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The MOST Theological Collection: An Introduction to Christian Philosophy

"Chapter I: Prehistoric Origins of Rational Thought"


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I- Introduction

1. Possibility of Christian Philosophy: The problem arises from this: Philosophy and Theology both deal with much the same questions, the basic questions about God, life, existence. But the methods they use are radically different.

Philosophy uses solely reason. Authority should not be used. It is important for methodological reasons to keep the lines clear and sharp. Historically, one great root of the impasse on the question of human interaction with grace comes from an abuse of method, i.e., trying to use metaphysics to solve a problem which involves God's free decisions. Metaphysics cannot find an answer where freedom is a factor. It finds only what is necessarily true.

Theology ,in contrast, starts with the sources of revelation. For a Catholic, these are Scripture and Tradition. There was much confusion and debate at Vatican II over saying one or two sources of revelation. A desire to help ecumenism is probably the reason for straining. Vatican II, DV 9 said: "Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture are closely connected and related. For both, flowing from the same divine source, as it were coalesce into one, and tend to the same goal." But it admits: "The Church gets its certitude on all revealed things not by Scripture alone. Hence both are to be venerated and received with equal affection, devotion and reverence." And again in § 10: "The task of authoritatively interpreting the word of God, whether written or handed on, has been entrusted exclusively to the living Magisterium of the Church, whose authority is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ. "

But not all things in Scripture are obvious in meaning. Many Protestants try to claim that, but are refuted by the Yellow Pages of the phone book, listing numerous churches all claiming to know how to understand Scripture. When we meet something that is not obvious, the Protestant method is private judgment. The Catholic method is to follow the teaching of the Church, if there are some teachings on the point in question. Even if there is nothing direct, often there will be help from the analogy of faith, i.e., the whole body of our teachings. Cf. DV § 12. Sadly, many today who call themselves Catholics are following the Protestant method. Some have even been taught to do that by so-called Catholic schools. (Lutherans may object: "But we must follow our creeds, such as the Augsburg Confession". But the reply is: If a Lutheran went to his pastor and said, "I do not believe this and this" in the Augsburg Confession, he would not be told: "You have a divinely imposed obligation to follow our church." No, the Pastor would say; "I guess you belong with some other denomination".

We return to our starting question: Can there be a Christian or Catholic philosophy? Many say no, because of the difference in method, which is very distinct and sharp. If one wants to say yes, he would compare the case to that of a mathematics textbook. In the body of the book we find explanations and problems to work. We should work them on our own, with normal mathematical method. But after that, many books in the back have the answers to the problems. So we look, and see if our answer is right. If not, we recheck our process, and see where we went off.

Similarly, the teachings of the Church are the back of the book for a philosopher.

2. The value of philosophy in deeper penetration into theology: To seek a deeper penetration into the truths that theology gives us, we can get much help from philosophy. The Fathers knew this, and tried to use it. They usually relied on Plato, for he had so many things in common with Christianity, as we will see later in detail.

The precise way in which philosophy can be helpful can be seen from considering correct theological method.

1) We begin by picking up the things that are explicit in the sources of revelation, with the help of the Church, where the Church has given some help at least indirectly. It is of great importance to completely exhaust the resources of this step before moving onto the next step, for whatever problem we are studying.

2) We then pick up the things that are implicit in the sources of revelation. There are several steps in this process:

a) First we pick up the implications that are easily seen, without the need of as it were, any tool to dig them out. Again, we exhaust the resources of this step before moving on.

b) We then use a process that is equivalent to a syllogism, even if we may not really put things into syllogistic form. (In a syllogism we have three lines: two premises, and a conclusion, for example: All men are mortal - but John is a man - therefore John is mortal. In this phase our syllogism will take both premises from the sources of revelation. By comparing them, we reach a third truth. - Even if we do not formally put our reasoning in the pattern of a syllogism, we have the equivalent, that is, we use an enthymeme ,a compressed pattern in which we leave out one of the three lines of a syllogism, and expect the listener to understand the omitted part, e.g., "John is a man, so he must be mortal". We leave out the line: "All men are mortal", but it is understood. It is easier for error - or deception -to creep in in this loose form.

c) We use a form in which one premise is from the sources of revelation, but the other is from some other source. That other source often will be philosophy. This is what is strictly called theological speculation. Vatican II in Optatam totius, the Decree on the formation of priests in seminaries, explicitly said that in theological speculation the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas should be used: §§ 15,16. Sadly this is not always done.

d) Finally we use equivalents to syllogisms in which neither premise is from the sources of revelation. At this point, if the conclusion is supported by or fits in with the conclusions we have from revelation, we are still in theology - otherwise, we have crossed the line into pure philosophical speculation.

