Our staunch Mormon commenter Leo rightly points out that,
… apart from revelation and experience [reason must] be humble. The Book of Job is full of arguments back and forth, quite impressive ones, and the conclusion of the book suggests humility before God regardless of how tight one’s argument might look. The world’s philosophical schools are hardly in agreement, and a recent study suggests 62% of philosophers are non-believers. Many of them would argue against all religion by the light of their reason.
That this is all true is fairly obvious. And we would do well to remember it; I, in particular, should bear it ever in mind, I know (all too well, as I grope forward – I hope it is forward – through the darkness, knees skinned and toes stubbed on this scandal and that). Reason ought to be humble; reason would be the first to insist upon it. That reason should be humble is only reasonable; the notion is an issue and product of reason. Therein lies a clue.
There is no escape from reason. “We ought not to trust too much to reason” is a judgement of reason. We can’t fail to have a reasoned opinion on anything at all, for even, “I have no idea,” is a reasoned opinion, based on an intellectual evaluation. To recuse is to cuse. To recuse from any judgement about x is to assert a judgement that any other judgement about x finds no support in one’s own knowledge and experience. And “cuse” is “cause:” to recuse from judgement about x is implicitly to call into question any judgements about x that have been vouchsafed by interlocutors, thereby influencing the discourse by introducing a note of skepticism about its prospects.
We must all do philosophy – must all love wisdom – whether or not we think we like philosophy, and whether or not we know we are doing it.
Nor likewise is there any escape from experience, or from revelation – a department of experience (or is it the other way round?) – or from history, also known as Tradition, and as memory: the trace or record in the present moment of past experience. There is no way for reason to be somehow separate from experience, revelation, history; for they are at once the grist of reason’s mill, and the limit of her compass. The data limit the algorithms that can adequately process them.
Theology then is ever shaped by the confrontation with reality: with history, experience, revelation. It cannot get started without them, or finish, or even say anything whatever; because it is about them.
But nor is it possible to live unreasonably – to live unreasonably is just to go ahead and die, more or less quickly – and so there is no successful escape from reason. One way or another we must process what happens, and decide what we think about it – or, just go ahead and think what we do think about it. We can’t stop our thinking, right? So, reason ought to be humble, but by the very same token, there is no point inveighing against reason as such.
Now, where all this comes down to brass tacks is at the question of whether the God of the Philosophers has anything to do with the God of Abraham. To answer in the negative is to reject reason, and as we have seen, this rejection cannot transpire except by an operation of the reason. Reason cannot coherently repudiate reason. So it is not really feasible (however tempting it might seem) to say that Athens and Jerusalem have naught to say to each other. Truth must there be, and all truths must coinhere; so, Athens and Jerusalem must somehow perfectly and luminously agree, and illumine each other. We cannot do without Athens, cannot get along without her, anywhere at all; not even Jerusalem can get along without Athens, as the legal disputations of the rabbis make so plain.
Nor however can Athens get on without Jerusalem. The arguments of the Areopagus must at bottom be about something real, concrete and huge, that far outpasses their poor compass, or they are nothing but vapors, vain and empty, signifying nothing – and not, therefore, worthy of attention. The ardent disputations of Mars Hill cannot have been about nothing at all, cannot ultimately have mattered not at all to their agonists, or they would none of them ever even have entered the lists, instead disporting themselves hors de combat on athletics or politics. In which case, we would never much have noticed little Athens.
A revolting thought, that the Athenians and their ilk were nothing more than Sophists, the lot of them – and a false, thanks be to God, for as Paul saw on his way to the court of their argumentations, the Athenians had ever felt in their guts the loom over all their discourse of the Unknown God, to whom it was all in the end referred, and to whom it pointed, and to whom it was offered. From the earnest wrangling of the Greeks there issues the same sweet sober odor of sanctity – of holy purpose, seriously undertaken – that perfuses the work of the Fathers and the Scholastics, and aye of the mystics, too, besotted with their bridegroom.
The limit of thought is fact. God is the ultimate Fact. So the limit of theology is just God himself – not a net of abstract ideas, but a living, concrete real, and a flux of felt power. We see this at every summit of human thought: where philosophy tops out, and climbing cannot continue, there must ensue the contemplation of the beauty of the heavens, that utterly transcend, and calcine, all sublunary works. At sublimity, where analysis and ratiocination have completed their proper tasks, and looking up through the translucent veil of the firmament, adoration, joy, terror, peace are the natural response of the human heart. To the theoria of the high places, there are but two alternatives: a careful and orderly descent to the fruitful plain of a hearty quotidian life, informed by the perspectives of the heights; or else a precipitous Fall into anomie, nihilism, skepticism – into despair. Thought that has no final end in theoria aims willy nilly at nonsense, and at unreason, at chaos, and death – and must eventually meet them.