We often assume, I believe, that the most perennial battle in human history is that which occurs between faith and reason; that always and everywhere, people of faith have been at war with the philosophers and scientists. And it is certainly true that wherever you look in human history, you will find something analogous to our modern struggles, such as the execution of Socrates for being an “atheist.” However, I think this rather overstates the case. Socrates was executed for atheism because he denied the Pantheon, the great hall of the tribal gods of the Greeks. But this rejection of a particular constellation of gods was not a rejection of the divine in itself; for Socrates, the universe was suffused with divine purpose and meaning.

What does happen, in most times and places, is that faith and reason are held together in tension with each other, rather than being in a war to the death. That is to say that most of our contemporary battles over this issue would simply be unintelligible to the men of other times and places. For what is asserted by the modern world is that everything will be science, and hence there will be (given enough time and funding) no further need of faith, a claim which leads to the counter-claims of fideism. We think of this fight as characteristically modern but in fact the battle has its origins with the scholastics of the high Middle Ages, and specifically with the assertion of Thomas Aquinas that “the same thing cannot be both seen and believed.” He continues, “Hence it is equally impossible for one and the same thing to be an object of science and of belief.”[1] Hence, science and faith are directly opposed to each other so that the more of the one must mean the less of the other. Thomas of course comes down on the side of faith, but only as a stopgap. As we expand our knowledge, more things will pass from the shadowy realms of faith to the clear light of science until eventually, perhaps at the Beatific Vision, everything will be knowledge while faith, like the communist state, will simply wither away, having no further function to perform. This is indeed a grand vision and no one can be faulted if they wish to speed up the process a bit and bring all things or nearly all under the domain of science as quickly as possible. But this leads to the fundamental error of the modern world.

And what is this fundamental error? It is the belief that there exists a purely secular space, divorced from the moral order. Now, this makes a certain degree of sense if one confines one’s gaze to the physical parts of the cosmos. One need not, indeed cannot, allow moral considerations to color a computation of the orbit of Venus or the refraction of light. And this “non-moral” view has proved powerful; few of us would be willing to abandon the marvels of the modern age. However, I think this piecemeal vision fails when we turn our attention from the parts to the whole. When we look at the cosmos as a whole, we see order and beauty, and can only understand them through an aesthetic view. While the parts are governed by a strictly deterministic rationality and can be understood through knowledge of the causes, the whole is governed by order and beauty, and one that cannot be rationalized. The cosmos is cosmetic and like all things cosmetic, it escapes the purely rational in favor of pure contemplation. What it does not invite is some reduction of cosmic order to the four causes, the endpoint of all rational analysis. That is, the cosmos escapes rationalism.

I remember reading some scientist—I think it was Desmond Morris—explain “love” in terms of chemical reactions in the brain. And he is of course absolutely correct: viewing the beloved is reflected in chemical movements. He has therefore perfectly rationalized love, and completely missed it. And it is precisely here that we come up against the limits of rationalism: it is always a complete explanation that explains absolutely nothing; it gives (or can give) an exhaustive view of the parts and says nothing about the whole. Because the truth is that nothing important can be rationalized, not love, not the cosmos, not the Cross.

Insofar as science—or philosophy, for that matter—means “knowledge through causes,” and specifically the four causes identified by Aristotle, it will always be incomplete. Because the truth is that nothing important has causes; things have causes, but actions have grounds, and it is with action, human or divine, that philosophy and theology are primarily concerned. “Causes” are deterministic (as in “cause and effect”) and hence you cannot reduce the act of creation to its “causes” since to do so would deprive every creator of his (or His) freedom. Each created thing has causes, but being does not; it has only a ground, and the ground of being is love, something irreducible to any matrix of Aristotelian causes.[2]

At the very start of the modern era, the poet Angelus Selisius put it this way:

The rose is without why,
She blooms because she blooms;
She cares not for herself, cares not if she is seen.[3]

The rose can be “explained” by reduction to its four causes, but it cannot be understood in this way. The scientist or the rationalist philosopher can only explain the rose by ignoring its actual being. True, this is a useful ignorance, allowing us to grow more roses and more beautiful ones. But the purchase of a rose does not have causes, but grounds. And one great difference between causes and grounds is that while the former is deterministic, the later calls forth freedom: I can buy the rose or not; I can choose chocolate over roses, or choose nothing at all.

This concern with grounds rather than causes brings us immediately to the world of the artist and creator, for all things begin in art. It became popular in the high Middle Ages to present God as the Great Geometer; but in fact, he is the Great Artist creating a cosmos, the root of “cosmetic,” or perhaps the Great Potter, forming man out of the mud of the earth. The geometer (qua geometer) creates nothing; the potter alone can say, “Behold, I am doing something new.”

It is interesting to note that the secular world depends on the late medieval creation of a uniform Cartesian notion of space, a secular space, one might almost say a ‘dead space.’ But the notion does not begin with Descartes or with any scientist or philosopher, but with the artists, specifically Brunelleschi’s demonstration of single-point perspective in 1420. This became the standard for artistic realism, despite the fact that it is not realist at all, and that it is not at all the way people see things. For one thing, we have two eyes rather than one, and our gaze is never fixed for very long, and certainly not on an infinite “vanishing point.” Rather, our focus is constantly shifting. In reality, we are always dealing with multiple perspectives, more like Van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece rather than Alberti’s interpretation of Caravaggio’s Narcissus (the perfect symbol of his age, and ours.) But the point is that this secular space moved from art to science to philosophy, and not the other way round.[4]

When philosophy moves from the realm of causes to the realm of grounds it also moves from the world of determinism to the world of freedom. In one world, effects are determined by their causes, but in the other, actions are occasioned by their grounds. And clearly, the same grounds can always lead to different actions. The grounds are given, but the responses are, or can be, free. And it is always impossible to say in advance whether a particular response is “correct,” and it may not be possible to do so even in retrospect. In the world of the four causes, there can never be more than one answer and hence one “correct” science and, by extension, one “correct” philosophy. But since God is the ultimate ground of all action, and since the infinity that is God, or rather the infinity that God exceeds, will never be captured by one philosophy, there can never be one “correct” philosophy; rather, each is a fragmentary view of the whole. Here, we move into the “learned ignorance,” the docta ignorantia of Nicholas of Cusa. In this world, we can forever refine our learning, but we can never remove our ignorance.

