Time-out for Truth

It is Fall, and questions are resonating in the season, some old, some new. Why have the White Sox collapsed? That is one of those old, enduring questions, destined constantly to recur. But what if the rumors are true that Cardinal Raymond Leo Burke, that expert on canon law, is about to be shifted out of the curia, as Sandro Magister and others report, and transferred to become the Cardinal Patron of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta? That one does baffle me.

I don’t know if we are drifting into a state of schism, as some friends seriously worry. There may be reasons, personal and professional, to account for the curious paths of Cardinal Burke, caught in the corridors of the Vatican. But we may at least be forgiven for wondering just what is being taught at the highest levels in moves of this kind. The question would not arise as quickly if we didn’t encounter, every week, some offhand statements, coming from on high, sounding more like “feel-good” sentiments, more suited to fortune cookies than Catholic teaching.

In moments of this kind, one feels the need for something bracing. And for something bracing, it is never out of season to return to R.G. Collingwood’s classic book Religion and Philosophy (1912). Collingwood was the Waynflete Professor of Metaphysical Philosophy at Magdalen College, Oxford. He died in 1943, but his books have lingered, not only to teach us enduringly, but to teach us anew. And so, for many people involved in the current controversies over the claims of religious “belief,” Collingwood’s observations may come delivering jolting news:

[I]t was an essential note of religion to lay down certain statements, and to say, “Believe these”; and that could only mean, “Believe these, for they are true.” Truth is the governing conception, even if the dogmas propounded fail of reaching it. Similarly, religion always lays down certain courses of action and says, “Do these,” that is to say, “Do these because they are right.” Not merely “because they are God’s will,” for God is a righteous God; nor merely “for fear He should punish you,” for his punishments are just.

As Collingwood understood – and persistently taught – the question of truth could never be put to the side as people professed to focus on history or on the psychology or “consciousness” of the religious “believer.”  “When a man makes a statement about the nature of God,” wrote Collingwood, “he is interested, not in the fact that he is making the statement, but in the belief, or hope, or fancy that it is true.” 

If the psychologist plays the agnostic and “declines to join in the question whether it is true, he is cutting himself off from any kind of real sympathy or participation on the very thing he is studying.” 

       R.G. Collingwood

The closest analogy here for me comes with the historian James McPherson, studying the letters written home by soldiers in the Civil War, on both sides, and professing to give an account of “What They Fought For.”  It was plain that many soldiers on the Union Side were indeed fighting because they thought that the case against slavery was bound up with the case for “government by the consent of the governed.” 

But McPherson began by assuming that there was no moral truth that could make the ends of one side in the war morally better than the other. He began, that is, by refusing to understand those Union soldiers as they understood themselves. As Collingwood remarks, “To study a man’s consciousness without studying the thing of which he is conscious is not knowledge of anything but barren and trifling abstraction.”

Do we encounter people who find it mirthful that “those Catholics” would take seriously the notion of a “real presence” in the Eucharist? Many of the doubts that we suffer these days about the teachings emanating from Rome could be dissolved readily if the pope managed to incorporate in his string of one-liners something as terse and telling as these two lines from Collingwood: “[E]xcluding merely superstitious interpretations of Transubstantiation, would a normal Christian describe the Real Presence as miraculous?  If so, then is not the equally real presence in prayer a miracle?”

As Collingwood pursued that matter of miracles, he went on to show how the difference between “mind” and “matter” faded away. Under the principle of materialism, everything is caused by something else, and matter itself does not originate anything. But the “case” for materialism is a philosophic case; it cannot be generated by matter alone. And if the material universe generates itself, that would “break the first law of matter,” that matter originates nothing.

As we trace out the argument we might say, with aptness and wonder, that the pharmaceuticals and medical procedures that now extend life are themselves miracles. But then so too would be life itself, the life of that remarkable creature who can understand truths and principles not bounded by space and time.

And so “Miracles,” said Collingwood, “force themselves upon our eyes as a standing testimony to the deadness and falsity of our materialistic dogmas and compel us to face reality as it is, free infinite, self-creative.” The deeper meaning is lost, then, if we see miracles in a separate domain, “set up for our superstitious worship, side by side with the true God, an idol of man’s making, adored under the name of nature.”

Hadley Arkes is the Ney Professor of Jurisprudence at Amherst College. He is also Founder and Director of the Washington-based James Wilson Institute on Natural Rights and the American Founding. His most recent book is Constitutional Illusions & Anchoring Truths: The Touchstone of the Natural Law. Volume II of his audio lectures from The Modern Scholar, First Principles and Natural Law is now available for download.
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Hadley Arkes is the Ney Professor of Jurisprudence Emeritus at Amherst College and the Founder/Director of the James Wilson Institute on Natural Rights & the American Founding. He is the author of Constitutional Illusions & Anchoring Truths: The Touchstone of the Natural Law. Volume II of his audio lectures from The Modern Scholar, First Principles and Natural Law is available for download. His new book is Mere Natural Law: Originalism and the Anchoring Truths of the Constitution.