Catholic Thinking

Today, I want to introduce another important aspect of our Catholic Faith that distinguishes us from our non-Catholic brothers and sisters, and also from the pagan secular world. One can think of it as the “toolbox for thinking about things” or the analytical framework for philosophical inquiry and discussion.

This may not be your absolute favorite topic, but it is very important to our Faith and our Mission. In terms of our Faith, we can just reduce our defense of our faith to bumper sticker slogans like the one that said, “Jesus said it. I believe it. That settles it.” While that is funny, and it is true, it is not the basis for any productive discussion. And if we are to be the light of Christ, then we need to be able to be productive in our discussions about our faith. And this is where Catholic Thinking comes in. It is how we approach discussions and inquiries about really any intellectual curiosity. Some things cannot be explained but are only revealed, like the doctrine of the Trinity. But most of the things we believe have a rational or reasonable basis, even if we cannot fully explain them until we meet them in Heaven. And today we will start talking about how we should be thinking and how others we talk with might be thinking. That knowledge will help us be more productive in our conversations with others.

Civilization advances as it develops higher order thinking processes, and Western Civilization draws heavily from Ancient Greece. Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle were teachers of philosophy in Ancient Greece, and Socrates developed the method for discussing, and Plato and Aristotle each applied that method to come up with slightly different answers.

And there were other important ancient philosophers whose ideas are still relevant today. But we will start with Plato and Aristotle so you can see how a similar concept becomes different depending on how you approach it with your mind.

What we are talking about is how to categorize things and how we know what we know. All the big philosophers tackled that “how do we know?” question, and they came up with different answers. Some philosophies worked well with Christian doctrine, and others did not work so well. We will talk about them all.

First, let’s contrast Plato and Aristotle, who both came right after Socrates. The very simplistic – but it still works – contrast between Plato and Aristotle is how they chose a starting point. Plato started with perfection, and Aristotle started with what we could receive through our five senses. So, Plato was more abstract, and Aristotle was more empirical.

What that means for us is how one approaches the basic question of what something is. For Plato, it is the idea of the thing, which he called the Form. The Form is ultimately unknowable, as it is outside of time and space. From that abstract object he called a Form, he explains how the properties participate in the forms, so that the idea we have of “beautiful” or “black” are properties that participate in the ideal abstract Form Beautiful or Form Black. This is very esoteric, and it is loads of fun for people who like to think about thinking. When we are not interested in it, we call it “navel gazing” and we wonder why it could be in any way useful.

Aristotle disagreed with Plato on the question of what something is. He relied on what we can see, taste, hear, smell, and touch as confirming reality. He said that Things are real, and Things includes abstract things like “black” and “beautiful” but those are just as knowable as physical things like “chair” or “table.”

Aristotle said that Things have an essential aspect, which he called the substantial Form, and they have varied aspects like color, position, and so forth that help differentiate and describe the specific instance of the Thing. He called these the accidental Forms.

So, for Aristotle, there is such a real thing as a chair. It’s really real and not something that participates in an idea, as Plato would argue. For Aristotle, there is something essential that means “chair-ness,” that that something is the substance or Form of the Thing known as “chair.” Whatever it is that makes a chair a chair is the Substantial Form of a chair. And there are accidental forms of a chair that mean it is made of wood or of iron, that it was built with a back and arms or not, that it has four legs or five or six, and so forth through all the various ways one might experience the Thing known as “chair.”

Choosing which framework to think about things will have a major impact on how one examines the world of ideas and thoughts, and it may also have an impact on how one thinks about material things. If one goes the Platonic route, then fuzzy esoteric thoughts that are beyond our grasp are not objectionable but might mean they are better thoughts than the everyday things we can easily experience. If one goes the Aristotelian route, then there may be only one completely abstract Thing from which every other Thing exists. Since everything is real, and since we can trust our common sense and our physical senses for data input, the Aristotelian route implies that we could end up explaining almost every single thing we might consider. For the Platonic side, you have to get your arms around the reality that the real reality is outside our time and space and so we are severely limited in what we can presume to know completely. But we can confidently point to those Forms.

