Mystery and Reason, Mercy and Theology: A Reflection on Apologetic Discourse

I was once impressed by René Descartes’ famous “I think, therefore I am”[1]. Everyone wants to be grounded in a certainty, and the source of existence or epistemological knowledge is an important part of that. As is often the case in apologetics, an understanding of Christian Anthropology, our beginnings, reveals great insight into the errors contained in Descartes discourse.

Is a person fundamentally grounded in thinking? This rational animal of Aristotle must be developed by the Christian understanding of creation. Man, as in humanity, is made in the image of God (Gen 1:27) in order to love and to serve him. To lower man only to a thinker is as if to say, man’s own self is for man himself[2], rather than created by God and for God[3].

Now the ‘reason’ of theology or of humanity’s ability to come to know the personal God using natural faculties is by converging and convincing arguments rather than proofs in the sense of the natural sciences.[4]  Proofs in the sense of the natural sciences do play a part but it does not mean that ‘thinking’ can be narrowed down to the exclusion of a broad understanding of what proof means nor something which neglects mystery.

His Holiness Pope Francis, clearly and with force, has detailed how a faulty ‘thinking ability’ or reason leads one astray from the path of holiness. The very definition of theology must be linked with a growth in holiness and relationship to the Godhead. We are not doing theology correctly if we are not growing in love of God and love of neighbour. The type of discourse Francis calls us to is one which recognizes that God has given sufficient proof for the divine origin of the Christian religion, but our intellects are often darkened by sin and ignorance which prevent assent.[5] Dialogue, personal humility, and mercy come to the rescue of arguments.

In chapter two of Gaudete et Exsultate, Francis teaches that, a person’s perfection is measured not by knowledge but by the depth of their charity[6]. The gnostic error alive today is characterized by Francis in Evangelii Gaudium §94, which is requoted in Gaudete et Exsultate as a “… purely subjective faith whose only interest is a certain experience or a set of ideas… which are meant to console and enlighten, but which ultimately keep one imprisoned in his or her own thoughts and feelings.[7] Similarly, Pelagianism alive today which places emphasis on the will rather than intellect is characterized by Pope Francis when a group can, “feel superior to others because they observe certain rules or remain intransigently faithful to a particular Catholic style from the past.[8]

It is easy to see that extremely right-wing or left-wing ideologies are close to being grouped in with gnostic-pelagian practice orientated idea groups. These groups often have an answer for every question no matter how complex.[9] They miss the mystery in theology which is proper to correct understanding. If we are to live the theological virtues of faith, hope and love through the indwelling of the Holy Trinity, a tremendous mystery, our theology must at some point be mysterious, but that does not mean irrational.[10]

There is a reason why watching or reading material from extreme theological camps can make you feel disquieted, while reading the erroneous pagan Plato just makes you reflective. Socrates was a master of humility. The only thing he claimed was to – not know – while the Sophist interlocutors he spoke to claimed – to know. The principal that perfect trueness and goodness cannot be written or spoken is very Platonic. Socrates understood mystery and humility which makes him timeless apologetics. “…So sorely, if we are not quite crazy, as we embark on our account of how the universe began … we must pray to all the gods and goddesses that what we say will be pleasing …[11]

Critical apologetic transformation took place in Ronald Knox’s life as described by autobiographers and described by himself in Proving God: A New Approach to Apologetics. The young Knox would see an idea and then must see everything in the world in light of this idea. The focus is on coherence of arguments rather than reflecting messy diverse reality outside. The mature Msgr. Knox was sought the messy reality. Theological mysteries would remain mysterious even after years of understanding. Aged human experience, coupled with reason, and much more tolerance of opposing views become part of his apologetic standard.[12]

To transmit truth and give a defense of the faith (1 Pet 3:15-16), there are many ways an apologist can do so. If the end of discourse is increased faith there must be mercy, humility, and rationality all intermingled. “Faith is first of all an intellectual assent. It prefects the mind, it does not destroy it. It puts the intellect in possession of Truth which reason cannot grasp by itself. It gives us certitude concerning God as He is in Himself.[13] There is a reason why those who admit of the unknown, seeing their own weaknesses, are willing to at least hear an apologist out and in general are of agreeable conversation (Acts 17:19-23).

I would argue that apologetic discourse must not be a thinking process in the Enlightenment sense nor the gnostic-pelagian sense, but a process open to seeing the other in mercy, with rational arguments ready which meet both messy human experience and leave mystery open for personal assent by the other.

  1. We do not need to go into rabbit holes on the application or meaning of this, that would miss the point of the reflection.
  2. Cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, §27.
  3. Cf. Pope Francis, Gaudete et Exsultate, §35 “… In our own times too, many Christians, perhaps without realizing it, can be seduced by these deceptive ideas (Gnosticism and Pelagianism), which reflect an anthropocentric immanentism disguised as Catholic truth.”.
  4. Cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, §31.
  5. Cf. Pope Pius XII, Humani Generis, §4.
  6. Pope Francis has touched upon this theme is several locations including, “Chapter VI Shepard’s not Scholars of the Law.” in The Name of God is Mercy, Trans. Oonagh Stransky, 55-74. New York: Random House, 2016.
  7. Pope Francis, Gaudete et Exsultate, §36.
  8. Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, §94.
  9. Cf. Gaudete et Exsultate, §41. The God full of surprises, which Pope Francis loves to mention, always transcends our understanding of situations. The classical view that blaming Vatican II totally for some or a subset of crises in the Church, is just too simple of a view to be correct. Similarly, the view that getting Vatican II right will somehow solve all the problems is naïve.
  10. Cf. Daniélou, Jean.“Chapter 6 The God of the Mystics” in God and the Ways of Knowing. Clevland: Meridian Books, 1965. This is a great read on mystical knowledge and the indwelling of the Holy Trinity.  
  11. Plato, Timaeus and Critias, §27. Trans. Desmond Lee. New York: Penguin Books Ltd, 1977.
  12. Walsh, Milton, Ronald Knox As Apologist: Wit, Laughter and the Popish Creed. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2000.
  13. Merton, Thomas, New Seeds of Contemplation. New York: New Directions, 1961.

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