Saturday, May 24, 2014

Speculation and revelation

This occurred to me last night as I read Richard Hofstadter's Anti-Intellectualism in American Life: The virtues of intellectualism are virtues only in the absence of revelation.

Intellectualism is the pursuit of ideas for their own sake, but only in the service of the presupposition that, since the truth is not already known and may, perhaps, never be known by all with final certainty, we must continue to search for it, grope for it, chip away at it, with the continuing desire that more and more it may be revealed, so that we may transmit it and, in the very search, become more adept in that activity that gives humanity its unique dignity--the life of the mind.

But if, on the other hand, the real truth were that a Supernatural Entity stood perfectly ready to reveal Itself to all serious seekers, speculation and conjecture, no matter how well-intended, no matter how subtle or on what firm conceptual foundations, would be superfluous. We would not need to speculate on what was revealed to us already. We might, indeed, seek to refine our understanding of that revelation only in refining our practice of more immediate and efficient submission to the truth revealed, but not only would there be no need to speculate on what the truth "might" be, the very speculative and critical habit of mind would be counter-productive.

If there is really revelation, then our only attitude should be "You, O Supreme One, have spoken; we hear and obey. We ask only that you clear away any obstacles to our understanding that we may obey more quickly and fully."

In other words, the attitude that ought, in the values of the author of Genesis, to have been true of Adam and Eve.

If, on the other hand, there is no true revelation from "above"--or if it is generally acknowledged by any person of sense that such a revelation, even if it existed, would be impossible, either to discern at all, or at least to distinguish from the various fallible impulses of our minds, then the disinterested pursuit, and critical examination, of ideas, must, indeed, be the highest activity of the human mind.

But there is a paradox here. If there were a God, He must have created the human mind, as He must have created everything else, for its highest use (by "highest," I mean "the greatest exercise of its most distinctive qualities")--e.g., speculative, critical thought.

But if there were a God, and He was willing to disclose Himself and His aims clearly to mankind, it must also be true that speculative, critical thought had become superfluous--in respect of the truths revealed, anyway--so that He must be in the position of having created an instrument, the human mind, for which the exercise of its highest faculties was unnecessary--rather like crafting a Stradivarius violin, but only in the expectation that it need be used for nothing more intricate than to perform "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star."

© Michael Huggins, 2014. All rights reserved.

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