As we saw, Aristotle’s teacher was Plato, but Plato’s teacher was Socrates. And Socrates gave all of us a way to move mentally from something we know to be true – a premise – to a conclusion we can trust is true.

Socrates taught that the terms we use must be clear. We must know what the term means and what it does not mean. For example, when we say “animal” we know that “animal” is different from “vegetable” and we all know what we are talking about. When we say “human” means a “rational animal” we understand that the human is an animal but possessing a characteristic that essentially distinguishes him from all other animals, namely his reasoning ability, or his rationality. Once we all agree on the terms and they are clearly understood, then we can develop statements called premises. And those statements must be true. For example, if we know that Socrates is a human being, and we know that a human being is a rational animal, then we know we cannot say, “Socrates is a dog.” So, our premises must be true. Then we can develop sound arguments from true premises using clear terms to come to solid conclusions.

And there are two ways to come to a conclusion. One is from general statements that we can be sure are true because they come from sound arguments based on true premises using clear terms that are universal terms. For example, the classic deductive argument is:

  • All men are mortal.
  • I am a man.
  • Therefore, I am mortal.

The other approach is to draw from particulars and conclude a generality. This is based on collecting data and extrapolating from the data. This approach is called inductive reasoning and can only lead to probability rather than certainty. For example:

  • Every man I’ve ever known has died.
  • I am a man.
  • Therefore men are mortal.

As you can see, a lot of a good system of logic and logical thinking depends on defining terms. And that pulls us back to Plato and Aristotle, who agreed there were universal terms – Plato calling them Forms and Aristotle calling them Things – that were real and universal. Mortal means something and it always means the same thing and everyone understands what it means and it cannot be redefined as meaning something else.

This last point will come back around later, and it will help explain where we find ourselves today with redefinition of fundamental concepts like sex and marriage. I hope you can see how important it is to think about thinking. And Catholic thinking is not necessarily the predominant way of thinking. It once was, but it is no longer.

So, you can see how important it is to have a solid approach to thinking. And it is important to understand some other ways of thinking, so we can have productive conversations. If we are to be the light of Christ in the world, we have to have a decent sense of how others might think about thinking. Our way might be the best, but it’s not the only way.

Remember that Greek culture was the dominant culture in which the New Testament was established and the gospels and epistles were written. So there are some ways to read and understand Holy Scripture that might be understood differently by a Platonic thinker and an Aristotelian thinker.

For example, in St. Paul’s phrasing, one can understand certain lines as meaning Paul was a Platonic thinker. Now, that might really be a stretch, since Paul identifies himself as a follower of Gamiliel, who was a Jewish rabbi. But perhaps more important, it could mean that readers of Paul’s letter would understand his words differently than if they approached them from a Platonic mind.

We see dimly now as through a mirror really works for a Platonic person, as it suggests that there is a reality beyond our reality. And Paul is sort of saying that, isn’t he? Likewise, when he asks who will rescue me from this body of death, it could mean he saw the physical world as inferior to the ideals of the metaphysical world. That kind of thinking is directly contrary to the Jewish approach that God made the physical world and declared it “good.” But that kind of thinking was prevalent in the New Testament period, and it could lead to distortions like those heresies we discussed in previous sessions. So, Platonic understanding is not sufficient to capture the fullness of Christian theology, but it is profoundly attractive to those who would call themselves intellectuals and want to nterpret the Christian scriptures.

Typology also would be attractive to the Platonic mind. The Red Sea passage is certainly about some Israelites crossing the water safely, but it is more about participating in the ideal Form of baptism. Ideas become the reality, and material things are slightly lower in importance. Likewise with other types we see in Christian theology: Mary as the new Eve and Mary as the new Ark of the Covenant. Authentic Christian theology has a holistic understanding of these types, but you can see how a Platonist might be swayed to focus on what is intellectual and minimize what is physical in a pursuit of what is truly real.

And the early Church was certainly well represented with Platonic thinking, for that was the secular environment. It is this mindset that could lead people to Gnosticism, and it is this mindset that could lead people to dualism, like St. Augustine spending many years as a Manichee who considered the body as of no worth and the soul or spirit as the only thing that truly mattered because it was the only thing that was ultimately real. Passages like Romans 7:24 would look like confirmation of the Manichee view of reality.

