Monday, May 21, 2007

Sketch of a Radical Epistemology

· There Is No Full Grasp of Reality Without the Experience of God

· There is No Experience of God Without the Experience of Jesus Christ

· Only the Experience of Jesus Christ Makes Knowledge of the World Realist

1) Benedict XVI recently asked: “What is real?”

He then developed the question: “Are only material goods, social, economic and political problems ‘reality’? This was precisely the great error of the dominant tendencies of the last century, a most destructive error, as we can see from the results of both Marxist and capitalist systems. They falsify the notion of reality by detaching it from the foundational and decisive reality which is God. Anyone who excludes God from his horizons falsifies the notion of ‘reality’ and, in consequence, can only end up in blind alleys or with recipes for destruction.”[1]

2) Benedict bluntly asks: “Who knows God?” and bluntly answers: “Only God knows God.”

This means that “No one has at any time seen God. The only-begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has revealed him” (Jn. 1, 18). It means that Jesus Christ, who was, indeed, felt and seen[2] was also “looked upon and … handled”[3] by the apostles.

This means that only by knowing Jesus Christ Who is God are we able to know the Father Who is the engendering Source of all. And in the act of knowing Jesus Christ, we come to experience and know the reality of ourselves. And in knowing the reality of ourselves, we know the "meaning" of things.

3) How, then, are we to know Jesus Christ experientially? The answer is that now classical response that Cardinal Ratzinger offered in his “Behold the Pierced One:”

“Thesis 3: Since the center of the person of Jesus is prayer, it is essential to participate in his prayer if we are to know and understand him.

“Let us begin here with a very general matter of epistemology. By nature, knowledge depends on a certain similarity between the knower and the known. The old axiom is that like is known by like. In matters of the mind and where persons are concerned, this means that knowledge calls for a certain degree of empathy, by which we enter, so to speak, into the person or intellectual reality concerned, become one with him or it, and thus become able to understand (intellegere = ab intus legere)….

“In Thesis 1 we saw that prayer was the central act of the person of Jesus and, indeed, that this person is constituted by the act of prayer, of unbroken communication with the one he calls ‘Father.’ If this is the case, it is only possible really to understand this person by entering into this act of prayer, by participating in it. This is suggested by Jesus’ saying that no one can come to him unless the Father draws him (Jn. 6, 44(. Where there is no Father, there is no Son. Where there is no relationship with God, there can be no understanding of him who, in his innermost self, is nothing but relationship with God, the Father – although one can doubtless establish plenty of details about him [historico-critical method]. Therefore a participation in the mind of Jesus, i.e., in hi prayer, which … is an act of love, of self-giving and self-expropriation to men, is not some kind of pious supplement to reading the Gospels, adding nothing to knowledge of him or even being an obstacle to the rigorous purity of critical knowing. On the contrary, it is the basic precondition if real understanding… is to take place.

“The New Testament continually reveals this state of affairs and thus provides the foundation for a theological epistemology. Here is simply one example: when Ananias was sent to Paul to receive him into the Church, he was reluctant and suspicious of Paul; the reason given to him was this: go to him ‘for he is praying’ (Acts 9. 11). In prayer, Paul is moving toward the moment when he will be freed from blindness and will begin to see, not only exteriorly, but interiorly as well. The person who prays begins to see; praying and seeing go together because – as Richard of St. Victor says – ‘Love is the faculty of seeing.’ Real advances in Christology, therefore, can never come merely as the result of the theology of the schools, and that includes the modern theology as we find it in critical exegesis, in the history of doctrine and in an anthropology oriented toward the human sciences, etc. All this is important, as important as schools are. But it is insufficient. It must be complemented by the theology of the saints, which is theology from experience. All real progress in theological understanding has its origin in the eye of love and in its faculty of beholding”
[4] (Underline mine).

