Wednesday, October 31, 2007

The problem of truth and human fellowship

Readers of this Blog will no doubt see similarities between the liberal dissent group which calls itself "Voice of the Faithful" and the anti-Semitic Saint Benedict Center which calls itself "traditional" ( or conservative). Both these groups have relied on slogans as a substitute for thought. One seeks a more "democratic" Church in its own image and likeness and quotes selectively from Vatican II documents to further its agenda which is summed up in its mantra: "Keep the Faith, change the Church." The other seeks to interpret Catholic dogma according to its own likes and to advance its own conception of Church, one which is rooted in anti-Semitism and a very narrow interpretation of just who is "outside the Church." The agenda of both these groups serves to highlight an ongoing problem which is of great concern for our society. A problem which the French philosopher Jacques Maritain addressed in his work entitled "On the Use of Philosophy," which is actually a compilation of three essays.

His second essay is entitled "truth and human fellowship." He writes:

"'O liberty, how many crimes are committed in thy name!' Madame Roland said, mounting the scaffold. O Truth, it may be said, how often blind violence and oppression have been let loose in thy name in history! 'Zeal for truth,' as Father Victor White puts it, 'has too often been a cloak for the most evil and revolting of human passions.' As a result, some people think that in order to set human existence free from these evil passions, and make men live in peace and pleasant quiet, the best way is to get rid of any zeal for truth or attachment to truth. Thus it is that after the violence and cruelty of wars of religion, a period of skepticism usually occurs, as at the time of Montaigne and Charron. Here we have only the swing of the pendulum moving from one extreme to the other. Skepticism, moreover, may happen to hold those who are not skeptical to be barbarous, childish, or subhuman, and it may happen to treat them as badly as the zealot treats the unbeliever. Then skepticism proves to be as intolerant as fanaticism - it becomes the fanaticism of doubt. This is a sign that skepticism is not the answer. The answer is humility, together with faith in truth...

The problem of truth and human fellowship is important for democratic societies; it seems to me to be particularly important for this country [United States], where men and women coming from a great diversity of national stocks and religious or philosophical creeds have to live together. If each one of them endeavored to impose his own convictions and the truth in which he believes on all his co-citizens, would not living together become impossible? That is obviously right. Well, it is easy, too easy, to go a step further, and to ask: if each one sticks to his own convictions, will not each one endeavor to impose his own convictions on all others? So that, as a result, living together will become impossible if any citizen whatever sticks to his own convictions and believes in a given truth? Thus it is not unusual to meet people who think that not to believe in any truth, or not to adhere firmly to any assertion as unshakeably true in itself, is a primary condition required of democratic citizens in order to be tolerant of one another. May I say that these people are in fact the most intolerant people, for if perchance they were to believe in something as unshakeably true, they would feel compelled, by the same stroke, to impose by force and coercion their own belief on their co-citizens...

The only remedy they have found to get rid of their abiding tendency to fanaticism is to cut themselves off from truth. That is a suicidal method. It is a suicidal conception of democracy: not only would a democratic society which lived on universal skepticism condemn itself to death by starvation; but it would also enter a process of self-annihilation, from the very fact that no democratic society can live without a common practical belief in those truths which are freedom, justice, law, and the other tenets of democracy; and that any belief in these things as objectively and unshakeably true, as well as in any other kind of truth, would be brought to naught by the preassumed law of universal skepticism....

