Athens to Glasgow
Stephen Watt writes on the place of philosophy in the Scottish Church.
Since I’ve joined St Moluag’s Coracle on a more permanent basis, I thought I’d start off what I hope will be a series of articles dealing with philosophy for Catholics with a two-part introduction as to why I think this sort of endeavour is worth attempting. But I’m haunted by the thought that this encouragement to think philosophically is pointless. Not the least reason for this is that I’ve taught at least one course with the description of ‘Introduction to philosophy’ or something along those lines almost every year since I started university teaching. Such courses invariably encourage the question, ‘Why do philosophy?’, and every year I worry I fail to answer it.
It’s perhaps even more difficult when the issue is trying to explain to Catholics why they should take an interest in philosophy. And when specifically, the aim is to explain to Scottish Catholics why they should take an interest in philosophy, there is perhaps the added suspicion that this is going to be an even more difficult task since the modern Scottish Church is rather stronger on traditional piety and community embeddedness than it is on abstract, rational thinking. It might be thought in post COVID times, with what I suspect will be a fairly dramatic fall in income and attendance coming on top of what has been a long-term steady decline in practice and attendance, what the Scottish Catholic Church needs above all is to restore the traditional values of pray, pay and obey if we are going to pass on anything like a functioning institutional Church to future generations. To adapt Tertullian’s question, what has Athens to do with Glasgow?
There are three strands to this question that I hope at least to start to tease out over these first two initial articles. The first is why what might be described as critical, reflective thought plays any part in Catholicism. Second, granted that an answer can be found to that first strand, why should philosophy as an academic subject play the prime role in such an undertaking rather than, say, theology itself or even literary or artistic studies? Finally, given satisfactory answers to those two questions, why should there be a special focus of philosophy on Scotland? Why can’t we just import philosophical thinking from other, more populous and better equipped areas of the Church?
I shall begin this week with that first question: why should critical, reflective thought play any part in Catholicism? Part of the background to this question is a sort of New Atheist dismissal of any religious thinking, but particularly that of a hierarchical Church such as the Catholic Church. Since we are throwbacks to a system of belief that is better fitted to Bronze Age goatherds, and moreover members of a Church which, unlike those ecclesial communities that encourage free thinking even if within the bounds of absurd dogmas, instead imposes a military like discipline on the thought of its members, isn’t it the height of absurdity to talk about the value of such critical thinking, except insofar as it might drag members out of the clutches of the Papacy? New Atheism has pretty much had its day though, so I’m going to ignore that slightly pungent version of the question and instead turn to versions that seem rather more plausible and might even be attractive to convinced Catholics. The answers will, I hope, in any case go some way to addressing the New Atheist version of the question.
One version is that of progressive Catholicism and might go something like this. ‘Until sometime in the twentieth century, lay Catholics in particular were just supposed to do what the priests and hierarchy told them. Then, in part through Vatican II, the Church began to accept that laypeople could no longer be treated as children and needed to do their own thinking. The Church doesn’t always take that lesson on board, but critical, reflective thought about the Church and its teachings is essential and we need more of it.’ The other version I’m going to consider is the conservative flipside of that: ‘Since critical, reflective thinking leads to heresy, we should avoid it in favour of a humble acceptance of tradition and traditional Church teaching.’
Critical thinking about the Church too often does simply end up endorsing a list of doctrinal or disciplinary changes that mimic the criticisms that secular progressivism also makes of Catholicism, particularly in the area of sexual morality or equal treatment of women. Whatever the merits of individual criticisms, I am certainly not going to urge philosophy on Catholics on the ground that it will show them how wrong the Church is in key areas. Quite apart from my belief that the Church tends to be right on these issues and everybody else wrong, there is also the problem that, unless you are extremely well formed in areas of theology and philosophy, any critical thought in these areas tends to end up as obedience to another set of authority figures rather than a truly authentic personal exploration, but now to authority figures without the divine guarantees given to the Magisterium. In short, a little learning is a dangerous thing, and for most people, a little learning is all that can realistically be managed.
So far then, the conservative rejection of critical thinking and reflection in favour of humble obedience seems the stronger position. And yet, such a position seems untenable in the long run. There are certainly moments in all of our lives when we do better to stop thinking and simply trust, severe illness being one of the most obvious of these. There may also be some of us who, through inclination or lack of ability are always forced to rely on obedience to authority more than the most. But for many Catholics in Scotland, well-educated by historical standards, blind obedience to the Church no longer seems a live option and hasn’t been for many years. Bringing in a little philosophy may help explain this movement. The Canadian philosopher, Charles Taylor, has analysed one of the changes that has occurred in modernity as being the change from the view of the self as ‘porous’ to ‘buffered’. In the pre-modern world, the boundary between the self and the outer world was seen as porous: we were not entirely separate from the world around us and, in particular, meaning and value did not reside exclusively in our minds. In the modern world, however, we are masters of an inner world of the mind, from which we can venture forth to control the outer world or to which we can retreat to shield ourselves from it. Now, whatever criticisms there might be of some of the details of this, and I would have a few, it does seem to capture something of the sense that the modern, buffered self has to be convinced, or more exactly convince itself before it will allow in beliefs and ideas from outside. This picture of a wary, watchful self, peeking out at the world to perform a sort of security check on incoming beliefs can be related to another aspect of late modernity, which is the decline of organised religious belief and the rise of spirituality, characterised by the move from ‘believer’ to ‘seeker’: the seeker wanders through a landscape of ideas and experiences, welcoming some into her buffered self, rejecting others.
If anything like this is right, and certainly, as a broad description of the modern condition, I think it is, the answer to the first question -why should critical, reflective thought play any part in Catholicism?- is that this is simply unavoidable: we are, for better or worse, stuck with the buffered self and the buffered self will be doing its own due diligence on its beliefs. We can, I hope, encourage it to do so with humility in the face of the length of experience and wisdom of the Church, but it will still reserve to itself a final gatekeeping role: even a believer will, to an extent anyway, be a seeker.
So much then for why reflective and critical thought is necessary in the Catholic Church. In the next article in this series, I shall turn to consider the remaining two questions: what role should philosophy as an academic discipline play in this reflective and critical thought; and why should there be a role for a special, Scottish Catholic philosophy rather than, say, a global philosophy dominated inevitably by more populous parts of the Church or world?
Taylor, C. ‘Buffered and porous selves’, The Immanent Frame [online] Available at: https://tif.ssrc.org/2008/09/02/buffered-and-porous-selves/ [Accessed3