POC Blog

The random technotheolosophical blogging of Reid S. Monaghan

A Thought on a Thought from a Medieval Saint

Writing. To pull aside the mind from the distractions of our day to bring the soul to the contemplation of truth, to put thought down in a clearer form, can appear as if one is called to scale the heights of an icy slope with but flip flops on his feet. Tonight the mind races as I read a biography or the medieval scholastic philosopher Thomas Aquinas. A quote deeply challenging and quite relevant to many a debate I have had with both friend and adversary has confronted my mind. This is from GK Chesterton’s transcription of a debate between Thomas and Siger of Brabant on the nature of Theological and Scientific truth. If there is one sentence that could be carved in marble as representing the calmest and most enduring rationality of his unique intelligence, it is a sentence that came pouring out with all the rest of this molten lava [this is a reference to a portion of a fiery rebuttal to the point of an opponent in debate – RM]. If there is one phrase that stands out before history as typical of Thomas Aquinas, it is that phrase about his own argument: “It is not based on the documents of faith, but on the reasons and statements of the philosophers themselves.” Would that all Orthodox doctors in deliberation were as reasonable as Thomas in anger! Would that all Christian apologists would remember that maxim; and write it up in large letters on the wall, before they nail any theses there. At the top of his fury, Thomas Aquinas understands, what so many defenders of orthodoxy will not understand. It is not good to tell and atheist that he is an atheist; or charge a denier of immortality with the infamy of denying it; or to imagine that one can force an opponent to admit he is wrong, by proving he is wrong on somebody else’s principles, but not on his own. After the great example of St. Thomas, the principle stands, or ought always to have stood established; that we either not argue with a man at all, or we must argue on his ground and not ours. We may do other things instead of arguing, according to our views or what actions are morally permissible; but if we argue we must argue “on the reasons and statements of the philosophers themselves.” At times I have heard that we cannot reason with an unbeliever because there are no common epistemic grounds by which we can argue. I have always wrestled with this. What is the point in persuading anyone (2 Cor 5:11) if one cannot understand the language and rationale by which we attempt to persuade? Now a man may deny reason in order to hold conclusions contradictory to his own arguments – but such a man does not lack common ground, he lacks honesty. He will not admit to his own reasoning. His mind understands, yet his will remains obstinate – such is the state of the man at enmity with God – he will turn and cannibalize himself only to prevent his turning to his Creator. Like others before him, he simply will not come (John 5:40). Curtis Chang in his excellent book “Engaging Unbelief – a captivating strategy form Augustine and Aquinas” gives a strategy which seems to follow the Thomistic maxim above. Enter a friends story on her terms, understanding it well according to her arguments. Retell the story by her own reasoning exposing its tragic flaw and inconsistencies. Capture the story correcting the flaw with the truth of the gospel. The gospel will capture the truth in the position, exclude its error and free us to see clearly on the other side. I do not think for once that Thomas is suggesting that we abandon our own presuppositions to argue by way of another’s. It is precisely because we see by our faith that we can argue by way of another’s principles. If we were blind men we would not see well enough to not step in another’s dung heap. But because we do see by the light of faith we can kindly say “Sir this is dung” and then via his own nostrils and soles of his shoes demonstrate it to be such. Then we may suggest to him: “You would do well to avoid this steamy pile, behold there is another path to trod – and upon that path we may follow the one whose sandals we are unfit to tie.” If one then chooses and persists to wallow in dung – such is his lot. With the foolishness of preaching and with an apologia for the hope that I have. Out…