Faith and Feeling

The central dispute of the Reformation was faith vs. works. Many people think it’s now faith vs. reason (a late, noxious bloom of the Reformation’s sola fide). Our Supreme Court just seems to have decided that it’s biased unreason vs. benevolent unreason. But we may someday come to see that the central point of contention in our time is faith vs. feeling.

Just not in the way you might assume.

The faith and reason dispute is often taken to be essentially the same as religion vs. science. But despite the scientific boobies who wade into philosophy and theology without a clue that they’ve left science behind, this is purest nonsense. There’s no real conflict between these two forms of knowing. “Public debate” on these great questions often resembles two drunks arguing over a matter that neither can clearly explain, in words that it takes great charity to call arguments.

The real dialogue between faith and reason, religion and science, is an interesting intellectual process, which, as St. John Paul II wrote in Fides et Ratio, never ends, as each perpetually challenges the other to look deeper, think harder.

Traditional believers today often assume they’re upholding reason (in the sense of wisdom based in Scripture, tradition, nature, custom) against mere logic-chopping or emotion. In fact, we’ve had to develop the term “traditional” for that very reason. But that’s not the whole story or, I believe, quite the right way of putting it.

Because orthodox Catholicism itself is and must be a matter of the heart as well as the head. Recent popes have warned against turning Christianity into a kind of ideology, just another bunch of bloodless abstractions. We need truth, of course, but as Cardinal Newman said, we also aim – as all sane education did in the past – at instilling a kind of rational emotion: “knowledge carried to the heart.”

For virtually all of human history (even prior to Christianity), God (or the gods), nature, and social custom taught people that things like same-sex “marriage” were absurd. This did not need demonstration because some realities are so close to first principles that to see them is to understand them. It took many small, bad arguments, together with the gradual shifting of everyday emotion via subtle propaganda to form people who don’t laugh outright at arguments like Justice Kennedy’s about “new insights” into sexuality. Or at his remark in an earlier case that there was no “rational basis” for opposition to homosexual “marriage.”

"Vertumnus" by Giuseppe Arcimboldo, 1591
“Vertumnus” by Giuseppe Arcimboldo, 1591

Kennedy is an intelligent, highly educated man (though the kind of intelligence and education that we value today is often clever without being wise). Chief Justice Roberts noted in his dissent that cultures from the Kalahari Bushmen to the Han Chinese, Aztecs to Carthaginians thought they had a “rational basis” for their practices. Only a narrow elite in a few Western countries seems to have suddenly become blind to things self-evident to all other times and cultures, and therefore sees almost the whole human race as moral idiots, even monsters.

Intellectual bubbles that separate us from reality are not entirely new. In the late nineteenth-century Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote of the loss of God and nature:

all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod

Our numbness today, however, comes less from trade and toil than from technology, which has given us a false sense of mastery over nature, from which we’ve separated ourselves and barely acknowledge exists anymore. It’s only when nature no longer matters that even male and female body parts don’t seem a “rational basis” for believing same-sex “marriage” is wrong.

This can’t last, because it’s self-destructive. And will sooner or later appear so. Besides, as Hopkins continued:

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things. . . .
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

That’s where hope lies. But the task of renewal now will be complicated, delicate, and long. Few of us, I expect, will live to see it succeed.

Ever since the discovery of philosophy in ancient Greece, it’s been clear that most people can’t “do” philosophy. Aquinas says: they don’t have the aptitude, or the leisure, and the questions are hard and subject to many errors. But average people can still be led to truths about God, the Creation, our role in the grand scheme of life. Ideas are crucial, but so is the careful formation of persons, in our families and society, a formation, which, since time immemorial, is deliberately crafted to make our spontaneous emotions agree with the deepest truths of faith and reason.

In a famous passage of The Abolition of Man, C. S. Lewis noted: “We were told it all long ago by Plato. As the king governs by his executive, so Reason in man must rule the mere appetites by means of the ‘spirited element.’ The head rules the belly through the chest – the seat. . .of emotions organized by trained habit into stable sentiments. . . .these are the indispensable liaison officers between cerebral man and visceral man. It may even be said that it is by this middle element that man is man: for by his intellect he is mere spirit and by his appetite mere animal.”

In modern times, totalitarian regimes brutally tried to reshape peoples’ minds and hearts. And Christian talk of doing something similar raises suspicions. But Christians shouldn’t be intimidated. State-run schools are already laboring mightily to make the idea of gay marriage – and much else – normal, and expecting that the feelings will follow.

We need vigorous, sane arguments and more sheer wisdom, to be sure. But we must also consciously aim at making broad swaths of the public emotionally convinced again that we are not our own masters, that we cannot ignore God, nature, and experience – without catastrophic consequences.

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.