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Faith and Reason: The Whyful Confronting of Whylessness
By Andrew M. Greenwell, Esq.
May 24th, 2012
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)
Man must accept the whyless truths, so that he may be whyful. To borrow from Voegelin, man deforms himself if he does not accept the whyless truths just as much as he does if he is not whyful.CORPUS CHRISTI, TX (Catholic Online) - The philosopher Eric Voegelin noted in an essay entitled "Gospel and Culture" that man by nature has an inquiring mind, that man by nature is a questioner. Man we may say is whyful.
Voegelin believed that all men and women--and this included Christians--ought to ask questions. In fact, Voegelin believed that "by refusing to ask the questions, or by loading them with premises devised to make the search impossible," man deforms himself.
This is in keeping with the best of Catholicism. As one example of this, we might point to St. Anselm's famous treatise Cur Deus Homo? Its very title is a question: Why Did God Become Man? As another example, read St. Thomas Aquinas' Summa Theologiae; the thing is riddled with questions (and answers).
In his famous Apologia Pro Vita Sua, Cardinal Newman, who had a marvelously inquiring mind, stated that "ten thousand difficulties do not make one doubt." As he understood the subject, "difficulty and doubt are incommensurate." Difficulty and doubt are as different as night and day.
Difficulties lead to questions, questions lead to the search for answers, and the search, more often than not, leads to answers. As Voegelin noted in his essay, "question and answer are held together, and related to one another, by the event of the search."
Jesus asked questions of his followers and his enemies. Certainly, if Jesus asked questions and asked others to ask themselves questions, then asking questions cannot be wrong. "Do you love me?" Jesus asked Peter. (John 21:16). "Why are you sleeping?" Jesus asked his disciples in Gethsemane. (Luke 22:46). For convenience, the Archdiocese of Washington as posted a (not exhaustive) list of "100 Questions Jesus Asked and You Ought to Answer."
Mary also asked questions: "How can this be?" she asked the angel Gabriel when she had conceived a child without knowing a man. (Luke 1:34) This was right before her great act of faith and obedience: Fiat mihi! Be it done!
Catholicism is St. Augustine's and St. Anselm's credo ut intelligam, I believe that I may understand. But it is also Abelard's intelligo ut credam, I understand that I may believe. It understands that truth is a dynamic interplay of both faith and reason, since both reason and faith come from God.
Faith believes. Reason questions. The two belong together, and they ought never be separate.
"Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth; and God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth--in a word, to know Himself--so that, by knowing and loving God, men and women may also come to the fullness of truth about themselves," wrote John Paul II, in the opening words of his encyclical Fides et ratio.
Blessed John Paul observed that man's heart--in whatever time, whatever culture, wherever he lives--always asks "the fundamental questions which pervade human life. Who am I? Where have I come from and where am I going? Why is there evil? What is there after this life?" FR, 1.
In almost all cases, therefore, God wants us to be whyful. It is one of the joys of being human that we should ask questions, be convinced there are answers, search for those answers, and (we hope) to find them.
But though we are meant to be whyful, there are boundaries where questions can no longer be asked about reality, where we no longer can expect answers. There is a place where reason reaches a limit, and we peer out as it were into the very edge of reason, where there is a sort of a wall.
We might call it the wall of whylessness.
This wall of whylessness is reached at reason's end where the self-evident principles of theoretical or practical reason are reached. Here, there is no "why" for them; they just are, and their opposite is unthinkable. To deny them is simply to fall in absurdity or fundamental skepticism that leads to reason's despair (and often moral despair).
In his play Alcestis, the Greek playwright Euripides has this dialogue between Admetus and Heracles (528-29):
Heracles: Existence and non-existence are deemed to be separate things.
Admetus: You have your view on this, Heracles, and I have mine.
Admetus has clearly taken an untenable position. He denies what is. He abandons objective truth, abandons reason, and his words end up being nothing but so much blabber.