3. A good philosophy can also help to protect the deposit of faith, that is, the whole body of truths given to us from the beginning. And since it gives deeper penetration, it can be helpful spiritually, e.g., philosophical development shows how powerfully true are the words of St. Paul in Phil 2.13 and 2 Cor 3.5 about our total dependence on God, even for a good thought, even that we cannot make a free act of will without His movement.

4. The widespread atheism today needs the help of philosophy to show the existence of God by reason alone. However some who say they do not believe, really do believe, without realizing it, as we shall see in our treatment of St. Justin the Martyr.

5. Apologetics: Before we can have faith, logically we must show by reason and research that faith is reasonable. This is the work of apologetics. In it we begin with the Gospels, but do not look upon them as sacred or inspired - that is still to be proved. We look on them only as ancient documents. We put them through various tests that are usually given other ancient works, and reach the conclusion that we can get from them a few simple facts about Jesus, that is facts, not entwined with an ancient culture, and also of such a nature that they can be directly perceived by an onlooker without room for bias, e.g., if a leper stands before Jesus and asks to be cured and Jesus says: "I will it. Be healed".-- There is no room for bias in that report. Someone could make up out of nothing such an account - but there is no room for distortion, and the concern of the first Christians for their own eternity, which depended on facts, would preclude that possibility. then we look for an find six such simple facts: There was a man called Jesus - He claimed He was sent from God as a sort of messenger - He did enough to prove this by miracles worked in contexts in which there is a tie between the miracle and the claim - He had an inner circle to whom He spoke more and told them to continue His work, His teaching. He promised God would protect that teaching: "He who hears you hears me." Then we have before us a group or church commissioned to teach by a messenger from God, promised God's protection on their teaching. Then we not only intellectually may but should believe that teaching, independently of the quality of those who hold the commission. Then that group or church can tell us many things: the messenger is divine, there is a Pope and what he can do, the ancient documents are inspired. There is no other way to determine which documents are inspired, are part of Scripture. Protestants lack this, and so, logically should not use Scripture.

This process also amounts to a bypass around the worries of critics, who question the credibility of various items in the Gospels. We need only the six very simple things, and then the Church can assure us of whatever else we need to know.

6. Seeming clashes of truths: If we follow this method well, we will at times encounter two conclusions that seem to clash, to contradict each other. At this point we must imitate the Fathers of the Church. We should of course begin by rechecking our work, but if we still have the seeming clash, then we must not force either conclusion to fit with the other. Rather, we hold to both, hoping that sometime someone may find how to reconcile them.

For example, the Fathers wrestled long and hard with two Scriptural texts: Luke 2.52 which says Jesus returned to Nazareth and advanced in wisdom and age. This could imply that previously He was deficient or less full in wisdom. We find here that many Fathers give us two sets of statements: in the one set, they seem to affirm ignorance, in the other, to deny it. They knew both kinds of statements must be true, did not know how to reconcile them, until St. Athanasius discovered a distinction - the usual refuge in difficult matters. He saw that we distinguish between actual growth in wisdom, and growth in manifestation of what was always there. For example, if Jesus at age 3 had shown His marvelous wisdom, coming from the fact that His human soul saw the vision of God, it would have seemed very strange. Therefore, He let His wisdom appear gradually, in accordance with His earthly age. For details, see Wm. G. Most, The Consciousness of Christ, chapter 6. The Fathers had a similar experience with Mark 13.32, in which Jesus Himself seems to say He did not know the day of the end. Pope Gregory the Great and Eulogius solved this problem. Gregory said that He knew the day in His humanity, but not from His humanity.

