Friday, December 23, 2011

Questions, Wonder, Faith

Going for a walk this afternoon --  we have had a warm winter so far and the outdoors isn't covered with snow as it usually is -- I was thinking more about that quote about wonder and how it is the beginning of the road to wisdom.

I was thinking about how I can read a book or article, understand what I'm reading yet after I put it down remember almost nothing about it UNLESS (and this is what struck me) it was somewhat mysterious.   And there are all sorts of ways to be mysterious and therefore memorable.   My favorite poetry is somewhat obscure; and I often remember an essay better if I disagreed with it than when I completely agreed; and the stories I remember best are the ones that seem to open up a new vista or leave something unresolved.

It can't be a mystery of incompetence -- I don't like pretentiously obscure poetry, or blockheaded essays, or stories that have lots of loose ends because the writer dropped literary stitches as he wrote.   It has to be a puzzle or like a curtain that somehow shifted where I got a glimpse of something beautiful and strange, but the curtain fell back before I could see it completely.

Realizing this, I wonder if it could help me remember better what I read.  Study Skills courses tell me to pose myself questions as I read in order to remember, and this paralyzes me with disgusted boredom from the start.   It's sort of like looking at a Cosmo cover in the grocery line which promises to tell me how to attract my significant other.   I feel like something slimy has tried to drop on me. 

But in another way, it seems true that this wondering instinct leads me to muse and ponder, and those are the only ways to find out.   It is said more than once of Mary that she "pondered in her heart" and this is a very sign of how she recognized and acknowledged mystery without turning away from it as if it were merely a closed box marked "mystery here"

It seems like nowadays we either deny there is mystery, or think of it as a sort of shallow puzzle or distraction, or imbue it with a deceptive gnostic cloak,  turn away with fear and distrust in favor of something more easily grasped by our senses. 

We also teach badly by ignoring real questions in favor of ones that are too easily answerable.   Children start wondering as soon as their survival needs are met.     But it's easy to imply to them that learning is just stocking the head with information, and then they stop wondering.  

Cardinal Newman says that learning is ultimately directed towards wisdom or enlargement of mind, which is a very different thing from mere quantity of information. 

Or, again, the censure often passed on what is called undigested reading, shows us that knowledge without system is not Philosophy. Students who store themselves so amply with literature or science, that no room is left for determining the respective relations which exist between their acquisitions, one by one, are rather said to load their minds than to enlarge them.
Some other things that are different from true enlargement of mind, though they may masquerade as such: 
 love of system, theorizing, fancifulness, dogmatism, and bigotry

Aristotle (in the Metaphysics)  says similiarly that wisdom is not just a mass of particulars  
"Again, we do not regard any of the senses as Wisdom; yet surely these give the most authoritative knowledge of particulars. But they do not tell us the 'why' of anything-e.g. why fire is hot; they only say that it is hot.

 So Wisdom is the knowledge of "what kind are the causes and the principles". 

It is in wondering, according to Aristotle, that we start on the journey to wisdom, not by doing or making things per se: 

"That it (wisdom) is not a science of production is clear even from the history of the earliest philosophers.  For it is owing to their wonder that men both now begin and at first began to philosophize; they wondered originally at the obvious difficulties, then advanced little by little and stated difficulties about the greater matters, e.g. about the phenomena of the moon and those of the sun and of the stars, and about the genesis of the universe.

