Monday, November 09, 2009

On Skepticism and Humility

The proud man, says C.S. Lewis, cannot see God because he is always looking down his nose at things and people, and so long as you are looking down, you cannot see what is above you. We can never let ourselves forget that in this on-going search for truth, the truth will always remain above us. We must approach the truth as children ready to be transformed by and conformed to something greater than ourselves and not as aggressors. We do not conquer the truth; if we seek it rightly, it will conquer us.

Catholic Christianity is something far too big for us to grasp, much less command. I believe it was Chesterton who said that Paganism was the biggest thing the world had ever seen; Christianity was bigger, and everything since has been comparatively small. One crucial step in developing humility must be a continual awareness that the Truth is something too big to fit into our finite heads.

Even St. Thomas Aquinas, the greatest doctor of the Church, when granted a vision, said that his writings were but “straw” and could not complete his masterpiece, the Summa Theologica. Students of Thomism, like myself, might wish that we possessed that final part, but in leaving the work unfinished, he left us something greater: a powerful exhortation to humility.

But none of this means that we can’t know truth nor that we should too readily profess agnosticism. Arrogance is a danger but skepticism is also dangerous and is not true humility. Recently, there has been some lively discussion in response to Bryan and Neal’s article on sola vs solo scriptura. Some have agreed that there is no principled distinction; others are unwilling to grant the distinction, but the sole objection seems to be this: that the Catholic position is no better. Bryan, myself, and others have given reasons in the combox why we do not believe this to be the case, but I am particularly interested in drawing out a one-liner, not well received and perhaps for good reason, that I left on Chris Donato’s blog. I claimed that “there is a difference between humility and skepticism.”

Modern philosophy has progressed, if you prefer to call it progression, down a path forged by Descartes. It has given us existentialism, rationalism, scientism, naturalism, and several other isms but most notably, and I think they all have this in common one way or another, skepticism. But from a classical point of view, things can be known and some things can be known with certainty. Following Aquinas, I am an empiricist. But that doesn’t mean I deny that some things can be known more certainly than others or that I think I can be absolutely certain of everything I believe.

I lack the philosophical training to draw out exactly why I insist on this distinction (between humility and skepticism), but personally I find it intuitively true. It doesn’t seem that I can know, with a mathematical certainty, that the Catholic Church is the true Church, or that Jesus rose from the dead for that matter. But I believe both of these things with a confidence that does not feel threatened by skeptical approaches to Church history, for example, or with various theories about what might have historically happened at the putative Resurrection.

I find most counter arguments to be based in skepticism, in fact, and I don’t find that to be a humble approach to history or to truth seeking. E.g. How can we be certain that there is an unbroken line of Apostolic Succession from the Apostles until now? We can’t know who is rightfully pope because sometimes there were multiple claims to the See of Peter. Many of the popes said and did bad things, etc. Now all of these objections deserve answers in due course; I wouldn’t deny it, but I believe that skepticism is a hindrance to one who is honestly seeking the truth in humility. In short, I find skepticism to be a counterfeit humility. True humility consists not in denying knowledge nor in saying that truth is unattainable, but in admitting that one’s knowledge is imperfect and that the truth we do see, is only through a glass darkly.

Speaking for myself, my style has a tendency to come across as overly confident, and to the extant which I have failed to exhibit a humble spirit in dialogues here and elsewhere, I offer my apologies. There is a constant need for the Christian to be reminded of his place. Some of us need reminding more often than others.

It is only when we come to appreciate that Catholic Christianity is larger than the Latin Church, larger than Byzantine Christianity, and again larger than the revivals from within Protestantism, that we begin to understand just how small we are in comparison.

It should go without saying that this post isn’t intended to prove anything; it is merely a prayer for myself and others that we would seek the Truth in humility. I hope you will pray it with me.

Originally posted at Called to Communion.


elm said...

Hi Tim,
A little background, I have a son who has a degree in Philosophy and is teaching at an Eastern University. He has taken a pagan cult as his road to heaven, and we have many, many long conversations about religion. I truly appreciate your blog for giving me knowledge and courage to go nose to nose with my son. His salvation is my goal in our discussions and I know that he is still seeking God. St. Monica is my hero and there is always hope that he will return to the faith of his youth.

Tim A. Troutman said...


Thanks I'm glad you are finding some use for my blog. <a href=">Called to Communion</a> is another site that I'm sure would be useful to you. We have two philosophy professors who regularly contribute and two of our guys are working on the doctorate in philosophy.