There is another case of this procedure in the way the Fathers handled the teaching that there is no salvation outside the Church. Cf. Wm. G. Most, Our Father's Plan, appendix.

7. Divine Brinkmanship. God has made two commitments: first, He gave us free will; second, He promised to protect the teaching of the Church. At times, these go in opposite directions, and so He needs to draw a tight line, giving each its due, but no more than that. As a result ,at times we may at least suspect that the author of an official text had more in his mind than what he set down on paper. In such a case, only what is written down is protected, with each word being taken in the sense in which it was used in the day of composition. For example, it is likely that Pope Pius IX, and probably also Gregory XVI and perhaps Leo XIII, had more stringent ideas in mind than what they set down on the obligation of the state to suppress false doctrines. Yet only what they really wrote is protected.

8. Catechetical approach: It is good to present everything in the framework of God's dealings with our race, that is, salvation history. This is a catechetical approach.

II -The Thought and Religion of Earliest Mankind

1. Anthropology studies both the primitive people who are still alive today, or for whom we have records made by explorers and missionaries, and the while race when it was at a primitive state.

Wilhelm Schmidt (1868-1954),in his Der Ursprung der Gottesidee, 12 volumes, Münster,1912-54, presented evidence from a study of various primitives, at the lowest level of material culture, such as those of Tierra del Fuego in South America, the Negrillos of Rwanda in Africa, and the Andaman Islanders in the Indian Ocean. The 1990 printing of Encyclopedia Britannica, 26,p.554 says Schmidt and his collaborators, "saw in the high gods, for whose cultural existence they produced ample evidence from a wide variety of unconnected societies, a sign of a primordial monotheistic revelation that later became overlaid with other elements.... Their interpretation is controversial, but at least [Andrew] Lang [1844-1912] and Schmidt produced grounds for rejecting the earlier rather naive theory of evolutionism. Modern scholars do not, on the whole, accept Schmidt's scheme.... it is a very long jump from the premise that primitive tribes have high gods to the conclusion that the earliest men were monotheists."

What seems to be rejected is the extrapolation from finding that many low level primitives (hunting and fishing stage) are monotheists to the conclusion that the same was true of the whole human race at a similarly low level of culture.

However, the evidence for many such tribes in historical times still stands. The case seems similar with the Greeks and Romans, both of whom came from the Indoeuropeans. In those days when people traveled, they often tried to see if some of the gods they found in other lands were really the same as their own gods. Herodotus did much of this (in 2.50 he says that almost all the divine figures came to Greece from Egypt). Many of these attempts were strained, and without real foundation. But when the Greeks and Romans got to know each other, they found they had some myths and divinities in common, even though with different names. We know that the names for the chief God, Jupiter and Zeus (possessive case: Dios) are linguistically the same, both going back to Indoeuropean dyaus - p[schwa]ter. (The computer does not have a character for schwa, which is an obscure vowel, like the a on the end of sofa ). The IE word means "Sky Father".

Really if one does not suppose that it is highly likely that conditions for the whole race at the same level of material culture as known primitives (hunter-gatherers) would be quite similar, there is no solid way to establish what the race was like. It is far better than the mere armchair imaginings, of an evolutionistic type that others have used. So the extrapolation proposed by Schmidt was and is quite reasonable. Actually some scholars today in archaeology do make precisely such an extrapolation. In a recent work, The Adventure of Archaeology, by Brian M. Fagan, published by the National Geographic Society in 1989, on pp.344-46 we find: "Experimentation in archaeology is not limited to state-of-the-art technology. 'New archaeologists' seek innovative ways to study living societies in order to construct models that describe the behavior of past ones. Jeremy Sabloff of the University of New Mexico said, ' We've gone beyond filling up museums with art objects. The objects are not an end in themselves but a means to inform us about the social and economic behavior of ancient people.' In the 1970s Lewis R. Binford of the University of New Mexico observed Alaska's Nunamiut Eskimos, a modern hunter-gatherer society. Binford watched the Eskimos set up hunting camps and saw how they hunted, killed, butchered, and ate animals. His insights gave him a fuller understanding of how ancient hunter-gatherers chose their campsites, and helped him analyze the animal bones found at such sites."

