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A Conversion Story

The great English philosopher Michael Dummett recounts his journey to Catholicism in an intellectual autobiography in a recent volume of essays on his philosophy:

During my time at Winchester, my religious opinions underwent a radical swing. Initially, I had an atheist and scientistic outlook; in company with many others in College (the scholars house), I declined to receive an Anglican confirmation at the designated age. My parents protested mildly; neither was a practising Christian, and I think their objection was to any unconventional behaviour rather than to religious dissent. Then my opinions started gradually to shift. From a diffuse pantheism I came to believe in God, as understood in the Semitic religions. I was much influenced by a heterogeneous sect of Catholic writersG.K. Chesterton, Eric Gill, Christopher Dawson. One by one, I came to accept the tenets of the faith. That which I found it hardest to swallow, and which was the last I came to accept, was that of life after death. I do not think that I understood at the time that this rested absolutely on the belief in that, on the face of it, bafflingly unlikely event, the general resurrection: I think I had then a dualist conception of our souls as naturally capable of existing separated from our bodies. I should probably have been puzzled if I had learned of St. Thomass dictum Anima mea non est ego (My soul is not me). I was received into the Church in February 1944. My parents were very upset, not, I think, because my action was unconventional, but because of a deep prejudice against Catholicism which had been instilled into them in childhood and survived their loss of all religious faith. Apart from three distant cousins, all female and two of an older generation, whom I very much liked, I had never known any Catholics, and had never attended a Catholic service; I now went to two nearby churches, and found the forms of worship strange, and fascinating. I later learned much more about my religion, and became critical in various ways and a strong advocate of liturgical reform; but my faith was deeply rooted, and it was not for twelve years or more that the first doubts assailed me about whether it was all true.

I have undergone several periods when I have been overcome by such doubts; during them, I have not ceased to attend Sunday Mass, but have abstained from the sacraments. My doubts have always been global rather than local; my reasons for believing in God are philosophical rather than affective; they can suddenly strike me as unconvincing. The liturgy enables those who take part to feel themselves present at the long-past events of Christs life; something similar is a feature of all religions, I think. But during such periods I was oppressed by the thought that all that is actually happening is the present performance of the liturgy. But most usually my doubts have been engendered by what troubles everyone: can a world in which such suffering occurs be one made by a God who is said to love? What a tender love was His, Who from realms of highest bliss Came into a world like this the Christmas hymn exclaims: it was the world He created. That world looks as if governed by uncaring forces. The pain of animals is a good example; I once saw on television a sloth carried off by some bird of prey and then devoured alive. As for human pain, it is not its mere occurrence that has usually troubled me: after the Cross, no one can say to God, You dont know what it is like. After the great cry of dereliction no one can say this even about the feeling that the Sicilian heroine Rita Atria had, that God had abandoned her. What troubles me most is the way some people die. Some deaths are too devoid of dignity or peace to allow any self-surrender; how can they be the means by which anyones soul is supposed to pass into eternity? I have no answer to these questions; they trouble me continually. It has been only sporadically, and not for a long time now, that they have overwhelmed me and prevented me for a period from being a whole-hearted believer. When the period has ended and my faith in God has been restored, it has not been because I have found the answers, but because I have become able to live with the agony of not knowing them, confident that they are to be found.

"I have celebrated my seventy-fifth birthday," Dummett concludes. "I remain a Catholic, and hope to die one."

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John--Thanks for this very poignant excerpt. I found the last few lines especially apt: "What troubles me most is the way some people die. Some deaths are too devoid of dignity or peace to allow any self-surrender; how can they be the means by which anyones soul is supposed to pass into eternity? I have no answer to these questions; they trouble me continually. It has been only sporadically, and not for a long time now, that they have overwhelmed me and prevented me for a period from being a whole-hearted believer. When the period has ended and my faith in God has been restored, it has not been because I have found the answers, but because I have become able to live with the agony of not knowing them, confident that they are to be found.I'm buoyed that someone so brilliant, despite the "agony" of not having found answers, remains "confident" the answers will be found.Dummett's thoughts remind me of the many musings on faith and doubt in Commonweal over the years by John Garvey, whose essay on our inability to understand why God would have allowed the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami still remains vivid to me. An excerpt: "Eastern Orthodox Christianity emphasizes apophatic theology-the Western equivalent is sometimes called negative theology. At its center is the fact that Gods nature is completely unknowable. If we speak of God as good or all-powerful, this has to do with our needs and the limitations of our language; good means something different from the sort of thing we mean when we speak of good pizza or even a good deed. Orthodox theology says that while God may not be understood and is unknowable, we participate in Gods being through sharing in Gods divine energies. But God is finally unknowable, and, because of his infinite otherness we can only approach-but never fully arrive at-God. (This dynamic sense of approaching God, and of being continuously transformed as we do, is the heart of Gregory of Nyssas sense of eternal life.)"

