Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Ruminations on Roger Scruton's Essay: "What Losing Faith Really Means"

Paying Attention to the Sky has posted an essay by Roger Scruton

As a person of vastly inferior intellect to Dr. Scruton, and as an ally to many of his causes, I wish to offer not so much a critique as my own perspective on the matter.

Two starting quotations:

"Husserl insists, the perspectival givenness of physical objects does not merely reflect our finite intellect or the physical makeup of our sensory apparatus. It is, on the contrary, rooted in the things themselves. As Husserl writes, even God, as the ideal of absolute knowledge, would have to experience physical objects in the same perspectival manner. Otherwise it would no longer be physical objects that he was experiencing." - Dan Zahavi "Husserl's Phenomenology" p 34

"A man must do his own believing as he must do his own dying" - Martin Luther as translated by Jaroslav Pelikan in "Luther and the Dawn of the Modern Era" p.5 (Pelikan goes on to attack the interpretation of this phrase that I will use)

Faith is an immensely personal thing. It is intensely uncool in academic settings to be a fan of the individual, as that is perceived even by those on the left as being crassly modern. Obviously, hyper-individualism has been problematic, but after seeing its excesses and those of the hyper-conformists (confessionalistas?) as I'd call them, I have to say I prefer St. Augustine to Pope Boniface VIII.

This is because, in my experience, when push comes to shove, at the root of all Western Christendom, lies the Confessions of St. Augustine. Perhaps the most individualistic propagation of theology ever, that spawned western introspection and was itself a reflection of Socrates' own struggles with his beliefs philosophy.

There was a phrase of medieval soteriology which went as follows: in fine salvus consistet - meaning One's salvation consists in the end (meaning the last moment of one's life).

Graham Greene's novels "The Heart of the Matter", and "Brideshead Revisited" by Evelyn Waugh exemplify this in Catholic thought. In both cases it is the individual in the last moment who decides their salvation or damnation. I don't think there are funerals (even in the harshest Rad-Trad Catholic churches) for those knowingly outside a state of grace, or who had excommunicated themselves (perhaps divorcees), where you'd hear a pious theologian tell the bereaved that because their loved one was outside the visible bonds of the Church they were burning in Hell (and this was to be known with dogmatic certainty). Divorcees, after all, now receive Catholic funderals, and canon law allows priests to say masses for "anyone, living or dead" (Canon 901).

In "Brighton Rock" Graham Greene has a murderer constantly singing the Agnus Dei to himself in the car, and continually repeating to himself that 'between the horse and the stirrup' - in that last moment of death - there can be true repentance. Greene himself wrote that perhaps no one loses his faith, it merely appears under another mask. And similarly, Greene placed into the mouth of the priest at the end of "Brighton Rock" a great speech about Charles Peguy who is tacitly acknowledged as a saint though he never received any of the sacraments of the Church. Simone Weil is another figure Catholics particularly admire who was in the same boat.

All of this in the end, is because whether they want to admit it or not, all Christians know that faith is a matter of the heart. The elect after all, are "hidden with Christ in God" (Col. 3:3). It's not visible or precisely measurable by human terms. In Catholicism interior contrition (true sorrow for sins) alone can save a person without any of the sacraments. In Protestantism interior saving faith alone (trust in Christ's meritorious death on the cross) can save a person, without any visible confession of it. As much as churches like to categorize faith by Confirmations, Confessions, and outward signs, it is all meaningless (as they admit) without the personal, the individual, and the interior. This is perhaps best displayed in Robert Bolt's classic work "A Man For All Seasons" about Sir/St. Thomas More who refused the act of Supremacy based on his personal religious convictions.

While churches, confessions, creeds, and confirmations all aim to give human guages to that invisible divine faith, they must always be remembered as provisional rather than definitive. St. Joan of Arc after all was condemned as a heretic and burnt at the stake only to later by canonized by the Roman Catholic Church as a saint. As my father's friend liked to say "the heart has no dipstick".

If one wishes to guard against individuality I much prefer the way Luther proposed, when he wrote that:
"This is the reason why our theology is certain: it snatches us away from ourselves and places us outside ourselves, so that we do not depend on our own strength, conscience, experience, person, or works but depend on that which is outside ourselves, that is on the promise and truth of God, which cannot deceive."

By resting in the promises of God, one avoids the proud arrogance of individualism, but places oneself in relation to the one individual who ties everything together. As Peter Kreeft liked to say, Christ is the center of Catholicism, and Christ is the center of Protestantism, and ecumenism must work outward from this unity. The Roman Catholic theologian, Hans Urs Von Balthasar, liked to say that the crucifix is the focal point of every Catholic church for a reason. To quote Chesterton: the cross is the crux of the matter.

