There can be no doubt that the doctrine of the Incarnation has been taken during the bulk of Christian history to constitute the very heart of Christianity. Hammered out over five centuries of passionate debate, enshrined in the classical Christian creeds, explored and articulated in the great systematic theologies, the doctrine expresses, so far as human words permit, the central belief of Christians that God himself, without ceasing to be God, has come amongst us, not just in but as a particular man, at a particular time and place. The human life lived and the death died have been held quite literally to be the human life and death of God himself in one of the modes of his own eternal being. Jesus Christ, it has been firmly held, was truly God as well as being truly man. As we have seen, this belief is not only expressed in the doctrine of the Incarnation, but also in countless hymns and devotional rites that belong to the very stuff of living Christianity, not to mention the art and sculpture which it has inspired down the centuries.
The central problem of theological discourse, not shared with any other "language game," is the meaning of the term "God." "God" raises special problems of meaning because it is a noun which by definition refers to a reality transcendent of, and thus not locatable within, experience. A new convert may wish to refer the "warm feeling" in his heart to God, but God is hardly to be identified with this emotion; the biblicist may regard the Bible as God’s Word; the moralist may believe God speaks through men’s consciences; the churchman may believe God is present among his people — but each of these would agree that God himself transcends the locus referred to. As the Creator or Source of all that is, God is not to be identified with any particular finite reality; as the proper object of ultimate loyalty or faith, God is to be distinguished from every proximate or penultimate value or being. But if absolutely nothing within our experience can be directly identified as that to which the term "God" properly refers, what meaning does or can the word have?
But throughout this inquiry we must be careful never to adopt prematurely a moral or evaluating attitude. The human mind is generally far more eager to praise and dispraise than to describe and define. It wants to make every distinction a distinction of value; hence those fatal critics who can never point out the differing quality of two poets without putting them in an order of preference as if they were candidates for a prize. We must do nothing of the sort about the pleasures. The reality is too complicated.
[P]eople in our culture in general are already in the process of being accustomed to accept nondefined, contentless religious words and symbols, without any rational or historical control. Such words and symbols can be filled with the content of the moment. The words Jesus and Christ are the most ready for the manipulator. The phrase Jesus Christ has become a contentless banner which can be carried in any direction for sociological purposes. In other words, because the phrase Jesus Christ has been separated from true history and the content of Scripture, it can be used to trigger religiously motivated sociological actions directly contrary to the teaching of Christ.
Against all this the philosophy of St. Thomas stands founded on the universal common conviction that eggs are eggs. The Hegelian may say that an egg is really a hen, because it is a part of an endless process of Becoming; the Berkeleian may hold that poached eggs only exist as a dream exists; since it is quite as easy to call the dream the cause of the eggs as the eggs the cause of the dream; the Pragmatist may believe that we get the best out of scrambled egos by forgetting that they ever were eggs, and only remembering the scramble. But no pupil of St. Thomas needs to addle his brains in order adequately to addle his eggs; to put his head at any peculiar angle in looking at eggs, or squinting at eggs, or winking the other eye in order to see a new simplification of eggs. The Thomist stands in the broad daylight of the brotherhood of men, in their common consciousness that eggs are not hens or dreams or mere practical assumptions; but things attested by the Authority of the Senses, which is from God.
The other religions were not even explained, in the earlier Christian fashion, as the work of devils. That I might, conceivably, have been brought to believe. But the impression I got was that religion in general, though utterly false, was a natural growth, a kind of endemic nonsense into which humanity tended to blunder. In the midst of a thousand such religions stood our own, the thousand and first, labeled “True”. But on what grounds could I believe in this exception? It obviously was in some general sense the same kind of thing as all the rest. Why was it so differently treated? Need I, at any rate, continue to treat it differently? I was very anxious not to.
I pay respect to wisdom not to strength.
Even though philosophers should be in a position to discover the truth, which of them would take any interest in it? Each one knows well that his system is not better founded than the others, but he supports it because it is his. There is not a single one of them who, if he came to know the true and the false, would not prefer the falsehood that he had found to the truth discovered by another. Where is the philosopher who would not willingly deceive mankind for his own glory? Where is he who in the secret of his heart does not propose to himself any other object than to distinguish himself? Provided that he lifts himself above the vulgar, provided that he outshines the brilliance of his competitors, what does he demand more? The essential thing is to think differently from others. With believers he is an atheist; with atheists he would be a believer.