That line of Aquinas ("My soul is not me") is echoed when, commenting on the word of Jesus: "God is a God of the living, not of the dead," he remarks: "Anima Abrahae non est Abraham" ("Abraham's soul is not Abraham"). Aquinas was of the view that it was very difficult to prove the immortality of the soul without the resurrection of the body. I suspect most people would put it the other way down, or at least seem to think that the immortality of the soul goes without saying, with the resurrected body often not entering into consideration. Someone has commented that today probably more people believe in reincarnation than in the resurrection of the body.Joseph Pieper's little book, "Death and Immortality," is a fine treatment.

"Aquinas was of the view that it was very difficult to prove the immortality of the soul without the resurrection of the body. "That is very interesting - did Aquinas see it that way as following logically from the unity of body and soul?

I believe that Thomas found it hard to see how a soul--an Aristotelian soul, not a Platonic one--could operate after it lost its whole body, but since like all Christians and many Jews in the late second temple period--including the Pharisees--he believed in the resurrection of the dead on the last day, he was naturally led to postulate the survival of the soul after its loss of its body. If I remember correctly the only philosophical argument he uses is one from the ability of the human mind to have knowledge that transcends the sensible. Plato--at least in the dialogue Phaedo--imagines the soul as entity whose natural state is not to be embodied. For him the reward of virtue and detachment from the bodily is escape from the cycle of reincarnation. He seems to hold that it is of the essence of the soul that it exist. The concept of "immortality" in the Hellenic world strongly suggested divinity. We are mortals, the gods and goddesses are immortals.

Professor Gannon --For Thomas, as for Aristotle, the soul is the form of the body, and as such is a constituent of it. It not only determines shape somehow but provides operative principles of the bodies physical actions -- e.g., nutrition, growth, reproduction. How this immaterial principle can be presnt within a spatial thing is mysterious, but theree it is, most notably in consciousness which is itself non-quantitative.John -- I know Geatch has written on "soul" when all other philosophers don't dare say the word which itself shows courage. What would you recommend that read by him that is readily available?(i see that your dissertaton topic is about presence in space. Fascinating topic!)

However we cut it we still have not come up with a better answer than Genesis and Original Sin. It is astounding the wonder of the human person and what wo/man is capable of. Yet with all our marvels there is the universal belief that something is wrong (original sin). No one, no matter how wealthy and wise is assured tomorrow. And few seem to have come up with a better reconciliation than Paul in Romans: "I consider that the sufferings of this present time are as nothing compared with the glory to be revealed for us. 19 For creation awaits with eager expectation the revelation of the children of God; 20 for creation was made subject to futility, not of its own accord but because of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that creation itself would be set free from slavery to corruption and share in the glorious freedom of the children of God. 22 We know that all creation is groaning in labor pains even until now; 23 and not only that, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, we also groan within ourselves as we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in hope we were saved. Now hope that sees for itself is not hope. For who hopes for what one sees? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait with endurance. 26 In the same way, the Spirit too comes to the aid of our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit itself intercedes with inexpressible groanings. 27 And the one who searches hearts knows what is the intention of the Spirit, because it intercedes for the holy ones according to God's will."

Here's Aquinas' text: Aquinas is commenting on the statement of St. Paul: If it is only for this life that we have hoped in Christ, we are the most miserable of all men. Someone objects that this is not universally true, because they could say that even though their bodies have good things only in this mortal life, in their souls they have many good things in the other life. Aquinas answers:Two answers may be given. First, if the resurrection of the body is denied, it is not easy, in fact it is difficult, to maintain the immortality of the soul. For the soul is naturally united to the body, and for it to be separated from it is against its nature and per accidens; soul stripped of its body is imperfect for as long as it is without its body. Now it is impossible that what is natural and per se be finite and almost nothing, while what is against nature and per accidens is infinite, [which is what would be the case] if the soul were to perdure without its body. That is why Platonists, positing immortality, also posited reincarnation, even though this is heretical. Therefore, if the dead do not rise, it is only in this life that we have hope.Second, man naturally desires the salvation of himself. But the soul, although it is a part of the human body, is not the whole man, and my soul is not me. Hence, although the soul attains salvation in another life, I do not, or any other man. Besides, since man naturally desires salvation of his body also, that natural desire would be frustrated [without the resurrection of the body]."