In Christ we find unity, and become a part of the True Israel. Elijah could not break bread with the rest of Israel when he was off in the wilderness, but God fed him by ravens. Let us not be too hasty in our professions of extra ecclesiam nulla salus, to forget that as with Elijah, many scraps fall from the table of the feast of Abraham. Shame on us, if we reduce the invisible to the visible communion.

Thus faith can remain even in the hardest of hearts. Faith can do this because it is a resilient thing. It moves mountains. It has toppled empires. The righteous shall live by faith, even faith, as small as a mustard seed, and even the faith in the confession "I believe Lord, help thou mine unbelief".


  1. Are you familiar with Wittgenstein's famous analogy of the beetle in the box? I will put it immediately below. Any notion of faith based on a subjective experience will suffer the same fate as the beetle: it may as well not be there because it does no real work.

    "Suppose everyone had a box with something in it: we call it a "beetle". No one can look into anyone else's box, and everyone says he knows what a beetle is only by looking at his beetle. --Here it would be quite possible for everyone to have something different in his box. One might even imagine such a thing constantly changing. --But suppose the word "beetle" had a use in these people's language? --If so it would not be used as the name of a thing. The thing in the box has no place in the language-game at all; not even as a something: for the box might even be empty. --No, one can 'divide through' by the thing in the box; it cancels out, whatever it is."

    Interior contrition can do the job but it is not interior in principle but by matter of contingency. For example, if I am in a coma but conscious, I can make an act of contrition even though I cannot communicate it but that is only understandable by analogy to a condition where I am not in a coma and can make my contrition an actual act. In a community where no one expressed contrition publicly, private contrition could not exist.

    Anything else, for reasons that James put very well in his letter, is empty faith; it makes no difference whether such faith exists or not for it does no real work for you.

  2. I've studied language game and Wittgenstein and I don't think you've used it properly in this instance.

    Your treatment of contrition is also flawed as it's the same contrition which saves in both cases. If I don't have contrition for my sins and go to the sacrament of confession it doesn't have an effect. In both cases, interior contrition is the formal part of the sacrament. It is that without which, there can be no acknowledged ritual of confession. In fact you've exposed that exactly the opposite is true. Were it not for individual contrition, a sacrament recognizing it, could not exist and offer people absolution, which is not only philosophically how it occurred, but historically how it was institutionalized.

    What works could the faith of the thief on the cross acheive? It did nothing. But it was a saving faith. The many quotations I've used, proved that in extremis, Roman Catholicism, has always acknowledged that a person can be saved by doing nothing more than being honestly sorry for their sins.

  3. You don't say what you think I've gotten wrong about Wittgenstein.

    But here is the point: Wittgenstein says you can't have a meaningful experience that is private in principle. Social meaning is a necessary precondition of private meaning and public contrition is a necessary condition for their to be an inner contrition. Wittgenstein's point that actual beetle achieves nothing is exactly the same as James point that faith is empty if you can't show it by works.

    You seem to want one or the other to take precedence here but they are bound up in one another.

    Suppose I treated Cathy poorly twenty years ago and I have always wanted to apologize to her but am unable to because I don't know where she lives or even her married name. I can make an inner apology, as it were, but that apology is only meaningful if my intention is to make an outer apology and make it up to her as far as possible if possible. In fact, I have to do more than just hope that some day I will see her and actually try and find her. If I say to myself, oh well, I've made my inner apology and so if I meet her I don't have to mention it that would, as James notes, be empty.

    BTW: Do you really think the faith of the thief on the cross did nothing? I am in awe that he was able to make that act in that situation. I feel like a small and insignificant human being compared to him. It would not at all be the same thing if he had thought these things in his heart and not said anything. Consider that, for example, the other thief or someone else in earshot might have been moved by hearing him. That would not be a little thing but an immense thing.

    You mention Brideshead above, it is an immense thing that Lord Marchmain makes a sign on his death bed. That leads directly to Charles' conversion and that is an immense amount of work.

  4. PS: Does the woman who put ointment on Jesus's feet accomplish anything? She and the thief are in scripture and they would not be if they had only made an inner act of faith, whatever that is.

  5. It's fascinating that Brideshead Revisited refers to the fact that all that was necessary for Lord Marchmain was an act of the will. It doesn't have to be visible. You might make the argument that if it is not in the last moment of death, it will make some visible sign, BUT you still must admit that it is based solely upon the inward interior contrition. I don't know why you're being so sticky on this point, it's merely a matter of Roman Catholic dogma. It's no admission of sola fide or anything ridiculous like that.

    In the Supplement to the Summa, Q.5, A.3, St. Thomas wrote: "every contrition is quickened by sanctifying grace. Therefore, however slight it be, it blots out all sins."

