Sunday Night Journal — March 26, 2006
St. Edith Stein 4
It’s the Fourth Sunday of Lent (“Laetare Sunday,” which has a bad way of turning in my mind into “Laertes Sunday”). I haven’t read nearly as much of my saint as I had planned, which is not surprising. But in my defense I can say that the amount of reflection provoked by what I have read has been disproportionately large. I finished “Ways to Know God” but I’m not sure that I will read anything else. There is so much to think about here that I want to re-read a good deal of it rather than move on to something else.
I’ve been reflecting on this passage:
Insofar as faith confers the possession of truth, it merits the name “knowledge,” but it is dark knowledge insofar as the conviction that it brings is not founded upon insight into the truth accepted on faith.
I’m not entirely sure what “insight into the truth,” as distinct from “knowledge,” means here, but I take it to be an understanding of, so to speak, the inner workings of the truth involved. Hence the statement would apply to the most central truths of the Faith: the Trinity and the Incarnation: when we accept these doctrines on faith, we acquire knowledge, but we do not understand its details. We did not follow, and are not shown, a process of reasoning toward the doctrines in which each step is visible. Therefore, and more importantly for what I’m interested in at the moment, we can’t demonstrate the truth of the doctrines to anyone else.
Is this “dark knowledge” then the same sort of thing as the critical judgment I was talking about last week, knowledge of which we can be certain though we cannot prove it, as when I assert as an objective fact that Shakespeare is better than Harold Robbins? And what do we make of the equally certain fact that there are people who will not admit that Shakespeare is superior?
There are two sorts of people who might make that last claim: those who simply like Robbins better, and those who maintain as the outcome of a philosophical decision that no writer may be adjudged superior to any other. The latter we can say are reasoning badly (and perhaps not in good faith, but that’s another matter): they have let the idea of equality run amuck in their thinking, or they have chosen a nihilistic rejection of standards. It might be possible to change their minds by returning to some logically prior principle and convincing them that they were mistaken there. But what to say to the latter?
Let me take a less frivolous comparison than Shakespeare and Robbins—say, Twelfth Night vs. an episode of The Simpsons. Both are comedies, and most people of our time would laugh harder at The Simpsons—which could reasonably be taken as evidence that The Simpsons is superior. But it isn’t. Most of us don’t find a Shakespeare comedy as elementally funny as the humor of our own time, in part because too much of Shakespeare’s humor has to be explained. And I admit The Simpsons can be very funny indeed.
Yet we should be able to see that the Shakespeare play is a creation of a higher order: it represents a higher level of craftsmanship at the most fundamental level, and it presents a richer and fuller vision of human life. I don’t wish, and I don’t feel obliged, to make this case at length, but I will say that at both these levels (craft and vision) there is a meanness, in both senses of the word “mean,” about The Simpsons: its characters are distorted both physically and mentally in a way that conveys a deep and perhaps nihilistic contempt for the human race. A certain amount of contempt is well-deserved, of course, and you can see it on display in Swift, but with Swift at his most savage there is always a sense that there is a standard that we ought to look to, while The Simpsons seems to be all Yahoos and no Houyhnhnms (with the possible exception of Lisa—but that’s enough about The Simpsons, of which I’ve seen only a fairly small sample).
What is operative in the person who sincerely cannot see that Shakespeare is, on some scale of absolute and objective value, superior? Is it a defect of reason or fundamental good sense? Does it have any moral component?
This has implications for the culpability of the person who refuses faith, and leaves me thinking of one of the most disturbing sayings of Our Lord:
For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath. (Matthew 25:29)
If faith is a gift, why is it not given to everyone? Or if it is, why do so many fail to receive it? I would be surprised if there is not an answer of some sort to this question in Catholic theology, perhaps in the Summa, and equally surprised if it were very satisfying. Dark knowledge, indeed.