In the area of theoretical reason, an example of a self-evident principle is the principle of non-contradiction. The principle is self-evident that a thing cannot both be and not be in the same way at the same time. It's the same thing as saying that a proposition cannot be both true and false. This is the self-evident truth--the whyless truth--that the foolish Admetus denied.
Some of the other whyless truths in the area of theoretical or speculative reason are the principle of finality, i.e., every agent acts for an end, and the principle of causality, i.e., every effect has a cause. You simply cannot be a whyful creature if you deny these whyless truths.
Man must accept the whyless truths, so that he may be whyful. To extend Voegelin's insight a bit further, man deforms himself if he does not accept the whyless truths just as much as he does if he is not whyful.
In the area of practical reason (which is the reason that is used in moral thought) there is likewise self-evident or whyless truths. The basic principle of morality is the whyless truth that good ought to be done, and evil ought to be avoided. (S.T. IaIae, q. 94, art. 2, c.) Bonum est faciendum et prosequendum, et malum vitandum.
The notion of whylessness was particularly dear to the Dominican Meister Eckhart (c. 1260- c. 1327). His sermons and his tractates are peppered with the notion of whylessness. There are many things that for Meister Eckhart that are whyless, which contain kein warumbe, as he put it in his Middle High German.
In fact, not unlike St. Thomas Aquinas, Meister Eckhart founds the whole moral enterprise on a whyless truth. In his sermon on John 15:19, Meister Eckhart has this to say:
"All God's commandments come from love, from the kindness of his nature; did they not come from love they would not be God's law, for God's law is the goodness of his nature and his nature his benignant law. Whoso dwells in love dwells in the goodness of his nature: he dwells in God's love, and love is without why [die minne enhät kein warumbe]."
Love is "without why," that is, it is whyless. For the Christian, the moral life is ultimately a response to the love of God which has been manifested in the most concrete way in the Word made Flesh, Jesus. "We love because he first loved us." 1 John 4:19. Our whyless love requites, is responsive to, the whyless love of God. "This is love for God: to obey his commandments." (1 John 5:3; see also John 14:15) These commandments founded on love may be distilled into two. "'You shall your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.' The second is this: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'" (Mark 12:30-31)
When confronting a whyless truth, we can humbly accept it like Heracles did in Euripides' play, or we may harden ourselves to it and take the foolish, absurd, and skeptical position of Admetus. Unfortunately, if we take the latter route, invariably it leads to despair. And this means a loveless life, an immoral life, for love and its moral law are, ultimately, whyless truths. They are based rock-bottom on self-evident principles.
Such despair is found in e. e. cummings's poem "enter no(silence." In this poem, this faithless, modernist American poet reflects, in his typically unusual syntax, on the imminent end of his life, and compares it to the approaching winter in autumn:
enter no(silence is the blood whose flesh
is singing)silence:but unsinging. In
spectral such hugest how hush, one
dead leaf stirring makes a crash
--far away(as far as alive)lies
april; and i breathe-move-and-seem some
perpetually roaming whylessness-
autumn has gone:will winter never come?
o come,terrible anonymity;enfold
phantom me with the murdering minus of cold
--open this ghost with millionary knives of wind-
scatter his nothing all over what angry skies and
(very whiteness:absolute peace,
never imaginable mystery)
The whylessness of e. e. cummings--whose "I breathe-move-and seem some perpetually roaming whylessness" apes or perverts St. Paul's God "in whom we live, and move, and have our being"--is world's away from the whylessness of Meister Eckhart.
Borrowing from C. S. Lewis, we might even say there is a great divorce between these two notions of whylessness. They are as different as the attitudes of Hercules and Admetus to whyless truths. They are as far apart as Heaven and Hell.
Andrew M. Greenwell is an attorney licensed to practice law in Texas, practicing in Corpus Christi, Texas. He is married with three children. He maintains a blog entirely devoted to the natural law called Lex Christianorum. You can contact Andrew at email@example.com.
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