubtless knows, and in numerous other works such as the above Kreeft's collaborative work with Ronald Tacelli SJ, A Handbook of Catholic Apologetics.

I leave these aside because I want to discuss argument itself. One of the things that I think is of paramount importance here is precisely the power of argument to convince. In the fifth century, a Roman named Boethius, who had been ruined on suspicion of plotting against a usurping, barbarous Emperor, wrote a book called The Consolation of Philosophy, in which he puts himself into a perspective of (in his own view) appropriate detachment towards earthly fortunes, exploring the whole question of fortune, Divine omniscience, Divine justice, and free will. A historian called Gibbon, several centuries later, sneered at it, saying that ideas had no power to subdue the human heart. But another author countersniped, saying that no one ever thought they would subdue Gibbon's, but it sounded as though they had done something for Boethius -- leaving out the implication that since Boethius was the one who was both suffering and sublimating that suffering into philosophy, we might perhaps give Boethius more credit than Gibbon for knowing what he was talking about.

I am not altogether sure whether everybody can process ideas the way Boethius did: internalizing them until they really and truly have the power to change, even heal, the soul. But I think a lot of people can, and I suspect that a lot of people who think they can't, can. I don't believe ideas are mere abstractions. I am enough of a Platonist to believe in the independent reality of certain archetypes -- ideas exist just as men exist. And men can relate to ideas as men relate to one another; I have been in love, more than once, and I have observed that something of the same feeling runs through romantic love as runs through the serious contemplation of certain ideas. Beauty, for instance, and justice, and love itself. It is of course this which makes the line in V For Vendetta so perfect -- ideas really are bulletproof.

It is because of this that I was willing to be persuaded even in the midst of anguish. It wasn't simply that the anguish didn't count. It was that the truth was not just weightier than the anguish, but more radiant: more real.

*I get the impression from my very sparse reading on this subject that the great African saint, when he said in Latin memoria, meant not so much what we mean when we say memory, as something more along the lines of what we express by the word consciousness; but I am not competent to address the question.
**Not to be confused with its popular vulgarization, the argument from design. Intelligent Design theorists seem to waffle between the cosmological argument proper and the vulgarized form, which maintains not only that there is order in the universe but that that order is beneficent. The existence of order is quite easy to prove, and the beneficence of that order more or less impossible to prove. It has therefore been subjected to scorn by scientific materialists and also by some theists, with some justice.


  1. It was that the truth was not just weightier than the anguish, but more radiant: more real.

    In this Pentecost octave, please remember the profound closing stanza of the Golden Sequence:

    da virtutis meritum,
    da salutis exitum,
    da perenne gaudium.

    This quite succinct statement reflects the proper economy of a humble human life solely directed towards grace. The lux beatissima of the Holy Spirit girds this economy and directs it towards a hopeful beatific end. The truth is "more real" not because of the complex constructs of mind and attendant pride. Rather, our crowns are earned through a cultivated simplicity of mind and action.

    da exalts not the distortion of an hyper rationalized mind, but instead the assurance of God's providence for even the most simple and simplified lives.

    1. I can't really accept the phrase "our crowns are earned". Taking a leaf from St Teresa, one of my favorite protectresses, I aver strongly that "Everything is grace": if I do have a crown in the end, it will certainly not be because I cultivated virtue or anything else -- only because, by His grace, I was rendered able to stop putting obstructions in the way of His grace.

      More broadly, I certainly didn't wish to give the impression that the truth is true, or important, because it corresponds to what I think. But what I am doing in this series is exploring how I came into Catholicism -- me personally. And, while I have profound admiration for simplicity of both mind and heart, they don't happen to be excellences that I possess. But this doesn't much bother me, because I don't believe that there is any incompatibility between the sometimes-uncomfortable complications of someone like me and the Holy Ghost; He made, and can work with and upon, all sorts of people -- "not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh, but by the taking of the manhood up into God".

    2. I apologize for typing in Latin without translation. As a result of twenty years of Latin study, I have Latin conversations in my dreams. Friends don't let friends become philologists.

      I can't really accept the phrase "our crowns are earned".

      You are quite right that sanctification is through cooperation with grace. Justification and grace are, as you note, entirely free. I should have mentioned that I thought of Tertullian's de corona ("The Chaplet") while writing the previous combox post. The Christian soldier's Christianus sum ("I am a Christian") "earned" him a crown so far as he accepted martyrdom without doubt in divine providence, even unto the arena.

      And, while I have profound admiration for simplicity of both mind and heart, they don't happen to be excellences that I possess.

      Neither do I. As of late I have spent hours poking holes in theology. I have vainly tried to reduce the Catechism to a "hermeneutic" and Mass to a "cultural construct". That way, I can continue my philological studies of Catholicism, and have a "marriage" and a "husband". A famous syphilitic Prussian declared that man must turn away God to survive. Why not then pervert the Incarnation by lusting after the male embrace? "He is the King of Israel; let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him." (Mt. 27:42 RSV)


      I enjoy reading this blog, but it strikes me as akin to a diary. Best then just to read rather than take a pencil to your record. As you were.