02 May 2010

Nuns, Sisters, and the Really Real

The National Review Online has up an excellent interview with Sr. Prudence Allen, RSM.  Sister is a philosopher, teaching at St. John Vianney Seminary in the Archdiocese of Denver.  The whole interview is well your time!

In the course of discussing the recent dissenting letter from the LCWR-Network endorsing ObamaCare, the interviewer notes that the women who signed the letter are not nuns but sisters.  The interviewer asks Sister to distinguish between "sisters" and "nuns."  She does so.  The interviewer then asks her why this distinction should matter to anyone in the context of the controversy. 

Sister gives an excellent Catholic answer:

To answer your question about “why it should matter,” we need to consider the deeper question of the relation of truth to language and the relation of reality to the human mind. According to a realistic philosophy, truth is the union of the mind with reality. There are two complementary pathways to the truth: reason and faith, which correspond to philosophy and theology.

For a Christian, language matters a lot. In Genesis 1:1-3, we learn that before God spoke and there was life, the earth was “without form and void.” From John 1:1, 1:4, and 1:14, we learn that the Eternal Word was with God and was God from the beginning, and that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.” Jesus Christ, this Eternal Word made flesh, leads us to the Truth; He told us that He is the Truth. So, by faith, we believe that Truth and reality are important and that we are created with intelligent minds able to grasp truths.

We do this by apprehending different forms capable of being grasped. However, if reality is simply a void and is without form, truth is not possible for us to know or to live by.

Language is at the heart of Catholic philosophy. In the United States, where pragmatic theories of truth and postmodern approaches to knowledge abound, the relation between truth and reality is undermined. All becomes superficial, and imagination replaces the union of human mind to reality. So the answer to “Why should it matter at all to the world” is embedded in the deeper question of whether a person cares about truth or not, and how much he or she cares.

A rough and ready way of framing the history of western philosophy is to divide the timeline into three movements/questions:

Ancient/Medieval: What is the world like and how do we come to know it?  (Turn to the Object)

Early Modern: What am I like and how do I come to know myself? (Turn to the Subject)

Late Modern/Postmodern: What is language like and how does it shape reality? (Turn to the Linguistic)

The general movement here is away from the notion that the human mind is capable of grasping The Real; knowing it as it is; and adequately describing what it is like.  IOW, the further away from Aristotle we get historically, the less confident we are that we live in a knowable, explicable world, and closer to holding the idea that language is all we can really know. 

From Plato up to Descartes, philosophers and theologians worried mostly about metaphysical questions:  what's really real?  From Descartes on, they worry mostly about epistemological questions:  what can we know?  For Catholic philosophers and theologians, the two questions are linked by a realist understanding of how creation works:  what we can know is the really real and our language is adequate for describing the real. 

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