Now the three Greeks we have mentioned were not the only schools of philosophical thought that had large numbers of followers. Two others that are important for us as Christians in the modern world were Epicureanism and Stoicism.

Epicurus taught that human beings should pursue happiness, which is the tranquility that comes from peace and an absence of fear. The Stoics, started by a Greek named Zeno in the 3rd century BC and promoted by the Roman named Seneca in the 1st century AD, taught that humans should seek to control their interior reaction to external events and find happiness by conforming themselves to the natural law that ruled where they found themselves.

The Epicureans and Stoics looked differently at the point of moral laws. For the Epicureans, they were judged according to their effectiveness in promoting human happiness. For the Stoics, they were judged on how well they comported with the general law of reason and nature that exists above and behind everything in the world.

The two schools differed on their relationship with the gods. Remember, these are pagan schools of philosophy, so they have multiple gods in their system. The Epicureans dismissed the importance of the gods, and the Stoics took the gods as a given.

Here is a nice table helping to highlight the points of disagreement between the Epicureans and the Stoics. Are virtues merely useful, or are they the highest goods? And what about pleasures? And how do the gods interact with us? And what about attempts to divine things that are above us?

Despite their many differences, the two schools shared a materialistic view. The focus of philosophy – and therefore life – should be us. It is humanity that occupies their inquiries. And another aspect that should be clear is they shared a utilitarian approach to life. After one has determined the most important thing in our lives – pleasure or virtue – then figure out the best way to get that thing.

These two schools began to draw a response from Christian philosophers and theologians as the Church matured. Much of what the Epicureans promoted was directly contrary to Christian teaching, but there was a great deal of the Stoic teaching that could at least be a beginning to a full Christian understanding of the world and our place in it. As you might have heard from another teacher in the parish – you can listen to her on Monday nights in Room 201/202 – the Christians explained there are more than the four cardinal virtues on which the Stoics built their system. The three theological virtues, and the infused cardinal virtues, offer a new framework for human behavior and human thought.

If you look around today, you can see elements of Epicureanism and Stoicism in our modern world. Many people today operate around the pursuit of happiness. It’s a key phrase in our country’s founding document, so perhaps Thomas Jefferson had a bit of Epicurus in him. Christians understand beatitude or blessedness is different from happiness, but our world is no longer predominantly Christian, is it? And that word “happiness” is perhaps a good reminder of the importance of clear and unambiguous terms, as Socrates taught.

There is a certain tone of Stoicism in how we are asked to respond to the coronavirus, if you think about it. We were asked to lock down and to mask up as a way of being virtuous. It was being kind to others. The virtue of kindness was limited to a materialistic view of the human person in this example, but we were told it was the greatest good for the greatest number. Many people think being stoic is nothing more than an ability to suck it up and get through the disappointments of life. Zeno and Seneca might argue it is much more complex than that, but you can see how self-control of Stoicism could get one started on the road to Christian self-denial and picking up our Cross to follow Jesus.

So all these schools of thought are important for Christians today. We cannot have a good conversation with another person if we cannot figure out where they are coming from. And we can no longer assume they share our Christian worldview. And it is inconsistent with gospel values to just write them off as crazy people, even if they write us off that way.

Next week, we will get into how Aristotle got to be so important, and how other schools of thought responded to that dominance of Christian thinking.

Today let us move forward to the high Middle Ages, which is the 1000s the 1300s. This is the time of Saint Thomas Aquinas. And it includes William of Ockham, who was a little bit after St Thomas. These are two important people because they represent two different approaches to the question of whether or not reality includes a real order.

So what do we mean by reality includes a real order? St. Thomas, building on the thought process of Aristotle, believed that one could trust common sense. And he believed that if one started with clear terms and true statements, one could come to a definitive conclusion from a sound argument. This is the deductive reasoning that we talked about previously. St. Thomas believed that the object of our intellect or our intelligence is reality itself. To put that another way, if we properly apply our brains and our intelligence, then we can come to know what really is. And we can trust it. And part of why we can trust it is because it’s orderly. It’s not random.

