Born into a culture and operating in a particular historical consciousness, the human mind stands in a paradoxical relationship to reality. From the moment of birth to death, the human mind dynamically begins assimilating experience and forming insights, yet the totality of reality always eludes us. As we struggle to understand the world around us and the world within us, our limited perspective teaches us one of the most important lessons in life. We can expect to learn very little about the world apart from a community.
Humility makes knowledge possible and must be practiced at all stages of life. By humility, I am suggesting that a certain receptivity must accompany our desire to know. This openness places us as a recipient of a gift, in this case, knowledge that could not have been achieved on one’s own. As a child we began to learn language and how to express our desires from others. Parents and adults are responsible for the formation of children, whether they realize it or not. While some instruction takes a formal dimension in school, most occurs in observation of others. One of the most significant sources of knowledge comes from everyday conversations and experiences. The interpersonal communication of the dialogue requires both individuals at some point to actively listen and receive what the other person communicates. Reading requires humility. The reader always assumes the position of receiving what the author has written. Yet, in all these experiences, something more than receiving occurs. The mind takes the experience and evidence provided and reflects to form insights. The mind strives to have a positive understanding of its experiences.
Many people take their knowledge for granted as they assume themselves solely responsible for their insights. Arrogance replaces a genuine search for Truth. Possibly this arrogance is what prevents knowledge from becoming wisdom. Saint Thomas Aquinas teaches that wisdom as a virtue is not limited to the formally “educated” but that anyone through merit of their relationship to Truth can be wise. Those who fail to become wise fail to remain humble. When people exalt their own understanding as the ultimate “Truth,” they have created a false idol.
How do we remain both humble yet open to Truth? How can we have both positive knowledge about reality without reducing that reality to an idea in our mind? One solution is how we treat language. We need to treat language symbolically, realizing that all words point to realities beyond themselves. Saint Augustine speaks of the two dimensions of language, the literal and spiritual. The literal refers to the word itself and the spiritual refers to the meaning towards which the word is pointed- in other words, the signifier and the signified. In this paradigm we can have positive knowledge without claiming to have complete knowledge. We do not have to mentally reduce reality to a category of the mind to make it intelligible. Thus, all philosophy leads to mystery.
The medieval theologians and philosophers had a motto that guided their disposition to learning: “Fides quaerens intellectum” (Faith seeking understanding). When we are created in a relationship with God, we are placed in a relationship with Truth. The desire for Truth is an expression of an innate desire for God. A sound intellectual formation allows the mind to gain insight about its ultimate purpose and share this insight with others. We need to be able to intelligibly look at our spiritual experience, reflect, and gain insight in order to communicate mystery to others. This is why philosophy is so important to the “New Evangelization.” Philosophy shows the link between the human spirit and truth. It brings the person in touch with the great philosophical questions around man’s life and teaches him how to think critically and seek the Truth. All inquiry should be seen as a movement towards Truth. This journey must humbly occur within a community, or you are just elevating your own understanding. Seek Him who you are learning about for only this relationship can bring ultimate meaning to the insights you have.
“Many people have such a general and confused idea of God that their religiosity becomes a religiosity without God, where God's will is seen as an immutable and unavoidable fate to which one has to bend and resign oneself in a totally passive manner.” -John Paul II from Pastores Dabo Vobis