Trying to have it both ways: on “objective science” and “subjective humanities”
This absence of metaphysical thinking is a serious problem, for scholars and non-scholars alike. People tend to forget about wholes when they narrowly focus on the component parts of things, practically viewing reality as if the whole is not more than the sum of its parts. And so under this softer Heraclitian cosmic soup conception of reality that is all too common today, people simultaneously hold divergent perspectives. On the one hand it is acknowledged, perhaps in a vague and somewhat tacit way, that the objective world is basically a mechanical configuration of particles and nothing more. The classical meaning of the word substance and many other rich concepts about reality are obscured.
But on the level of human culture and thought, which is considered as relative to the human subject and in this sense “subjective,” it is more than appropriate to think of human realities, the humanities, in rich and even romantic terms. Some people are seen as gifted with an artistic temperament and refined sensibilities. They may have a keen grasp of human culture and expression, including poetry and art that highlights aspects of nature, or perhaps a more non-natural modern culture. Sure the world basically runs on practical “scientific” principles and to get the job done a successful businessman will model his practices on factual empirical data. But it is great that in our spare time as a culture we have those “on the fringes” whose profession is to have an appreciation of “higher things.” These people can help us better understand their insights when we listen to them being interviewed on public radio so that we can dabble in “culture” when our real work is done.
Behind this type of toxic thinking looms the Cartesian division between the objective world and the human subject as an autonomous thinking self. The objective world is mechanical, flat, deterministic, passive, and governed by abstract laws external to it; in a word it is “formless” and as such lacks any internal directedness or finality. According to this worldview, any real human meaning must exist within the human subject, an individual coexisting with other autonomous monads, who together define “culture” relative to the human subject in a manner detached from nature and the objective world around us. On an intellectual level this means that human values become increasingly detached from being and the science by which being is known, namely from metaphysics.
More will be said about this later but for now I simply want to conclude this section with an image of the modern embodiment of this reductive perspective taken from Evelyn Waugh’s novel Brideshead Revisited. Without abandoning any of his sharp humor and wit, Waugh presents a horrifying vision of reductive modern man in the character of Rex Mottram. Rex is a successful businessman who can “get things done.” Upon learning that he would need to become Catholic to have a wedding with “guys dressed in red” present (he once saw such a wedding in Spain and thinks it would be stylish to have such a wedding himself), he tells his fiancé, Julia, that he is more than happy to “join” the Catholic Church. Rex starts to meet with a priest, who patiently attempts to teach the faith to him. The priest becomes increasingly baffled at the agreeableness of his student. Rex basically tells him he is ready to accept “whatever you say, father.” In his concern for the truth the priest becomes worried. Talking about the Trinity does not seem to be working so he takes a different tact. He asks Rex what he would think if the Pope said that it was raining outside but it was actually sunny. Rex replies that then it must be “raining spiritually.” Later, in an attempt to justify allowing Rex to be Baptized, the priest considers the possibility of treating Rex as one who is mentally handicapped, an idiot of sorts.
A Eucharistic Example
Is the tendency today to accept the Cartesian division between the objective world and the world of the human subject that different from Rex’s outlook? Before you dismiss this analogy as too extreme, consider what is really meant today by claiming that something is objectively true, such as, for example, what Catholics believe about the Eucharist. I am not trying to argue that Catholics are correct in their belief (although as a Catholic I do believe this) but am rather using this as an example of the importance of the classical meaning of substance to be able to correctly express certain truths about reality. Catholics believe in the real presence of Jesus Christ, God and man, in the Eucharist from the moment that the priest pronounces the words of consecration. The language that has traditionally been used is one of substance. The doctrine has been presented technically as “transubstantiation,” or the changing of the substance of the bread and wine to the substance of the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ. As such there are actually three miracles that take place in every Mass at the consecration:
- The first miracle is the change of the substance of the bread and wine to the substance of Jesus Christ. The bread and wine no longer exist. What exists is substantially the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity become man.
- The second miracle is that the accidents of Jesus are withheld so that our senses are not able to identify Him. Our senses of sight, smell, touch, and taste are all deceived in that they fail, as senses, to grasp the reality of Jesus. In considering this it is somewhat ironic that the instances in history where the host has actually appeared as human flesh (sometimes tested in laboratories and determined to be flesh from a human heart) are called “Eucharistic Miracles.” These relatively infrequent manifestations are technically a lack of the full miracle of the withholding of the accidents that is typically happens at each Mass.
- The third miracle is that the accidents of the bread and wine are preserved so that to our ordinary senses we perceive the same bread and wine. The Eucharist is the only objective material reality that has accidents that are not rooted in its substance.
In recent times, the question has arisen as to whether this doctrine can be understood without appealing to the category of substance. This has been seen as important at least in part because it has been recognized that much of the meaning of words rich in metaphysical content like substance has been lost. The project of helping people to again understand these words properly is a difficult one. In this context the Church after the Second Vatican Council was struggling to determine how necessary it is to present traditional formulations of doctrine in technical philosophical language. As many attempted to present the faith in other ways it became common to use the word “symbol” to discuss the Eucharist. There is a correct meaning of the word symbol that can be applied to the Eucharist in the sense that it makes present what it signifies, as explained in sacramental theology. Even so there was a reaction against the use of the word symbol in the sense many understood by this language something that simply represents to us a reality that is not necessarily there. Those with faith quickly recognized how dangerous it is to think that the important thing is not the objective existence of the Eucharist but rather merely what is presented to us. In the absence of the language of substance, some even realized that even the words “real presence” were not adequate to clearly distinguish the presence of Christ in the Eucharist from His presence in all of creation.
It is not clear that a catechesis that deemphasized such rich classical concepts like substance has been able to convey the fullness of the content of the doctrine of the Eucharist.* And so while it may be difficult to teach people today about metaphysics, it seems that if we do not do so it will become increasingly difficult to convey certain truths, such as the doctrine of the Eucharist. Many other examples could be used, some from the Christian faith (for example, the Incarnation, one Person and two natures), and others that simply relate to the natural world around us (as the difference between a living organism and a machine, more to follow). To the extent that we fail to understand reality on a metaphysical level we will end up relegating the content of faith and even human values to the same level as artistic sensibilities, as something that cultured people can appreciate. We will end up with people who would join a religion for little more than the image such membership conveys or for some other practical benefit, even if just to have people dressed in red at one’s wedding.
*In no way do I want to bring into question the legitimate need to use rich Scriptural images and the insights of the sciences that inform good educational practices (child psychology, sociology, educational theory) in catechesis. The recognition of the need to do this is a positive fruit of the Second Vatican Council. My concern here is that we also use correct philosophy when appropriate.