Of course, abandoning the “knowledge by causes” of an analytic philosophy has its psychic cost. For one thing, we must abandon (or at least demote) the world of secure knowledge and enter the misty world, the cloud of unknowing, the world where humility rather than certainty is the watchword. And it brings us from the world of propositions into the world of art and story, of image and narrative. In this world, “reason” itself shifts from “firm conclusions drawn from secure propositions” to reason as the ratio between the image and the object, between the narrative and the world. And in this world, faith and knowledge are not contraries, but complements. Faith is the entry into knowledge, and knowledge does not diminish but rather strengthens faith, and this is so even if knowledge also challenges faith, as it certainly will.

Some will allow that stories have an “emotive” power but doubt their necessary hold on reason. But this gets it exactly backwards: a story might be emotive, but it must be reasonable. That is, a story must be proportional to a view of the world we either have or can imagine having. The story may extend or deepen our rationality, but it must appeal to it in some way, or else it will simply be rejected as untrue or as uninteresting. And it is precisely this proportionality, this ratio, which constitutes reason itself. Indeed, in the light of Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem and Tarski’s Undefinability Theorem, even mathematics and logic rest on a kernel of pure belief. Here we may stand with Nicholas of Cusa to assert Nisi crederet, non caperet, which can be roughly translated as, “If he won’t believe, he just won’t get it.”

This view also solves a problem that bedevils the analyst, namely, why does God choose to speak to us as he does? Why did he give us a sermon on the mount rather than a seminar in the synagogue? But this question is rooted not so much in bad philosophy as in bad anthropology. For the analytic philosopher, like the capitalist, imagines man to be a “rational” machine. But “rational” here loses it connection with ratio, proportionality, to become something more like “calculating,” either “utilities” (in the case of the capitalist) or “propositions” (in the case of the philosopher.) But man does not work like that, and neither does God. Or at least, God chose to present himself as artist and historian rather than as philosopher. He gives us stories, not propositions. And the stories must be believed before they can be used. And he does this precisely because he is the better philosopher and the better psychologist. But he is also a better Father in that he always gives his children the best gifts possible. That being the case, I must start with the right stories rather than the “right” philosophy. Because that is how all people think and is the only way they can think.

The Orthodox theologian, David Bentley Hart, has captured the thing nicely, when he says:

Thus, for Christian thought, knowledge of the world is something to be achieved not just through a reconstruction of its “sufficient reason,” but through an obedience to glory, an orientation of the will toward the light of being and its gratuity; and so the most fully “adequate” discourse of truth is worship, prayer, and rejoicing.

Phrased otherwise, the truth of being is “poetic” before it is “rational” (indeed, it is rational precisely because of its supreme poetic coherence and richness of detail), and thus cannot be known truly if this order is reversed.

Beauty is the beginning and end of all true knowledge: really to know, one must first love, and having known, one must finally delight; only this “corresponds” to the Trinitarian love and delight that creates. The truth of being is the whole of being, in its event, groundless, and so, in its every detail, revelatory of the light that grants it.[5]

  1. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica (Allen, Texas: Christian Classics, 1911), II–II, 1, 5.
  2. See Rémi Brague, Curing Mad Truths: Medieval Wisdom for the Modern Age, Catholic Ideas for a Secular World (Notre Dame, Indiana: Notre Dame University Press, 2019), 22.
  3. Quoted in Johannes Hoff, The Analogical Turn: Rethinking Modernity with Nicholas of Cusa, Kindle (Grand Rapids, Michigan/ Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2013), 165.
  4. See the discussion in Hoff, chap. 8.
  5. David Bentley Hart, The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth (Grand Rapids, Michigan/ Cambridge, U.K.: Eerdmans, 2004), 132.
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  1. John, thank you so much for this insightful posting. You have contributed much to my thoughts as I am working on a writing project regarding the ratio of story-telling and the objective world. Unaware, you have given me a “leg up” today as I was grappling with a thorny issue in my thought process yesterday. I put down my pen, so to say, and thought to start again fresh this morning, and there you were in my mailbox waiting to advise (funny how these things come together). It is not any one thing that you articulate, but the whole of it which impresses me to continue writing with confidence. You said:
    This concern with grounds rather than causes brings us immediately to the world of the artist and creator, for all things begin in art. It became popular in the high Middle Ages to present God as the Great Geometer; but in fact, he is the Great Artist creating a cosmos, the root of “cosmetic,” or perhaps the Great Potter, forming man out of the mud of the earth. The geometer (qua geometer) creates nothing; the potter alone can say, “Behold, I am doing something new.”
    I recently wrote a posting for FPR titled Mud: The Alma-Pater in which I began to touch upon the ideas you are positing. I just completed a second master’s degree focused on the Medieval in English Literature — which perhaps prepared me to “hear” your words as one who has “ears” that can hear them. I am taking notes Sir and admiring your philosophical distinctions (my first master’s is in Philosophy). My next article highlights this fragmentary “art” in which life is sometimes lived upon those broken-off parts of the whole. The “given” grounds are indeed a stage upon which one may “freely” act. I can see how this all fits nicely into an ownership economy as well. Again. Thank you.


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