Second in a series
SINCE WRITING last week’s column about Marilynne Robinson’s essay, “Wonders Never Cease: Integrity and the Modern Intellectual Condition” (Commonweal, Dec. 17, 2017, pp. 13-19), I have continued to think about Robinson’s insights and to appreciate their importance.
Probably many readers of this weekly column do not regularly read books on philosophy and so may judge that Robinson’s insights do not have immediate practical importance in their lives. I suspect that understanding Robinson’s essay will help readers see how relevant her comments are.
Steeped in Secularism
In discussing the philosophy of secular humanism with first-year students at St. John’s University, I suggest that though they may never have previously studied secular humanism or even heard of some of the influential philosophers who were secular humanists, I can guarantee that they have been exposed to that philosophy. It is impossible to live in contemporary American culture and not encounter secular humanism.
Discussing the modern period and how science developed, Robinson writes the following:
“Brilliant science celebrated itself, rightly enough, but it ceased to marvel over the gifts of the singular species that invented science and has persisted in it. Humankind has fallen in its own estimation, while the notion emerged and still rigorously persists that this utterly human project is somehow inhuman. Among other things, it is usually taken to be aloof from the errors we are prone to.
“Religion came to be reckoned among these errors. It began to be regarded as a crude explanatory system, an attempt to do what science actually could do, that is, account for the origins of things. And on these grounds religion came to be treated as though it had been discredited by science. Scripture, the Church Fathers, and classical theology have far other interests, yet Christianity has been earnestly and ineptly defended by some as if it really were battling science for the same terrain, as if it really were a collection of just-so stories all along, rather than the body of history, poetry, ethical instruction and reflection, and metaphysics as well, that had deeply informed, dignified, and beautified Western civilization for so many centuries.” (p. 14)
Tracing the Absence of God
Tracing the absence of God from much of contemporary culture, Robinson says that both the mind and the world have been desacralized. I think that recognizing and resisting the process of desacralization should be one of the most important goals of the new evangelization.
My dictionary defines integrity as the quality or state of being complete, an unbroken condition, wholeness, entirety. I suggest that for the contemporary Catholic having an integral view of the human person and the world is not easy. I think it means seeing both the human person and the world as sacral, as holy, as sacred.
In her essay, Robinson cites Descartes (1596-1650) as unintentionally starting the process of the desacralization of both the human person and the world. I agree, and I think that 19th- and 20th-century atheism can be traced back to Descartes, a Roman Catholic, whose view of person and world was so impoverished that with good intentions, he started the process that led to contemporary atheism.
Relating Everything to Faith
When I was in college I met a Catholic who was about seven years older than I. He had an integral view of life centered on his Catholic faith. I both envied him and wanted to be like him. Without being excessively pious, he was able to relate his thoughts about politics, literature, theater, film – just about everything – to his faith in God. From the time we became close friends, he was, and continues to be, a model for me.
Robinson’s sketch of contemporary thought helped me to see how genuine Catholic education on all levels should help students to be integral and to have a sacral view of reality.
Having taught the history of philosophy for many years, I have come to believe that there is a close relationship between a thinker’s view of the human person and that thinker’s view of God. A weak philosophical anthropology leads to a weak theism, and a weak theism leads to a weak philosophical anthropology. It seems that the strongest theism comes about by recognizing the enormous gifts God has bestowed on human persons.
One of the weaknesses in modern thought is to not see that the glories of science point to the greatness of the human mind and the human person. How strange that many who insist on the value of science seem to miss the value of the human person.
It is not easy in the modern contemporary world to have an integral view of reality, a view that sees reality centered on God and sees the human person as an image of God. The beauty of that view may be its greatest attraction.
Father Lauder is a philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica, and author of “Pope Francis’ Profound Personalism and Poverty” (Resurrection Press).