On the Intellectually Dangerous

May ruffle some feathers with this one.

A Sinner, of the blog Renegade Trads, takes me to task in a recent Vox Nova thread and on his own blog for venturing into “intellectually dangerous” places. My “vain exercise,” it seems, is impiously exploring the consequences for a Catholic understanding of original sin if science were to show that the whole human race did not descend from the biblical figures Adam and Eve. I may also be living a life of “intellectual promiscuity” by thinking “thoughts better left unthought” and possibly revealing, through my philosophical promiscuousness, “a total lack of faith.”

I plead guilty as charged. I am willing, albeit with fear and trembling, to think thoughts that could lead me to question and even reject my faith. This may be impious of me, but it is not a venture that runs counter to what that in which I have faith calls me to do. I am Catholic because I believe that to which Catholicism directs and disposes me is ultimately true, because that truth has eternal ramifications, and because the way and means by which I get there matter. I believe there is a truth to pursue and true ways and means of pursuing it.

I do not believe, however, that any particular, historically-situated way of thinking about the truth establishes a standard of truth beyond question, criticism, and development. I am willing to entertain new or differing ways of thinking about the human condition, the nature of the cosmos, sin and salvation, good and evil, God, and even the meaning of truth itself. I view as deconstructible any thought constructed in history. I hold that any formula can be reformulated. This is no sin against truth, but a way of protecting truth, of keeping truth more than what we happen at a given moment to think truth is.

We do not believe in formulas, says the Catechism of the Catholic Church, but in those realities they express, which faith allows us to touch. Touch. Not contain, not encapsulate, not surround or swallow, but touch. There is a difference between thought and that about which we think, and because that is a difference I insist on maintaining, I consider no thought to be the last word. Only one Thought is the Thing Itself. Only one Word is the One Who Speaks.

I have a total lack of faith in formulas and words and thoughts and anything else under the sun: I do not believe these to be the Truth. My faith is in what eludes our formulas, what escapes our words, what dances always ahead of our thoughts. Because of my faith, I am willing, in fear and trembling, to reconsider all that I have considered. If science or philosophy or another pursuit of reason touches upon the truth of something in the domain of reason, something to which theology also speaks, and the claims of each conflict with one another, then I say to theology (though not always only to theology), rethink!

If it is impious of me to say that theology and the Church itself should be willing to reconsider how they understand original sin because their traditional understandings of Adam and Eve may not be scientifically credible, then so be it. I say, without any hesitation, that when the Church makes claims about faith and morals that touch on matters of science, history, or philosophy, it ought to be open to rethinking these claims when a claim of reason presents a conflict. After all, the Church is very clear that we rise to truth on wings of faith and reason. From the Church’s standpoint, the two shouldn’t be in conflict.

Perhaps even more impiously of me, I cannot treat the authoritative responsibility and mission of the Church as an authoritarian power. My acceptance of its authority is not unconditional. If the Church were, for example, to proclaim definitively and with full authority that genocide could be morally dandy or that the earth is 6000 years old or that beer is intrinsically evil, the game would be up. The imp would be out of the bag. The church would have failed its own standard for being true. I don’t say this out of some belief that I know better than God or than the teaching office of the Church, but because if there is such a thing as truth, then it has criteria well beyond the say so of Church or any other authority.