Benedict XVI and C. S. Lewis: The novelty of modern Agnosticism (and a possible response)

An insightful post by Michael Kenny on “Journey towards Easter” that should help respond to some of the recent questions posed in the comment section of our blog.

It is often asserted that agnosticism is the ‘default option’ when it comes to religious belief. People will claim that there is just not enough evidence either way to make a decision as to whether or not God exists. However, this, it seems to me, is something of a recent phenomenon, and contrary to the common experience of most cultures and ages. A quick survey of human history will provide ample evidence that it is properly basic to human experience to acknowledge the existence of some sort of divinity, which is responsible for the creation of the world, and the foundation of all the goodness and truth recognised by human beings.

This latter term – ‘recognise’ – is itself an illuminating one in this context, insofar as when we recognise something we experience re-cognition, or re-knowing (the word comes from the Latin cognoscere – ‘to know’). So in recognising something about the world, we are affirming something that, in a sense, we have always known; or rather, when its truth dawns upon us, it is a rediscovery of something that has always been fundamental to our understanding of the world. This is supremely the case in the recognition that God exists and has made the world, as well as the many corollary truths that flow from that….

Continue reading:

http://journeytowardseaster.wordpress.com/2013/11/25/benedict-xvi-and-c-s-lewis-the-modern-novelty-of-agnosticism-and-how-to-answer-it/

 

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20 Responses to Benedict XVI and C. S. Lewis: The novelty of modern Agnosticism (and a possible response)

  1. mkenny114 says:

    Thank you for the re-blog! :-)

  2. Toadspittle says:

    Hard to say if Agnosticism is really “a recent phenomenon.” For many hundreds of years, in various religious cultures, it was unwise to express opinions of doubt regarding whatever current deity for fear of being disembowelled, or boiled in oil, or whatever. Montaigne, for one, is called to mind. The word is Victorian, of course.

    However, Agnosticism may well be, generally is – in fact “…contrary to the common experience of most cultures and ages,” because the common experience of most cultures and ages, is very often wrong.
    No, not always.
    But it was, and still occasionally is, a toxic cocktail of witches, afreets, hobgoblins, apparitions, bogey-men, levitation, diabolical possession, weeping statues, and general nonsensical superstition.
    And all the dozens, hundreds, of Christian religions – bar Catholicism – are wrong – let alone Islam, Hinduism. Buddhism, etc,. We all know that, don’t we?
    At least on CP&S, we do.
    …And for many of the same hundreds of years, “…the common experience of most cultures and ages,” was that the Sun went round the Earth. This was dead wrong, we know now. Although it appears from recent surveys that an astonishing number of uneducated folk still believe that today.

    So is it not at least possible that someone (like me, or Bertram Russell) can look at the “evidence,” for a god and find it wanting?
    …That the Universe was “started” in some fashion that we don’t yet comprehend – and indeed never might, which does not involve “God.”?
    Of course, if we choose to say that whatever it was that kicked things off in the Universe was “God,” then yes we can all believe in God. Must do, in fact.
    Although there’s always the possibility God might now be dead.
    We wouldn’t know. He wouldn’t tell us.

    This is how one Agnostic honestly regards things.
    Does he care if others don’t see it his way? Not all that much.
    The idea of a fanatical, evangelising, Agnostic is patently absurd.

    Always amusing evoking C.S.Lewis though – once again touted by the very Catholics to whose religion he was apparently too “agnostic” ever to commit himself.
    And who’s to say he wasn’t shrewd? Not us!
    But then, who else is there? Chesterton, of course: “Great Big Gil.”
    Er… that’s it.
    Thanks, one and all – for your time, and patience.
    (This is far too long, and not funny enough.)

  3. Toadspittle says:

    “A quick survey of human history will provide ample evidence that it is properly basic to human experience to acknowledge the existence of some sort of divinity, which is responsible for the creation of the world, and the foundation of all the goodness and truth recognised by human beings.”
    It seems to me, Michael – that a far more likely scenario is that early man, finding himself in a totally hostile world, at the mercy of leprosy, gangrene, sabre-toothed tigers, fleas, mosquitoes, floods, earthquakes, blizzards, droughts and lightning strikes – not to mention the marked and patent insanity of his fellow creatures, who wanted to kill him simply because “…You live on the other side of the river,”* – came to the conclusion that a malign and superior intelligence – a “divinity,” if you like – must be at work here.

    And one that clearly didn’t care an iota for humans.
    And it had better be placated by sacrifice. Preferably human. Or else.
    Of course, all this might be all miles from the truth. I don’t know.
    And neither do you.

