On Skepticism and Humility

Nov 9th, 2009 | By | Category: Blog Posts

The proud man, says C.S. Lewis, cannot see God because he is always looking down his nose at things and people, and so long as you are looking down, you cannot see what is above you.  We can never let ourselves forget that in this on-going search for truth, the truth will always remain above us.  We must approach the truth as children ready to be transformed by and conformed to something greater than ourselves and not as aggressors.  We do not conquer the truth; if we seek it rightly, it will conquer us.

Catholic Christianity is something far too big for us to grasp, much less command.  I believe it was Chesterton who said that Paganism was the biggest thing the world had ever seen; Christianity was bigger, and everything since has been comparatively small.    One crucial step in developing humility must be a continual awareness that the Truth is something too big to fit into our finite heads.

Even St. Thomas Aquinas, the greatest doctor of the Church, when granted a vision, said that his writings were but “straw” and could not complete his masterpiece, the Summa Theologica.  Students of Thomism, like myself, might wish that we possessed that final part, but in leaving the work unfinished, he left us something greater: a powerful exhortation to humility.

But none of this means that we can’t know truth nor that we should too readily profess agnosticism.  Arrogance is a danger but skepticism is also dangerous and is not true humility.  Recently, there has been some lively discussion in response to Bryan and Neal’s article on sola vs solo scriptura.  Some have agreed that there is no principled distinction; others are unwilling to grant the distinction, but the sole objection seems to be this: that the Catholic position is no better.  Bryan, myself, and others have given reasons in the combox why we do not believe this to be the case, but I am particularly interested in drawing out a one-liner, not well received and perhaps for good reason, that I left on Chris Donato’s blog.  I claimed that “there is a difference between humility and skepticism.”

Modern philosophy has progressed, if you prefer to call it progression, down a path forged by Descartes.  It has given us existentialism, rationalism, scientism, naturalism, and several other isms but most notably, and I think they all have this in common one way or another, skepticism.  But from a classical point of view, things can be known and some things can be known with certainty.  Following Aquinas, I am an empiricist.  But that doesn’t mean I deny that some things can be known more certainly than others or that I think I can be absolutely certain of everything I believe.

I lack the philosophical training to draw out exactly why I insist on this distinction (between humility and skepticism), but personally I find it intuitively true.  It doesn’t seem that I can know, with a mathematical certainty, that the Catholic Church is the true Church, or that Jesus rose from the dead for that matter.  But I believe both of these things with a confidence that does not feel threatened by skeptical approaches to Church history, for example, or with various theories about what might have historically happened at the putative Resurrection.

I find most counter arguments to be based in skepticism, in fact, and I don’t find that to be a humble approach to history or to truth seeking.  E.g. How can we be certain that there is an unbroken line of Apostolic Succession from the Apostles until now?  We can’t know who is rightfully pope because sometimes there were multiple claims to the See of Peter.   Many of the popes said and did bad things, etc.  Now all of these objections deserve answers in due course; I wouldn’t deny it, but I believe that skepticism is a hindrance to one who is honestly seeking the truth in humility.  In short, I find skepticism to be a counterfeit humility.  True humility consists not in denying knowledge nor in saying that truth is unattainable, but in admitting that one’s knowledge is imperfect and that the truth we do see, is only through a glass darkly.

Speaking for myself, my style has a tendency to come across as overly confident, and to the extant which I have failed to exhibit a humble spirit in dialogues here and elsewhere, I offer my apologies.  There is a constant need for the Christian to be reminded of his place.  Some of us need reminding more often than others.

It is only when we come to appreciate that Catholic Christianity is larger than the Latin Church, larger than Byzantine Christianity, and again larger than the revivals from within Protestantism, that we begin to understand just how small we are in comparison.

It should go without saying that this post isn’t intended to prove anything; it is merely a prayer for myself and others that we would seek the Truth in humility.  I hope you will pray it with me.

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13 comments
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  1. So be it. This was very eye-opening, Tim. As theologians, or ones theologically-inclined, we are all in danger of falling into skepticism….and what is skepticism but “counterfeit humility,” and ultimately, a manifestation of pride.

    Angelic Doctor, pray for us.

  2. This is a very good article.

    I used to think believe that it was my intellectual duty to be skeptical, but then I discovered the Bible and I *knew* it was God’s revelation. For many years I felt guilty that I had not come to that conclusion through scientific investigation. Years of living the Christian life have confirmed my initial conviction of the inspiration of Scripture, but I still cannot answer every question of the skeptic. I have since learned that some questions cannot be answered with mathematical certainty, and that we mortals do not have the time to personally and scientifically verify every answer to the important questions of life. We must accept some things by faith.