This theological epistemology explains, for example, Mt 16, 15 and Luke 9, 18 where Jesus formally asks the apostles to give testimony of his identity. Do they really know who He is? After they communicate that those who do not experience Christ by relating with Him to the Father (i.e. they do not experience the self-transcendence involved in being pure relation to the Father, which is replicated in the act of prayer), call Him “John the Baptist, Jeremiah, Elias or one of the prophets,” Christ asks them who they say He is. Simon, son of Johnnot yet Peter – answers: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Mt. 16, 16). Christ then changes Simon’s name to Peter (matching His own as “Cornerstone” [Acts 4, 11]) and begins to build the reality of the Church on this confession (self-gift) that transforms individuals into other Christs – relational/prayerful - as “living stones” (1 Peter 2, 5).

4) Realism on every level of knowing is made possible only when there is this fundamental experience of the self as radical relation in the act of faith (which is prayer). The reason is the mediation of subjective sense perception and abstractive knowing in the experience of the material world. There is always a subjective filtering medium in the experience of the material, be it sensible perception itself or abstractive thought. Only the experience of the "I" in the free act of self-transcendence is immediate. Ratzinger comments that “while ‘empirical experience’ is the necessary starting point of all human knowledge, it becomes false if it does not let itself be criticized in terms of knowledge already acquired and so open the door to new experiences.”[5] As Aristotle said: “Nothing in the intellect except through sense,” Plato said, “Nothing in the sense except through the intellect.” Ratzinger expatiates and comments: “The senses experience nothing if no question has been raised, if there is no preceding command from the intellect without which sensory experience can take place. Experimentation is possible only if natural science has elaborated an intellectual presupposition in terms of which it controls nature and on the basis of which it can bring about new experiences. In other words, it is only when the intellect sheds light on sensory experience that this sensory experience has any value as knowledge and that experiences thus become possible.

“The progress of modern science is produced by a history of experiences that is made possible by the repeated critical interaction and reciprocal prolongation of these experiences and by the inner bond of the whole. The question that raised the possibility of constructing, let us say, a computer could not even have been asked in the beginning but became possible only in the continuum of an experiential history of experiences newly generated by thought. Up to this point, the structure of the experience of faith is completely analogous to that of the natural sciences; both have their source in the dynamic link between intellect and senses from which there is constructed a path to deeper knowledge [with the huge difference that the empirical sciences must objectify and literally “kill” the object in order to take it apart for analysis, while faith raises raising the believing subject to the level of the Subject-to-be-known to resonate with it internally as like-experience].”

Ratzinger then gives the supreme example of the existential experience of faith in the case of the encounter of Christ and the Samaritan woman. They speak about the object “water” until she becomes subjectively interested and asks for water from Him. He calls for her to tell the truth about self which is equivalent to a radical self-transcendence. “Bring me your husband.” She answers: “I have no husband.” He remarks that she has said well, and because of this sincerity, He discloses His inner Self to her as the Messiah.

“As we have said, the woman must come first to the knowledge of herself, to the acknowledgement of herself. For what she makes now is a kind of confession: a confession in which, at last, she reveals herself unsparingly. Thus a new transition has occurred – to preserve our earlier terminology, a transition from empirical and experimental to ‘experiential’ experience, to ‘existential experience.’ The woman stands face to face with herself. It is no longer a question now of something but of the depths of the I itself and, consequently, of the radical poverty that is man’s I-myself, the place where this I is ultimately revealed behind the superficiality of the something. From this perspective, we might regard the conversation between Jesus and the Samaritan woman as the prototype of catechesis. It must lead from the something to the I. Beyond every something it must ensure the involvement of man himself, of this particular man. It must produce self-knowledge, an self-acknowledgment so that the indigence and need of man’s being will be evident.”[7]

Two Levels of Experience

Philosophically, we can see two (2) levels of knowing corresponding to two (2) levels of experience. The deeper level is the experience of the self that is the deeper reality of Being that we now in consciousness and conscience. Ratzinger call this “anamnesis” because it is a remembering of who we are as created images of the divine Persons.

The more superficial level is the sensible experience that gives rise to abstract thinking which –as we saw in a Platonic vein (as in the phenomenon of quantum physics) raises new questions and creates new possible paradigms of explanation of what is perceived through the senses.

Karol Wojtyla gave a philosophical-phenomenological account of these two levels of experience in the “Introduction” to “The Acting Person:”

“The inspiration to embark upon this study came from the need to objectivize that great cognitive process which at its origin may be defined as the experience of man; this experience, which man has of himself, is the richest and apparently the most complex of all experiences accessible to him. Man’s experience of anything outside of himself is always associated with the experience of himself, and he never experiences anything external without having at the same time the experience of himself.”

