Developing the right uses of natural reason

One of the difficulties facing the Catholic in the 21st century is the challenge of learning how to think with the mind of Christ. 

There are lots of obstacles to this goal, beginning with such phenomena as the assumption that we all already know how to think and have nothing to learn, the distrust of thinking, and the fear that “thinking with the mind of Christ” is arrogant. 

Corrupt culture

To think like Christ, we have much to learn. Thinkstock

So, for instance, we are conditioned by our culture of instant affirmation to believe that everybody’s ability to think is equal and automatic — a sort of civil right. 

This is, of course, false as a quick scan of our culture instantly reveals. A society that uncritically accepts twaddle about UFOs, past life regression, horoscopes, Nostradamus and Egyptian curses on the History Channel (while patting itself on the back on its superiority over “superstitious medievals” like St. Thomas Aquinas) does not immediately commend itself to sensible people as overburdened with thinking skills.  

Nor does a culture that takes as serious “debate” the shouted slogans catchphrases of our media and political class. Likewise, a culture that thinks that “The Da Vinci Code” is a serious contribution to our understanding of the New Testament is not a culture in which people have all learned the basics of thinking.  

There is, said the Prophet P.T. Barnum, a sucker born every minute. And our educational system is now ordered toward turning out students who are deeply ignorant of the rudiments of thinking, but who have a high degree of self-esteem about their ignorance and lack of elementary reasoning skills.

Gaining good skills

This is accompanied, in our relativistic culture, with a deep skepticism about and distrust of thinking, something that is often aided and abetted, not only by wooly-minded New Age “spirituality,” but even by Christians who ought know better.  

One can hear, even in Catholic circles, variations on Obi-Wan Kenobi’s dumb counsel to Luke Skywalker to “let go your conscience mind and act on instinct.”  

And while it is true that “the heart has reasons that reason knows nothing of” (as Blaise Pascal said), still we are to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength (see Mk 12:30). 

Another obstacle to learning to think with the mind of Christ is that suggesting someone may lack thinking skills is regarded as a personal insult and a moral fault.  

In other words, many people believe that a person who has never learned thinking skills is “stupid.” But in fact thinking is a skill, like learning to ride a bike, do needlepoint or throw a football.  

You aren’t born with skills. You pick them up by learning.  

Lots of very smart people have never had the opportunity to learn various thinking skills or to parse out fallacies, and so they make mistakes in their calculations, not because they are stupid or wicked, but because nobody ever taught them logic. You might as well blame somebody for not being intuitively able to salsa dance or play the piano.

Using prudence

Indeed, very often, people are doing the best they can, and their own honest sense of prudence and justice (illuminated by the Holy Spirit) can take them very far without the benefit of an education in thinking skills.  

So, you often find good people who may never have learned about the genetic fallacy in a logic class, but who nonetheless know that two plus two goes on equaling four, even when Adolf Hitler says it. People are capable of grasping that a murder witness is not proved to be a liar because he is fat or ugly — without ever hearing the term ad hominem. 

Still, though people can possess a certain native skill in thinking, just as they can have a talent for singing, it often helps a great deal to hone the talent by learning from people who are trained in the skill we seek.  

All of us have probably had the experience of having a gut feeling that something is “just wrong” but found ourselves stymied when some clever person contradicts what we know in our heart of hearts to be so and gives us some clever rationale for doing some monstrous evil that we don’t know how to argue with.  

It’s right there that learning to think with the mind of Christ — which means first “learning how to think prudently and justly” — can be of immense help because it puts tools in our hand and words in our mouths so that we answer lies with truth. And in the case of developing the mind of Christ, that includes learning from people who understand not only natural reason, but supernatural revelation.

Real humility

This brings us to our next obstacle to thinking with the mind of Christ: false humility. Many Catholics believe it is arrogant and sinful to claim to “put on the mind of Christ” as St. Paul commands us to do in 1 Corinthians 2. But the Gospel doesn’t command the impossible and it doesn’t command false humility. It commands real humility and real humility is, precisely, to try to conform one’s mind to the mind of Christ. How do we do that? That will be the subject of this series of four articles. Today, we will begin by looking at the right use of natural reason. 

The Church commends the right use of natural reason. It teaches that before you get to all the supernatural bells and whistles about “gifts of knowledge” and God prophetically revealing stuff at Fátima and cool angelic inspirations of genius that can’t be explained by natural means, the first thing we are bound to do is have the sense God gave a goose. That is what is meant by the cardinal virtue of “prudence.” 

Prudence means having a clear grasp of what is actually so and what you should be doing about that.  

It does not mean “timidity” but “practical clearheadedness.” A prudent person is a person who knows what’s going on, takes reasonable stock of the situation, and then chooses a course of action that will most likely lead to the best outcome.  

Scripture and the Catholic tradition commend such exercises of natural reason. Indeed, entire books of Scripture (such as Proverbs) are all about teaching us how to develop such prudence. 

So Proverbs, while it certainly deals at times with what postmoderns would call “spiritual” wisdom, also spends a huge amount of time on such mundane matters as how to handle money, not wasting time at work, avoiding dumb conflicts with people, looking both ways before you cross the street, not marrying a drunken loser and avoiding putting yourself in the place of Wile E. Coyote (“He who digs a pit falls into it; and a stone comes back upon the one who rolls it” Prv 26:27).

Sizing up reality

Like all the virtues, prudence is caught as much as taught. You pick it up by imitating prudent people and not imitating fools.  

Of course, it’s taught as well, which is why Israel had wisdom literature like Proverbs and the Catholic tradition is chockablock with the wisdom of saints like Teresa of Ávila, who, in addition to writing profound works of mystical theology like the “Interior Castle,” also dug into a partridge somebody gave her as a gift before it went bad, even though she was normally something of an ascetic. “There is a time for penance and a time for partridge,” she said. 

In cultivating the basic Catholic approach to thinking, the Church’s approach tends to hew very close to common sense. In sizing up reality, we are seeking to know “Is this true? Is this good? Is this beautiful?” It’s the kind of stuff your mom taught you, not what a professor in a faculty lounge is subjecting to the acid bath of postmodern skeptical theory. Similarly, when deciding a course of action, the Gospel urges us to ask really simple questions like, “Is it righteous? Is it prudent? Is it possible? Can you afford this? Are you trying to justify evil means by appealing to some good end, such as “I’m stealing this candy bar because I need something in my stomach while I’m taking the final exam.” 

As rationalizations like that reveal, thinking can often run aground on clever arguments that seem sound, but are actually bogus. These are called “fallacies.” Of which more next time. 

Mark Shea writes the “Catholic and Enjoying It” blog at The next part of his “Thinking with the Mind of Christ” series will appear April 28.