    After being a Christian for 25 years, I found myself experiencing the same conviction about the authority of the Catholic Church that I had earlier felt about the Scriptures. Now that I’ve been a Catholic for a few years, I find my initial conviction constantly upheld and strengthened through my life in the Church. My prayers are with all of those who are seeking the truth. May they do so with true humility with the ultimate goal of closer communion with their heavenly Father, who loves us more than we can ever comprehend.

  3. Tim Troutman:I lack the philosophical training to draw out exactly why I insist on this distinction (between humility and skepticism), but personally I find it intuitively true. It doesn’t seem that I can know, with a mathematical certainty, that the Catholic Church is the true Church, or that Jesus rose from the dead for that matter.

    Human reason can be used to discover mathematical truths, but human reason cannot be used to discover the divinely revealed truths of the faith. Thomas Aquinas makes that point in Article 8 of the Prologue to the Summa Theologica.

    D. J. Kennedy in his Catholic Encyclopedia article St. Thomas Aquinas summarizes Article 8 of the Prologue to the Summa Theologica this way:

    “Reason is used in theology not to prove the truths of faith, which are accepted on the authority of God, but to defend, explain, and develop the doctrines revealed.”

    Skeptisim denies revealed truths, to which St. Thomas Aquinas responds:

    If our opponent believes nothing of divine revelation, there is no longer any means of proving the articles of faith by reasoning, but only of answering his objections — if he has any — against faith.

    Tim Troutman: How can we be certain that there is an unbroken line of Apostolic Succession from the Apostles until now? We can’t know who is rightfully pope because sometimes there were multiple claims to the See of Peter. Many of the popes said and did bad things, etc. Now all of these objections deserve answers in due course; I wouldn’t deny it, but I believe that skepticism is a hindrance to one who is honestly seeking the truth in humility.

    The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that the Magisterium of the Catholic Church has a humble relationship to the Word of God, because the Magisterium is the servant of the Word of God:

    The Magisterium of the Church

    85 “The task of giving an authentic interpretation of the Word of God, whether in its written form or in the form of Tradition, has been entrusted to the living teaching office of the Church alone. Its authority in this matter is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ.” This means that the task of interpretation has been entrusted to the bishops in communion with the successor of Peter, the Bishop of Rome.

    86 “Yet this Magisterium is not superior to the Word of God, but is its servant. It teaches only what has been handed on to it. At the divine command and with the help of the Holy Spirit, it listens to this devotedly, guards it with dedication and expounds it faithfully. All that it proposes for belief as being divinely revealed is drawn from this single deposit of faith.”

    The Magisterium’s humble relationship to the Word of God is a far cry from Martin Luther’s relationship to the Word of God. When Luther created the doctrine of sola scriptura to deny the teaching authority of the Magisterium, Luther was attempting to use scripture to serve Luther. When Luther tried to define the canon of scriptures to make it serve his “faith alone” theology, Luther was using scripture to serve Luther. When Luther went so far as to change the scriptures in his translation of Romans 3:28, Luther was using scripture to serve Luther.

    You tell me what a great fuss the Papists are making because the word alone in not in the text of Paul…say right out to him: ‘Dr. Martin Luther will have it so,’…I will have it so, and I order it to be so, and my will is reason enough. I know very well that the word ‘alone’ is not in the Latin or the Greek text.

    (Stoddard J. Rebuilding a Lost Faith. 1922, pp. 101-102; see also Luther M. Amic. Discussion, 1, 127).

    There are no verses in Sacred Scriptures that teach Luther’s novelty that the Protestant Bible is the ONLY infallible authority for Christians. Humility before the Word of God demands that one recognizes this truth.

  4. Tim,

    Infinitum non capax finiti was a well used maxim at the Reformation. There were all sorts of ontological and Christological overtones to this saying, but at its most basic it just means that we finite human creatures cannot fully receive and comprehend all of the infinite character of God. One of the problems that many within and without the Church had with the Scholastics is that they tried to explain more than could be explained given the constraints of our humanity. And so I hope that when we Protestants are interacting with you that we are not coming from a position of skepticism in areas where our creaturliness limits our ability to explain matters with mathematical precision. If we approach the doctrine of (for example) the bodily assumption of Mary the same we an agnostic would we are just shooting ourselves in the foot. There may be good arguments against the doctrine from tradition or Scripture, but if we start with skepticism we are just inviting the same sort of argument against our own doctrines that require us to appeal to the mysterious providence of God.

