Guest post by Joe Grossheim

I was listening to this lecture by Dr. Daniel De Haan, who is another one of Dr. Benjamin Smith’s former students, and he begins with an excellent observation: There are existential reasons for our commitments to certain philosophical principles and even scientific methods for engaging the world, and that these commitments are often the driving force behind our questions and answers about reality. This fact alone seems to explain exactly why we’re losing the general philosophical argument even when we have irrefutable scientific demonstrations to support us.

What this all means is that our needs and our sense of identity can reinforce or even cause us to hold to certain ideas and worldviews. Thus, when we engage the modern world, we need to try to identify not only the intellectual reasons for the world’s philosophical positions, but the existential reasons as well. Similarly, we should be aware of our own existential reasons for our own commitments.

Let me illustrate with some examples from my own life to show how these reasons have reinforced my Catholic commitments.

From my own experience

I remember my first protestant girlfriend in high school who asked me a ton of questions about the Catholic faith. Now most people are worried when kids are challenged with such questions that they’re going to fold and lose faith. I didn’t. Not because I had a good Catholic education, and certainly not because I could answer her questions. Rather, it was because I had a prior existential commitment to the faith; a sort of familial and personal pride against being wrong about everything. This was the first reason I began studying Scripture and theology, firmly committed to Catholicism even as I had a sleuth of questions that I was totally unable to handle. And I still have questions today, but I am no less committed.

But existential commitments certainly extend beyond faith and grace too. My first philosophical work was in service to my theological commitments, but eventually it became an autonomous study, such that even if I fell from revealed faith I would remain committed to Aristotelian-Thomism in my scientific grasp of reality.

At this point, much of that is because I have scientific demonstrations for many things. But I don’t have demonstrations for all of the commitments I have, and there are real and new problems at the edge of modern science, like the nature of substances, the nature of sense, evolution and speciation, etc., that have not been worked out in a thoroughgoing way. This is to say nothing of the metaphysical disputations that occur even within Thomism.

So why are we still losing the cultural argument?

Because as philosophers and theologians I think we are unable to engage, except per accidens, the underlying existential commitments that modern folks have already made before we even discuss faith and science with them. Even if we walk them through a true demonstration, the force of the conclusion is often unable to overcome deep-seated commitments bound up with one’s sense of identity, family, culture, sense of the good, and so on.

To “win the argument,” we would need to engage the reasons why the modern world has committed itself to an atheistic, physicalist, hedonist, cultural milieu to begin with. The problem is that even when we receive and engage their “scientific” arguments against the Church, we are unable to engage the existential reasons why our interlocutor holds to that objection. And it is a mistake, as Dr. De Haan notes, to think that the reasons the modern world stands against the Church are any less existential then the reasons we are committed to it.

As Catholic academics, we’re very good at identifying and attacking the principle erroneous points of departure that moderns take from the truth (e.g., physicalism, empiricism, hedonism, etc.) but the underlying reasons why we need to attack these principles—what put our interlocutor in this place to begin with—is out of our reach.

When it was within reach, it was because the entire west had a deep existential commitment already made to Catholicism, and this commitment was anchored in the political structures reinforced by the Church. When the protestant reformation took hold and the subsequent enlightenment followed, we were suddenly working against such existential commitments rather than with them. Now here today we have a similar exodus rising again in the Church (and still broadly existing in the world), but we traditionalists are likely to say that all we need is stronger education, better demonstrations, and conclusive refutations—and while we do need these, they won’t be enough.

We had a strong rational account of the faith in Christendom too, and she fell.

In large part, I think the reason existential commitments are made against the Church and against the sciences that support the Church is because clergy and ranking laymen do not set a worthy model for imitation. It is hard to be convinced by a hypocrite. And I bet a strong case could be made that this is exactly why, in the protestant reformation, that your average uneducated layman left the Church too.

People first need to see a compelling and living reason why the Church is worth hearing before any of her arguments can be effective. It’s not that the world has a living reason on the opposite hand that shows why the Church isn’t worth hearing, but that the living reason against the Church is the ranking members of the Church herself.

What can we do about it? What we need most desperately is an overwhelming conversion of the hierarchy to heroic virtue. We must pray for this to obtain. But in our own lives, we need to become the living reasons for being in the Church. We must give the world an existential reason to investigate the Church again.

We must become worthy of imitation.

– Joseph Grossheim is a doctoral student of philosophy at the Center for Thomistic Studies in Houston, Texas. His research includes ethics, politics, and medieval philosophy, with a special focus on the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas.