Saturday, April 26, 2014

A Catholic Theologian's View of Reason and Mysticism

In the previous post, I briefly reviewed Richard M. Gula's Reason Informed by Faith: Foundations of Catholic Morality. The post below records some of my notes on Gula's views of reason and mysticism.

REASON. What is reason? Gula provides no direct answer. Curiously, in a book dedicated in part to reason, the index has no entry for reason. The reader must infer Gula's meaning of "reason" from clues. Here is one clue. At one point he implies that reason is "critical reflection on human experience." That sounds promising. He says that critical reflection is "a valid source for coming to know what is morally required." However, his justification for doing so is the "principle of mediation: "... only through the human ... do we come to know God and respond to what God is ... requiring us ... to do." That principle in turn rests on "a commitment of faith by which we accept the mystery of Christ as the full revelation of God and accept the sources of faith as valid sources of coming to the truth about God, being human, and living in the world." (p. 8) So, according to Gula, "reason" works on the material provided mystically by God. This is not reason as the faculty of forming abstractions logically from sense-perception of the natural world. 

"Reflection" is a synonym for reason in Gula's view. At one point (p. 46), Gula even speaks of "reflection informed by faith" as he spoke of "reason informed by faith in the title of his book. "Reflection" is an appropriate word here. The Catholic thinker reflects on ideas that come from outside of him; he does not create these ideas. He reflects on them as premises of some sort in his chain of thinking. 

When should we use reason and how? In a section called "Reflection," Gula says: "We turn to the language of the mind when we want to support, analyze, and communicate what we grasp by heart." (p. 16) Again Gula says that in ethics, reason (which he refers to as "rational explanations" and "conceptual knowledge") is useful if we want "to communicate values and to argue for or against a position." (p. 84) Reason, then, is for persuasively conveying ideas to other individuals, not for gaining new ideas of our own. Reason is rhetoric.

The strict logic of a scientific nature is necessary in morality in order to defend publicly what we have decided.  But we do not actually make our decisions in the same logical way that we try to justify them. Ordinarily in the oral life, we lead with the heart. Judgments of rationality follow in a complementary way. (p. 316)

We get ideas—in least in the field of ethics—from God via revelation and our "heart," and then we use reason to tidy up our position when speaking to others. So much for reason, at least in the field of ethics. (Gula's view of the roles of reason in other fields are not clear in this book.)

MYSTICISM. Gula does not use the word "mysticism" to identify the class of alternatives to reason. Instead he identifies each form of mysticism individually. For example, early in the book Gula names three "theological sources of faith—scripture, Jesus, and the church." (p. 4) A Catholic takes on faith the ideas conveyed through scripture, through Jesus's words as preserved in Catholic tradition, and through the Church's magisterium, its special teaching ability, as guided by the Holy Spirit. The following passage makes those sources explicit:

The Christian conviction about the good is governed by the religious beliefs expressed in the stories of the Bible, especially in Jesus, and further expounded in the theological tradition of the church. (p. 44)

Another form of Catholic mysticism is "sensitivity," as shown in two passages:

(1) Sensitivity is fundamental. It implies that moral living begins in the heart and not with an abstract principle about the nature of being human from which we draw crisp conclusions. ... The foundational experience that awakens our moral consciousness ... is the experience of the sacredness of human life, or the value of persons as persons. All morality is organically linked to this foundational experience. The value of persons as persons can only be appreciated. It is not something we reason to or can prove with satisfaction of a logical syllogism. That is why the foundational moral experience is a matter of the heart. ... To bring sensitivity to moral analysis, then, is to engage artistic or mystical insight in the service of the moral life and moral reflection. (pp. 13-14)

(2) The sensitivity required for the moralist to engage in moral 'theological' reflection is a sensitivity of the heart attuned to the presence of God. ... Without this prayerful attentiveness to God, moral reflection [that is, "reason"] stops short of attending to the fullness of the relationships which make up the moral life. (p. 15)

Yet another form of mysticism appearing in Gula's book is the mysticism of "theological code words." For example, Gula says, the term "Trinity" is a "theological code word" for the "freedom and totality of God's self-giving." (p.65) You see or hear the word "Trinity" and then you "know" something about God.

Gula identifies a last form: the mysticism of experience. 

