"What we have loved
Others will love, and we will teach them how."
I remember going to college with all my early beliefs still intact. I was raised Roman Catholic. Jesus was my personal Savior. They held together until I switched my major to Philosophy in the second summer. (I was doing so poorly in music that I had to switch in order to bring up my point average enough to continue in school). I had changed to Philosophy primarily because I had no idea what I wanted to study, or should study. Philosophy offered the most, free electives (you couldn't just take any courses you wanted to back then) and by taking free electives in Sociology, Psychology and Anthropology, I figured I could find out what I would like best. As it turned out, I liked Philosophy best.
What made Philosophy so interesting to me? What point in my life marked the beginning of a trauma that shook my understanding of who I was, what my place in the universe was, and how I was to maintain that place? I have the clearest memory of Mr. Williams asking the class in Introduction to Philosophy, "If God is all powerful, can He create a rock too heavy for Him to lift?" The question was just one of several that had been posed over the centuries by those who had tried to figure out the nature of God and what could be understood by the concepts we attributed to Him. But it was a shocking challenge to all the fundamental beliefs that had filled my life with understanding. Suddenly, without preparation, I found my most important beliefs being questioned by a person in a position of authority in an academic institution. He didn't present these questions in an unprofessional manner. He didn't offer them to us as a challenge to our values and beliefs. Rather, he presented them to us as honest questions that we ought to be able to find answers to if our beliefs were sound.
I sought furiously to find answers to his questions in ways that would make sense in the framework of concepts I had been raised with. I had been schooled all my life in a strict Roman Catholic home and school system. I knew only the catechism and the answers that had been given to all the concerns an individual could possibly be faced with. Who God was, what my life was meant to achieve, how I was to achieve that purpose. This was not in answer to the daily tasks that I must set for myself in order to find a way of making a living. It was a general way of life that was answered. What was important wasn't what I did in life, but how I did it. What kind of person I was and how much I emulated the life of Jesus. This was so dominant a force in my life that I could hardly imagine doing anything more important than becoming a priest and living my life dedicated to loving God and my fellow man.
Now here I was being faced with critical questions that I could see immediately needed sound answers in order for my beliefs to remain valid. There was no question, right from the start that there would be answers and that they had to be answered. If the question of the nature of God's all powerfulness could not be answered satisfactorily, then the whole point of His being all-powerful was no longer worthy of being made. There were far too many questions of the same nature. These concerned the nature of good and evil, human free will and sin, and many others. There had to be answers. I charged into the task of finding them with all the emotional need of a teenager and then young man in his early twenties that had all the time at his disposal to concentrate on the subject. It was my major. It seemed like everything had to do with Philosophy. Philosophy had to do with everything. It was the Queen of the Sciences. I poured over the texts of the great philosophers with sweat on my forehead, searching for clues to the answers I instinctively knew had to be found.
I spent the years of my undergraduate studies in a feverish quest to understand all there was to know and solve the riddles of Philosophy, Religion, Psychology, Sociology. The answers were soon to be found and I was going to do it. I would become the world’s greatest philosopher since Hegel! I would single handedly solve the questions that had challenged the best minds mankind had ever produced. Nothing but just one more text, one more research paper, one more argument with friends over the dinner table, stood in the way of the solutions. Only the basic form of the solution was necessary. All would fall into place once the problem of epistemology was settled.
I followed the course syllabus starting with the ancients and working my way through the course of the history of philosophy. I found the answers made by the earliest philosophers made absolute sense. It was clear that the Milesians were just getting free of the mythologies of Babalonia and Egypt, so their earliest ideas were naive. But the work of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle were right on the mark. Socrates had his points and I could clearly see the connection between his positions and those of the Roman Catholic Church. I was amazed at the similarity his ideas had to what I knew to be the real answers as taught to me by the church. No wonder I thought that the church had found a special place to "put" the souls of those, who like Plato, came so close on their own to what they could not have known in full due to their unfortunate birth before the time of Christ! Yes, Aristotle had much to criticize about Plato, but the essentials were still there and I could see the connections. I just had to study a little bit more to see how this wisdom would answer the questions posed by my teacher. I could already see the value in my teachers’ methods in using such a fantastic method to have me learn myself how to answer the questions. I would never forget the answers now, and would always be able to defend my views when confronted with others who disagreed with them. I was on my way towards being an educated man.
