At Public Discourse, Sherif Girgis defends intellectualism, or the role of natural reason in religion. Girgis’s end-game is to implore Christians not to give up arguments for marriage from natural reason. Like many Christians carrying on an old argument, I am most interested in Girgis’s defense of the autonomy of moral philosophy for the religious believer. I want only to dip my toe in the debate between David Bentley Hart and Edward Feser, which is in turn a wider debate between the nouvelle théologie and neo-Thomism. The approach to faith and reason turns upon one’s understanding of nature and grace. Bracketing theology, here’s Girgis:
Philosophy does not just fill gaps in our understanding of faith without ever touching down to its own philosophical foundations. No, to apply a commandment to new cases, we need to know its rationale. On that, revelation might be silent. And then we will require bedrock appeal to reason.
What is the rationale for a commandment? Girgis presumably does not mean that philosophy puts God on the couch. God is skeptical about that method (Isaiah 55:8).
Girgis probably means that natural reason is all that we have when asked to give reasons for following divine commands. In some cases, we should just be silent. Setting off for Mount Moriah on a father-son bonding trip, Abraham has no explanation to offer for Sarah. Abraham, Kierkegaard writes, cannot speak.
But all divine commands are not inexplicable, surely, even if their force does not require reasons. Do Christians presume that we can explain the merits of marriage in terms of natural reason?
John Paul II’s Fides et Ratio is a strong endorsement of intellectualism. But even in this encyclical, faith “checks” reason by positing uncertainty:
As a theological virtue, faith liberates reason from presumption, the typical temptation of the philosopher. Saint Paul, the Fathers of the Church and, closer to our own time, philosophers such as Pascal and Kierkegaard reproached such presumption.
I see reason to be especially wary when philosophizing about the ends of human sexuality. Human sexuality, in the venerable tradition, manifests the damage of original sin (libido dominandi, concupiscence, etc.).We have heard that this damage has spread ignorance about our true natures.
A hedonistic culture, imaginatively sealed-off from the transcendent, may discover widespread polyamorous impulses around human beings. Or they find monogamous impulses (oxytocin) competing with polyamorous impulses (testosterone, cortisol, estradiol) in our “wiring”. Do they sound like our modern physicalists yet?
A Christian philosopher may still construct all manner of sociological arguments about the preferability of marriage. Such arguments are broadly Aristotelian, addressing human ends, and may even from time to time delve into biology. But sinking their “bedrock reason” will be hard going. Even if said Christian philosophers succeed in arguing that humans are biologically suited to monogamy, an avalanche of critics from Hume to Darwin to Nietzsche have — in my hypothetical culture — washed away the instinctive connection between the ‘natural’ and the ‘ethical’.
Just because it’s hard going doesn’t mean that the Christian should abandon these philosophical efforts. But nor should they get carried away. Do we know that we are made in the image of our loving Creator? Is that axiomatic or demonstrable? Fides et Ratio, again:
…our vision of the face of God is always fragmentary and impaired by the limits of our understanding. Faith alone makes it possible to penetrate the mystery in a way that allows us to understand it coherently.
A Christian philosopher must not question only the rationale for the commandments, but the rationale for the silence of God. Why does a loving God not appear to all in blinding light, spontaneously willing a world of Sauls into a world of Paul?
Kierkegaard takes this skeptical, philosophical approach in Philosophical Fragments (1844). We have merely heard the strange story of people who believe in the historical appearance of God-as-man, Jesus. Why would God appear this way? To provide a plausible explanation, Kierkegaard gives the lovely parable of the king and the maiden. The king wants the maiden to freely love him. But he has a terrible conundrum. Appearing to her, he will overwhelm her and compel her love. So he must come to the maiden in the form of a lowly servant. In this way, the God-who-loves has taken on the form of man from all eternity.
Kierkegaard is attuned to the vast incredulity of modern world, which is for the most part bored with the Gospel message. (In Catholic lingo he is the first philosopher of the new evangelization.) To this end, the Christian philosopher must provide a rationale for the silence of God before they provide a rationale for the divine law. The silence of God is common to Christians and non-believers. I suspect that, in the divine love of the King, Christians have the advantage of a more radical explanation of the silence of God than other faith traditions.
The moral philosopher like Girgis has every right to respond to the hedonist or the neo-Nietzschean radical. But what does his victory look like? A convinced Aristotelian-Thomist is not the same as a paragon of Christian love.
Kierkegaard offers a more evangelical philosophy. His strategy is to keep the horizons of despair in view, in order to provoke the radical decision of Christianity. For Kierkegaard, at least, responding to God’s love and radical self-giving love for others must be a conscious decision to overcome our sinful natures. In Stages on Life’s Way, Kierkegaard begins to sketch his late picture of picture of marriage as the ultimate ethical decision:
In order to eliminate misunderstandings, the main point is that marriage is a τέλος, yet not for nature’s striving so that we touch on the meaning of the τέλος in the mysteries, but for the individuality.