As a Christian soaked in Scripture, Thomas certainly could look back to the Hebrews of the Old Testament to see that one of their central claims against the pagans was that God made the universe, and he made it in an orderly way, and he made the world to be a place of order. The alternate explanation at the time was that there were many gods who capriciously did this and did that. The Hebrews rejected that understanding of the world because they knew there was only one God. And the creation story that begins our Bible is a story of a creator who makes an orderly world. It is only by human disobedience to the will of the creator that disorder entered the world.

So we can see that Thomas is using the Aristotelian framework and the Aristotelian approach to knowledge and thinking as he considers matters of theology. But in his discussion of matters of theology, he would always go back and ground his argument in Scripture. But there is some circularity to this isn’t there? Thomas assumes that logic is commonsensical. Thomas that things are real. And Thomas assumes that once you have identified a thing, if you think about it hard enough and are careful enough, you can be sure you are describing a universal thing. So you can see how important our thinking framework is to explaining the conclusions we reach.

Thomas also assumed that the reason we are using our human knowledge and our thinking ability is so that we can know what truly is. To put that another way, the object of human knowledge is objective reality. Remember that the subject is the person doing something and the object is the focus or target of the action. That means that objective reality is something that exists outside of any individual subject. For example, Thomas would say that a tree is a tree is a tree is a tree no matter how much you like it or do not like it. It just is. Its existence doesn’t depend on how you or I receive it.

William of Ockham came a few years after Thomas Aquinas. William rejected the idea of a universal thing. He said that there is no universal thing called a tree, but “tree” is just the name we give to this thing and we’ve agreed on it so that we can communicate. Instead of giving each individual tree a separate proper name, we grouped together for our own convenience under the one vague name “tree” all those things that resemble each other in certain ways like having trunks and branches and leaves. But in reality, argued, all trees are different and they are not the same and they’re not one in many which is what Universal means but only many. Do you see the inherent contradiction in this approach? If there’s no such thing as a universal then why do we all agree on what a tree is? But I didn’t bother William. Now, William shared with Thomas the trust in sense perception as the basis for knowledge. He departed from Thomas on the question of universals.

So you can see one fundamental difference between the approach used by Thomas and the approach used by William was whether or not the objective was your focus or the subjective was your focus. Thomas starts from the objective dimension of reality. He would say that a tree is a tree even if you can find countless variations on trees, it doesn’t take away from the universal reality of a tree. William would take the other side. He would say that you’re the one that decides to take the shortcut and call this tree and that tree in the other tree a tree, for your own convenience. And somehow your convenience overlaps with my convenience and everyone else’s convenience so we all use the word tree. But William would say ultimately, it’s our decision. And that reflects the shifting focus among intellectuals at the time from God at the center of our intellectual framework to Man at the center. This is also the time when men like Erasmus step forward with a new concept they call humanism. And humanism is just shifting the focus from God to Man. Culturally, this is also the time of the rise of the nation state. It’s around this time that people begin to identify themselves as French or English and so forth. It’s around this time that our modern languages begin to take shape, and Latin slowly recedes as the common language spoken by all intellectuals.

Now we are going to move forward a few hundred years in history to the age of the Enlightenment. But let’s just take a moment to think about Martin Luther, the Augustinian monk who started the great rupture in Western Christianity. You can make a great case that he ended up where he did because he started with the bad philosophy of William of Ockham’s nominalism. Luther was very aware of his feelings, and he suffered emotionally as he considered his fallen, sinful, self. He felt this subjective dimension of reality so strongly, it overwhelmed him and he ended up being unable to be obedient to the Pope. So, a short answer to the question, “What was the cause of the Protestant Reformation?” could be, “Bad Philosophy.”

Rene Descartes is sometimes described as the first modern philosopher. He had a famous statement, “I think therefore I am,” which suggested that he was clearly not in the school of Saint Thomas. And Descartes said we should accept nothing as true which we do not clearly recognize to be so. He recognized that he was thinking, and he concluded he must exist if he can think.