    *Pascal.

  4. mkenny114 says:

    Thank you for critique Toad – it is most interesting. In response I would say:

    1. Just because superstitions (bogey men, witches) have also been a part of human experience throughout the ages, this, it seems to me is just testimony to the number of ways in which that basic intuition of some ‘bigger picture’ can and has been reacted to and given expression. That these expressions have sometimes been unhelpful doesn’t really do anything to detract from the basic experience of the divine from which they stem. That people also had different ideas about cosmology etc, has even less bearing on the question of whether there is a God or not.

    2. As for all the other world religions being wrong and Catholicism being right, I am sure that you really do know the Church’s actual position on this, which is that the other world religions contain many elements of truth, but are incomplete in their understanding of the Truth as a whole – the Church preserves and represents the fullness of the Truth; she does not deny the existence of some of it elsewhere. Jesus Christ is the Logos after all y’know.

    3. ‘Of course, if we choose to say that whatever it was that kicked things off in the Universe was “God,” then yes we can all believe in God. Must do, in fact.’ Yes – this is precisely the point. God, by definition, is this Being, and not only the One that ‘kicked things off’, but who sustains everything in existence moment by moment, and is the reason that there is anything at all – the ground of all being.

    4. If our basic experience of God is solely due to the fear of being eaten, killed by floods, etc, then it is rather strange we should equate this malign deity with the ground of all Goodness and Truth is it not? In fact, as soon as one turns to God and says ‘that’s not fair’, one is relying on an objective standard of justice which presupposes some transcendent source to ground moral values in.

    As for C.S. Lewis, I don’t see the problem invoking him here, and I certainly wasn’t claiming that anyone who is not Catholic is an agnostic! A great deal of my post was to argue for a basic experience of God per se (I think anyway, will have to go back and check on that…), not for the Church’s teachings. As for who else there is apart from him and Chesterton, I’m not really sure what you’re referring to – apologists? Christians who you see as having produced reasonable arguments? Shrewd people in general? Not sure. But I reckon him and Montaigne would have got along fine anyway :-)

  5. Toadspittle says:

    “4. If our basic experience of God is solely due to the fear of being eaten, killed by floods, etc, then it is rather strange we should equate this malign deity with the ground of all Goodness and Truth is it not? “
    ..Not a bit strange, in my opinion, Michael. It’s simply that people, when they believe someone or “something” – has power over them – go around nervously and loudly saying how “nice” and “kind” and “merciful” that person is.
    …Like they did with Stalin or Hitler.
    So that the dictator, or “deity,” won’t kill them the way “He” seems to be killing almost everyone else in sight that upsets him.
    I honestly see very little indeed to recommend life on Planet Earth. No doubt, you live very well – plenty to eat, nice warm place to sleep – hardly anyone trying to kill you.
    So do I.
    But we are unusual.
    Earth could easily be chock-a-block with “goodness and truth.” But is it?
    I leave you to answer that.

    And…“God, by definition, is this Being, and not only the One that ‘kicked things off’, but who sustains everything in existence moment by moment, and is the reason that there is anything at all – the ground of all being.”
    How do you know that, Michael? What evidence do you have?

  6. Toadspittle says:

    “As for C.S. Lewis, I don’t see the problem invoking him here, and I certainly wasn’t claiming that anyone who is not Catholic is an agnostic!”
    Fie, Michael! Nobody – certainly not myself – is asserting Dear Old C.S. was an Agnostic, as far as God is concerned. No, I suggested, no more that that, that he was an agnostic as far as The Catholic Church is concerned.
    Maybe I should have said he rejected it with a shudder – deeming it, “The Whore of Babylon,” as his compatriots still do.
    But I don’t know if that is true or not. So I won’t.

    “As for who else there is apart from (Lewis) and Chesterton, I’m not really sure what you’re referring to – apologists? Christians who you see as having produced reasonable arguments?”

    No, just anyone else you care to cite. Just or a change.
    Nobody on here ever mentions anyone else at all.

  7. mkenny114 says:

    Dear Toad,

    That is certainly an interesting thesis (we attribute Goodness to God simply because He has power over us), but the reasons I can’t affirm it myself are that:

    a.) Amongst people (like you and I) who do indeed live well, many of those do still believe in God as being the source of all Goodness.

    b.) My point was not that people equate Goodness and Truth with God because the world is filled with these things to abundance, but because they recognise that such qualities exist objectively, and have a claim on them (the sense of moral duty, the recognition that reality is intelligible and corresponds to the operations of our reason). For people to equate these things with God is indeed strange, especially when we do live in what is often a dangerous world.