Again, this experience of the self is only possible when there is a free, moral act of self-transcendence such as the act of faith and spousal love. Only in this experience of the self is the human intellect enlightened in a fully deployed realism of self, God and “things.”

The large point of Benedict XVI in his “Opening Address for Aparecida Conference” (May 13, 2007)” was “Only those who recognize God know reality and are able to respond to it adequately and in a truly human manner. The truth of this thesis becomes evident in the face of the collapse of al the systems that marginalize God.”

Summarily, perhaps we could quote Hans Urs von Balthasar who makes a profound presentation of the epistemological ramifications of knowing Christ (the Father), the self and sensible reality. Keep in mind that the “meaning” of the finite truths of things can be found when they are “embedded” in the background consciousness of the self which situates them.

“Christ, God-made-man, is the manifest truth both of God and of the world, because he upholds the world by is word of power (Heb. 1, 3). Of necessity, then, he is also the place where all the empirically established partial truths, in their barren, alien, disappointing and tedious finitude, are reconciled in the One Truth which, because it is a divine Person, cannot be superseded.”[9]

"The difficulty of accepting that Jesus Christ is the rector truth of all truth is the concreteness of the individual Jesus of Nazareth with, von Balthasar says, “a particular number of utterances, events and anecdotes in salvation history, a particular number of statements, defined by council and popes and to be accepted by faith as true. The Christian is surrounded by an apparently finite world of truths; but, turn as he may, although he can certainly always find new and interesting combinations, he cannot escape this world of truths in which he is a prisoner. A feeling of restriction can undermine his contemplation. Surely a Buddhist, a Taoist, is infinitely freer in his contemplation?> Surely such a person is more at peace, able to turn from wearying multiplicity and enter into the immensity and openness of the One, whereas the Christian can never get beyond the stage of being ‘occupied with many things’? He seems bound to the One Scripture (whereas mankind can show so many other holy words), to the One Church (among so many other communities which are earnestly seeking salvation), and ultimately to the One Redeemer. How ever magnificent figure the latter may be, he is still one among others; eventually his immense historical influence will be exhausted, according to the laws of historical existence and he wil give way to fresh new perspectives. Surely there is something unnatural, both in the way Christians cling rigidly to these historical events and make them absolute, and in the arbitrary spiritualizing which they then apply to them? They seem to find it necessary to subject all other historical events to a symbolic and prophetic style of interpretation too, in order to establish the absolute primacy of the Christian events over all others, including present-day ones.”

“Unless a person’s living and thinking hinges on faith, he is bound to think in this way. It is a temptation which may always afflict the contemplative anew; he will have to fight his way back to faith’s center. He will have to reflect calmly on what is actually gained as a result of the apparent sacrifice of liberalism in Christian spirituality: now, all the isolated truths of nature and supernature, of the cosmos, of history, of the Church, are drawn together in the wealth, the freedom and the mystery of a Beloved Person, who, thought human like ourselves, is not a finite Person, but divine Love itself. This Someone to whom all the individual truths point as to their origin and home is not a mere ‘other’ of whom we could get tired: he is the eternal Thou, and as such (‘non-aliud’) abolishes the dismal chasm of otherness, for he is the rocklike foundation of each individual self. So it is in him, and only in him, that the contemplative movement of all non-Christian religions, i.e., leaving the many behind and losing oneself in the One, the movement from beings to Being, comes to full expression. Now, the One is accessible without our having to leave behind the many, the world (which would otherwise be imperative). All becomes the fragrance of the Unique One, who manifests himself, now appearing, now vanishing, in the many: currimus in odorem unguentorum tuorum. But truth – and the eternal Son describes himself as Truth – is itself a truth of self-surrender, of transparency, leading us forward as it recedes from view: the Son is the way to the Father. He is the Father’s fragrance in the world. He is both ultimate and not ultimate. As God, he is absolute; and yet, as absolute, relative: as the Son who is a relationship proceeding from the Father and returning to him.”[10]

Benedict says this more simply taking the example from Scripture. He offers the scene of the encounter of Nathanael to whom “Philip had said that he had 'found the one about whom Moses wrote in the law, and also the prophets, Jesus, son of Joseph, from Nazareth'" (John 1:45).

