Looking at the dominant strains of public – and largely academic – thought, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that the so-called Age of Reason in fact adumbrated an ever-accelerating downward slide from subtlety of thought into vulgarity.
For example, few epistemological creeds can compete with unleavened empiricism for sheer vulgarity of thought – especially when it’s used to attack theology.
Time and again one hears proffered as fact that the only valid form of knowledge is that accrued through the five senses, and seldom can one find such an easy target for instant refutation.
Just the other day I read an attack on Bollinger Bolsheviks in the Labour party. Because they themselves are wealthy, the argument went, they are incapable of understanding the plight of those who can’t even buy petrol for their cars. (The very fact that these poor souls own cars would have made them seem unimaginably rich during my childhood, but that’s a different matter.)
This ignores history that shows that Western countries have always been governed mainly by wealthy people, some of whom nevertheless governed with sufficient sensitivity to destitution. Much as I welcome any attack on Labour, it’s possible, though of course not guaranteed, never to experience starvation and yet develop empathy with it.
For most knowledge we possess is acquired not empirically, but by entirely different mechanisms. For example, I have it on good authority that a rather important European battle took place in 1815 – but it’s not the authority of my senses.
This knowledge comes from my trust in the testimony provided by others, starting with those who fought at Waterloo and their contemporaries.
In the same vein, I’ve never seen an atom, much less any subatomic particles, yet I know they exist because trustworthy experts have told me so.
Then there’s intuitive knowledge, something we obtain rather mysteriously. Thus, though Dr Johnson readily acknowledged that all theory went against free will, he still said: “Sir we know our will is free, and there’s an end on’t.”
Then there exists knowledge from inference, as suggested in the title above. Countless surgeons and pathologists have seen, touched and sliced the human brain, where we know the mind resides. Yet no one has ever seen a mind, although everyone can infer its existence from its output.
Neither do our senses provide the knowledge of thought, that medium between the mind and its products. In fact, I have yet to hear a single neurophysiologist explain what a thought is.
All they seem to have learned after all those Genome Projects and Decades of the Brain is that, under some conditions, some sections of their scanner displays light up and under some others they don’t.
Yet few of us would argue against the existence of thought, even though Richard Dawkins’s work makes that argument persuasively, if unwittingly and not in so many words.
All such forms of knowledge, including those based on trust, intuition and inference, come together to support propositions, such as the existence of God and the divinity of Christ, that the modern mind, weaned on crude empiricism, rejects out of hand.
Presenting a valid argument may not constitute proof, and I’m willing to entertain counterarguments, such as that a universe demonstrably arranged according to rational laws somehow created itself without any help from a rational law-giver.
Or that Jesus was just one of those numerous prophets descending south from Galilee, or specifically Nazareth, of which nothing good had ever come, according to the contemporaneous belief.
However, it’s simply silly to claim that those who know otherwise are driven by only superstition and blind faith. They are indeed driven by knowledge, which is more subtle and less dogmatic than that claimed by their opponents.
Thus the rationality of the universe has never been explained as compellingly as Christianity explains it.
Scientists devote their whole lives to inquiry into the existing rational laws of nature without ever wondering about the provenance of such laws. They just are, and “there’s an end on’t.”
Yet if one tries to calculate the mathematical probability of any one of such laws appearing ex nihilo accidentally, one quickly runs into numerals exceeding the number of atoms in the universe. That makes parthenogenic creation not just improbable but mathematically impossible.
Similarly, every attempt to trace the origin of man, the ultimate, or rather penultimate, depository of rationality, back to some physical event triggering gradual development defies not only credulity but the evidence of those very same natural sciences.
Yet it would take irrefutable scientific evidence to convince a sensible thinker that the distance between some nebulous cell (that itself had appeared out of nothing) and the B Minor Mass could have been travelled by purely material incremental steps – however many years atheists choose to assign to that process.
Yet this evidence is still lacking, for all the Herculean labours of those who are emotionally committed to digging it up by hook or by crook. In other words, the story of Creation simply has no credible competition, no other narrative that comes anywhere near providing a similarly cogent explanation of the world.
Hence the belief in the nonexistence of God is every bit as fideistic as the belief in his existence. The opposition of the two fideistic poles is opposition not between faith and reason but between two faiths.
One of them is based on God’s revelation given by methods both natural (through the possibility of perceiving much of his creation experimentally) and supernatural (through the Scripture and church tradition). The other is based on nothing but man’s own fanciful speculation. As such, it is not even so much faith as superstition.
The same goes for Christianity. True believers know intuitively that the gospel story is true, just as astronomers of the past knew intuitively that, say, Neptune existed before they could see it or prove its existence mathematically.
But forget intuition. Since Christ’s physical existence is confirmed by contemporaneous sources, it’s not in doubt, at least not this side of the lectures on ‘scientific atheism’ to which I was exposed at my Soviet university.
It’s true that Jesus left no written account of his teaching, but then neither did Socrates. Yet we don’t doubt the authenticity of Socrates’s teaching thanks to the evidence helpfully provided by his disciples, such as Plato and Xenophon.
Reading Jesus for Socrates, and the evangelists for Plato and Xenophon, one would expect that the same latitude would be afforded to Christ’s teaching. But it isn’t: the vulgar empiricist simply can’t abide knowledge that takes him out of his depth.
The same observation applies to the proofs of Christ’s divinity, such as his miracles and especially his rising on the third day after his death. Just like the trial and execution of Socrates was witnessed by many Athenians, so were all those events witnessed by Jesus’s contemporaries, the former by hundreds if not thousands, the latter by dozens if not hundreds.
Yet our empiricists refuse to accept that eyewitness testimony, following the logic of one of Chekhov’s characters who denies the rotation of the Earth by saying “This cannot be because it cannot be ever.”
Moreover, the living presence of Christ has since been palpably felt by millions – yet their testimony is simply dismissed as delusional.
The same people who are prepared to embrace the reality of such metaphysical experiences as meditation or telepathy refuse to accept the reality of the metaphysical experience that, alone among all revolutions, reshaped the world.
I’m not proposing to put forth a rational religious argument here – only an observation that a rational religious argument is possible and, given a comparable rhetorical agility on both sides, winnable.
Yet even this modest conciliatory assertion would enrage our modern empiricists (take my word for it – I’ve taken delight in enraging many). Such is the natural development of the Age of Reason and its obscurantist culmination going by the misnomer of the Enlightenment.
(Incidentally, Satan’s name, Lucifer, actually means ‘Enlightener’. Thought I’d mention this.)