A friend suggested to me recently that the biggest threat to serious Christian faith today is a failure to promote good natural theology. I’m afraid he may be right. Restoring natural theology is a far taller order than doing good catechesis — and God knows how successful we’ve been at that.
In the age of “science communicators” like Neil deGrasse Tyson, asking what we believe is perhaps a bigger luxury than ever before. Asking whether we can rationally believe anything at all, and why, has in the minds of a growing many total and unassailable urgency.
This isn’t a new problem. Many readers of Ethika Politika will be aware of its origin; but most aren’t. Western thought saw a massive rupture sometime between the fourteenth and seventeenth centuries, culminating in the Age of Enlightenment and its severe challenges to rational faith. Descartes, Hume, and Kant were triumvirs of the new systems that emerged, and Christians have been dealing with the fallout for centuries since.
Yet while Enlightenment is paradigmatic to modern science, the best response for ninety-nine percent of educated Christians (which is a much smaller percentage of Christians in general) relies almost exclusively on lightly unpacking primary sources from the 1200s and before. I believe as much as anyone that reading Plato, Aristotle, and the medievals is central to understanding the world and justifying rational faith. But we simply cannot stop there. The demand for better natural theology won’t abate as long as science and technocracy drive our worldviews and economies.
Of course, the deep Christian intellectual tradition didn’t end with the Enlightenment. Scholars (and apparently politicians, too) realize how far developed are the various strains of Thomism, for example. In the last century, alone, many serious attempts were made to reconcile the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas more closely with studies of his sources, like Aristotle and the Neoplatonists, as well as with Enlightenment figures, especially Kant. The successes (and challenges) of these efforts are barely known outside of academia. Yet they’re utterly necessary for responding to the critiques leveled by modern, atheist materialism.
Father Robert Spitzer is doing great work in this vein. He is, to quote Bishop Robert Barron, an “inter-galactically smart Jesuit” who combines the best of modern scholasticism with an affable style that’s at once disarming and remarkably compelling. His new “quartet” of books — they have the makings of a magnum opus — give strong arguments for man’s transcendent nature and purpose. The volume The Soul’s Upward Yearning, in particular, deals a harsh blow to scientific materialism on the familiar grounds of contemporary, empirical data and psychosocial research.
Others are doing similar things. But not many. Certainly not as many as should be given the breakneck pace of global technological progress. The demands that materialism places on our basic claims as faithful Christians won’t relent anytime soon. And on top of that, we’ll continually be faced with a host of new moral and political challenges derived from emerging technologies.
For a while, at least, efforts spent on apologetics and catechetics may need to transform to advance more serious Christian anthropology and, as a feature, a program of natural theology that’s far more democratized than most are comfortable with. There’s a sense of triumph, after all, that comes from articulating and championing the doctrines of the faith — a triumphalism that’s flatter or even entirely missing from arguments in logic, epistemology, and heuristics. On the other hand, we aren’t living in a triumphant Christian age. Though maybe we could be, once the fruit of our tradition — fruit that’s barely begun to bloom — is finally borne.