  5. Andrew,

    One of the problems that many within and without the Church had with the Scholastics is that they tried to explain more than could be explained given the constraints of our humanity.

    A theologians job is to study God, so he will always be trying to grasp what cannot be grasped. Some truths are divinely revealed and allows us to know things that we otherwise couldn’t know. Sometimes we are able to use reason to deduce things from divine revelation, etc. The Catholic Church is the arbiter to help us decide when and where theologians overstep their bounds.

    And so I hope that when we Protestants are interacting with you that we are not coming from a position of skepticism in areas where our creaturliness limits our ability to explain matters with mathematical precision.

    Donato admitted that it was skepticism when I charged him with it.

  6. Andrew,

    In comment #4 you wrote:

    One of the problems that many within and without the Church had with the Scholastics is that they tried to explain more than could be explained given the constraints of our humanity.

    If these explanations to which you refer were merely the idle speculations of some Catholic theologians, and not Catholic doctrine, then obviously these explanations would not be schism-justifying, and hence would not be relevant to our Catholic-Protestant dialogue. So, could you give some examples of Catholic doctrines that go beyond the “constraints of our humanity,” and show how you know that they do so?

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

  7. Bryan,

    I wanted to assure Tim that we Reformed in general don’t want to approach area of mystery with skepticism. We are willing to accept and embrace mystery wholeheartedly since as per my infinitum… quote, there is so much about God that we cannot put into our head. I can think of more examples from Protestantism than Catholicism right now, but one example where at times historically I think both try to explain too much is in the attempt to resolve grace and free will. We have this interesting phenomena today of Protestant philosophers using Molinism as an attempt to resolve the tensions between grace and free will. It’s interesting because of course Molinism started as a Catholic phenomena where the Molinists attempted to take on the Thomists on this issue. For us Reformed there is no attempt at resolution. We freely accept the fact that God is sovereign in salvation and man is a free moral agent. The Bible teaches both without in any way positing a contradiction. All of which is to say that historically we Reformed are entirely at home with mystery. So I hope that in general we would not begin with skepticism over something like the aforementioned doctrine of Mary’s bodily assumption. That’s just the wrong place to start.

    Cheers….

  8. So, then, I pray with you, as I am no doubt not humble, playing the skeptic as I have for most of my adult life.

    Yet I’m no relativist, and consider myself an empiricist too. I affirm the basic reliability of the senses. I think that when looking at history, for example (because, in short, the infallibility of the magisterium can’t be proved mathematically—unfortunately), we can know it, but in one peculiar manner: “this ‘knowing’ acknowledges the reality of the thing known as something other than the knower, while fully acknowledging that the only access we have to this reality lies along the spiralling path of appropriate dialogue or conversation between the knower and the thing known” (Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, p. 35). The truth may conquer me, but only because “the thing known” (the truth) is deemed by me, “the knower,” to be believable precisely because it fits within the plausibility structure of my world. This is the bane, and, ironically, the liberation of humble skepticism (a.k.a. “critical realism”). Otherwise, I’m left simply with what seems on the surface to be a kind of fideistic conversion. Now, “conversion” isn’t a bad thing, of course, but the skeptic continually wonders how much one is taking for granted, how much one has left unquestioned in the process. See, I’m willing to grant this mystery in the process of God’s calling people out of darkness into light (i.e., salvation), but I’m not sure of this applying to God calling people out of Protestantism into Catholicism and vice versa (the Catholic notion [?] of seeing salvation as only within the borders of Rome notwithstanding).

    So, the arguments I attempted to make about “epistemological modesty” are sociological arguments, are themselves rooted in empirical study. No doubt skepticism and humility are often worlds apart. But precisely because we only know in part, through a glass darkly, today the two can come together as often the only recourse in this time between the times. I’d like to think that being skeptical about what can be known with certainty (note: not what can be known at all) is more akin to the publican who cried out, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”

  9. Andrew,

    “We freely accept the fact that God is sovereign in salvation and man is a free moral agent. The Bible teaches both without in any way positing a contradiction. All of which is to say that historically we Reformed are entirely at home with mystery.”