It is, no doubt, easy to observe that in the history of mankind nothing goes to show that, from primitive times on, religious feeling or religious ideas have been particularly successful in pacifying men; religious differences seem rather to have fed and sharpened their conflicts. On the one hand truth always makes trouble, and those who bear witness to it are always persecuted: 'Do not think that I came to send peace upon earth; I came not to send peace, but the sword.' (Matthew 10:34). On the other hand - and this is the point we must face - those who know or claim to know truth happen sometimes to persecute others. I do not deny the fact; I say that this fact, like all other facts, needs to be understood. It only means that, given the weakness of our nature, the impact of of the highest and most sacred things upon the coarseness of the human heart is liable to make these things, by accident, a prey to its passions, as long as it has not been purified by genuine love. It is nonsense to regard fanaticism as a fruit of religion. Fanaticism is a natural tendency rooted in our basic egotism and will to power. It seizes upon any noble feeling to live on it. The only remedy for religious fanaticism is the Gospel light and the progress of religious consciousness in faith itself and in that fraternal love which is the fruit of the human soul's union with God. For then man realizes the sacred transcendence of truth and of God. The more he grasps truth, through science, philosophy, or faith, the more he feels what immensity remains to be grasped within this very truth. The more he knows God, either by reason or by faith, the more he understands that our concepts attain (through analogy) but do not circumscribe Him, and that His thoughts are not like our thoughts: for 'who hath known the mind of the Lord, or who hath become His counselor.' (Isaias 40:13). The more strong and deep faith becomes, the more man kneels down, not before his own alleged ignorance of truth, but before the inscrutable mystery of divine truth, and before the hidden ways in which God goes to meet those who search Him....

To sum up, the real problem has to do with the human subject, endowed as he is with his rights in relation to his fellow men, and afflicted as he is by the vicious inclinations which derive from his will to power. On the one hand, the error of the absolutists who would like to impose truth by coercion comes from the fact that they shift their right feelings about the object from the object to the subject; and they think that just as error has no rights of its own and should be banished from the mind (through the means of the mind), so man when he is in error has no rights of his own and should be banished from human fellowship (through the means of human power).

On the other hand, the error of the theorists who make relativism, ignorance, and doubt a necessary condition for mutual tolerance comes from the fact that they shift their right feelings about the human subject - who must be respected even if he is in error - from the subject to the object; and thus they deprive man and the human intellect of the very act - adherence to the truth - in which consists man's dignity and reason for living
." (Jacques Maritain, On the Use of Philosophy: Three Essays, pp. 16, 17, 21-23).


Anonymous said...

That is just fantastic Paul.....fantastic!!! This is why dialogue between the two grous has been so fraught with dificulties. We need to return (as a society) to sanity. To the realization that we need faith and to search for and adhere to truth once it is found. But at the same time to understand that while tolerance is not for the mind (the mind cannot tolerate error), it IS for external conduct. We can disagree with others and still respect them as human persons. Any real dialogue will be impossible until we do. This is why our country is so fragmented.

Anonymous said...

I believe there has been, for the most part, a respectful dialogue from those who post in opposition to SBC. No one can dispute that the more threatening, frightening, and disrespectful posts have come from those who are defending SBC.

I also believe that while we engage in efforts to stop antisemiticism, cultism, overgrowth, re-writing of history, changing our Constitution, etc, we must remind ourselves not to "do as they do."

Let's keep doing all we can to keep Democracy and not Theocracy. Let's do all we can to expose cults and radical religious groups who pretend to be what they are not. Let's embrace those who have survived the Holocaust and promise them we will not let others attempt to re-write history. Let us work hard to preserve the environment and our rural communities. I believe it is our responsibility to do so.

Remember, we can't give up hope.

Paul Anthony Melanson said...

Amen Victoria. Well said. I believe that you and Russ are to be commended for the way in which you have handled and are handling the whole controversy surrounding the Saint Bendict Center at your Blog SBC Watch.

I keep you both in my prayers and hope that you remember me in yours.

I am struck by the maturity of your words, "we must remind ourselves not to 'do as they do.'"

We must constantly be on guard and always remember that Jesus calls us to "hate the sin, love the sinner." How can we do any less when we ourselves are sinners?

Could we imagine (even for one second) Mother Teresa unleashing a torrent of angry, hateful rhetoric at those she disagreed with? Of course not. That's not the Catholic way. It might be the SBC way. But it's not Jesus' way.

Again, great work at SBC Watch.

Anonymous said...

thanks very much for this.You have put your finger on the problem precisely.We actually have the same problem in the rc in England. A very nasty bunch of 62 missal obsessives styling themselves as traddies and a somewhat anything goes group of social justice liberals.In the meantime the bulk of "normal catholics" get caught in the crossfire. At the moment in England it is the 62 missal mob who seem to be causing most trouble.(although they see themselves as just telling the TRUTH).My personal view is that some of them are very close to Jansenism or Calvinism.

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