As we know, Nathanael posed a weighty prejudice to him: "Can anything good come from Nazareth?" (John 1:46a). This expression is important for us. It allows us to see that, according to the Jewish expectations, the Messiah could not come from such an obscure village, as was the case of Nazareth (cf. also John 7:42). At the same time, however, it shows the freedom of God, who surprises our expectations, manifesting himself precisely there, where we least expect him. Moreover, we know that, in reality, Jesus was not exclusively "from Nazareth," but that he was born in Bethlehem (cf. Matthew 2:1; Luke 2:4). Nathanael's objection, therefore, had no value, as it was founded, as often happens, on incomplete information. Nathanael's case suggests to us another reflection: In our relationship with Jesus, we must not only be content with words. Philip, in his reply, presents a significant invitation to Nathanael: "Come and see" (John 1:46b). Our knowledge of Jesus is in need above all of a living experience: Another person's testimony is certainly important, as in general the whole of our Christian life begins with the proclamation that comes to us from one or several witnesses. But we ourselves must be personally involved in an intimate and profound relationship with Jesus. In a similar way, the Samaritans, after having heard the testimony of the compatriot whom Jesus had met at Jacob's well, wished to speak directly with him and, after that conversation, they said to the woman: "We no longer believe because of your word; for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the savior of the world" (John 4:42). Returning to the scene of the vocation, the evangelist tells us that, when Jesus sees Nathanael approaching, he exclaims: "Here is a true Israelite. There is no duplicity in him" (John 1:47). It was praise that recalls the text of a psalm: "Happy those to whom the Lord imputes no guilt, in whose spirit is no deceit" (Psalm 32:2), but which arouses Nathanael's curiosity, who, surprised, replies: " How do you know me?" (John 1:48a). Jesus' answer at first is not understood. He said to him: "Before Philip called you, I saw you under the fig tree" (John 1:48b). Today it is difficult to realize with precision the meaning of these last words. According to what the specialists say, it is possible that, given that at times the fig tree is mentioned as the tree under which the doctors of the law sat to read and teach the Bible, he is alluding to that type of occupation carried out by Nathanael at the moment of his calling. Anyway, what counts most in John's narration is the confession of faith that Nathanael professes at the end in a limpid way: "Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel!" (John 1:49). Although it does not reach the intensity of Thomas' confession with which John's Gospel ends: "My Lord and my God!" (John 20:28), Nathanael's confession has the function to open the terrain to the fourth Gospel. In the latter a first and important step is taken on the path of adherence to Christ. Nathanael's words present a double and complementary aspect of Jesus' identity: He is recognized both by his special relationship with God the Father, of whom he is the only-begotten Son, as well as by his relationship with the people of Israel, of whom he is called King, an attribution proper of the awaited Messiah. We must never lose sight of either of these two elements, since if we only proclaim the heavenly dimension of Jesus we run the risk of making him an ethereal and evanescent being, while if we only recognize his concrete role in history, we run the risk of neglecting his divine dimension, which is his proper description.”[11]

[1] Benedict XVI’s Opening Address for Aparecida Conference “Not Only the Continent of Hope, but Also the Continent of Love!” May 13, 2007, #3.
[2] Lk. 24, 38-43.
[3] I Jn. 1, 1.
[4] J. Ratzinger, “Behold the Pierced One, Ignaitus (1984) 25-27.
[5] J. Ratzinger, “The Anthropological Element in Theology,” in Principles of Catholic Theology, Ignatius (1987) 348
[6] Ibid
[7] Ibid 354.
[8] Karol Wojtyla, “The Acting Person,” D. Reidel Publishing Company Dordrecht (1979) 3.
[9] Hans Urs von Balthasar, “Prayer,” Ignatius (1986 [1955 Verlag]) 63.
[10] Ibid 66-67.
[11] VATICAN CITY, OCT. 4, 2006 ( Address by Benedict XVI at the General Audience, dedicated to present the figure of the Apostle Bartholomew.

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