    You’ve used this particular example (grace/sovereignty and freedom) in order to make this point before. I don’t have any particular problem with the idea that Reformed Christians can comfortably accept some things as mysteries. Why shouldn’t they be able to? But I think this mini-history of Molinism, the reasons for which Molinism re-emerged in Protestant circles, and, overall and especially, this whole idea that Protestants have never engaged philosophically about grace, sovereignty and freedom, but have always just responded with that cutsie one-liner from Spurgeon (“No need to reconcile friends! Ta Daa!”) is just not at all accurate. It also devalues (unintentionally) the very subtle philosophical and theological work that Reformed scholastics and philosophers and others have done on these issues.

    Sorry to sound so dogmatic about this! But this is actually one tiny area where I know a thing or two, and I think you ought not be presenting “the Reformed tradition” in this way on this topic. I’ve noticed, especially over the past few days, that a good number of our very thoughtful and intelligent Reformed discussion partners have been inserting a lot of their own views into the discussion and cloaking them with the “Reformed” (traditionally, historically, whatever) moniker. But this is definitely the case here, on the free will issue.

    Best,

    Neal

  10. …this whole idea that Protestants have never engaged philosophically about grace, sovereignty and freedom,…

    Neal,

    For sure there are all sort of Protestant theologians and philosophers today who have attempted resolutions of grace and free will. If you were to take polls among Evangelical colleges I would imagine you would find that folks like William Lane Craig and Alvin Platinga have had quite an influence. But in the Reformed world historically debates over grace and free will were exegetical matters rather than philosophical. The confessional statements of the Lutherans and the Calvinists turned on the consideration of various biblical texts as is attested to by the footnotes in these confessions.

    Now with the Protestant philosophers they are approaching the matter from a different perspective. The first assumption that many of the philosophers bring to the table is that here is a matter that needs resolution. Now I understand why they would say this, but generally when they try to butt heads with the theologians who tie their understanding of the debate to Reformed hermeneutics, the first problem is just over this issue of whether there is anything that needs resolving. And I think that it is fair to say that the Reformed theologians come from the perspective of nothing’s broken so nothing needs fixing. This kind of answer upsets many philosophers greatly who feel that they have something to offer so that we are not left with relegating the debate to mystery. But for us, at least on this matter, mystery is just fine.

    And I don’t mean to be glib and dismissive with folks who really think there is a problem that philosophers can weigh in on. From a pastoral standpoint people really struggle with this issue and we need to be able to give them a level of comfort.

  11. Andrew,

    Last thing on this: if by “the Reformed world” you mean to designate all and only systematic Reformed theologians who by and large try to find a list of consistent things to believe that are supported by various prooftexts, then I’ll grant you that the Reformed world has historically not thought very deeply about a number of things. By “think deeply” I don’t mean “engage in straightup philosophy.” But I’m afraid I do think it is glib and inaccurate as well present “the Reformed world” as all being so many Spurgeons. There’s just more diversity than that, more orientations. If you’re worried that I’m suggesting that lots of Reformed people are really concerned about reconciling “sovereignty and free will,” you should know I’m not saying that. But the issues are considerably more complex and wideranging than you are letting on. When Calvin writes against the Libertines, he hardly accuses them of being something called “Arminian” and then suggests that we should just be quietists and rest content with our prooftexts (which they had in abundance too), as if the whole question of divine and human agency could be reduced to the “Arminian/Calvinist” debate. He thought hard, wrote hard, engaged them hard. He entered into the “minutiae of Aristotle.” That’s Calvin I’m talking about.

    I’m of course not telling you that you yourself should not accept the sort of stance you are claiming that “the Reformed world” has on these subjects; I’m just suggesting that “the Reformed world” is a bit more diverse and nuanced and bigger than you seem to think, at least on this matter.

    I dunno. Maybe I’m sensitive to this because of what’s going on, on the other thread. T-fan tells us what really real Reformed theology is; so does Kevin; so does Mathison; and they all get a bit upset when Catholics misconstrue and misunderstand really real Reformed theology. But they themselves don’t agree on really real Reformed theology. My sense here is that some individual Reformed persons are a bit too hasty in drawing an inference from “I believe X and I’m Reformed,” to “X is the historical really real traditional thing that everybody in the whole Reformed world believes.” I don’t see that it really works this way. I think this is what you are doing with the freedom/philosophy/mystery thing. And I have zero doubt that I could find a Reformed guy who would disagree with your stance here. (In fact, I seem to recall Zrim registering disagreement of sorts, when you said the same stuff at DRD.) But like I said, maybe I’m just sensitive to these attempts to acts as spokesman for the Reformed world because of all the conflicting things that are said by the spokesmen.

