Thursday, October 5, 2017

The argument from highly intelligent saints who are Christians

  1. There have been many highly intelligent saints who were Christians.

  2. If there have been may highly intelligent saints who were Christians, then probably (insofar as the above evidence goes) the central doctrines of Christianity are true.

  3. So, probably (insofar as the above evidence goes), the central doctrines of Christianity are true.

(An interesting variant is to replace “are true” in (2) and (3) with “are approximately true”, and then to combine the conclusion with my previous post.)

I do not plan to defend 1. That’s too easy. Note, though, that while easy, it’s not trivial. I am not claiming that there were many highly intelligent people who were canonized “Saints” by the Catholic or Orthodox Church, though that’s true. Nor am I claiming that there were many highly intelligent people who were Christian saints. I am claiming that there are may highly intelligent people who were saints simpliciter, as well as being Christian.

What is a saint like? Saints are deeply morally good people who, insofar as it depends on them, lead a deeply flourishing human life. Their lives are meaningful and when seen closely—which may be difficult, as many saints are very unostentatious—these lives are deeply compelling to others. Saints tightly integrate the important components of their lives. In particular, those saints who are highly intelligent—and not all saints are intelligent, though all are wise—integrate their intellectual life and their moral life. Highly intelligent saints are reflective. They have an active and humble conscience that is on the lookout for correction, and this requires integration between the intellectual life and the moral life.

An intelligent saint who is a Christian is also a Christian saint. For Christianity is not the sort of doctrine that can be held on the peripheries of a well-lived life. Someone who is a Christian but to whose life Christianity is not central is neither a saint simpliciter nor a Christian saint. For a central part of being Christian is believing that Christianity should be central to one’s life, and an intelligent saint—in either sense—will see this and thus either conscientiously act on such a belief, making Christianity be central to her life, or else conclude that Christianity is false.

Now, the existence of a highly intelligent saint who is a Christian is evidence for coherence between central moral truths and the truth of Christianity. For if they were not coherent, the reflectiveness of the highly intelligent saint would likely have seen the incoherence, and her commitment to morality would have led to the rejection of Christianity. But it’s not just that the moral truths and the truth of Christianity cohere: the truths of Christianity support and motivate the moral life. For the saint who is a Christian is, as I just argued, also a Christian saint. And a Christian saint is motivated in the moral life by considerations central to Christianity—the love of God as shown in creation and in the incarnate Son’s sacrificial death on the cross.

It is difficult to have a coherent theory that includes in a highly integrated way deeply metaphysical beliefs and correct moral views in a way where the metaphysical beliefs support the moral ones. That a theory is such is significant evidence for the theory’s truth. More generally and loosely, I think that a person whose life is deeply compelling is likely to be right in those central beliefs of her that are tightly interwoven with what makes her life compelling. But the saint’s moral life is compelling, and if she is a Christian, then her central Christian beliefs are tightly interwoven with her moral life.

Hence, 2 is true.

Of course, the above is not all the evidence there is. What about highly intelligent saints who are not Christians? The existence of such may well weaken the argument. But at least, I think, the argument makes Christianity an intellectually serious option.

And there may be something we can say more specifically on a case by case basis about saints outside of Christianity. Crucial to my argument was that one cannot be a saint and a Christian and have the Christianity be peripheral to one’s moral life. But one can be a saint and an atheist and have the atheism be peripheral to one’s moral life. Atheism is a negative doctrine, after all. If one turns it into a positive motivational doctrine, one gets something like Russell’s “A Free Man’s Worship”. But that is too proud, too haughty, too cold, too dark to be the central motivational doctrine of a saint. A saint who is an atheist is, I suspect, not as likely to be an atheist saint as a saint who is a Christian is to be a Christian saint.

Eastern religions have their saints, but there is an obvious tension between the irrealism to which Eastern religions tend and moral truths about the importance of love of others, of corporal care for the needs of others. One can adhere to an irrealist philosophy and despite this live a life of service to others, but it is unlikely that the service to others be central to one’s life in the way that moral sainthood requires.

What about Jewish and Muslim saints? Well, it may be that many of the motivationally central parts of Judaism and Islam are shared by Christianity—though the converse is not true, given the motivational centrality of the Incarnation to Christianity. One might object that the transcendence and simplicitly of God as taught in Judaism and Islam is motivationally central. But classical Christian theism embraces the transcendence and simplicity of God—and the Incarnation and Trinity, too.


Walter Van den Acker said...

What exactly do you mean by "many"? I am not sure whether, if you are a bit more specific about what you mean by "many", (1) is so easy to defend.
I am not sure we have enough objective information about the lives of saints to conclude that they were deeply morally good, or even that they were highly intelligent. Of course we know of a few saints who undoubtedly were highly intelligent. I don't think anyone will dispute that e.g. Thomas of Aquino was a highly intelligent man. But calling him "deeply morally good" seems to have some subjectivity to it.
Another imporatnt factor is that most of the saints we know most about are people who lived in Europe, in times when not identifying oneself as a Christian was very uncommon, and, more importantly, unhealthy, e.g. because there were highly intelligent people who were canonized “Saints” by the Catholic Church who persecuted people for having different opinions.

There is also the matter of the cart and the horse. It may be difficult to have a coherent theory that includes in a highly integrated way deeply metaphysical beliefs and correct moral views in a way where the metaphysical beliefs support the moral ones, but the question is, what if it's the other way round? What if the moral views come first and the metaphysical layer is added later on to give more credence to the moral views. What if, in order to convince other people that a particular moral view is correct, some metaphysical background was invented?

Atno said...

One interesting thing which I think strengthens the argument is the fact that Christianity is centered around the person of Jesus; and in particular, of Jesus being God. Not just a prophet, not just the wisest man ever, but God Incarnate. The Creator of all reality, the center of all goodness, and so on. In Christianity, Jesus is to be worshipped and recognized as God. This is not something that one can take lightly. What, for instance, would take for you to conclude that a certain person is God Incarnate? It is a radical claim, yet it is one that highly intelligent and moral saints reflected on and concluded positively in favor of Jesus.
Being wrong about someone being a prophet is one thing; being wrong about someone being God in the flesh is another. It is relevant that so many highly intelligent saints saw God in the figure and personality of Jesus.