Letters | Ways of knowing, the dignity of labor, etc.

 

MORE THAN A WAY OF LIVING

I’d like to offer a friendly amendment to Paul Griffiths’s claims in his review of Thomas Joseph White’s The Light of Christ (“A Life, Not a Grammar,”  March 9) about the limited role of intellectual understanding in Catholic life. I agree that, in general, knowing-how to engage in religious practices is more important than knowing-that in the sense of “the rarified and technical capacity to give an account of...what one is doing.” But this distinction ignores the role that knowing-that (in a less rarified and technical sense) must play as the intellectual basis for religious practices. Especially in a culture that offers both a variety of competing religious practices and insistent secular challenges to any such practices, we need good reasons for a serious religious commitment. 

For some believers, the very satisfactions of a religious way of life—fellowship, rituals, moral inspiration, and guidance—provide these reasons, with no support needed beyond the experience of living the life. But traditional Christianity, and Catholicism most particularly, presents itself as a way of life justified by the truth of its teachings. Griffiths says, “participating in the life of Christ [e.g., in the liturgy], which is the heart of the church, doesn’t require the ability to give an account of the theological principles that order such a life.” It does, nonetheless, require assertions of such claims as “God created the world and exercises providential control over it” and “Jesus was both human and divine, died for our sins, and rose from the dead.” Such assertions—if we take them seriously—cannot be gratuitous or willful. We must have good reasons for accepting them, reasons beyond our satisfaction with a Catholic way of life.

This means that underlying the know-how of Catholic practice there must be knowledge that the church speaks the truth. It may seem odd to refer here to knowledge, given the common view that religious claims are believed on faith. But faith, as Aquinas himself points out, means believing that something is true not on my own authority but on the authority of someone else who has direct knowledge. Much of what we know—from science and history to daily news reports—is a matter of faith in this sense. Similarly, when we believe in Catholicism on faith, we do not know its truths directly. But unless our faith is vain, we must know (in the sense of having good reasons for thinking) that the church is a reliable teacher. If we didn’t, why should we pay any more attention to the church than we do to, say, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Baptist fundamentalists, or New Atheists?

Traditional Catholicism provides the general structure for an answer to this question. The ultimate authority of the church derives from Christ, who, as God, directly knows all truth. Christ conveyed key religious truths to the Apostles, who then transmitted them through the church to future generations of Catholics. But the fundamental question remains: What reason do we have for thinking that the Apostles received a divine revelation from God the Son two thousand years ago or that any such revelation was accurately transmitted across so many years?  

It’s not at all clear that the mere practice of their religion provides most Catholics with answers to these questions. But theological reflection on the origin and meaning of faith by thinkers such as Augustine, Newman, Rahner and, yes, even Aquinas might have something to offer. If not, I suspect that Catholicism is in danger of becoming—as it may already have become for many—merely a satisfactory way of living, with no viable claim to revealed truth. I think, therefore, that Griffiths’s account of Catholic life needs to include a way of knowing that the church is the vehicle of divine revelation. Without this, there is nothing to sustain the traditional claim that Catholicism gives us God’s truth and not just a satisfying way of life.

Gary Gutting
University of Notre Dame
Notre Dame, Ind.

PAUL GRIFFITHS REPLIES:

Thanks to Gary Gutting for his thoughtful comments. It is of course right that what the church teaches is true, and that it’s proper to the form of life that Catholicism is to say so. But it’s not right, I continue to think, that in order to be justified in asserting that what the church teaches is true one must know and be able to say (these two themselves importantly distinct) what the reasons are for saying that the church is a truth-teacher. So also, mutatis mutandis, for assertion of other truths central to the faith. Gutting sets the epistemic bar altogether too high. Most Catholics would fail to get over his bar, and that by itself is very good reason to think that he’s putting it in the wrong place. He and I have no disagreement about whether there are good reasons for assenting to the truths of the faith. We do differ, it seems to me, about the place knowing what those reasons are holds in the life of faith.