    Now: signing off for real.

    Best,

    Neal

  12. Chris,

    You make the following statement:

    The truth may conquer me, but only because “the thing known” (the truth) is deemed by me, “the knower,” to be believable precisely because it fits within the plausibility structure of my world.

    That claim doesn’t seem universally true to me. Many times my encounter with reality expands this so-called “plausibility structure of the world” without my permission. This happens when I see something I completely didn’t expect (and even would have wagered good money against), and say, “Well I’ll be darned.” For most things it is not as though I stand in a morally neutral position, able to say either yes or no (without intellectual culpability) to some new aspect of reality that confronts me. Rather, either it shows itself to be true, such that I would be intellectually dishonest to reject it, or it shows itself to be false, such that I would be intellectually dishonest to accept it. Of course there are many matters where I don’t have enough information to know either way, and in such cases I may be required to withhold judgment and/or do more research, or take a provisional tentative position, according to the direction and weight of the available evidence. But nevertheless, it is still reality that is confronting me, and modifying (without my permission) what is culpably plausible and implausible.

    My point is that this so-called “plausibility structure of my world” is not a mere subjective construct arbitrarily fashioned by morally neutral choices. Reality continually confronts us with itself, and we can either accept it, or [culpably] reject it. Skepticism is not a morally neutral position; it is a morally culpable position. The skeptic cannot justify his skepticism by claiming that what [the rest of us know as reality] supercedes the plausibility structure of his world.

    My concern, as you’ve probably already noticed, has to to do with the possible constructivism implicit in this concept of a “plausibility structure of my world” to which any adjustments must be made by my [arbitrary] choice. Fundamentally, are we constructing reality, or are we discovering reality by its presenting itself to us, much as God presented the animals to Adam? The notion that fundamentally we construct reality is a form of anti-realism, having its philosophical roots in Kant and Hume and Ockham. It is anti-theistic, in that it makes man, epistemically, into the creator of reality.

    Of course what you are saying isn’t any of that. But, the notion that the truth is only what is “deemed by me” to be believable because it fit into the “plausibility structure of my world” would be constructivist. And the notion that the truth ‘conquers’ me only if I deem it to fit into the “plausibility structure of my world” could easily be read as a form of constructivism having its roots in voluntarism. In other words, the constructivist take would be that I arbitrarily construct a “plausibility structure of my world”, and then I accept something as ‘true’ only it if fits into that “plausibility structure of my world.” But, on this constructivist philosophy, reality itself has no power to modify the “plausibility structure of my world”; only my [arbitrary] will can do that. And then I can fit other things into my “plausibility structure of my world,” and discard other things that don’t fit into the “plausibility structure of my world,” all without any intellectual culpability. You see how such a notion is ultimately, at bottom constructivist, anti-realist, and voluntarist. What counts as “my world” is ultimately a construct of my will. Man is, in that case, his own epistemic god. Hence, my concern about your statement I quoted above, because I’m wondering what sort of epistemology is presupposed in that statement.

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

  13. But the issues are considerably more complex and wideranging than you are letting on. When Calvin writes against the Libertines, he hardly accuses them of being something called “Arminian” and then suggests that we should just be quietists and rest content with our prooftexts (which they had in abundance too), as if the whole question of divine and human agency could be reduced to the “Arminian/Calvinist” debate. He thought hard, wrote hard, engaged them hard. He entered into the “minutiae of Aristotle.” That’s Calvin I’m talking about.

    For Calvin, trained in philosophy and the law and the classics, he could have hardly resisted speaking in the language of his listeners in this case. Much like Paul had a very different approach for the Areopagites than he did for the Jews. Can you imagine what the Greeks would have thought of Paul’s appeal to the Jews? Perhaps – “Surely such matters are much more complex than you suppose, Paul.” And of course the issues were more complex and as Paul spoke with the pagans he knew it.

    So if I speak to an Arminian or a Catholic or a pagan on free will, I will take different approaches. I think that the arguments of Williams Lane Craig et al would make an interesting thread and I would certainly have something to say about it. And I promise you that I would not say that we don’t need to bother resolving grace and free will, so end of story. The tale of Thomism vs. Molinism in its historical context as well as in its reincarnation in Protestant apologetics in well worth talking about. So bring it on!!

    Cheers….

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