    You've either misunderstood or misused the Wittgenstein analogy as it is referring to the language game, in which the inherent relation between the sign and the signifier negates and objective meaning, and in which only a socially constructed and relative meaning can be achieved. This type of argument is directly contrary to the metaphysical teaching of the Catholic Church, and based on idealist premises that the Catholic must necessarily disagree with. If on the other hand, you're trying to use it as a reductio ad absurdum, that's a whole separate debate about continental philosophy not directly relavent here. In which case I'd just bring up Husserl's intersubjective phenomenology to counter these epistemological attacks.

  6. No it's not based solely on the inward interior contrition. That is the hard case, the minimum requirement not the sole requirement. If I am in a coma—conscious but unable to act—it would be sufficient. If I am not in a coma and able to make an outward sign, it is not sufficient. There is a huge difference here.

    What is more, and this is the Wittgenstein point, interior contrition is only possible for someone who already knows how to make outward contrition. The social and public aspect is necessary and sufficient condition for inward contrition to exist. The reverse is not the case. There is a reason why the Word was made flesh as opposed to simply descending on us spiritually.

    If you read Brideshead again, you will note that the whole set up to Lord Marchmain's death involves a long discussion in which Charles keeps saying "But what is the priest for?" He takes your side before the death scene but the point of the ending—indeed the whole point of the book—is that Charles comes to understand that the priest and the sign are very important. Charles, when he sees this, converts. When the sign is made, he tells us:

    "Then I knew that the sign I had asked for was not a little thing, not a passing nod of recognition, and a phrase came back from my childhood of the veil in the temple being rent from top to bottom."

    That outward sign is the whole point of the book. Lord Marchmain's conversion concerns more than him alone. Faith is not and never can be individualist.

    You say that Wittgenstein tells us that "the inherent relation between the sign and the signifier negates and objective meaning, and in which only a socially constructed and relative meaning can be achieved."That is deconstructionism and most emphatically not Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein does not talk about signs and signifiers and he does not say meaning is socially constructed. Note, for example, this remark:

    "There is such a thing as colour blindness, and there are ways of ascertaining it."

    Blue really is blue and green really is green and it's not a matter of constructed meaning. The thing about green is that there really is green stuff in the world that I can point to. If anything Wittgenstein is making a point about on opposite end of the scale and that is that there is no such thing as purely subjective criteria.

    Wittgenstein's point about inner criteria is that it cannot do anything unless there is the possibility of outward confirmation. You can see my pain. I can hide my pain but I can also hide a pebble; both remain "objective" facts. A beetle in a box that I can see and no one else can see may as well not exist. It could be a different beetle every day or not exist at all and not change a thing.

  7. I think you are emphatically wrong on the teaching of the Church regarding contrition, and I've shown you that from authoritative Roman sources. So that's done, and there's no use continuing. Ironically, I don't even believe the Roman sources are correct, I was just trying to show you your own faith.

    In any case, on the Wittgenstein, I think his work on language is merely about consensus building which is an inherently post-modern rejection of absolute reality or at best nominalism, which I'm ok with, but RCs cannot be. But I admit I could certainly be wrong about him as I have not read any of his works in full.

  8. Well, you are entitled to think what you want to think.

    As you continue to ponder this, you may want to consider the differences between what is necessary for contrition and what is sufficient for contrition. For that is where I think your error is. You are reading the church's declarations of what is necessary for contrition as what is sufficient. And that is an error for nothing a human being can do will ever be sufficient here.

    To be a Catholic, and I appreciate that you are not, but to be a Catholic is to be in communion with the corporate person of the church. And we really believe in the existence of that corporate person. Aware of my utter dependence on Christ—because my own contrition cannot be sufficient—I must make external acts that show my communion with Christ's church in showing contrition. I know you are not a Catholic but when stating what the church considers to be required for contrition, all this applies. You cannot take what happens when overt acts of communion are not possible and say, "This is the essence of what the church says about contrition".

    The moment is very close now.

  9. I think you've misread this entire post. This has nothing to do with me trying to justify myself and 'cover my bases' within Catholicism.

    There's no way any of this applies to me, I could drive 10 minutes, pound on the Roman Catholic priests' door and confess and ask to join RCIA classes again. I have willingly and knowingly left the Roman Communion, which is different from plain mortal sin, none of this applies to me.

    My point is that Roman Catholic dogma at the end of the day states that the interior trumps the exterior, even if they don't like putting a dichotomy between the two, and even if they're sure to stress that the external necessarily would follow, it is still the interior which saves.

    As I said, not relavent to my clear-cut case of open damnation. But the point of the post was that Roger Scruton was wrong to say that losing one's faith is a primarily exterior experience.