Angel; Animal; Aristocracy; Art; Astronomy; Beauty; Being; Cause; Chance; Change; Citizen; Constitution; Courage; Custom and Convention; Definition; Democracy; Desire; Dialectic; Duty; Education; Element; Emotion; Eternity; Evolution; Experience; Family; Fate; Form; God; Good and Evil; Government; Habit; Happiness; History; Honor; Hypothesis; Idea; Immortality; Induction; Infinity; Judgment; Justice; Knowledge; Labor; Language; Law; Liberty; Life and Death; Logic; Love; Man; Mathematics; Matter; Mechanics; Medicine; Memory and Imagination; Metaphysics; Mind; Monarchy; Nature; Necessity and Contingency; Oligarchy; One and Many; Opinion; Opposition; Philosophy; Physics; Pleasure and Pain; Poetry; Principle; Progress; Prophecy; Prudence; Punishment; Quality; Quantity; Reasoning; Relation; Religion; Revolution; Rhetoric; Same and Other; Science; Sense; Sign and Symbol; Sin; Slavery; Soul; Space; State; Temperance; Theology; Time; Truth; Tyranny; Universal and Particular; Virtue and Vice; War and Peace; Wealth; Will; Wisdom; World.
In the days when the Verifiability Principle was accepted by its devotees as a secure philosophical truth, one could understand, though one might not agree with, the sweeping claim that many of the traditional problems of philosophy had been shown to be mere ‘pseudo-problems’. It was easy to see how, given the Principle’s validity, most of the leading questions which agitated our forefathers in metaphysics, in ethics, and in theology, automatically become nonsensical questions. What is perplexing, however, is that despite the pretty generally acknowledged deterioration in the Principle’s status to that of a convenient methodological postulate, the attitude to these same questions seems to have changed but little. To admit that the Verifiability Principle is not an assured truth entails the admission that a problem can no longer be dismissed as meaningless simply on the ground that it cannot be stated in a way which satisfies the Principle. Whether or not a problem is meaningless is now something that can only be decided after critical examination of the particular case on its own individual merits. But the old antipathies seem in large measure to have survived the disappearance of their logical basis. One gets the impression that for at least many thinkers with Positivist sympathies the ‘liquidation’ of a large, if unspecified, group of traditional philosophic problems is still established fact. If that impression is mistaken, well and good. One may then hope for an early recrudescence of interest in certain problems that have too long suffered the consequences of an unhappy tabu. If the impression is correct, a real service would be done to philosophy if it were plainly stated which of the traditional problems are still regarded as pseudo-problems, and what are the reasons, old or new, for passing this sentence upon them. The smoke of old battles, perhaps understandably, darkens the philosophic air, to the considerable inconvenience of all concerned.
What is not so generally recognized is that there can be no way of proving that the existence of a god, such as the God of Christianity, is even probable. Yet this also is easily shown. For if the existence of such a god were probably, then the proposition that he existed would be an empirical hypothesis. And in that case it would be possible to deduce from it, and other empirical hypotheses, certain experiential proposition which were not deducible from those other hypotheses alone. But in fact this is not possible. It is sometimes claimed, indeed, that the existence of a certain sort of regularity in nature constitutes sufficient evidence for the existence of a god. But if the sentence “God exists” entails no more than that certain types of phenomena occur in certain sequences, then to assert the existence of a god will be simply equivalent to asserting that there is the requisite regularity in nature; and no religious man would admit that this was all he intended to assert in asserting the existence of a god. He would say that in talking about God, he was talking about a transcendent being who might be know through certain empirical manifestations, but certainly could not be defined in terms of those manifestation. But in that case the term “god” is a metaphysical term. And if “god” is a metaphysical term, then it cannot be even probable that a god exists. For to say that “God exists” is to make a metaphysical utterance which cannot be either true or false. And by the same criterion, no sentence which purports to describe the nature of a transcendent god can possess any literal significance.
