Thursday, January 31, 2008

The Philosophy of "Self-Identification"

POPE BENEDICT XVI, at his recent General Audiences, has been talking about Saint Augustine of Hippo (a.d. 354-430), Latin Father and Doctor of the Church, and the relationship between faith and reason.

Saint Augustine was a great philosopher as well as theologian and bishop, and among many things, is known for his writings on the relationship between Church and State, and the relationship between Faith and Reason. He has quite a lot to say to our current divided age.

Even as a heretic in his young adulthood, Augustine was always attracted to Christianity, but was intellectually repulsed by Scripture. Pope Benedict discusses how Augustine reverted to Christianity, due to the influence of Saint Ambrose of Milan (340-397):
...The great difficulty with the Old Testament, because of its lack of rhetorical beauty and lofty philosophy was resolved in St Ambrose's preaching through his typological interpretation of the Old Testament: Augustine realized that the whole of the Old Testament was a journey toward Jesus Christ. Thus, he found the key to understanding the beauty and even the philosophical depth of the Old Testament and grasped the whole unity of the mystery of Christ in history, as well as the synthesis between philosophy, rationality and faith in the Logos, in Christ, the Eternal Word who was made flesh.

Augustine soon realized that the allegorical interpretation of Scripture and the Neo-Platonic philosophy practised by the Bishop of Milan enabled him to solve the intellectual difficulties which, when he was younger during his first approach to the biblical texts, had seemed insurmountable to him.

Thus, Augustine followed his reading of the philosophers' writings by reading Scripture anew, especially the Pauline Letters....
This harmonization of faith and reason, done with a unified view of Scripture and a realist philosophy, is a pillar of Catholicism, and indeed is even found worldwide in ancient religions that have a more-or-less orthodox world view. It is not, however, the view taken by liberal intellectuals and most of modernist religion, who wage a powerful war against catholic culture.

Ground Zero of the Culture War against orthodoxy in the United States is currently in the Archdiocese of Saint Louis. Archbishop Burke has the unenviable task of correcting a number of media-prominent individuals who claim to be members of the Catholic Church, yet refuse to yield to the teachings and discipline of the Catholic Church. The names of Bozek, McGrath, Hudson, and Majerus are portrayed by the popular media as being heroes against the power of the Archbishop, even to the point where ordinary Catholics are being swayed to the popular opinion.

While it is inconceivable that any other organization would be denied the authority to regulate its own membership, this doesn't seem to apply to religion, especially Catholicism, in the United States. Imagine the power that would come down upon an individual who would dare to independently market a product called Coca-Cola, or who would unilaterally proclaim himself free from the obligation to pay taxes to the Federal Government. How did this despicable attitude arise?

The Catholic Church historically selected the year 1274, the year of the death of Saint Thomas Aquinas, as the beginning of the Modern Age. This philosopher, theologian, and mystic did much to unify Faith and Reason, as well as to describe the proper relation between Church and State, and so can serve as the other bookend to Augustine in defining the Catholic Age. After the death of Aquinas, the Bubonic Plague and widespread wars destroyed much of Western Europe and Medieval culture, and so higher education, and especially philosophy, was nearly lost.

After Aquinas, we can see various threads of the modern world come together in the person of William of Occam (1288-1347), a Franciscan scholar. Most famous for "Occam's Razor", or the law of parsimony — entities should not be multiplied beyond necessity — this rule of reductionism led to the development of the scientific method, but ultimately leads to solipsism, the view that only the self exists. Lesser known is his novel doctrine of sola fide — faith alone — regarding religion. From William of Occam we get the modern divorce between Faith and Reason. William also developed the philosophy of Nominalism, a skeptical philosophy, that denies universal entities, and so therefore eventually denies the concept of truth. He also was a proponent of the theory of secular absolutism, where the Monarch has total rule over all aspects of his realm. William indeed sided with the secular authority against the Pope, although he eventually died reconciled with the Church.

After William, Western Europe followed in his intellectual footsteps, with Kings claiming absolute power, and in Protestantism, where religious leaders were no longer were bound by reason, but by their own individual feelings. In the Modern world, secular rulers claim absolute authority, and religion is arbitrary. Church and State, and Faith and Reason are divorced.

The idea that words mean things, and that things are represented by words, is distinctively human; but this is denied by the philosophy of Nominalism. Animals see words as being mere signals, and so Nominalism reduces humanity to the level of the animals. Words, to the modern philosophers, are just arbitrary vocalizations that signal us human animals to perform tricks; and like dogs, we get a treat if we respond correctly, and punishment if we do not.

To the moderns, the word 'Catholic' is just another meaningless vocal utterance, used by the media to make us animals perform tricks. We hear of two women invalidly and illegally attempting to become ordained to the Catholic priesthood, and those who respond 'correctly', by accepting it, are rewarded, while those who respond 'incorrectly' to this, like our Archbishop, are punished. But to them, these words 'Catholic' and 'priest' don't mean anything, although they mean something to us, and we also claim that these have a higher reality.

Sola fide, Nominalism, Reductionism, and the cult of the Self are all closely intertwined, and so we should not be surprised by the phenomena of self-identification. According to this theory, if a person self-identifies himself a Catholic, then he is, despite any external appearances. This denies the Church the authority to regulate its members. We hear of a parish defying its local Ordinary, cutting itself off from the Church and her doctrine, yet still calls itself Catholic. Or we hear of individuals denying the teaching authority of the Church, but still calling themselves Catholic. When self-identification is validated, words are drained of all meaning.

Until lately, this form of self-identification was primarily restricted to religion, but now is being used in other areas. 'Gender' activists use the words 'male' and 'female' in ways that are unrelated to physiological sexuality, and hold to the line that a person has the right to self-identify his/her/its gender. That activists use the grammatical term 'gender' rather than the physical term 'sex' tells us that perhaps they are playing word games, with the words being meaningless.

Playing fast and loose with the truth on the personal level becomes tyranny on the governmental level. It is not surprising that rulers who subscribe to the modern theories become absolutist, for they bow to no authority other than themselves.

As Pope Benedict often tells us, we need a return to sound philosophy. Like Saint Augustine, we need to discover the proper relationships between Faith and Reason, and the City of God and the City of Man.

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