The Embrace of Truth: How Dogma Frustrates the Love of Wisdom

The Embrace of Truth: How Dogma Frustrates the Love of Wisdom February 28, 2021

There is a sense in which dogmatic faith renders philosophy impossible.

I recall, several years ago, setting out on a project to “correct the errors of postmodernism.” I had read several articles by Catholic philosophers talking about the vacuity of deconstruction and the arrogance of Michel Foucault, and I wanted to address these dangerous ideas in a form that would be accessible to an audience with limited philosophical training.

Fortunately, I had principle that I would not attempt to refute what I had not read. Any secondary source, no matter how exhaustive, might not accurately represent an author’s ideas. It’s rather like the difference between getting to know a person and getting to know about them by interviewing their friends, enemies and acquaintances.

So I sat down with a stack of books by prominent postmodern philosophers, prepared to assail them, to discover the weaknesses in their argumentation, and to do battle with the falsehoods and deceptions that must, surely, be inherent in such godless philosophies.

I did not make it very far before the entire project was upended by the stark, startling conviction that I was doing philosophy wrong.

Reading as a Loser

The books I was reading confronted me with two challenging ideas that had not occurred to me in all of the time (over a decade by that point) that I had been engaging in Catholic apologetics. The first was the idea of “reading as a loser.”

I don’t know where this idea actually came from (I thought it was the title of an essay by Mark Kingwell, but that doesn’t appear to be the case. It remains possible that Kingwell is the source.) It was, however, revolutionary for me.

To read as a loser is to approach a text without being determined to grapple, wrestle, attack, defend, counterattack, shoot down, destroy, topple or otherwise wage war against its argument. Rather than adopting a position, developing a strategy, approaching the text and then, through an agonistic intellectual process, either overcoming or being won over by the argument, you approach it with docility. That is, with a willingness to be taught and to learn.

What this means is that when you encounter a new idea, you suspend judgement.

This is a natural way for most people to approach ideas and texts for which they already possess sympathy. As a Catholic, for example, when I picked up a new Papal encyclical or the writings of some Saint, my immediate posture was one of humility. I assumed that the text contained some revelation or insight that I did not already possess and which would help me to grow in wisdom and understanding.

That’s not to say that I was never critical of “orthodox” Catholic writings, but rather that criticism was a secondary mode of engagement. Only once I understood what the author was saying, and had attempted to glean the truth from their writing, did I begin to say “I’m not sure I agree with this passage. This conclusion doesn’t quite seem to follow. Hmmm. This is not my experience, though perhaps I’m missing something.”

You’ll notice that in the sympathetic approach to a text, there is never any question of outright rejection. The possibility that the text is simply “full of shit” does not emerge unless, for some reason, the author manages to completely alienate the reader. The assumption is that the work should be read, in the first place, as if it is truth, and that caution, perhaps even consideration, should be exercised when deciding that the author has made a mistake.

Humility Before Truth

The second challenge to my project came as a result of reading Foucault. I sat down with Discipline and Punish and forced myself to wade through well over a hundred pages of what seemed like incomprehensible, perhaps even incoherent, gibberish. A lot of what he said seemed barely to be in English, and he kept making statements that were completely nonsensical from a Catholic point of view — like the idea of souls being “produced” through techniques of knowledge and power.

At some point, towards the second half of the book, the text started to make sense. It was something like looking at one of those Magic Eye books that were popular in the ‘90s. The seemingly meaningless barrage of terms and ideas slowly resolved into a coherent picture.

There were two startling effects that this produced. The first was that I very quickly realized that all of the take-downs of Foucault that I had read by Catholic intellectuals were, quite obviously, the product of taking individual statements out of context and analyzing them as if Foucault’s terminology could be mapped simply onto Catholic concepts. The idea that words like “power,” “soul,” “ascesis,” “subjugation” and even “ethics” have a very different meaning to a social constructionist than they do to a Thomist did not inform these critiques. They were responding in the way that I might have responded if I had attempted to form a rebuttal of Foucault’s project during those first laborious chapters when simply trying to understand the ideas made my head spin.

The second was that the overweening arrogance which several Catholic commentators had ascribed to Foucault, and which had constituted my own first impression, was not actually present in the writing. Foucault himself routinely emphasized the need for “humility before truth” and even instructed readers not to treat his work as a systematic revelation, but rather as a toolkit from which they could take whatever seemed useful and reject whatever seemed false.

That arrogance was, however, present in the way that I had first approached the text. I had assumed, before even cracking the cover, that I was approaching a Tower of Babel, a false, hubristic attempt to construct an artificial truth in opposition to the revealed truth of my faith. I also assumed that my access to revelation, and to the wisdom of the Holy Spirit, would naturally allow me to unmask and confound this fraud.

