Saturday, January 28, 2012

Review: Christian Faith & Human Understanding

The book Christian Faith & Human Understanding is a grouping of nineteen speeches and essays, selected by the well-known philosopher Msgr. Robert Sokolowski, professor at the Catholic University of America. The book may be a difficult read for many Catholics who don’t understand much beyond the two great commandments of love God and neighbor, but for more questioning Catholics it provides some thought-provoking and clearing explanations of Catholic thought, helping us understand WHY we believe what we believe, and how to explain our belief to others. (This is always a vexing thing for me, when Catholics voice their “feelings” about some Church teachings or practices, without ever making any attempt to understand WHY those teachings or practices exist, and surprisingly it seems that some of the worst complainers are among the most intelligent of people, who have every opportunity to learn the truth of things.)

The book’s chapters are grouped into four main headings. Faith and Reason clarifies the distinction between God and the world and discusses the place of philosophy in the Christian faith. The Eucharist and the Holy Trinity section includes discussions on phenomenology, transubstantiation, and the role of the bishop. The third section, The Human Person, is the one I found the most interesting. “A theme pervading this section is the claim that things have their own natures and ends, that is, they have their own intelligibilities, which must be respected by human action, science, and philosophy, and which must not be undermined by religious belief.” Faith and Practical Reasoning, the fourth section, considers how faith can shape reason, and explores the implications of faith and reason in academic life and seminary programs.

I found something new or presented in a new way in most chapters (things I underline in the book), but I found a few things (my double or triple hash-marks in the margins) which caused me to stop and meditate, trying to understand their meaning for me and how I live my life. This is a book to be read in peace and quiet, in a chapel or alone in an easy chair. It is not one which can be read while caring for another (like my mom) or with the television or music on in the background. Given those caveats, I recommend this book for the serious Catholic; it is a wonderful grouping of articles to make you think.

That said, I’ll give you some excerpts, examples of my hash-marked items.

“The flowering of our reason requires the intervention of others; it does not occur by itself. It is not like the growth of our muscles and bones. … By knowing what we cannot grasp on our own – by knowing what we believe, and seeing that we can possess it only by believing it – we become much more aware of what we do know on our own. We become much more aware of and confident in our reason precisely in contrast with our faith. Faith justifies our reason.”

“For Christian understanding, the world exists “contingently,” and it exists as the outcome of a choice made by God.”

“In the Politics Aristotle describes political society as the culmination of human communities. In cities, he says, there are two irreducible parts, the wealthy and the poor, and the shape that political life takes on results from the perennial struggle between these two groups to rule over the whole. When the wealthy rule for their own benefit, the city is an oligarchy; when the poor rule for their own benefit, the city is literally a democracy, a rule by the people or the many, since there normally are more poorer than wealthier members of society. Aristotle says that the best outcome for most people in most places at most times, the practically best form of the city generally, is the republic, the politeia, which is intermediate between oligarchy and democracy. In a republic, a large middle class – middle in both an economic and an ethical sense – is established between the rich and the poor, and the laws and not men rule, and they do so for the benefit of the whole city, not for any particular part.”

“Not everyone is able to distinguish the end from the purpose. There are at least four types of people who are impeded from distinguishing them: the impulsive, the obtuse, the immature, and the vicious. Aristotle says that a young man, because of his impulsiveness and lack of experience, is not an appropriate hearer of lectures on political matters. … Second, we may have become adult enough to establish distinct purposes and to determine steps that lead to them, but we may still be unable to appreciate the presence of other people with their purposes. We permit entry into our awareness only of what we want. We remain unable to see that other people have their viewpoints and needs, that we are not the only agents involved in our situations. To fail to be “objective” in this way is to be what I would like to call “morally obtuse” as opposed to being vicious. … His consciousness does not expand enough to include the perspectives of others, even though he is able to distinguish means and purposes in his own case.”

“To the question “What is natural law?” one can answer very simply: “Natural law is the ontological priority of ends over purposes.” Natural law is shown to us when we recognize that there are ends in things and that our purposes and choices must respect their priority. … For example, the ends built into human nourishment must be seen to govern the way we eat, and the ends built into human sexuality must be seen to govern the way we live with our sexuality. In both of these powers, we ought not to be governed by what we simply want and the purposes we set for ourselves; we must differentiate between what we want and the reality and the telos of the thing we are dealing with.”

“There is one very significant distinction that very much needs to be made in our present situation, both in the Church and in society…. It is the distinction between thinking and speaking rhetorically and thinking and speaking philosophically. Far too much discourse is simply rhetorical, even when the speakers pretend to be giving an analysis. Far too often people think they are presenting the truth of things, or they pretend to be presenting the truth of things, when they really are arguing, and arguing rather emotionally, for their own point of view. The very grasp of this distinction is a tremendously important thing. … It gives us hope that there is something like the truth of things that can rescue us in a complicated and confusing situation.”

Have I confused you enough? I hope not. Not everything that is ultimately very simple, can be explained simply. It becomes simple only when we understand all the facts and implications, and meditate on them, until our heart sees their beauty.

I found some things of beauty in this book.

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