Friday, August 10, 2012

What's Old Is New

Earlier this week, I mentioned the intellectual laziness associated with nominalism in discussing Christianity. This was the shpiel I gave about Christianity being reduced to a label with no essence. It works out pretty well for folks who don't want to think too hard about stuff or who have adopted a sort of Christian agnosticism. The latter usually gets presented as something like "I know God and I know Jesus. I don't think we can REALLY KNOW if Jesus is God or if the Eucharist is more than just a symbol or if there is a visible Church or ..."

In my undertaking to get through the entire Schaff series of the Fathers, I've found myself in the letters of St. Augustine. He mentions a similar phenomenon:

In that age the studies of contending schools of philosophers were pursued with such ardour, that the one thing to be feared was the possibility of error being approved.

It's hard to believe this was ever a dominant perspective in the intellectual world. After all, you've got modern  allegedly Catholic universities who not only don't fear error being approved, they go so far as to present courses where the main subject is an error presented for open consideration as truth.

For every one who had been driven by the arguments of the sceptical philosophers from a position which he had supposed to be impregnable, set himself to seek some other in its stead, with a perseverance and caution corresponding to the greater industry which was characteristic of the men of that time, and the strength of the persuasion then prevailing, that truth, though deep and hard to be deciphered, does lie hidden in the nature of things and of the human mind. Now, however, such is the indisposition to strenuous exertion, and the indifference to the liberal arts, that so soon as it is noised abroad that, in the opinion of the most acute philosophers, truth is unattainable, men send their minds to sleep, and cover them up for ever. For they presume not, forsooth, to imagine themselves to be so superior in discernment to those great men, that they shall find out what, during his singularly long life, Carneades, with all his diligence, talents, and leisure, besides his extensive and varied learning, failed to discover. And if, contending somewhat against indolence, they rouse themselves so far as to read those books in which it is, as it were, proved that the perception of truth is denied to man, they relapse into lethargy so profound, that not even by the heavenly trumpet can they be aroused.

This reminded me of every person I've ever spoken with, Catholic or otherwise, who thinks that we know more than the Fathers and Doctors of the Church just because we drew the lot of living in 2012. For Catholics, these tend to be Vatican II "superdogma" types who think the Church was mostly wrong until 1965. Among Protestants, they funnily enough have basically the same view, except that the Church was completely wrong until the Reformation, with most adding that the Reformers were wrong until their own preacher read the Bible for the first time.

St. Augustine speaks it pretty plain. Nothing puts a guy's mind to sleep quite so fast as the assurance that (a) he's smarter than everyone else and/or (b) there's nothing out there to really be known anyway.

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