The realization that I had been projecting my own arrogance onto my ideological “enemy” was sobering, and also somewhat disturbing. After all, faith was supposed to present me with a series of fixed truths, like lamps illuminating the path of wisdom. It was supposed to allow me to proceed with absolute confidence, knowing that my beliefs were vouchsafed by an Intelligence vastly greater than my own. All of this was supposed to produce the virtue of humility and encourage, within me, the growth of love.

Yet how could I practice humility before another person’s insights if I believed myself to have clear and certain knowledge that they were wrong and that they had been deceived by the Father of Lies? How could I love the author, whose thoughts, beliefs and interiority were offered to me by their writing, if I could not allow myself to be transformed by the encounter with the corpus of their work?

Abortive Encounters

Ironically, it was the Church’s own teachings on birth control that made this particularly troubling and uncomfortable for me. As I began to give myself permission to open myself to these writers upon whom, initially, I had intended to wage war, I became increasingly aware that dogma served as a kind of intellectual contraception.

No matter how much I loved an atheistic philosopher, or how deeply I experienced their ideas as true, there came a point where I had to close myself off. If I allowed their ideas to germinate, to take root in my mind, this was like allowing the weeds to rise up and choke off my faith. Contemporary Catholicism (unlike its previous iteration with its Index Librorum Prohibitorum) permitted some congress with non-Catholic writers, but also insisted on an unequal exchange.

Rather like the ancient understanding of sexual reproduction, in which the active male seed takes root in a passive female field, the Catholic approach to dialogue and intellectual encounter involves a kind of fundamental Catholic chauvinism. The Catholic (and the same could be said of any evangelical form of Christianity) is an instrument through which the illumination of revealed truth is transmitted to the other party, who stands in need of conversion. The Christian is an agent of evangelism, the potential convert is a recipient of grace. The same hierarchical structure of disequilibrium and inequality that characterizes the traditional (mis)understanding of sexuality is reproduced in the realm of discourse.

The Christian may be transformed, in some sense, by the encounter, but this transformation is always relatively superficial. If there is any threat to one’s Christian identity, any possibility of a structural reorganization of one’s beliefs, one’s relationship to God and to oneself, the Christian must withdraw. For the convert, however, the proposed transformation is ontological: they will repent, turning away from their former beliefs and way of life, and they will be reborn, becoming a new creation with a new identity in Christ.

Within this structure, true reciprocity and mutuality are impossible. Talk of mutuality and reciprocity are common enough, just as talk of equality of the sexes is common in Catholic theology. At the end of the day, however, there is an underlying hierarchy necessitated by the absolute demands of a dogmatic faith, and by the belief that one side has privileged access to the Truth. What emerges is an abstract and inaccessible “equality before God” which is stripped of all actual manifestations, properties or appearances of equality: an “equality” which must always bear a suspicious resemblance, in practice, to hierarchical practices of superiority and domination.

Philosophical Erotics

Before we proceed, I want to pause for a moment to acknowledge that faith in itself does not necessitate this relationship. There exists a kind of faith which incorporates authentic humility: a faith which presents itself as a relationship to an unknown, mysterious and transcendent divinity who is only ever partially and conditionally revealed by any particular text, prophet, avatar or institution. Such a faith is able to treat the encounter with the other as an encounter with another, fully equal, manifestation of the creativity, wisdom and power of God.

It is only when you attach to faith a set of immutable and absolute dogmas — an infallible authority, an inerrant scripture, a perfect revelation or one true prophet — that faith becomes incompatible with the kind of vulnerable humility which philosophy demands. The moment you say “I know that (x) is true because it has been revealed by God absolutely and for all time” it becomes impossible to say, with Socrates, “I neither know nor think that I know.” (Apology 21d)

Dogma constitutes faith as a series of propositional truths, which must always characterize the relationship that one has first with God, then with oneself, and finally with others. In this relationship, the other can only be loved, fully and freely, insofar as they manifest the truth of the dogma. If they interrupt or disrupt one’s dogmatic convictions, they become an enemy, a manifestation of Satan, and must be instructed to “get behind me.”

For philosophy, this is disastrous. Dogma demands a hermeneutic of suspicion with regard to any writer who does not arrive at the pre-ordained and necessary conclusions. One might approach the suspect ideas like a conqueror intending to overtake them, like a diplomat intending to secure a favourable truce with them, or like a defender, shielding himself from the onslaught of lies and deceptions. However, if these ideas are to be accepted in any way, they must first be rendered sterile: incapable of introducing ideological infection into the purity of faith.

What one cannot do is engage in the erotic dance to which philosophy invites the lover of wisdom. You cannot allow the “heretic” to touch your body with their mind, to penetrate or engulf your thoughts, to draw you towards that climactic epiphany, the intersubjective union from which you might emerge pregnant with a new understanding of the world and of yourself.

Image by Thilo Becker from Pixabay

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