Monday, November 9, 2020

Reality and the "Thinker"

There he is. The "Thinker"!

There is a lot to be said for him (or her, of course--but I will use the masculine pronoun here since our exemplar is Rodin's statue).

The thinker is reflective. He tries to understand the world and himself. He looks at the way things are, how they are structured, how they are distinct and how they go together. He tries to understand himself. He reflects on his own experience and he tries also to understand and appreciate from within the experience of others.

The thinker is often not the same as "the debater"...the thinker can get frustrated with arguing, especially in the combative contemporary forum in which it takes place. It is not that he lacks appreciation for disagreement, or for challenges to his own ideas. It is rather the opposite: he values them too much. If he encounters a coherent challenge to his understanding, he wants time to examine it and if necessary alter his own thinking. In the face of a bad argument, he is often more interested in what the "opponent" is really trying to get at, or what genuine insight might lie behind a poorly formulated position.

This means that the most gifted and articulate thinkers can sometimes be the best debaters. They are able to distinguish and clarify. They are not so much interested in "winning an argument" as they are in joining with their interlocutor in a search for the truth. They don't "beat" their opponent; they "win him over"--and in the process often find their own positions clarified.

Such persons are rare, however. Most thinkers are like Rodin's fellow up there. They are plodders. They are often insecure in their own ideas, and find that grappling with intellectual challenges is a painful psychological process of struggling with doubt, with feelings of weakness and incompetence, and with frustration at the sheer murkiness and dimness of the human intellect. Step by step, with many mistakes, and only with a great deal of time does the thinker begin to grasp truths that are really worth knowing.

The thinker is often a peacemaker rather than a warrior. But he has his own kind of courage: he is courageous in his willingness to suffer the long human journey to truth. There is a secret fire that sustains him.

The thinker, however, considers things in the shadow of a great temptation. It is a subtle, but devastating temptation. The thinker wants to understand everything. He craves intellectual synthesis.

He can even have it, up to a point....

He can know something about the Mystery that is the source of all reality if he is willing to yield his mind to the way of similitude and difference, the way of analogy, where knowledge humbly gives way before a certain darkness, where he adheres to and affirms a transcendent "Other" whose secrets are too great for him. What he sees is only in a mirror, and what he does not see is always the greater.

To be humble before the ultimate truth of reality is his greatest challenge. It is difficult, because the thinker has a quiet, often unacknowledged, but fiercely stubborn pride.

Perhaps this is why Rodin's fellow is looking down.

The hardest thing for the thinker is to look at reality, at the actual life that greets him every day. The real things in life are given their deepest meaning by an absolutely gratuitious Love that has freely chosen to take up and give itself from within the whole business.

Shocked by this Love, the thinker is tempted to withdraw into himself. He struggles with all his mental energy to incorporate this Love into his synthetic project. There must be categories in which this can be contained.

St. Paul spoke to the thinkers of Athens. He intrigued them with his appeal to the "Unknown," but then a strange thing happened. He pointed to an event, to gratuitous Love, to a man who has risen from the dead. Some of the philosophers just laughed at him, but I have always wondered about those who said to him, "we will hear you on this another day" (see Acts 17:32).

How typical of the thinker.

In front of the explosion of Love, he says, "can we talk about this some more? Perhaps you can explain yourself?"

But Love does not explain itself. It says, "follow Me."

There is a story about Thomas Aquinas. It is about something that happened one day while he was deep in
thought in his room at the Dominican friary in Paris - while he was pondering the highest questions and working on his manuscripts (which of course have so much value for the history of philosophy and theology). The Prior of the house told a young novice to find a friar who wasn't busy and tell him that the Prior needed him to go to the center of town and buy fish for the community.

Aquinas was the first friar that the ignorant novice saw. The great scholar, the Magister of the University of Paris, one of the great geniuses of all time, was approached by a novice, who told him that the Prior had ordered him to go out and buy fish.

Without a moment's hesitation or question, Thomas put down his pen and headed for the fish market.