Several times in the devious course of these essays I have defined, in spite of my horror of definitions, my own position with regard to the problem that I have been examining; but I know there will always be some dissatisfied reader, educated in some dogmatism or other, who will say: “This man comes to no conclusion, he vacillates — now he seems to affirm one thing and then its contrary — he is full of contradictions — I can’t label him. What is he?” Just this — one who affirms contraries, a man of contradiction and strife, as Jeremiah said of himself; one who says one thing with his heart and the contrary with his head, and for whom this conflict is the very stuff of life. And that is as clear as the water that flows from the melted snow upon the mountain tops.
The value of philosophy is, in fact, to be sought largely in its very uncertainty. The man who has no tincture of philosophy goes through life imprisoned in the prejudices derived from common sense, from the habitual beliefs of his age or his nation, and from convictions which have grown up in his mind without the co-operation or consent of his deliberate reason. To such a man the world tends to become definite, finite, obvious; common objects rouse no questions, and unfamiliar possibilities are contemptuously rejected. As soon as we begin to philosophize, on the contrary, we find… that even the most everyday things lead to problems to which only very incomplete answers can be given. Philosophy, though unable to tell us with certainty what is the true answer to the doubts it raises, is able to suggest many possibilities which enlarge our thoughts and free them from the tyranny of custom. Thus, while diminishing our feeling of certainty as to what things are, it greatly increases our knowledge as to what they may be; it removes the somewhat arrogant dogmatism of those who have never traveled into the region of liberating doubt, and it keeps alive our sense of wonder by showing familiar things in an unfamiliar aspect.
Philosophy is to be studied, not for the sake of any definite answers to its questions, since no definite answers can, as a rule, be known to be true, but rather for the sake of the questions themselves; because these questions enlarge our conception of what is possible, enrich our intellectual imagination and diminish the dogmatic assurance which closes through the greatness of the universe which philosophy contemplates, the mind also is rendered great, and becomes capable of that union with the universe which constitutes its highest good.
Much of our modern difficulty, in religion and other things, arises merely from this, that we confuse the word “indefinable” with the word “vague.” If some one speaks of a spiritual fact as “indefinable” we promptly picture something misty, a cloud with indeterminate edges. But this is an error even in common-place logic. The thing that cannot be defined is the first thing; the primary fact. It is our arms and legs, our pots and pans, that are indefinable. The indefinable is the indisputable. The man next door is indefinable, because he is too actual to be defined. And there are some to whom spiritual things have the same fierce and practical proximity; some to whom God is too actual to be defined.
It took us thousands of years of struggling with science and ethics before we thought to combine the two. While scientific ethics has advanced only gradually, the science of ethics burst into existence in 1903 with the publication of G.E. Moore’s Principia Ethica, which did for the study of morality what Whitehead and Russell’s Principia Mathematica did for mathematics — clarify old confusions and define terms that are still with us today. Practically overnight, ethicists turned into meta-ethicists, studying their own terms to establish theoretical ground on which to stand before trying to build any prescriptive edifices. Moore begins by clearing up some of the most widely spread confusions plaguing moral philosophy, such as the naturalistic fallacy of Bentham, Spencer, and others who insisted on a precise, concrete definition of good. According to Moore, we have to settle for an intuitive assessment of goodness, and his arguments are powerfully compelling. Proceeding to define terms and territory that have lasted a century, he revolutionized philosophy and single-handedly altered the course of ethical studies for generations. While Principia Ethica isn’t the easiest book to read (a dictionary of philosophy comes in handy for most of us), it is well worth careful study by anyone interested in the difference between right and wrong. ~ Rob Lightner at Amazon.com
Nature has pointed out a mixed kind of life as most suitable to the human race, and secretly admonished them to allow none of these biases to draw too much, so as to incapacitate them for other occupations and entertainments. Indulge your passion for science, says she, but let your science be human, and such as may have a direct reference to action and society. Abstruse thought and profound researches I prohibit, and will severely punish, by the pensive melancholy which they introduce, by the endless uncertainty in which they involve you, and by the cold reception which your pretended discoveries shall meet with, when communicated. Be a philosopher; but, amidst all your philosophy, be still a man.
Philosophy has been cultivated for many centuries by the best minds that have ever lived, and nevertheless no single thing is to be found in it which is not a subject of dispute, and in consequence which is not dubious…
The intelligent creature received the power of discernment for this purpose, that he might hate and shun evil, and love and choose good, and especially the greater good. For else in vain would God have given him that power of discernment, since man’s discretion would be useless unless he loved and avoided according to it.