A few days ago I was listening to the Crossing the Threshold of Hope CD and JPII was explaining one big divergence between the classicist view and the modern. I brought this up with some friends because we recently got into a discussion about “paradigms” and it was Thomas Kuhn who first laid out a philosophy of science that brought in the importance of this idea of paradigm shifts in knowledge. Rather than a steady march forward where science gains knowledge and eliminates error through a process of disproving theory by means of empirical evidence, Kuhn argued that something very different actually occurs. His work on the notion of “paradigm shifts” was revolutionary in the philosophy of science and became a household concept.
What JPII was explaining was the basic ways that the modern “paradigm” (to use that word, which he didn’t) is different after Descartes – that instead of ipsum esse subsistens, or the absolute transcendent being, we now think in terms of absolute transcendent knowledge. Thought, rather than existence, has become primary in the modern paradigm. Reason itself, instead of a tool, becomes the very ground from which the tower of babel must be built, as I like to say. “I think therefore I am” reverses the order of things in a way. Existence must be measured and judged against the ultimate ground of thought. And if there is a God, this paradigm suggests, then that God is not absolute transcendent love but absolute transcendent mind.
I would actually trace the origins of this aspect of the Cartesian revolution (which ultimately set off the Enlightenment) back to Plato and Aristotle where the essence/existence split seems to originate – but the important point is that as result of this paradigm shift toward “pure thought” we begin to ask different questions, or perhaps old questions in new ways, because the framework of our worldview has different assumptions built into it. For example, we assume that “our ways,” or the ways of “reason” must be the ultimate measure of all things, including God. And so when God does not do things in a way that “makes sense” to us, it is very difficult for the modern mind to make it all add up. Dostoevsky asks, “Can a cultured man, a European of our day, believe, really believe in the divinity of Christ, the Son of God?”
It is the rationalist (now positivist) assumptions built into the modern paradigm that raises this question in this way. But therein is the point. It is the very assumption that everything must add up according to our way that causes this difficulty. Why is God hiding? Why is there suffering? Why is salvation history so complicated? These questions have always been with us (Job asks some pretty good ones), but the modern paradigm makes them especially difficult and pronounced. Would a modern man accept the answer Job was given? After all, Job was not given “an answer.” He was in fact an innocent man and his suffering was indeed “unjust.” No discourse can reconcile the conflict; no philosophy can provide the answer Job desires. But he received something much greater than “an answer,” something much greater than just another discourse to top the discourses of his friends. He received instead, God. He met God and this satisfied him in a way that no discourse, or “answer” ever could.
But for the modern man, discourse and theory is everything because thought, not existence, is the ultimate ground of the paradigm. The modern man, standing in Job’s place, rejects God when He appears, and goes on seeking a discourse. Why? Because modern man assumes that discourse is the ultimate ground from which everything arises and as such modern man finds himself utterly lost in the quest his heart has sent him on. But this is not entirely new, not really. We remember that when given the choice, the people chose Barabas, not Jesus. They wanted, not God, but political power. Then as now, man has his ideas about what he wants and there is that part of his nature to reject what God has offered. In this, nothing much has changed. Then, as now, man thinks he knows better than God.