On Giving Reasons


While reading Scripture or other sources like Aquinas, Plato, or even P G. Wodehouse, we often have to stop and think. Previously, we may have read this or that passage several times. Yet on re-reading it, we realize that we did not grasp what it really said. For instance, I was reading in the Breviary a passage from the tenth chapter of Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians. This is what he said: “We demolish sophistries and every proud pretension that raises itself against the knowledge of God; we likewise bring every thought into captivity to make it obedient to Christ.” We are here reminded of Plato’s intense dislike of the sophists. A sophist is someone, usually learned, who uses reason to obscure or undermine reason. It’s not a rare species.

This possibility of using reason against itself is why the beginning of philosophy is, to use Aristotle’s title, “the refutation of sophistry.” “Now for some people,” Aristotle observed, “it is better worth while to seem to be wise, than to be wise without seeming to be (for the art of the sophist is the semblance of wisdom, without the reality); and the sophist is one who makes money from an apparent but unreal wisdom.” (165a17-18) Paul, however, prefers sophists to be “demolished,” not just “refuted” or exposed as pursuers of money rather than wisdom.

This passage in Paul is mindful of similar advice in 1 Peter (3:15): “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give a reason for the hope you have. But do so with gentleness and respect.” Paul is more blunt. Some people will not hear if we are overly gentle with them. There is a difference between honest inquirers and sophists.

The last thing many people want to hear today, and somehow know that they do not dare to hear, is how everything is related to Christ – as it is. What they even less want to hear is that there is a “reason” for every position. How everything is related in Christ is not apart from what is reasonable. Revelation is directed to reason. Reason knows that it does not explain everything. But what completes the explanation is not, in principle, “unreasonable,” only beyond, but not against, the powers of finite intellect.

            The world’s problems may be solved in an English pub. This one is The Tavern in Abu Dhabi 

Catholicism is being isolated and increasingly persecuted because of the nagging suspicion that it can actually give reasons for anything it holds. Even though much of the philosophy of the age is relativism, it cannot afford to deal with reason lest it admit what it denies. Thus Catholicism’s calm efforts to state this reasonableness are greeted with shouting, ridicule, avoidance of facts, mis-representation, and hatred. Scripture, to be sure, told us, when invited into a home that refuses to listen, to dust our shoes and move on. But there are increasingly fewer places to where we can move. This fact too seems more and more to focus the attention of the world on the truth issue. This is probably exactly where it needs to be focused.

But it is a world, as I said, that does not much want to listen. In Wodehouse’s The Mating Season, I read the following passage: “Well, there were these two deaf chaps in the train, don’t you know, and it stopped at Wembley, and one of them looked out of the window and said ‘This is Wembley’, and the other said ‘I thought it was Thursday’, and the first chap said ‘Yes, so am I.’” From this rather bemused sketch, we recognize that we often listen but we do not hear what is actually said.

On reading such a passage, I sometimes am tempted to think that a stint in a good English pub would solve most of the world’s problems. But where most of the problems seem to occur, such thirst-quenching institutions are generally not allowed. They are considered to be against both reason and religion. That was probably the counter-point of Belloc’s “Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine/There’s always laughter and good red wine./At least I’ve always found it so,/Benedicamus Domino.”

To proffer something good about Catholicism in recent decades has been considered, if not impolite, certainly “triumphalistic.” Yet I wonder if it is not time to face the fact that we are now pretty much left alone with reason and hence revelation addressed to it. We are to state our “reasons” with gentleness and respect, as Peter admonished us. But surely Paul was right. The sophists, usually paid with money, think that they can state any lie or untruth about what we hold as if that is their natural “right.”

No longer is there much dialogue or debate, only yelling and lies. “Proud pretensions” do raise themselves “against the knowledge of God.” In the end, we prefer not merely to “seem to be wise.”

James V. Schall, S.J., who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, is one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. His most recent books are The Mind That Is CatholicThe Modern AgePolitical Philosophy and Revelation: A Catholic Readingand Reasonable Pleasures.
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James V. Schall, S.J. (1928-2019), who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, was one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. Among his many books are The Mind That Is Catholic, The Modern Age, Political Philosophy and Revelation: A Catholic Reading, Reasonable Pleasures, Docilitas: On Teaching and Being Taught, Catholicism and Intelligence, and, most recently, On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018.

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