Further, as the Britannica says, at least Schmidt blocked the silly evolutionistic view that primitive man must have been stupid, that one day he came out of his cave, saw lightning and heard thunder, thought they were gods. There never was a shred of evidence for such a view. It was just imagination built on the assumption that everything has evolved.

That evolutionistic notion was a further projection from belief in the evolution of the human body from primates. Science News, Research Reports of November 21,1980,pp.883-87 reports on a meeting of 160 of the world's top paleontologists, anatomists, evolutionary geneticists, and developmental biologists held at the Field Museum in Chicago. The majority of those scientists concluded that Darwin was wrong - not in those words, but they rejected Darwin's idea that there were many intermediate forms between, for example, fish and birds. They recognized that the fossil record does not provide even one clear case of such forms. This did not lead them to reject evolution itself. No, they opted for what they called "punctuated equilibria", the idea that a species might stay the same for millions of years, and then by a fluke, leap up to something much higher, in the same line. If any evidence for the view was offered at the meeting, Science does not mention it. Nor does the report in Newsweek, of November 3,190, pp.95-96. They might perhaps point to the high vertical columns exposed in the Grand Canyon, in which low forms, such as Trilobites, appear at the bottom, and higher and higher forms as one goes up. But there is no evidence that the higher came from the lower by a fluke or leap. Further it is admitted that the Grand Canyon was once a sea bottom: naturally the lower things would be found farther down.

The related theory of polygenism has had an inconclusive but impressive blow recently. Allan Wilson of the University of California at Berkeley (Science News, August 13, 1983, p.101) from a study of mitochondria worldwide, concluded that all existing humans came from one mother who lived 350,000 years ago. At first Wilson received little acceptance, but now, as Newsweek of Jan 21, 1988 reports, his view is getting widespread acceptance, except that the age of the mother is now put at 200,000 years ago. As we said, this does not conclusively disprove polygenism - for there could have been, for example, 6 original pairs, but the lines from all but one died out.

Also, history does show in many instances that when a people has high material affluence, religion tends to suffer. The U.S. and Japan are examples today.

Is sacrifice universal among primitives? Very widespread, but not entirely universal. Further, the ideas behind sacrifice vary widely. For example, in Mesopotamia sacrifice was food for the gods. Thus in the Epic of Gilgamesh, after the Babylonian Noah, Utnapishtim, came out of his ark and offered sacrifice, the gods - who had been cowering in fear of the flood on the battlements of heaven - came down and swarmed "like flies" about the sacrifice. They had not had anything to eat for some time. Again, Aristophanes the Greek comic poet, in his The Birds, pictures the birds threatening to cut of the supply of sacrifices if the gods would not do what the birds wanted.

Is belief in a Supreme Being universal? At least nearly so, but there are a few cases where it seems lacking, e.g., among the Navahoes in the Southwest of the U.S.A. Even in such cases, we must wonder if perhaps extensive alcoholism has blinded the people. St. Paul in Romans 1.18-32 describes the gradual descent into blindness, and says that atheists are inexcusable, for the existence of God is so obvious from creation. (More on seeming atheists in our section on St. Justin the Martyr).

2. Human rationality and the beginning of human thought: Aristotle said, in Metaphysics 2.1, that people began to work for wisdom when they began to wonder, first about obvious things, then on deeper things, and when they got enough leisure to do it. He is, of course, indulging in armchair method. Yet the thought is at least very plausible.

However, at least most of the most primitive peoples - cf. remarks on Navahoes above - do seem to know a Supreme Being. The fact is so evident, that no one, without some kind of mental block, could fail to see it.

Some primitive peoples have even held an idea of creation. One Egyptian creation myth says that Atum (meaning: totality) stood on the mud hillock that emerged from the primeval waters and named the parts of his body, and thus the gods came into being. This reflects a belief held long after the time of the most primitive cultures, that a word spoken by a person in authority produces what it says.

Egyptian creation stories seldom mention the origin of man. Some say that Atum wept, and thus mankind came. This is a play on words: ramet means mankind, remiet means tears.

3. Pantheism: Since there is so much deep disagreement among scholars abut ancient pantheism, we will consider it separately with each of the major thinkers.

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