8-12-09In the writings of Dummett that I have read I find him to be the consumate nerd -- an inhabitant ot the upper reaches of the most abstract reaches of the ivory tower, and he is excruciating exact, as you would expect a great 20th century logician to be. He's a convert who came to believe in God through reason, not through any affective or mystical experience, or even Pascalian wager based on mathematical probability. Nevertheless, he has been far from the stereotypical cold-fish that such philosophers of logic, language and metaphysics are supposed to be. He took a leave of absence from teaching to work for racial justice in England, and has devoted much time to moral issues of immigration, not only writing about it but serving on commissions to combat prejudice. He has also invented a proportional system of voting to insure a more accurate voting system, though I don't know that any place has adopted it. Not to mention writing a theological defense of the Eucharist as a rational belief He is also the world's greatest authority on the game of Tarot, which, I suppose, also makes him an English eccentric :-) And, in my humble opinion, he is also the most respected English Catholic intellectual since Chesterton. No small feat.

Thomass first argument I would analyse along these lines:Premisses: (1) The soul survives the death of the body; (2) The soul without the body is incomplete. Conclusion: We can expect that at some point in a world governed by Gods providence that the soul will again be united with its body. The only oddity I see is that for a Christian the resurrection of the body (carnis resurrectionem) is an article of faith and quite central in the New Testament. So one might expect the survival of the soul to be inferred from the certainty of a future resurrection. But the oddity can be explained as arising from the way Thomas reads the Pauline passage. As for the note that these premisses led the Platonists to postulate reincarnation, it is simply false. Platonists--unless they are also Christians--do not belie ve that the soul without the body is incomplete.The second argument also seems to assume the survival of the soul and the argue for bodily resurrection. There is one point I found puzzling. The Thomas says: the soul, although it is a part of the human body, is not the whole man... Can Thomas really have written that the soul is part of the body? Does body here stand for composite? Or is there some form of corruption in the text?

AnnWould you consider Elizabeth Anscombe and Peter Geach as candidates for most respected? Anscombe's book on the Tractatus was a life saver for me in a course I took long ago.

Would you consider Elizabeth Anscombe and Peter Geach as candidates for most respected?

I would put Anscombe in the same class as Dummett, but Geach isn't quite up there.

I agree that Anscombe probably has an equally great reputation as a philosopher, if one includes the Catholic conservative philosophers who love her defense of the Church's position on contraception. (I think it's pretty bad.) But I was thinking of these philosophers as intellectuals -- that is, as having influence beyond philosophy departments. I think that as an intellectual Dummett is tops because of his political activism. Yes, I think Geatch doesn't have the reputation of either of them, and I gather that's probably deserved. I haven't read any of his works.I happen to be reading Dummett's "The Logic of Metaphysics" right now. What a brilliant man! I've never reacted to Anscombe like that, but I haven't read much by her. She does have the grea merit of making intentionality comprehensible to contemporary thinkers. She too was politically active somewhat, She objected to granting an honorary degree to Truman because he dropped the bomb, and she demonstrated against some of the wars. But she didn't have much general influence because of it as far as I know, nothing like Ruyssell, for instance.

Anscombe's Intention is arguably (though certainly not incontestably) the greatest philosophical work written in English of the past century, and her translation of the Philosophical Investigations is obviously a classic; in addition, many of her papers - like "The First Person", "Modern Moral Philosophy", and a number of others - remain among the very most influential written in the analytic tradition. Beyond philosophy, she did make a name for herself by opposing Britain's entry into the Second World War (because she knew it would involve the bombing of civilian populations) and the decision to honor Truman (whom she rightly called a war criminal); she was also involved in Operation Rescue efforts, and was a key voice in the Church during the middle of the century. So while it's certainly true that she never produced anything like Dummett's work on voting (or Tarot!), her overall influence on the intellectual scene is at least as great as his.

P.S. Geach's work is genuinely brilliant, though not genre-defining in the way that Dummett and Anscombe have been. But Mental Acts, for example, is still read and cited.

Among Geach's books, Mental Acts is probably the most famous. I haven't read God and the Soul, but I'm sure it's worth a look - fact is, though, that I'm not that familiar with the body of his work.