At Christmas we celebrate the birth of the Word made flesh. All the Gospel writers (especially St. John) emphasize the reality of God present among us in a very tangible, physical way. This is a critical truth because one of the dangers is reducing our faith to a mere collection of ideas, setting aside the actual Jesus who took up our full nature, lived among us, and summoned us to a real encounter.
These Christmas themes are more important than ever for us who live in a post-nominalist, post-Cartesian, neo-Gnostic world. The effect of this is that many of us live increasingly “up in our heads.” More and more we are out of touch with reality. What matters is what we think, how we feel, what our opinion is. Such things increasingly overrule even obvious realities.
In such an environment can come the notion that someone can say he is a female trapped in a male body. Never mind that his body is clearly male right down to its X and Y chromosomes. No, what matters is what he thinks and feels. Physical reality has nothing to do with his assertion and he feels quite justified in ignoring it.
How did we get here? It likely started with the rise of nominalism in the 14th century. But what supercharged the problem is sometimes called the “Cartesian divide.” The ideas of philosopher René Descartes are said to divide the more ancient trust in reality and the senses from the modern world, which is marked by increasing skepticism and doubt that we can actually encounter reality at all.
René Descartes lived in the Dutch Republic during the first half of the 17th century. He is widely held to be the father of modern philosophy.
Descartes used a method of fundamental doubt wherein he rejected any ideas that could be doubted, and then tried to re-establish them in what he considered a firm foundation for knowing them as actual or genuine.
This led Descartes ultimately to only a single “provable” principle: that thought exists. He stated this in his treatise, “Discourse on the Method and Principles of Philosophy.” This is the source of the well-known phrase cogito ergo sum (I think therefore I am). In other words, because I doubt, something or someone must be doing the doubting. The fact that I doubt proves my existence.
Thus, doubt and skepticism moved to the center. Descartes considered the senses unreliable. He went on to construct a system of knowledge that largely discarded perception as unreliable and admitted only deductive reasoning as a method for thinking or knowing.
Descartes later seemed to back away from the radical skepticism his rationalism implied. He argued that because sensory perceptions came to him involuntarily, apart from his willing them, this was evidence of the existence of something outside of his mind, and thus, of an external world.
Despite his attempts to back away from his radical doubt, by failing to clearly resolve it he left us with a legacy of Cartesian disconnectedness from reality and retreat into the mind.
1. The retreat into the mind and loss of connection with reality. In radically distrusting his senses, Descartes disconnected himself (and us) from the world of reality. What is real is only what is in my mind. The actual “is-ness” of things is no longer the basis of reality. Now, it is just my thoughts that are real. Reality is not “out there” but it is only in my mind. It is what I think that matters.
This leads to a lot of the absurdity of modern times where we tend to overlook reality and reduce everything to opinion. We often think of things abstractly as “issues.”
For example, for many people abortion is an “issue” rather than the dismemberment of a human baby. Many tend to think of abortion abstractly and repackage “it” as choice, or a woman’s right. But abortion is not an abstraction. There is something actually happening “out there” in the real world. An actual child is being dismembered and suctioned into a jar. But the post-Cartesian retreat into the mind allows many to continue to think of abortion abstractly as an “issue.” Detached from reality, the mind can do some pretty awful rationalizing. Showing actual pictures of abortion seems to have little effect on those who have retreated into their minds and think of abortion abstractly as an issue rather than as a real thing.
The same is true for the issue of homosexuality. Any even rudimentary look into the biology and design of the body makes it clear that something is disordered with homosexual activity. The man is for the woman, not for another man; the biology is clear. But with the post-Cartesian retreat into the mind, the body no longer has anything to say to many people. Many ask, “What does the body have to do with it?” All that seems to matter is what they think. It is opinion, not reality, that is important. Thought overrules the body, dismisses the external reality. Here again is the Cartesian flight from the real world into the mind.
And the same holds true for just about every moral issue today. It is my thoughts and intentions that matter, not what I am actually doing.
2. Reality is no longer revelatory. The revelation that comes simply from the way things are is “not reliable.” It is mere opinion in this Cartesian world we have inherited. Scripture and the Natural Law tradition hold that creation and the way things are provide revelation for us. St. Paul said, For what can be known about God is evident to them, because God made it evident to them. Ever since the creation of the world, his invisible attributes of eternal power and divinity have been able to be understood and perceived in what he has made (Romans 1:18-19). There was a confidence in the Scriptures and Natural Law Tradition that the created world, reality, provided a reliable guide to what was right and true. We had only to study the “is-ness” of things to learn. But this was all jettisoned. In the post-Cartesian world, we are skeptical that we can really know or reliably perceive the “there” out there.
3. The Cartesian worldview is unrealistic in insisting upon “absolute” proof. To insist that we, who are contingent and limited beings, can prove or know something absolutely is both arrogant and unrealistic. In the Christian worldview there remains a mystery to all things, a hiddenness that we come to accept. The fact that there is mystery does not mean that we know nothing. We are clearly able to perceive and come to know what God reveals. But mystery is the Christian acceptance of the fact that things are only partially revealed; much more lies hidden and unseen.
For example, every human being is a mystery. We are surely able to perceive many things about people, particularly the ones we know well. We see their physical presence and know many things about them. But there is also a glorious hiddenness to all people, which is related to their inner life and their place in God’s plan. This is mystery: things are revealed, but at the same time, much lies hidden.
Hence the absolute proof demanded by the Cartesian world is unrealistic. A balance is required such that we can be confident about what we do know and honest about what we do not know. Some degree of doubt or uncertainty is part of the human experience. Yes, we can actually know things, though not as absolutely as demanded by the Cartesian world.
4. And this unrealistic notion of needing absolute proof to know things is what leads to the “Cartesian anxiety” of our times and causes us to set up intellectual idols. We tend in our culture to worship science and the scientific method. I would argue that we do this out of Cartesian anxiety. We seem desperate for absolute proof and so we entertain the notion that science can provide it. Of course scientific theories change all the time, but in our anxious search for absolute proof we’re willing to overlook facts like that. “Perhaps older theories have given way, but now we really know; this is ‘settled science.’ We’ve proved it.” Or so we think.
But this is anxiety; it is not reality. Science will continue to change with new data, as it must. And science does not know or prove many things absolutely. We know a lot, but there is a lot we do not know. Good scientists know this and freely admit it. Science alone cannot be the elixir for the radical doubt that troubles us.
And so, here we are. The Cartesian world is in full flower, but it is not a lovely flower. It has led us to an imbalance. On the one hand we distrust reality and have retreated into our minds. Yet, paradoxically we seem desperate to prove some things absolutely in order to overcome the anxiety that extreme doubt produces. Our confidence in reality as a reliable guide was set aside as we have increasingly retreated into our minds. But without reality as a reliable guide, we have sought something to soothe the anxiety that uncertainty causes. And so we trot out science, anoint experts, and entertain the fiction that they can give the absolute proof our Cartesian anxiety demands.
And thus the Christmas message rings ever true: The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. The tangible reality of God’s presence among us remains the Christmas call, the Christian call. God calls us to seek Him in what is. And yet there is also the mystery of something and someone ever deeper and more real than we could imagine. He is real, but our appreciation must grow ever deeper. The truth of what is real unfolds because it is real and not merely an idea or a passing thought.
One day the real Jesus, the Word made flesh, heard two disciples say, “Rabbi! Where do you stay?” And He said, “Come and see” (Jn 1:39).