The skepticism of Descartes was taken to a new level by English philosophers, John Locke and David Hume. They argued that the only thing that really matters is sensation – how we receive information through our five senses – because that is the only way we can know anything about nature. Neither Locke nor Hume believed in God, so nature and this world was that existed for them. At best, God was a remote Creator who had no involvement in the affairs of humanity.

For Hume, the object of human knowledge is our own ideas. There is nothing really interesting above or beyond what we can imagine. That becomes superstition and unscientific. And the only way to understand things is through our senses. Since our senses are individual, there are only particular sense-derived truths, so there is never a universal truth we can uncover by our senses alone.

Immanuel Kant followed Hume, but stressed the idea over the object. Even more than Hume, Kant insisted it all about us when it comes to knowing things. We, the knowing subject, determine the known object. We don’t meet reality, we define it.

You can see how the progression from the ancient and mediaeval world of thinking, where mankind found his place in God’s creation and considered everything from that perspective, to the modern world meant the human person became the main thing to think about and the limits of what the human person could conceive were those he could receive through his five senses. The modern world was – and is – very egocentric. God must make himself relevant to us, not the other way around.

The problem of modernism is the problem of relegating God to the back of the bus when in fact he made the bus, the road, and all the people and other things that travel on the road. But it is very seductive, and it became a serious problem for the Catholic Church as the world became more modern and less Christian.

Inside the Catholic Church, ever since the French Revolution, there has been a struggle between the forces of modernism and the forces of traditionalism. One response was to lock the doors tight against the new teachings and insist on memorizing the Summa and other Aquinas writings. Others tried to bring in things they saw happening in the Protestant denominations. And it would go back and forth. Those opposing forces showed up at the Second Vatican Council, and we see them in the Church today.

With that brief survey of intellectual history, we can now turn to the implications for us as we try to be the disciples of Christ in the world today. We should ponder for ourselves on the question of what do we know and what is the source and the object of knowing?

It’s very good to understand the perspective of the people we are talking to. It will inform us on how to preach the good news, and it will help us to know when our missionary activity is simply unlikely to bear any fruit. I think this is what Jesus was getting at when he told his disciples to knock the dust off their sandals and go to the next town if their peace was not received.

And these realizations may leave you slightly bewildered. I remember in our diaconate formation program we had classes on preaching. The class was have a guy preach his homily and receive feedback from the teacher and the other guys. One classmate said that I spent a lot of my sermon telling the listener what he should do. And he did not think that was appropriate. And I wondered why else would anyone preach? And so two people of good will can end up looking at the other thinking that he’s crazy, just because we start from different intellectual frameworks.

What is the point of teaching or preaching? Is it to show the listener what truth, beauty, and goodness look like so they can pursue them? That’s probably what St. Thomas would say. Or is it to affirm them in their current situation? We’ve all experienced that kind of sermon at least a few times.

Is there a single truth, or is everything relative? Does everything depend on the individual human person’s ability to sense it, or can things be so even if nobody can touch them or see them? Does objective truth imply conflict?

I think the answer to these three questions is yes, yes, and yes. Yes, there is a single truth. It is Jesus Christ. Everything is relative to Him. Yes, things can be so even if nobody likes them or if nobody can see them. Heaven is real, but nobody has seen it. God’s justice is real, even if people do not like it. And yes, objective truth does imply conflict, for it never moves or changes so all movement toward it or away from it is movement on our part. Jesus said that he came not to bring peace but division. He said he is the way. If he is the way, then my way is either on his way or it is not on his way. That implies stress if not conflict because I tend to want to choose my way.

Those are my answers, but they are not everyone’s answers. I think my answers are rooted in the Bible and the unchanging teaching of the Church. But I live in a world that has no connection with the Bible or the Church, and so do you. We are missionaries to an unchurched people. We face wokeism, which is a combination of near-total ignorance and near-total certitude: they are dumb but do not know it. As the light of Christ, we must love our neighbor, even the woke ones, and out of love we must keep up conversation with our neighbor. We have to do this even when we see they are operating at the deficit of modernism: a godless egocentric framework for philosophy.

This is a tough job, but it is the job God called us to do. It is our path to sainthood, and it might involve some persecution. So get ready for holy battle.

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