    On the topic of the dangers and cruelties of existence, I just don’t think it does justice to the scope of human experience to take such a wholly pessimistic view of things – life is also filled with moments of beauty, experiences of goodness (to and from others) and love. If we all really thought life was as terrible and pointless as you sometimes suggest, then I think we would have all died by our own hands a long time ago. However, this is not the case – most people seem to think that life is worth living, despite the many travails involved.

    As for my definition of God, and your question as to how I know this definition to be true, I am not sure what proof you want. One does not have to accept that such a Being exists, only the way in which it is defined; and if our concept of God is not defined along the lines I used above (e.g.; maximally great, ground of all that exists, etc), then we would be talking about something else completely. If however, you mean what evidence do I have that such a Being DOES exist, then I’m afraid I can’t offer you a bit of granite with the word GOD etched into it, or a laboratory analysis – all I can do is refer you to the old classics like the cosmological argument, the teleological argument, the argument from contingency, etc – of course, none of this is stone cold proof in the sense I suspect you would like, but it certainly makes a good case I reckon :-)

    Re C.S. Lewis alternatives, I’ll throw out a few more old chestnuts – Saint Thomas Aquinas, Saint Augustine, Bl, John Henry Newman, Pope Benedict XVI, Ven. Fulton Sheen, Robert Barron (and some non-Catholics) Richard Swinburne, John Milbank, David Bentley Hart. They’re all good reading, and should keep you going for a while, should you have the inclination! :-)

  8. Toadspittle says:

    “…especially when we do live in what is often a dangerous world.”
    What do you mean “often” Michael? Can you tell me a time when it isn’t?
    Can you assure me you won’t drop down dead after reading this?

    “I just don’t think it does justice to the scope of human experience to take such a wholly pessimistic view of things – life is also filled with moments of beauty, experiences of goodness (to and from others) and love.”
    Well, my life is crammed to very bursting with moments of beauty, experiences of goodness (to and from others) and love.
    …No doubt yours is, too.
    Lucky couple of chaps, aren’t we?
    But I would advise against thinking the majority of humans are so fortunate. Most of them have little time to speculate on the eternal verities, being rather more concerned about feeding the starving families and themselves, or being killed by religious lunatics, to “contemplate moments of beauty,” etc..
    But, in one sense, you are right: What’s all this got to do with God?
    Nothing, in my opinion.
    …Or yours, I suppose.

    Oh, and there’s nothing I’d rather do when it’s raining – than snuggle up with Aquinas, or Augustine.
    …Same as you, or everyone else.

  9. mkenny114 says:

    G’day Toad,

    Alas no, I certainly cannot assure you that I won’t drop down dead at any given moment, but if I thought about the possible imminence of my death all the time I wouldn’t get very much done in life!

    As for the majority of humans, who live much more dangerous and strenuous lives than we do, I was certainly not suggesting that they need to speculate on the eternal verities in order to appreciate things like the Good, True and Beautiful – in fact, my argument was precisely that these things are basic intuitions shared by the vast majority of people. That they may not sit down and mull them over isn’t really the point – they are recognised intuitively, and imbue life with meaning and purpose. Also, I think it does quite a disservice to people in other parts of the world to say that just because they are living in poverty, in danger of attack, etc, that they cannot experience beauty, love, shared moments of goodness, etc. I would suggest rather that people in these situations actually value love, friendship, beauty, etc much more than we do, and have a much greater sense of gratitude for their existence as well.

    But, according to what you’ve outlined so far, we shouldn’t believe in God because their lives are so terrible, and their belief in God isn’t justified because it is born out of servile fear. The problem is that this doesn’t really do justice to actual human experience. So unless we’re all under a mass illusion then I think one could reasonably make the case that belief in God is both properly basic to human experience and a justified belief.

    I shall check my Augustine 101 to see what he has to say on the matter though (given that it is raining here today) :-)

  10. Adrian Meades says:

    Hello Michael.
    Please could you give some specific examples of the universal human appreciation of beauty that cannot be attributed to evolved animal tendencies.
    Thanks

  11. Toadspittle says:

    “But, according to what you’ve outlined so far, we shouldn’t believe in God because their lives are so terrible, and their belief in God isn’t justified because it is born out of servile fear.”

