Questioning Authority

They found him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the doctors, hearing them, and asking them questions.

Luke 2:46

One of the many prejudices masquerading as enlightenment in modern times is the notion that reason and religion are antithetical modes of confronting reality.

How many voices call for “dialogue,” when they really mean to heap scorn on ideas which they thoughtlessly assume to be antiquated, and hence not worth serious examination?

On the other hand, how many adherents to moral and religious orthodoxy effectively abandon the field of intellectual discourse, calculating that it is too riddled with mines and ambuscades to be worth defending?

Even Tocqueville, whose critique of pseudo-enlightened skepticism is well worth reviewing, slips when he describes “the spirit of religion” in these terms:

The human mind, . . . in fear and trembling, . . . sets aside the use of its most formidable abilities, abjures doubt, renounces the need to innovate, refrains even from lifting the veil of the sanctuary, and bows respectfully before truths that it accepts without discussion.

Tocqueville appreciates that Descartes’ repackaging of philosophy as universal doubt is designed to erode our confidence in moral truth, weakening our resistance to social pressures to conform to the dictates of earthly authority.

He rightly concludes that political liberty as well as eternal salvation depend on maintaining the strength of religion in modern societies.

What Tocqueville does not sufficiently realize is that true religion does not ask us to replace indiscriminate doubt with mental passivity.

As St. Thomas teaches, the content of divine revelation is not a set of ready answers to every question about God or human life. Rather, it is a set of principles given to aid us in the unavoidable task of seeking what is true and good in this fallen world.

As the example of our Lord shows, the law of God is a gift to rational animals. God expects us to question it, not because we doubt his veracity, but because questioning is the only way we can truly understand him.

St. Peter teaches that we “sanctify the Lord Christ in our hearts” when we make ourselves “ready to satisfy every one that asks [us] a reason of that hope which is in” us (1 Pet. 3:15).

We can satisfy those who ask us only if we first ask ourselves.

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