A Catholic-themed opinion blog about various topics, including theology, philosophy, politics and culture, from a Thomistic perspective.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Abandoning Reason for Materialism

It is a commonly-held view in modern times, even by scholars, that many positive aspects of today’s society are attributable to the Protestant Reformation. They say that Protestantism “liberated” society from the yoke of the Catholic Church, putting religion, learning, government and labor into the hands of the common people. Further, they attribute the Reformation as leading to modern science, democracy, liberal philosophy and public education. Unfortunately, this is the propaganda so many people are victimized with in public school, only to subsequently center their worldview on these accusations against the Catholic Church. Even many Catholics themselves fall into this, viewing the Church and its Sacraments as mere symbols and congregational sentiments while giving way to permissiveness and compliance towards Goodness and Truth.

In truth, the Reformation stunted the intellectual, technological, political and economic growth of Europe for centuries, especially with the pillaging wreaked by Henry VIII in England by closing monasteries, legalizing usury and separating from the Church. By the time of the Renaissance, people in the Church - especially monks - had progressed very far, having developed the university system, the scientific method, the continuation of writing, and more, even discovering the technology of casting iron which led to the Industrial Revolution centuries later. The Reformation explicitly denied the vast range of Catholic learning, especially its emphasis on philosophy, science, classical literature, Latin and humanistic principles. More deeply, the Reformation denied reason. To quote Martin Luther, “[reason] is the Devil's greatest whore.” (Martin Luther's Last Sermon in Wittenberg ... Second Sunday in Epiphany, 17 January 1546.Dr. Martin Luthers Werke: Kritische Gesamtausgabe. (Weimar: Herman Boehlaus Nachfolger, 1914), Band 51:126, Line 7ff)

But the Reformation was not independent of its times. It was a constituent development of the Renaissance, which heralded both spectacular and horrible ideas for Western civilization. On the one hand, Catholicism developed humanism, which emphasized human dignity as being in the Image of God and applying that idea to all areas of life, which lead to modern democracy, human rights, civil rights, etc. On the other, fear of the Black Plague shifted people’s focus from the heavenly topics of Catholicism to concerns of the world. Society began to focus on money, aesthetics, technology, nature and individualism. The underlying philosophy that developed in the Renaissance, opposite Catholic humanism, was materialism. This was the root of the Reformation just as much as other Renaissance developments.

Many people forget (or ignore) the fabric of materialism in Protestantism. By emphasizing the purely literal and historical meaning of Scripture to the exclusion of all else, denying fields such as philosophy and literature, and citing Catholic Sacraments as superstitious and its sacramentals as idolatrous, Protestants denied all meaning and significance beyond the obvious physical world. Ironically, many Protestants also hated the physical world, espousing a sort of Platonism where only the spiritual world means anything and is absolutely separate from the physical. In their confusion, Protestants believed Catholic attribute spiritual significance and philosophical meaning to life because we prefer the world over God. In truth, we do this because the world was made by God, and thus has meaning, especially sanctified by the Incarnation - whereas Protestant materialism simply distances God and vilifies the world.

The Protestant rejection of reason, as an expression of Renaissance materialism, has influenced the entire world since. Before the Renaissance, society - especially scholars and religious/clergy - viewed learned information as simply a tool for the clarification of reason. The purpose of education in the Middle Ages was the sharpening and honing of reason. To them, while some people are ignorant and will always be, everyone has reason and can use it, so it is truly an inherently human faculty that can uncover and interpret Truth. At the advent of the Renaissance and its materialist forsaking of reason, the focus in people’s lives - especially in academic circles - became acquiring as much information as possible. Knowledge, rather than reason, became the measure of not only intelligence, but wisdom and spiritual vision. Protestant ministers were not judged apt based on their elucidative abilities, but on their memorization of Scripture. Similarly, philosophy, logic and rhetoric took a back seat to the memorization of historical, scientific, economic and mathematical information with no pressure to care about one’s subject. The study and use of reason became not only marginalized but mocked and rebuked as immature, irrelevant and primitive.

I believe this is one of the most difficult fundamental obstacles Catholics often face in dialogue with atheists and Protestants. Catholicism still employs reason. Even if our people are usually rationally inhibited during materialistic public school, many Catholics still attend Catholic school, especially if they subsequently attend seminary or a Catholic college, or simply study it themselves. For example, when addressing the question of the existence of God, many Catholic apologists use the argument of First Cause - since the universe exhibits cause and effect, there must rationally be a first cause or first mover. To proceed the physical universe, this being must be divine - God. When many atheists reject this off-hand, Catholics often feel dismissed or mocked. Which they often are in this situation. But atheists’ minds, being so deeply ingrained with materialistic, anti-reason thinking, automatically reject arguments that employ reason. This is why they usually reply with “the physical world does not give any conclusive evidence that there is or is not a First Mover, and because God cannot be seen, He cannot be proven and thus does not exist.” Not only do they say the First Cause cannot be known, but because their materialistic focus is so narrow and limited to the visible world, they believe with certain faith that God does not exist if He is not visible.

Reason was the primary tool I used in my conversion to Catholicism. Obviously, reason is not the only thing that did this. Being Catholic is not simply an intellectual pursuit. It is a deeply spiritual life rooted in faith, love and hope, guided and focused on God and His Church. Ultimately, these were the deciding factors in my conversion. However, without reason, I would have remained an atheist. Christ Himself used reason, as did the entire Bible. The reasoning of the Church when interpreting dogma is infallible under Papal authority. While apologetics should be gentle and reverent, reason should never be forsaken, there or in the rest of one’s life.