But then the world continued to become even more problematic. I had no sooner come to feel that the answers were right there when I found that the very figure of Jesus Christ Himself was a problem requiring much inquiry. The texts of the Bible, never questioned in Saint Cyril's School, or Monsignor Bonner High School, or in church on Sundays, suddenly became a collection of various fragments and translations. These translations could be shown to be full of errors and mistakes. How did they compile the documents the way they did? How did they know that what they put together was the Word of God? What did it mean to say that they were led by the Holy Spirit to write what should be written? Who was Jesus really?
If this wasn't of consequence enough - this is God I was trying to discover again - my God, a friend and companion and source of all life, that I was suddenly coming to question. I had added to these questions the new awareness of how the doctrines of the church came to be written by Saint Augustine. So, the connection between the Greek Philosophers and the doctrines taught to me by the church was made apparent. It wasn't that Plato and Socrates had come close, on their own, to the truths that would be espoused by Jesus later. It was that the truths and beliefs about the very nature of our world that were taught to me by the church as the Word of God, had instead been taught by a man from the ancient world who had studied the works of Plato and had incorporated them into his teachings about the City of God.
Now I was in fear of losing the connection I had with the greatest force, the Good and Love, with the Christ and coming to the conclusion that what connection I could maintain with God out of all this would have little bearing on what was said about the nature of reality, because now what the church concluded about the nature of this reality was subject to any criticism that could be leveled at the works of Plato - and was already under sever attack even in his own era by Aristotle. In fact, the very work of Aristotle had displace the world view of Plato in the Greek world only being lost due to the fluctuations in the fortunes of the Greeks and Romans in war. The Arabs alone maintained the source of Aristotle's works to be discovered during the Crusades.
The Crusades themselves became a tragedy for me. Still fresh in my mind were novels about Saint Louis and his Crusade, Ivanhoe and King Richard the Lion Heart, all heroic pictures of the noble cause of God and Christendom. Now I read that the Crusaders were barbarians attacking the most advanced and educated civilization of the time. Butchers, my heroes, became butchers.
Couched in all the concerns I had about my understanding of the nature of the world was a growing excitement that I was learning tremendous things about history and the nature of man. Things that appeared to me as though they had been kept mysteriously secret from the adult world I grew up in. It was obvious from the very first that the shocking things I was learning would be met with hostility by my parents and other adult friends. I did bring some of my questions up with Father Bonacorsi, OSA. He was a teacher and friend that had meant a lot to me in my high school years. But even he had no straight answers to give me other than that all the questions I had had been dealt with by the theologians of the church and that I was foolish to think that I could be learning something that could not be answered by the church to my satisfaction. But how could they? What I was learning was that to a tremendous extent the church had hid it's true history from me. In retrospect, I can certainly see why the church would not teach church history with any emphasis on how the dogmas became what they were. It would be too obvious that the church was a man made organization with man made beliefs and not an institution created by God in any magical sense. Neither was the system of beliefs clearly ordained by God, but instead fought over and decided by counsels of men. The library of the Church (the Bible) was compiled and voted on. They decided what was dogma, and what was the word of God. Those that disagreed were killed or persecuted until they accepted the Bible and the teachings of those in power. This is the very argument that the Later Day Saints use today to say that the true priesthood was lost. Instead of the inspired word of God, it was military power that determined what the dogma would be and what the accepted library, or Bible, would be.
The Middle Ages was a technical wonderland for me. I viewed all with suspicion now, and searched carefully for what each had to offer. I became convinced that the great theologians and philosophers were working within the limitation of the Church's dogma. The solutions of Thomas were clearly a solution to a puzzle; reconciling Plato and Aristotle. Plato's thought was the core of the Church's dogma, as rewritten by St. Augustine. The rediscovery of Aristotle by the monks that accompanied the Crusaders had thrilled the intellectuals with a whole new way of looking at the world. But this very same new way of looking at the world put into question much that was dogma. How could they resolve the conflicts? St. Thomas of Aquinas developed an intricate solution that blended the thought of both Platonic Idealism and Aristotelian Realism. The synthesis worked but seemed to almost make a mockery out of philosophy. Now the work of two men who had tried to learn how we can know things, but had drastically opposed one another, was blended into an intricate philosophy that accepted both. The spirit world was there in the guise of Plato's Ideal World and the Earth existed as Plato described it, but the theory of causes and universals described by Aristotle to answer the same questions applied to both worlds! And this is the solution that the Church continues to accept to this day! How very much like a Congressional compromise it all seemed. You want this Bill passed and we want this one, so lets take some of both and accept them both, agreed? Agreed! How many Angels can dance on the head of a pin? This is a serious question.
