Husserl, Thomas, and Sister Adelgundis
A meditation on Husserl's birthday, April 8, 1859
Some of us live the tension between the autonomy of reason and the heteronomy of faith and trust. On the one side, we are admirers of Edmund Husserl with his ethos of critical examination, of cautious inquiry painstaking and protracted, of scholarly sobriety; we share his fear of error, of doxastic over-extension; we subscribe to an ethics of belief; we feel the anxious concern for intellectual honesty. His question, Wie kann ich ein ehrlich Philosoph sein? (How can I be an honest philosopher?) is ours. On the other side, that of Thomas Aquinas, we feel the willingness to take doxastic risks, to go beyond what can be strictly known, or even shown to be possible; we desire truth whether or not it can be philosophically validated; we are open to the allowing of church authority to override the judgment of the individual, even if in the end we cannot accept the Church's magisterium.
Husserl was drawn to the Roman Catholic Church in his later years. But he felt too old to enter her since he would need at least five years to examine each dogma, as he explained to Sister Adelgundis Jaegerschmid. (See John M. Oesterreicher, Walls are Crumbling: Seven Jewish Philosophers Discover Christ, London: Hollis and Carter, 1953, p. 80.)
A comparison with Simone Weil is apt. She lurked outside the Church for years but could not bring herself to enter. Intellectual scruples were part of it. She was strongly opposed to Blaise Pascal's bit about just taking the holy water and going through the motions in the expectation that outer practices would bring inner conviction.
Husserl's attitude was that it would be intellectually irresponsible to accept the dogmas prior to careful examination to see if they are rationally acceptable. To which the believer will say: How dare you question God's revelation? God has revealed himself in the Incarnation and you will waste five years 'examining' whether it is logically possible that God become man when it is a foregone conclusion that you with your scrupulosity of method will be unable to 'constitute' in consciousness the Word and its becoming flesh? It is a supernatural fact that lies beyond the sphere of immanence and irrupts into it, and thus cannot be 'constituted' from within the immanence of finite consciousness. What can be constituted is at best a transcendence-in-immanence, not an absolute transcendence. What's actual is possible, and what's possible is possible whether you can understand how it is possible. If it is actual, then it is possible even if it seems self-contradictory!
Oesterreicher: "But to do so [to examine the dogmas] is to judge the Judge, to try the word of God, forgetting that it is the word of God that tries us." (Walls are Crumbling, p. 80) Oesterreicher goes on to say that Husserl tries to shift "the centre of being and truth" "from God to ourselves." (ibid.) That is exactly right, and this shift is the essence of modern philosophy from Descartes (1596-1650) on. The 'transcendental turn' does indeed make of man the center, the constitutive source of all meaning and being.
"It is this luminous authority which gives faith its certainty." (p. 81) But how do we know that this certainty is not merely subjective? Objective certainty alone is of epistemic worth. And how do we know that the authority really is an authority? Josiah Royce's religious paradox is relevant here.
One option is just to accept the faith and seek understanding afterwards. This is the meaning of fides quarens intellectum. And if understanding doesn't come? Well, just keep on believing and practicing. On this approach, faith stands whether or not understanding emerges. "I accept the Incarnation without understanding how it is possible; I accept it despite its seeming impossible." Faith does not have to pass the tests of reason; reason has no veto power over faith. There is a Truth so far above us that the only appropriate attitude on our part is like that of the little child. "Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven." (Matt. 18, 3)
Would this response move Husserl? No. Should it? Not clear.
Perhaps Ludwig Wittgenstein in his Vermischte Bemerkungen gives the best advice:
Go on, believe! It does no harm.
Believing means submitting to an authority. Having once submitted, you can't then, without rebelling against it, first call it in question and then once again find it acceptable. (Culture and Value, tr. Peter Winch, p. 45e)