The wisdom of the world

From Vatican I to the recent proclamations about marriage, the magisterial power of the Church has declared that some things are knowable by reason without stating exactly the argument by which reason knows them. There are Scriptural precedents for this: Romans 1 speaks of God being clearly seen by the things he has made without giving details of this inference. One could have a cynical response to this (if these things are so reasonable, why not just give the reasons?) but it is all as it should be. Things known by revelation are known by taking part in the knowledge of God and the saints and not by puzzling them out. The Church can declare various philosophical ideas wrong without doing the philosophy that yields the conclusion. Plantinga argues that something like this is true even in human knowledge: one could have an immese amount of evidence that I committed some crime, which would be powerless to persuade me if I knew for a fact that I didn’t commit the crime. I would know your whole case is wrong even without being able to say why it was. In fact, my own knowledge is more certain than the complex and evident case one might make against it. I don’t need to refute it to know where it is false, and if the magisterium of the Church is right about where its knowledge comes from, it’s clear that they don’t need to make refutations either.

But these declarations about the power of reason is not only compatible with but even seems to require a good amount of skepticism about the power of reason to form the very conclusions that Church says reason can form. St. Thomas claims that one of the reasons we need revelation is because only very few persons can know these things by reason, and that they can know them only after a long time and as mixed up with many errors. In fact, Romans 1: 19-21 is not only the charter for a Christian philosophy but also a testimony that within the world we actually live most of the wise will be lined up firmly against Christian wisdom, and even reason itself.

As much as a Christian might take solace in the fact that he is speaking with reason, it’s hard to stay unruffled when he knows that the case against him is going to be made by the wise of the world, i.e. by guys who might well outmatch him by decades of IQ points, be able to bury and blindside all comers with facts and the command of language, and who, in the end, will continue to be seen as “the wise of this world”. Paul’s speech at the Aeropagus was met with polite indifference, i.e. they seemed to think that it was a case not even worth refuting. Paul hoped for a fight and got only shrugs.

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