Me with Rembrandt's "The Philosopher" at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. December 2007
The course of Medieval Philosophy had left me confused and desperate for more answers. My passion for learning the solution was now desperate. On to the Moderns! Now for Descartes and Hobbes: Two men who took opposite sides of the fence. Both were fascinating, though for some reason Hobbes seemed the better of the two to me. (I would only realize why later). While much of what was important to the Moderns was that they began to build our scientific knowledge, the central question of how we knew what we knew remained central to the whole process. Were we just physical beings or did we have souls? It seemed to me that the idea of spirit and soul were just made up answers because our scientific knowledge wasn't adequate. (Later I would realize that my American Pragmatist attitude was behind my views 100%). I kept leaning towards those who had purely scientific and physical explanations for things. Then I hit Hume. Good ole David Hume, the absolute skeptic. He was right! We couldn't know anything! I was convinced again. There was no joy in this victory. It left me in a cold sweat. How could I be satisfied that I had reached the knowledge that we couldn't know anything - not even that we couldn't know anything!
I dived into that monstrous philosopher, Kant, to see what all the fuss was about. How could he solve the dilemma that Hume bequeathed to us? Yet there it was. The thing in itself. The I. The world of phenomena. What we could know was how we could know. We ourselves were responsible for the structure of our experience. And this was something we could be sure about. Time and Space were our creations! It was how we perceived our experience. The categories of the mind were common for all of us and all our experience. The solution was there after all. But how long did this last? Philosophy teachers were relentless. No sooner did I have reason to rejoice in my new understanding than my professors dashed everything with the problem of Kant's thing-in-itself. If all we could know was our experience, then there was no grounds for postulating the thing-in-itself - or the I - or God. All three were admittedly beyond our experience, so how could we apply the categories of our mind to them? It was a tragedy. All that we were left with, was our experience.
Hegel was a Godsend. In the midst of my frustration and despair, he walked in with the solution. So plain and simple. So easy to understand. (Yet it seemed and still seems that so many cannot understand the very core of his solution!) If experience is all we can experience, then all that is there is experience. What could be simpler? Does this solve everything? Certainly not. But the question of how we could know anything, went away. Now it was obvious that what existed as knowledge was all rolled up in our language and our culture. The excitement that accompanied this discovery for me was the climax of nearly 5 years of desperation. Now everything I saw confirmed my belief that Hegel had reached the heart of the matter. Perhaps others will someday take the questions on further, but to me everything now "fits". This is not the end of all questions. Not by a long shot, but it establishes a central basis for me to understand who I am, what my role is and how I should act. It gives me direction and what feels like understanding.
I understand that culture is dynamic and changing. I understand that what we know is also dynamic and changing. We change what we know every day. All aspects of our experience are part of what we can know because we can know all our experience. God exists. He exists for us just as concretely as a building exists for us. We have built the building and we have built our understanding of God. How God interacts with us is just as real as the warmth and usefulness of a building, or anything else that exists because of our experience. We create as a culture and our creations are real and in turn direct our actions.
There are many problems that will arise and need to be solved. Perhaps my understanding of Philosophy's history will seem like a strange waste of time to many. It was real to me, and still is. I have lived from puzzle to puzzle, at last finding a joy of understanding that I can understand. Each day leads me to value the experience and seek to offer it to others. Certainly, many are not even aware of the puzzles existence. Is it right for me to bring it to their attention? If someone is happy eating oatmeal, should I show them what an apple pie is? What if they can't afford apple pie? What if they don't like apples? Worse, what if they are allergic to apples? Is it safe for me to want to share my excitement and my happiness? How important is it for anyone?
I think that they will someday be faced with the same dilemma. I think it especially valuable to the young people that I meet because they are just starting on the road of life. These questions are very likely to hit them. The trauma that hit me, hits other people. I was not alone in my experience. All the discussions I have with others leads me to feel my experience is valuable and should be passed on. But how do you do it? Is it nice to traumatize people? Not everyone wants the dilemma. You can hide from it. You can peak around the corner at it and quickly dart back to the safety of not knowing or wrapping yourself so tightly in your security blanket, that you are free from the earth shaking, spirit dissipating, experience. But how can you live under a blanket? We are Americans. We are in our society together, complete with its difficulties, dilemmas, social concerns and personal tragedies. Not freeing ourselves from the security blankets of our individual backgrounds leaves us trapped in a wrapper that prevents us from sharing our capabilities with others. We have to be free to advance and join with others to seek out the solutions. I love philosophy, and think it is good for us. I hope I am right and I hope others will forgive me if I try to put them through some of the trauma that I experienced myself.
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