A JOYFUL GLOW

I write to praise Mark Phillips and his “poem” to manual labor (“How to Fell a Tree,” February 9). I grew up like Phillips in a family where that was all they knew, day after day, year after year. Unlike most of Phillips’s family, we did it in the open air on a farm, not in the ash- and chemical-laden air of an industrial plant. We were luckier, but like Phillips, I have friends and relatives from that period whose hips and knees and backs stopped functioning in their fifties and sixties. But they still had the belief that their labor was meaningful. And I believe it brought them dignity. I left that life almost seventy years ago, and I can no longer cut down large trees, but I still feel a joyful glow after I take out my chainsaw and cut up a branch that has fallen from one of my pin oaks or load my wheelbarrow with firewood someone like my father has cut and split and left for me to pile high in the rack by my front door.  

Paul J. Schaefer
Rhinebeck, N.Y.

NOT ELITIST

Thank you for Paul Baumann’s appropriate and intelligent response to the writer who did not want his/her letter publicized (“Strike 3?” February 23). And thank you for the respect you showed the writer in honoring that request.

Commonweal is not an “elitist” magazine. I come from a long line of lower–middle class Irish who originally came to the United States because they were starving during the great famine of the 1840s. My father was a steamfitter, my mother a nurse. We four siblings were raised in the Irish Catholic culture of the 1940s and 1950s. My father was also addicted to alcohol, and he never was able to accept the gift of recovery. So as an older child, I lived in poverty, because he could not work. I am not one of the elite! Now that I am older, I am comfortable financially, but I do still have to work part-time.

And I can say unequivocally that I enjoy reading Commonweal and agree with most of what I read in it. Commonweal is providing a necessary service—in speaking truth to power—in the U.S. political and economic world, and in the Roman Catholic world as well.

I applaud your entire staff and your contributors!

Mary E. Wudtke
Des Plaines, Ill.

A COLOSSAL ERROR

I always enjoy Rand Richards Cooper’s careful and incisive film reviews, but his treatment of Guillermo del Toro’s award-winning The Shape of Water (“Monsters, Politics, Romance,”  February 23) starts with a colossal error: Mr. del Toro is not Spanish, but Mexican. He was born in Guadalajara, Jalisco, to be precise. His national origin is not only a matter of personal identity, but of the quality of imagination displayed in his films. Together with Alfonso Cuarón and Alejandro González Iñárritu, he is part of a marvelous renewal of Mexican cinematic art.

Last month, after the Hollywood Foreign Press Association gave del Toro a Golden Globe Award for Best Director, a reporter from China had this exchange with him:

Reporter: You really understand and have an extraordinary ability to look into the shadow, into the darker side of human nature, and fantasy and terror, but you also are a really joyful and loving person. So how do you find that balance?

Guillermo del Toro: I’m Mexican, and no one loves life as much as we do because we are so conscious about death.

In another interview someone asked the director if “Mexicanity is important” in his films. He answers: “es importantísima porque soy mexicano.”

Like Octavio Paz, Carlos Fuentes, and Elena Poniatowska, or painters like Frida Kahlo and Rufino Tamayo, Guillermo del Toro is a great and universal artist not in spite of being Mexican, but precisely because he expresses core elements of his nation in the language of all of humanity.

Aurora Camacho de Schmidt
Professor Emerita of Spanish and Latin American Studies
Swarthmore College
Philadelphia, Penn.

COME TO JESUS

I applaud your editorial “Is God in This Picture?”  (March 23) critiquing Evangelical leaders’ embrace of Donald Trump.

In reading the David Brody op-ed cited in the editorial, I was reminded of two things. First, George W. Bush’s claim that Vladimir Putin is trustworthy because Bush was able to get a sense of his soul.

Second, the term “useful idiots,” commonly applied to liberals who refused to see the brutality and oppression of Soviet Communism and thus became propagandists for Stalin and his successors.

To equate Donald Trump with the advance of Christianity is to so distort Christianity that it abandons the dignity of women, the equality of all persons, the special care for the poor and the refugee. Thus do such Evangelical Christians destroy their faith from within.

John Veal
Kansas City, Mo.

Published in the May 4, 2018 issue: 
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