Francis J. Beckwith is associate director of the J. M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies, and associate professor of church-state studies, Baylor University.
Total Truth: Liberating Christianity from Its Cultural Captivity. By Nancy Pearcey. Crossway. 479 pp. $25.
It is difficult to imagine an encounter in the public square in which one party dismisses the view of the other on the grounds that it is “just science” or “merely the deliverances of empirical proof.” This is difficult to imagine because there is beneath what is called the “culture wars” an epistemological division of labor which tells us that science or empirical knowledge is about facts and religion or theology is about opinion.
In Total Truth, Nancy Pearcey diagnoses the intellectual pathologies that resulted in the epistemological division that we see embodied in the culture wars. These pathologies are the result of interdependent social, philosophical, scientific, and religious movements that helped to reinforce the notion of what Pearcey calls a two-tiered view of truth. This notion, which she learned from her mentor, the late Francis A. Schaeffer, asserts that claims of truth in our culture are like a two-story building. In the lower story is the cognitive stuff that counts as real knowledge: science, reason, data. In the upper story is the noncognitive stuff that gives life meaning, but it is ultimately nonrational and therefore deeply personal and incapable of being judged or assessed by third parties. According to Schaeffer and Pearcey, the upper story is where modern people place religion, aesthetic judgment, and even moral judgments that are deeply private affairs (such as whether to have an abortion or engage in sodomy). The combination of Baconian science and Enlightenment skepticism (beginning with Descartes), followed by American Protestant revivalism, Darwinism, scientism, Pragmatism, and theological liberalism, produced, according to Pearcey, the potent two-story view of truth that is widely accepted, and rarely disputed, in the contemporary world. This is why it is a far worse social blunder to announce that one’s religious views are true (in the lower-story sense), and thus normative for all people, than it is to affirm something completely irrational that is “just my opinion.”
This understanding of knowledge, writes Pearcey, has had a deleterious effect upon our social institutions, their role in preserving and advancing the public good, and our ability to make a case for them in the public square. For once one detaches knowledge of the good—an immaterial object that cannot be detected via sense experience or scientific instruments—from what counts as knowledge of the order and nature of things, then positions that are contingent upon the veracity of nonempirical knowledge of immaterial objects are ruled untenable according to the criterion of public reason, which is itself just a proxy for reasons that support conclusions consistent with a materialist understanding of reality. And yet the materialist, as Pearcey points out, is incapable of giving an account of the veracity of his own perspective without relying on basic beliefs about the structure and nature of the world and reason that rely on nonempirical immaterial realities more at home in a theistic worldview.
Consider a version of what Pearcey and others call “Darwin’s Doubt.” In order to offer an argument in defense of his point of view, the materialist must be free to draw inferences derived from reasons. That is, he must have the ability to think, to exercise the powers of a rational agent. But according to the materialist, reasoning is an activity of the brain, a wholly material entity, like the kidney or large intestine, that is subject to the forces of natural selection and random mutation, not to mention the laws of physics and chemistry. But if reasoning is the result of “nonrational” causes, the deliverances of “reason,” including the reasoning on which materialism is based, cannot be trusted. If while I’m playing Scrabble the letters randomly spell “materialism is true,” should I change my belief and embrace materialism? Of course not, for this collection of letters is the result of nonrational forces or chance. But if the brain’s “reasoning” is like the random string of Scrabble letters, then its apparent deliverances—including the claim that materialism is true—are arrived at in no more rational a fashion than the phrase “materialism is true” on the Scrabble board.
Although Pearcey is an evangelical Protestant, she does not exempt her own tradition from critique. She correctly points out that the evangelical emphasis on individual conversion experience and personal relationship to Christ, especially as these notions are found in the anti-creedal churches that have come out of the revivalist tradition, makes it easier for evangelicals to assume the correctness of a cultural paradigm that requires a two-tier view of knowledge.
There is, however, one aspect of Total Truth with which I found myself in disagreement. Pearcey defends the claim made by some Reformed Protestant thinkers (including Schaeffer) that Thomas Aquinas’ view of grace and nature is flawed because he held that “grace meant theology or the mysteries of faith (the upper story), while nature meant knowledge of this-worldly things, supposedly known by unaided reason apart from divine revelation (the lower story).” So, according to Pearcey, Aquinas put in place, though not intentionally, an epistemological foundation upon which the two-story model could be constructed (a model that Pearcey correctly decries and that Aquinas himself would have rejected).
Although Pearcey cites several Protestant and Catholic scholars to make her case, and although her presentation is more nuanced and careful than what has been offered by Schaeffer and other Reformed thinkers, I believe she is mistaken in her reading of Aquinas. For Aquinas, there are things that can be known by reason, things that can be known by faith, and things that can be known by both or either. For example, the periodic table can be known by reason, the Trinity can be known only by special revelation (faith), and God’s existence can be known by reason (the Five Ways) and faith (revelation), though things known by faith alone can never be contrary to reason. There is no two-tier view of knowledge for Aquinas, for objects of faith are truly known and may count against someone’s apparent deliverances of “reason,” and it is the job of the philosopher to show that such deliverances are in fact against reason.
The difference between objects of faith and objects of reason for Aquinas is not in their status as objects of knowledge, but in how the knowledge is acquired by the human mind. Take, for example, the case of God’s existence and nature. According to Aquinas, one can know through reason that there is an eternally existing necessary and personal agent that is the first cause of all that contingently exists. But that such a being is a Trinity—three persons and one eternal substance—is something revealed in special revelation, Scripture, and is not the result of the deliverances of reason. Still, in rebutting the charge that the Trinity is against reason, the philosopher may offer conceptual clarity to the skeptic and show that the doctrine is not incoherent or irrational. In that sense, the philosopher is showing that that which is known by faith (the Trinity) is not contrary to reason, even as he maintains that God’s existence is known by both reason and faith and is thus contrary to neither.
Neither reason nor faith is technically unaided for Aquinas. Our natural faculties and their basic capacities and powers are brought about by God’s design. Although they have been corrupted by the Fall, they are still able to acquire some knowledge of God and morality without the aid of special revelation, though they are fallible (due to the Fall) and incapable of acquiring the specific knowledge of God and morality that they do not have the natural power to acquire, e.g., that God is a Trinity, that salvation is through Christ, and so on. Revelation is necessary in order for humanity to acquire this latter knowledge.
Fortunately, one can detach Pearcey’s comments on Aquinas (which play a small part in her overall case) without in any way diluting the power of her message. This is a rich and readable book. It is an atlas of the intellectual geography of the culture war that divides American society today. Pearcey connects, with uncanny insight, the ideas and characters that have shaped our intellectual history and made possible the secular-religious dichotomy that defines so much of contemporary politics, law, religion, and science. Although one may find oneself disagreeing with Pearcey at points, there is no doubt that Total Truth is the product of a gifted writer and thinker who can help us to demolish the cramped and confining two-story model in favor of a new home more in keeping with the capacious and uniform character of truth.
Copyright (c) 2004 First Things 147 (November 2004): 51-55.