And a man who is puzzled and wonders thinks himself ignorant (whence even the lover of myth is in a sense a lover of Wisdom, for the myth is composed of wonders); therefore since they philosophized order to escape from ignorance, evidently they were pursuing science in order to know, and not for any utilitarian end. And this is confirmed by the facts; for it was when almost all the necessities of life and the things that make for comfort and recreation had been secured, that such knowledge began to be sought. Evidently then we do not seek it for the sake of any other advantage; but as the man is free, we say, who exists for his own sake and not for another's, so we pursue this as the only free science, for it alone exists for its own sake. 
 Newman talks about Wisdom somewhat differently, as beginning in Faith, but still "right judgment" is not all that different from knowledge of first principles and causes, except that (as Newman says later in his sermon) Faith can bypass and surpass the painful intellectual rigor needed to even approach by human means a partial understanding of these causes and principles. 
The Collect virtually speaks of Faith, when it makes mention of Almighty God's "teaching the hearts of His faithful people by the sending to them the light of His Holy Spirit;" and of the Wisdom of the perfect, when it prays God, that "by the same Spirit" we may "have a right judgment in all things."
In this context the movement of the Holy Spirit begins with Faith and is perfected in wisdom, or right judgement.
  knowledge itself, though a condition of the mind's enlargement, yet, whatever be its range, is not that very thing which enlarges it. Rather the foregoing instances show that this enlargement consists in the comparison of the subjects of knowledge one with another. We feel ourselves to be ranging freely, when we not only learn something, but when we also refer it to what we knew before. It is not the mere addition to our knowledge which is the enlargement, but the change of place, the movement onwards, of that moral centre, to which what we know and what we have been acquiring, the whole mass of our knowledge, as it were, gravitates. And therefore a philosophical cast of thought, or a comprehensive mind, or wisdom in conduct or policy, implies a connected view of the old with the new; an insight into the bearing and influence of each part upon every other; without which there is no whole, and could be no centre. It is the knowledge, not only of things, but of their mutual relations. It is organized, and therefore living knowledge.

Later on in the sermon, he describes how Faith (speaking generally) can reach the highest that Wisdom is capable of (naturally speaking):

Whatever be the subject-matter and the point in question, sacred or profane, Faith has a true view of it, and Wisdom can have no more; nor does it become truer because it is held in connexion with other opinions, or less true because it is not. And thus, since Faith is the characteristic of all Christians, a peasant may take the same view of human affairs in detail as a philosopher; and we are often perplexed whether to say that such persons are intellectually gifted or not. They have clear and distinct opinions; they know what they are saying; they have something to say about any subject; they do not confuse points of primary with those of secondary importance; {305} they never contradict themselves: on the other hand they are not aware that there is any thing extraordinary about their judgments; they do not connect any two judgments together; they do not recognize any common principles running through them; they forget the opinions they have expressed, together with the occasion; they cannot defend themselves; they are easily perplexed and silenced; and, if they set themselves to reason, they use arguments which appear to be faulty, as being but types and shadows of those which they really feel, and attempts to analyze that vast system of thought which is their life, but not their instrument.
 He distinguishes it here from Bigotry, which is like Faith often partially uneducated, but doesn't possess the habit of right judgment -- it misjudges, and over-extends partial truths, and puts things out of order.  Of course, in most actual people you find a mixture of traits -- there is hardly anyone free of bigotry, either rationalistic or fideistic, but you do find exemplars of Faith in the saints, whether they happened to be well educated, or not.

In this way, true Faith is perfected in Wisdom, not by human means but by grace.   I am supposing that false or warped faith always resolves into some kind of bigotry.  And I'm not just talking about professedly religious faith here, either, because, as Newman says, we can't do without some sort of dogmatism or principle, whether we happen to acknowledge it or not: 
Thus, what is invidiously called dogmatism and system, in one shape or other, in one degree or another, is, I may say, necessary to the human mind; we cannot reason, feel, or act, without it; it forms the stamina of thought, which, when it is removed, languishes, and droops. Sooner than dispense with principles, the mind will take them at the hand of others, will put up with such as are faulty or uncertain;—and thus much Wisdom, Bigotry, and Faith, have in common. Principle is the life of them all; but Wisdom is the application of adequate principles to the state of things as we find them, Bigotry is the application of inadequate or narrow principles, while Faith is the maintenance of principles, without caring to apply or adjust them..
and also

Even sceptics cannot proceed without elementary principles, though they would fain dispense with every yoke and bond.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Willa. Do you mind emailing me at I looked for an email link on your blog but couldn't find one. Don't feel obligated to send me a note, but I was thinking that if you're in Oregon often, driving up and down I-5 that maybe you (and whoever is with you, of course!) could stop by for a pit stop sometime! I live just a couple of highway miles from the freeway. And if you ever do, well, I'm not sure my little brain could keep up with yours in a conversation (as in reading this post--I haven't had time to read it slowly, but I'm inspired my your mind!), but we can share a cup of coffee or tea or something. Anyway. Just let me know if this is something you might want to do. I'm headed out of town now and wish you a beautiful Christmas.



I would love to hear your thoughts on this!