Recently I have been recalling my experience of studying philosophy as an undergraduate in the major seminary many years ago. Statements professors made and ideas I read at that time in books about philosophy, which meant little to me when I first was introduced to them, came to be very important and influential years later in my understanding of myself, my neighbor and God.
One experience with a professor may illustrate what I mean. One afternoon I went to ask a question of one of my philosophy professors, Father Frank Tyrell. I don’t recall the question or his answer, but in answering me he said “I don’t think we realize how much we have been influenced by Descartes.” He was referring to the thinker often called “The Father of Modern Philosophy,” Rene Descartes (1596-1650), but I had no idea how we were influenced by this French philosopher who died more than 400 years ago. Some years later Frank’s comment came to mean a great deal to me, enabling me to see many errors that I and others have made concerning human knowledge and truth.
At the risk of oversimplifying, I think the great French thinker, genius though he was, misunderstood the capacity of the human mind to grasp truth and so accepted a view of the human person that was shallow and narrow. I agree with one commentator who said that Descartes, though he was a Catholic, was the start of 19th century atheism. What the commentator meant was that Descartes’ views of God and the human person were so impoverished that, with the best intentions in the world, Rene bequeathed to future generations a philosophy of the human person and a philosophy of God that led to atheism.
Descartes made science not only a wonderful way of knowing but the way of knowing. He so exaggerated the value of scientific knowledge that he indirectly led to the philosophy of scientism which claims that only statements of positive science are meaningful. This genius missed the truth that science is one way of looking at reality and reaching knowledge. There are many other ways, such as through philosophy, theology, literature, and though they may not be as clear as science because they deal with mystery, they are just as objective as science. In fact science is completely meaningless unless it refers back to some lived experience which involves a more original knowledge. For example, H2O is meaningless unless it refers back to a puddle or a lake or a liquid that we drink or a reality that we have in some way come in contact with in our lived experience!
The relationship between how we think of a human person and how we think of God has been on my mind recently because of a book I re-read every spring semester with students in a course I teach called “Personalism.” The book is W. Norris Clarke’s “Person and Being” (Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 1993). Most of this small volume was Clarke’s 1993 Aquinas Lecture at Marquette University. What Father Clarke, S.J., tries to do in this marvelous book is develop St. Thomas’ insights into the mystery of person by borrowing from the contemporary philosophies of existentialism, phenomenology and personalism. He writes the following:
“The human intellect, as capacity for being … is naturally ordered, as to its adequate object, to the whole of being as intelligible. Hence it can ultimately be satisfied only by knowing the infinite source and fullness of all being, namely, God … So too the human will, the faculty tending towards being as good, is naturally ordered to the whole order of the good without restriction. Hence it too cannot ultimately be satisfied by anything less than loving union with God as the infinite fullness of all goodness. Thus we are magnetized, so to speak, by our very nature toward the Infinite Good, which draws us in our very depths, at first spontaneously below the level of consciousness and freedom, but then slowly emerging into consciousness as we grow older — if we allow it — by the accumulation of experience and reflection upon it.” (pp. 36-37)
I love the idea that we are magnetized by God so much that a few years ago I used it as the title for a book I wrote. In our very being we are directed toward God. When we begin to make free choices and to direct our knowledge we should be moving toward a deeper awareness of God and a more free choice of God and the things of God. We should be directing ourselves toward the only reality that will satisfy our desire to know and our desire to love and be loved.