Monday, May 28, 2007

More on the Epistemology of Faith . . .

During his 40 days in the desert, Jesus was tempted to do things that would make the truth of his claims and the meaning of his existence irrefutable. He declined. His followers down through the centuries have sometimes tried to do what Jesus refused to do.

But irrefutability is overrated. Christian faith appeals to freedom and to love, both of which require the absence of irrefutability, what Hans Urs von Balthasar calls "the purely worldly power of persuasion." The truth of Christianity is simply Christ -- the Way, the Truth, and the Life -- the Truth that will set you free.

The kind of evidential power with which God manifests himself must be of the highest kind, precisely in virtue of the fact that it allows freedom because it makes men free. And it wants to overpower a lover that answers in freedom only in its own way -- by the evidential power of love ...
Balthasar cites Blaise Pascal as the thinker who best understood this, quoting this from Pascal's Pensées: "Perfect clarity would please reason but harm the will. The proud man must be humbled."

Balthasar goes so far as to say the "only that person can truly recognize the Messiah who knows how to keep his secret."

This is not of course to ignore the command to preach the Gospel to the ends of the earth. Rather it is to realize that the value of that preaching will depend primarily on how faithfully the lives of those who preach it have been conformed to Christ and only secondarily on how objectively persuasive their argumentation might be.

The secret that must be kept is an open secret, but it will elude those who try to discover it solely on the basis of a "purely worldly power of persuasion."


frjohnbraun said...

I don't know why there aren't my comments on Gil's reflections; usually right on the mark, or at least closer to a bullseye than most of us. As a priest who has been charged in a unique way to conform his life to Christ in order to proclaim the gospel of the kingdom of God, I found this past post of his really helpful. Thanks Gil. Fare forward voyager.

Steve said...

I see the point you are trying to make here, and concur with its substance, but would object (mildly) to the conflation of persuasion with irrefutability, solely rational argumentation, and/or "perfect clarity." Persuasion operates precisely at the point that logic and dialectic become useless, either because "hard" evidence is lacking or because the audience isn't buying, as Aristotle (Rhetoric) and, better, Augustine (De Doctrina Christiana) amply demonstrate. While the classical rhetorical trinity of ethos, pathos and logos may begin as worldly, they have at least the capacity, as Kenneth Burke shows (in ways strikingly parallel to much of Girard's work), to move humans into states of consubstantiality which may indeed be transcendent. I remain skeptical of the category "purely worldly persuasion."

Simon said...

Wonderful post! Grasping something of the truth of God surely requires more than intellection alone, even if this "something" is completely rational. Girard has written (somewhere) that the biggest obstacle to understanding simple truths about ourselves is not reason, but pride. A fortiori this must be true of God... In his letters (118,22) Saint Augustine wrote: "Grasp the truth of God by using the way he himself provides, since he sees the weakness of our footsteps. That way consists first, of humility, second, of humility, and third, of humility."

I believe that unless we become like little children it will be difficult for us to grasp even the most elemental truths about God and we surely wont enter through the narrow gate. This narrow gate is always open to anyone, but the marvels behind the gate will elude those who try to discover them "solely on the basis of a 'purely worldly power of persuasion'."

Or to quote the cathecism [37]: In the historical conditions in which he finds himself [...] man experiences many difficulties in coming to know God by the light of reason alone:

Though human reason is, strictly speaking, truly capable by its own natural power and light of attaining to a true and certain knowledge of the one personal God, [...] yet there are many obstacles which prevent reason from the effective and fruitful use of this inborn faculty. For the truths that concern the relations between God and man wholly transcend the visible order of things, and, if they are translated into human action and influence it, they call for self-surrender and abnegation. The human mind, in its turn, is hampered in the attaining of such truths, not only by the impact of the senses and the imagination, but also by disordered appetites which are the consequences of original sin. So it happens that men in such matters easily persuade themselves that what they would not like to be true is false or at least doubtful.

frjohnbraun said...

I just got back from Mass. What Jesus says to the 12 today is something that is not only not open to persuasion, but will almost always seem to be false. Self-sacrifice, of the type by which we intentionally choose to be the slaves of all, as the path to the greatest good offends reason even though we know experientially that such a decision is not unreasonable. We can reasonably choose to sacrifice our lives in a way that precludes personal benefit or gain, of any kind, but to actually do is to step outside the confines where reason finds its comfort.