    Not for a moment am I saying people shouldn’t believe in God because their lives are so terrible, and their belief in God isn’t justified because it is born out of servile fear, Michael.
    I would diffidently suggest the majority of people would be very well-advised to believe in God – because their earthly lives are so terrible.
    My life isn’t even a teeny bit terrible, (so far) so I don’t have to.
    But no doubt it gives the poor something to look forward to in the next world. Because they have little or nothing to look forward to in this wonderful one, brimming with celestial benevolence and “God’s Goodness and Truth.”
    I agree, though – as a kid in the forties and fifties, my belief in God was based on “servile fear,” and very little else. The good priests and nuns made sure of that, bless them.*
    But you wouldn’t understand what I’m talking about. Not old enough.

    “..but if I thought about the possible imminence of my death all the time I wouldn’t get very much done in life!”
    I suggest that – if you survive to 73, as I amazingly have – the imminence of your death will be a daily, even hourly, eventuality.
    Doesn’t stop me getting the odd few things done, however : painting, sculpting, dong wrangling, thinking…
    In fact, I’m able to think about stuff for as long as I like – without distractions, these days.
    With deplorable results, as you see.

    “So unless we’re all under a mass illusion then I think one could reasonably make the case that belief in God is both properly basic to human experience and a justified belief.”
    Illusion? Delusion, maybe? I don’t know.

    I don’t need to remind you of Voltaire, I know, ( so I will, anyway) “If God didn’t exist, we’d have to invent Him.” We can each take that any way we choose.
    …It is a veritable treat talking with you.
    Not as funny as Roger, but we can’t have everything.

    *Yes, that’s why I comment on here.

  12. Toadspittle says:

    D’oh!! “Dong wrangling”?
    Magnificent Freudian slip!
    I will be dogged by that. I hope.

  13. mkenny114 says:

    Dear Toad,

    Yes I see the old Feuerbachian, Voltairian (even Freudian, and certainly Marxist) critique of religious belief as a valid one, but it just seems to me to beg the question as to whether it is plausible that the human race has indeed suffered under the mass delusion that God exists purely to alleviate the woes of our existence. I just don’t think it’s a sustainable thesis to suggest that human beings could convince themselves so for all this time, and that it is only a few wise old men in post-Enlightenment Europe who have managed to see the light.

    Furthermore though, even if this were the case, we would still be left with the case of humans inventing something because they needed to explain their sense of meaning and purpose in the world, which still leaves us with the fact that we sense life is in some way meaningful, which we do precisely because of those intuitions I mentioned above (which, as I said, very much do not require an armchair, footstool, or any other contemplation-enabling furniture).

    Another point I would add is that, despite your early belief stemming from servile fear (which I’m sorry to hear about, and thank you for sharing a bit of background there – it does shed a bit of light on some things for me), I am fairly confident that if you were to go and ask people living in impoverished conditions why it is they believe in God, I don’t think that it would be because of this, or because they have nothing to look forward to in this life. I would humbly suggest that it may have more to do with validating their sense that life has meaning, and enriching their earthly experiences (however hard they may be) in the light of those ultimate, transcendental values such as the Good and the True (and yes, Love as well).

    I admit that if these things (and indeed God) don’t really exist, then we’re just deluding ourselves, then I don’t know what we’re doing hanging around here, let alone investing time in being good to one another and striving to become more loving, etc. But again, I find it hard to believe that we’ve managed to con ourselves so thoroughly personally!

    Aside from all this though, I am glad to hear you’re filling your time with painting and sculpting – if I had any talent in those areas whatsoever, I’d ask to swap tips! As you are into these things, I prescribe meditation on the Pieta and Ecstasy of Saint Teresa during Holy Week to facilitate a re-encounter with the sublime. Also, dong wrangling certainly made me chuckle – thank you for that :-) ‘Tis a treat talking to you too – always interesting!

  14. Toadspittle says:

    “Furthermore though, even if this were the case, we would still be left with the case of humans inventing something because they needed to explain their sense of meaning and purpose in the world…”

    I’d be surprised if you had never considered this as a very real possibility, Michael. Rejected it, nonetheless.
    Neat little précis of Schopenhauer there.
    Reminds me of Shaw, who rejected Darwin’s theory because it was too “nasty” for him.
    La Rochefoucauld famously said, “We cannot look squarely at either the Sun or death.”
    He might as well – or maybe better – have said, “We cannot look squarely at either the Sun or life.”

  15. kathleen says:

    Toad,
    You have often talked about that fear of Hell and damnation drummed into you as a small boy, and certainly I’m sorry that it instilled “servile fear” into you. I may be a good bit younger than you, but I was also taught these very real Doctrines when I was a child, yet God’s immense Love and great Mercy were always emphasised far more by my parents and teachers – as so they should.