Evaluative knowledge, symbolized by the heart, is the kind of knowledge we have when we are 'caught up' in someone or something through personal involvement or commitment. Evaluative knowledge is more personal, more self-involving than conceptual knowledge of facts or ideas, for it has to do with grasping the quality of a person, object, or event. We do not gain evaluative knowledge by words but by touch, sight, and sound, by experiencing victories and failures, sleeplessness and devotion. ...  In short, evaluative knowledge is a felt knowledge which we discover through personal involvement and reflection. (p. 84)

IMAGINATION. In Gula's Catholicism, reason is not the faculty of integration of sense data into abstractions. Reason is instead merely a faculty of argumentation, that is, lining ideas up syllogistically, mainly for persuasion.

Catholicism values integration, connecting things into a system, as Gula says through out his book. If not reason, then what in Catholicism performs integration? Gula's answer is the faculty of "imagination." Four passages illustrate it.

(1) Understood in its deepest sense, the imagination ... is the capacity to construct a world. By means of the imagination we bring together diverse experiences into a meaningful whole. (p. 71) 

(2) The imagination connects "diverse beliefs and experiences." (p. 72)

(3) When religious beliefs, for example, are part of the imaginative process, they enter into the content of what we experience and contribute toward connecting the many dimensions of experience with the values entailed in those beliefs. (p. 72) 

(4) The imagination informs what we think, what we see, the way we feel, our readiness to act, and the direction of our actions. (p. 72)

RELATIONSHIP OF REASON AND MYSTICISM. We have seen above that Gula cites various sources of mysticism, that is, non-rational claims to "knowledge." He restricts "reason" to reflection on ideas that have come into the mind in various ways. He thus expands mysticism and shrinks reason. What is the relationship between them? The next three passages show that Gula's Catholicism claims adherence to both faith and reason.

(1) Characteristically, Catholic moral theology relies on 'mediation' for coming to know God and what faith requires. This means that it takes seriously not only revelation and the tradition of the Church, but also critical reflection ["reason"] on ongoing human experience as well. Both faith and reason, then, are the fundamental sources to which we appeal in giving content to ethics [theory] and morals [practice] within Catholic moral theology. (p. 10)

(2) Our affective commitment to ... the value of persons ... are 'reasons of the heart' which ultimately cannot be proven, yet which will always remain the final court of appeal for our moral judgments. We appeal to 'reasons of the head', or rational arguments, to confirm and demonstrate in a way that can be convincing to another what we already know by heart. In the moral life, head and heart work together. (p. 14)

(3) The Catholic tradition has not maintained ... a complete dependence of morality on faith. It holds to a relative autonomy for faith and morality. Faith informs reason, but it does not replace it. Faith and reason are the two sources of moral knowledge to which the Catholic tradition appeals. (p. 45)

Gula acknowledges the central problem in claiming both faith and reason: How does one decide to use one or the other claim to knowledge?

The challenge to moral theology today lies in maintaining the proper relationship of faith and reason for determining what constitutes morally good character and right moral action. (p. 46) 

When pressed for demands for a rational approach, Gula resorts to polylogism and subjectivism: 

Thus, the 'therefore' which links morality to religious beliefs is not by way of a strict inference of syllogistic logic. [Instead, the] inference is made by way of ... 'the logic of self-involvement'.

Such a "logic" considers the believer's "certain manner of living" and "having certain attitudes and feelings." (pp. 48-49) An additional form of Catholic mysticism, the mysticism of Christian symbols, ties up any loose ends left by other forms of mysticism.

Using a Christian symbol of some sort to look on a situation, then, will determine to some extent what one sees [the is, the facts] and what one does [the ought, the values]." (p.50)

SUMMARY. In Gula's Catholicism, mysticism is broad and takes many forms; reason is narrow and is truncated to being a tool of rhetoric. The Church insists on claiming both, leaving no room for the mind that starts from sense-perception, forms abstractions about the world, and then selects values from among those facts. For the Church, mysticism is the means for obtaining morals from another world, and "reason" is the means the Church uses to argue for its positions.

Burgess Laughlin
Author, The Power and the Glory: The Key Ideas and Crusading Lives of Eight Debaters of Reason vs. Faith, described at

No comments:

Post a Comment

I welcome all pertinent comments and questions from readers who follow my strict rules of etiquette. I will not publish improper comments. If your screen name is not your first and last real name, be sure to include your name -- first and last -- in the body of your comment. Example acceptable forms of a name are: Burgess Laughlin; B. Laughlin; and Burgess L. or something similar that would be recognizable. The burden is on you to identify yourself.