This was my first year at Acton University and so I was enrolled in the foundational lecture series. The foundational lectures for first timers included: Christian Anthropology, The Christian Vision of Government, Economic Way of Thinking, and Biblical Foundations in Freedom.
Looking back on Acton University overall, the main lesson that I take away is the importance of a good anthropology, of a proper understanding of the human person. Thomas Aquinas began his work On Being and Essence by quoting Aristotle’s De Coelo: “A slight initial error eventually grows to vast proportions.” If an error is made at the outset, then subsequent statements will be improperly concluded. This alerts us to the importance of being grounded firmly in true starting points, in solid philosophical foundations.
During Dr. Matheson-Miller’s foundational lecture, he told us that John Paul II said, “The primary fault of socialism was anthropological in nature.” “What [Pope JPII] meant,” explained Dr. Matheson-Miller, “is that socialism failed because it got the person wrong.”
Dr. Matheson Miller stressed the issue of the common acceptance of the Rousseauian account as an alternative to the creation narrative in Genesis. “Individualism is false,” Matheson-Miller said, “We are born into families.” It is a totalitarian tendency rather than an expression of liberty to impose our relentless fictions on the nature of reality. He also maintained that there are no individuals, but only human persons. The family is a natural community that is pre-political. It is not a construct, but a biological and social reality, he explained.
Biblical theology and Greek philosophy are the pillars of western civilization. In Greek philosophy we have the Socratic recognition of the limits of knowledge in the story of the Delphic oracle. In biblical theology, we have the Judeo-Christian recognition of the limits of human goodness in the story of creation and the fall. G.K. Chesterton called original sin “the only provable Christian doctrine.” Socrates affirmed his own ignorance. The humility necessary to recognizing limits is a unifying aspect of both biblical theology and Greek philosophy.
Peter Kreeft says that we come to know truth by its goodness, but that goodness is ontologically dependent on truth. The paradoxical nature of Christianity is easier to reconcile when we see that our philosophical tradition equally attests to a humble recognition of limits so as to grow in knowledge and holiness in order to lead lives worthy of men on earth.
Retaliation against biblical theology for its account of the weakness of human nature is an equally problematic retaliation against western philosophy. In both cases there is a rejection of the limits of knowledge. This tends consistently to boundlessly rationalistic system construction oriented to perfection that cannot be attained because, as Genesis and Thomas More have illustrated, of human pride.
If we could achieve perfection in knowledge, would we not be able to be perfectly good? If we could achieve perfection in our goodness, would it not be through the perfection of our knowledge? And yet, as St. Paul expressed so succinctly, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” Like Augustine we are confronted with the perplexity that arises when we realize that we have become mysteries to ourselves. Augustine confesses, “For in your sight I have become a riddle to myself and that is my infirmity.”
What does it mean to be a person? What is human nature? These questions are fundamental and they matter for every discipline and for every person. Modern rationalism, system construction, and freedom apart from human excellence are roadblocks to arriving to the beauty, goodness, and truth of the Christian anthropology. Let us take all of the other anthropologies and test them against the Christian account of persons as images of God, who discover true liberty when they love the law that God has written upon their human hearts… that they might abide in Him and be loved by Him, held in His Order and Truth.
In gratitude for his good lectures and advice, this post is dedicated to Dr. Michael Matheson-Miller.