    So would you have preferred your religion teachers to have hoodwinked you into pretending Hell was non-existent then? That indeed would have been cruel and wrong, for it would have been extremely dangerous to your immortal soul.

    Remember what St. Padre Pio said to the woman who confronted him saying: “I don’t believe in Hell.” His immediate response – looking her straight in the eyes – was: “Well you will when you get there!”
    Spine chilling, eh?

    We have been over the subject of Hell countless times on the blog, as you well know. If there were no Hell, Our Lord Jesus Christ would be a liar (absolutely unthinkable), there would have been no need for His coming to save us from our sins, and indeed, no Free Will either! (A man who has led a life of the greatest evil, with no desire to turn away from it even with his dying breath, would shun the vision of God after his death, totally unable to bear to be with such sublime Goodness, Love and Majesty for all eternity.)

  16. Toadspittle says:

    “Remember what St. Padre Pio said to the woman who confronted him saying: “I don’t believe in Hell.” His immediate response – looking her straight in the eyes – was: “Well you will when you get there!”
    Spine chilling, eh?”

    No.
    Crass, ignorant, vicious, and stupid.
    Or so I think.
    Anyway… how dare a woman disagree with a priest? Disgraceful.

    None of us can know whether Hell exists or not.
    As to going there, I’ll just repeat, for the thousandth time, “How can any limited being – no matter how evil they might have been – ever merit unlimited punishment?
    Who was it who said, “God will forgive me – that’s his job?” Can’t remember.
    But then, Voltaire, on his death bed, was asked, ” Don’t you think you should renounce the Devil?”
    “This is no time to start making enemies,” was his answer.

    “…certainly I’m sorry that (Hell) instilled “servile fear” into you.” No need, Kathleen, As you can see, I grew up – and got over it, nicely.

  17. mkenny114 says:

    Dear Toad,

    My point was that people believe in God precisely not because they can’t bear life otherwise, but because they experience it as meaningful in the first place, which THEN leads to…actually, I give up too.

    Ta ta for now :-)

  18. mkenny114 says:

    Hello Adrian,

    As your question is of almost exactly the same kind as you were asking on the other comment thread about human uniqueness, I shall try and nip this in the bud with two quick responses:

    a.) No, I probably can’t give you any examples that will convince you that our appreciation of beauty cannot be attributed to evolved animal tendencies, as you already seem pretty well convinced that all our experience can be reduced to such tendencies.

    b.) On the other thread, I suggested you email me about these sort of questions as it was going round and round and taking up far too much thread space (as it were), which you have done. If what I’ve said to you via private correspondence hasn’t satisfied you, I don’t see why anything I say here will; but if anything I’ve said there has helped at all, I suggest we continue the discussion there.

  19. kathleen says:

    Toad,
    Have you never thought that it might well be “crass, ignorant, vicious, and stupid” to not teach the fullness of the Faith (including the doctrine of Hell) – thus giving a false impression that grave sin bears no consequences? Certainly teaching about Hell without explaining how only those who do not repent, and seek forgiveness of Our Merciful Lord is wrong too… for God’s Mercy and Love knows no bounds for the repentant sinner.

    Our Lord said that whoever breaks the smallest commandment and refuses to pass on His Word “in its fullness” will be considered the least in the kingdom of Heaven. (Matt 5:19)
    Our Lady at Fatima showed the vision of Hell to three small children at a time when people were beginning to doubt Hell’s existence. Was that “vicious”? Or was it because she wanted her children in the world to wake up to the truth so that they could put their lives in order?
    You had children; you know that sometimes it is necessary to be seemingly “cruel” (stopping them doing things they want to do) to keep them away from danger and to avoid them hurting themselves more.

    “How can any limited being – no matter how evil they might have been – ever merit unlimited punishment?”

    But we are not “limited” in that sense – we have immortal souls that never die!
    However there are two answers to that question. First of all there is no such thing as “time” in the next world – something that we, who live “in time” cannot get our heads round – and therefore Eternity, both Heaven and Hell, are a forever “now”. Even Purgatory that is a temporary state (and where the majority of us will probably pass through) measures time differently.
    Secondly, never doubt that if one abhors evil and “fears the pains of Hell”, you will not go there. Fearing Hell is a way of fearing evil. Hell is a place where those who turn their back on God (and thus Love, Goodness, Mercy etc.) go because it has been their CHOICE! Yes, sounds crazy, I know, but there are those who choose Hell as their eternal destination.
    Our lives on Earth are given to us to form our choices – let us not waste this precious time.

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