On the night of November 10, 1619 Rene Descartes had a difficult night, full of disturbing dreams which caused him to question everything he thought was real.
When he awoke from his turbulent night of disorientation he resolved to remain inside the “Dutch oven” in which he had spent the wintry night until he finally arrived at a principle, an idea, a solid foundation which was indubitably, absolutely certain.
To arrive at this bedrock of certainty he did not turn to the wisdom of the past. He did not search for truth in the pages of Scripture. Instead, he resolved to look only within himself, to the inner, rational, workings of his solitary mind.
The principle at which he arrived? His famous Cogito ergo sum: “I think, therefore, I am.”
Now, only a few decades would pass before it was widely acknowledged that, after all, there’s nothing which insulates this concept from “systematic skepticism” (as Descartes’ method is sometimes called), and yet one could say that modern philosophy is a footnote to the thought of Rene Descartes. For modern philosophy, with a few notable exceptions, has been stuck in the solipsism of the subjective thought of the solitary individual.
Contrast this with the Christian approach to knowledge and wisdom as seen, for example, in the story of Moses and the burning bush, from the Old Testament narrative of Exodus 3. I, and many others, would argue that this story is a metaphor (metaphor itself something Descartes would have disdained) for and a paradigm of how human beings, created in God’s image, come to know truth.
In this story, Moses is minding his own business. He is free from the epistemological[*] anxiety of Descartes (although he did perhaps have anxiety of a different kind, related to his motives for leaving the community of his brethren in the Egyptian labor camps). He is not “seeking” certain knowledge, or anything else for that matter. He is tending the flock of his father-in-law Jethro when he encounters something which he cannot ignore: a bush which is burning, but which is not consumed.
Moses does a double-take. This incomprehensible vision, this inexplicable data point, causes him to veer off course, saying, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up” (Exod 3:3). At this point he is addressed (passive voice) by a Presence from within the bush, and thus begins a great dialogue not simply between Moses and God, but which comes to include all of God’s people and all three of God’s Persons.
This is when true knowledge begins: not when we turn inward, in the spirit of Protagoras[†], but rather when we are confronted from outside of ourselves, by a mystery which we cannot comprehend but which drives us to penetrate more deeply. Not so much when we doubt, but when we inquire.
This dialogue, so Thomas Aquinas would hold, turns out to be a participation in the Great Dialogue, the Great Dance, that God has been having with God for all eternity.
This dialogue has a totally different set of “foundations” (note the quotation marks) than does modern philosophy. Words such “relationship” and “mystery” come to mind. In a recent interview with two of my favorite theologians, the interviewer concludes by saying,
It is beginning to dawn on many serious people that the world, as it’s presently constituted, has no future. [What is needed] is a return to what [one theologian][‡] calls “the future that we have missed by taking the modern, secular detour.”
Descartes’ way, the way of individualistic, subjective introspection, leads only to inscrutable conundrums. Moses’ way, the way of openness to the mysterious encounter of relationship and transcendence, might not provide us with modern “certainty.” But it does give us something much better: an insight into the meaning and the wisdom of creation and beyond.
[*] “Epistemology,” from the Greek episteme is the branch of philosophy which deals with the question of how we know what he know.
[†] Protagoras, an ancient dialogue partner with Socrates, put forth the doctrine that “man is the measure of all things.”
[‡] The theologian in question is a man named John Milbank, who is known as the founder of a theological movement known as “Radical Orthodoxy.”