Saintly Thoughts

In Defense of Theological Esoterica

How many angels can dance upon the head of a pin?  So goes the question usually employed as a means of dismissing the theological esoterica of the medieval schoolmen.  Never mind that such a question was likely never posited by any actual disciples of Aquinas and Duns Scotus.  But regardless, our age knows better.  We know as a result of the medieval's interminable argumentation and of the splintering of thought and belief culminating in the religious wars of the Reformation, that there is no rational means for consensus when it comes to matters of religious questions.  Better to simply live and let live, adopting one's own personal doctrine secure in the knowledge that there is no rational means whatsoever for anyone to either shake or secure your belief.  Or perhaps an acceptance of a reductive nominalist spirit whereby one insists on a few secure "fundamentals" that should be agreed upon by all.  But by the time that you have accepted such a half-hearted position as nominalism, you have already lost, and your mendacity will eventually devour your soul--unless you don't think about it too much, in which case only your mind will be devoured (perhaps a fair trade-off).  

But I wish to suggest a rather more radical and startling conclusion.  That is, that all of these "doctrines" whether they be Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim, or Hindu are subject to rational analysis.  That is, that doctrines are either correct or incorrect according to real measures derivable from the world system interacting with the human soul.  Now, to say that such doctrines, no matter how obscure, may be either right or wrong as concerns rational critique is not the same as to say that such doctrines are subject to scientific critique.  For science is itself a subset of rational critique which, due to its prowess observable by means of the technologies elicited from her willed nominalism, has wrongly come to believe that it is itself the height and end of all rationalistic endeavors.  This is an understandable error for her to have made, but it is an error nonetheless.  She is wrong because she cannot fathom the complexity of the problem she faces when attempting to account for the interaction of the observer and the observed, the fact that so many of the "facts" that the human perceiver perceives are the result of the structure of the human mind and body as much as they are the stimuli of the "objective" world.  This is not to say that the world is a relativity constructed whole-cloth out of the unmediated impressions of the human mind--there is a world of impressions out there that the human intellect experiences and interacts with.  It is simply to say that, were the human body (and by extension mind) structured other than they are, that the impressions of the world around them would come to them in a manner utterly unrecognizable to the human person (and by extension the scientist) as they now are.  I should, perhaps, add that this is not to say that such questions of the interaction of the human mind and the world system are necessarily beyond the purview of the scientific method, only that the interactive principles are very subtle, perhaps too subtle to be measured as we now are, and they might be infinitely regressive.  As such, science would do well to stay away from expounding her limited perceptions into absolute cosmologies.

What follows from this?  Merely that the questions which religion ponders are extremely subtle, and may reach into chains of causation which are infinitely regressive.  The theory of infinite regression (i.e. that the chain of causation linking God to the perceived world is infinite from the perspective of creation) is a bold and unusual theory, so let us just leave it aside as a hanging preponderance in the mind's garden.  What is left is a contemplation of great subtitles involving the interaction of the human spirit and intellect with the world system and (by extension) with God.  Subtle doctrines are extremely difficult to grasp, as any schoolboy or girl who has attempted to comprehend the Calculus well knows.  One can move forward in a particular direction, convinced that one is approaching an understanding of the fading limit, only to be rebuffed and forced all the way back to the beginning.  Religious truth is much the same, only far more subtle.  And, furthermore, since so much of it has to do with the individual intellect's interpretation of their specific experience of reality, is it any wonder that different intellect's of such different experiences come to strikingly different conclusions?  But, simply because the conclusions are different, even by some exceedingly small degrees, doesn't mean that there is not some position which lies closer to the ontological truth than does another.  Only, it will be exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, to sort out such a subtle truth within the course of even a thousand human lifetimes.  

This is why, as a rule, religious tolerance is a very good thing--for without the concept of divergence of belief as an expression of the divergence of human intellect, humanity would be constantly at one another's throat.  However, there is a limit to such tolerance.  For humanity, while diverse, is not infinitely so.  The extremes of the mean human condition lie within a fairly narrow sub-set of the world system.  For a human to attempt to push against the confines of his boundedness may be the very definition of creativity and yield good fruit.  But to hit these confines with a sledge-hammer and to keep on going, to attempt to be other than that to which nature has upon him bestowed, such must be contained.  But how?  For the bounds themselves, while real, are themselves subtle.  And in attempting to police their transgression, one may well transgress the bounds oneself.  This is the quandary.  Still, while recognizing the bounds of our own knowledge, and being tolerant of the bounds of another, let us not lie to ourselves and proclaim the absurdity that all creeds, beliefs, and prejudices are created equal and have equal ontological dignity.  The dignity of belief qua belief is a necessary legal fiction at best, and should not be confused with that subtle truth which the esoteric theologians considered so dear as to risk reaching into the very depths of absurdity.