for Marcus Castro
Part II: Faith Here Is Feminine
We led our lives / or they led us, and how would we know which?
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision, / The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces, / The solemn temples, the great globe itself, / Yea, all which inherit it, shall dissolve, / And, like this insubstantial pageant faded, / Leave not a rack behind.
—William Shakespeare, The Tempest
The philosopher Norman Melchert says that Immanuel Kant’s entire philosophy began as a reaction against Hume—less because Hume was wrong than because his skepticism “has an unacceptable consequence.” He explains, “if Hume is right, Newtonian science itself is basically an irrational and unjustified fiction…. Hume ends up exactly where Descartes fears to be, with science indistinguishable from a dream.”
In his essay “The Truth Wears Off,” which first appeared in The New Yorker, Jonah Lehrer questions the scientific method by exploring “the decline effect”—the tendency for scientific findings’ supporting data to decline gradually over time. A hot new discovery might get published in a prestigious journal, gaining influence in its field and garnering hundreds of citations over the course of subsequent decades, yet commonly, the supporting data dwindles as time goes on. Lehrer says, “The most likely explanation for the decline is an obvious one: regression to the mean. As the experiment is repeated, that is, an early statistical fluke gets cancelled out.”
But the implications of “the decline effect” reveal just how much faith is part of the scientific process. Lehrer concludes his essay with a final point about “the slipperiness of empiricism”:
Although many scientific ideas generate conflicting results and suffer from falling effect sizes, they continue to get cited in the textbooks and drive standard medical practice. Why? Because these ideas seem true. Because they make sense. Because we can’t bear to let them go. And this is why the decline effect is so troubling… because it reminds us how difficult it is to prove anything. We like to pretend that our experiments define the truth for us. But that’s often not the case. Just because an idea is true doesn’t mean it can be proved. And just because an idea can be proved doesn’t mean it’s true. When the experiments are done, we still have to choose what to believe.
Before the Enlightenment, reason and faith cooperated within the Christian paradigm.
The C-Text of Piers Ploughman, for instance, ends with Reason sending the pilgrim Piers to faith: “’And I counsel you,’ said Reason, ‘quickly to begin / The life that is laudable and reliable for the soul.’…and [Piers] came to the church.”
In “Holy Sonnet Fourteen,” Donne metaphorizes reason as a divine deputy: “Reason, your [God’s] viceroy in me.”
Mysticism had flourished from the Middle Ages through the early Renaissance partly because reason was not yet as culturally dominant as it would become. Therefore, unreason—which includes madness and faith—was subject to less suspicion.
With the Enlightenment, however, reason became imperial.
Madness and faith were further subordinated and forced to share tighter quarters.
Western thought traditionally figures reason as masculine.
In “Gendered Reason: Sex Metaphor and Conceptions of Reason,” Phyllis Rooney examines specifically gendered ways in which reason has been metaphorized.
She cites the following passage from Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics: “…in the soul… there is something contrary to the rational principle, resisting and opposing it…. Metaphorically and in virtue of a certain resemblance there is a justice, not indeed between a man and himself, but between certain parts of him; not yet every kind of justice but that of master and servant or that of husband and wife. For these are the ratios in which the part of the soul that has a rational principle stands to the irrational part.”
Husband :: Rational
An old tune.
In The Man of Reason: “Male” and “Female” in Western Philosophy, Genevieve Lloyd similarly argues that reason is thoroughly constructed as male.
Lloyd starts with Plato and works on down the line of Western philosophy, through Augustine up to Sartre and de Beauvoir. En route, she takes up Bacon, who, almost two thousand years after the Nicomachean Ethics were written, echoes Aristotle’s misogynist metaphor: “Let us establish a chaste and lawful marriage between Mind and Nature.” Mind, or Reason, is the husband’s part, of course.
And the beat goes on.
We sometimes categorize faith as art.
Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe, for example, now belong to the canon of literature.
By holding faith well away from madness and herding it safely under the banner of art, we restore faith’s value in the face of reason.
We allow ourselves to value a familiar product so long as it is under a new label.
Inspired by Dada and by Freud’s attention to dreams, Surrealism sought to liberate the imagination by making use of unreason and processes of the mind that have been subordinated by rationality.
In his 1924 “Manifesto of Surrealism,” André Breton proclaims:
We are still living under the reign of logic…. Under the pretense of civilization and progress, we have managed to banish from the mind everything that may rightly or wrongly be termed superstition, or fancy; forbidden is any kind of search for truth which is not in conformance with accepted practices.
And the mad, Breton says, are merely “victims of their imagination.”
There is a common moment in Western thought, when the thinker leaves abstract reason and rejoins the practical concerns of this world, exercising a form of faith.
When Descartes becomes convinced of his own existence in the Second Meditation, he writes, “this proposition, I am, I exist, is necessarily true whenever it is put forward by me or conceived in my mind.” And yet, he does not use deduction to decide that he exists.
In his Second Replies to objections raised to his philosophy, Descartes writes:
When someone says ‘I am thinking, therefore I am, or I exist,’ he does not deduce existence from thought by means of a syllogism, but he recognizes it as something self-evident… if he were deducing it by means of a syllogism, he would have to have had previous knowledge of the major premise ‘Everything which thinks is, or exists.’
In other words, Descartes’ argument is not the following deduction:
1. I think.
2. All thinking things exist.
3. Therefore, I exist.
His is a different tactic.
The famous cogito ergo sum is not logic but a “clear and distinct” idea.
In his Third Meditation, Descartes explains, “there is simply a clear and distinct perception of what I am asserting [i.e. that I exist and think]; this would not be enough to make me certain of the truth of the matter if it could never turn out that something which I perceived with such clarity and distinctness was false. So now I seem to be able to lay it down as a general rule that whatever I perceive very clearly and distinctly is true.”
Clear and distinct ideas are even less reliable than inductive inference, which Hume said are “extremely liable to error and mistake.”
I would posit that clear and distinct ideas are a mode of intuition we might more generally brand as faith.
Let’s return to Donne’s “Holy Sonnet Fourteen”—because of what it reveals about gender.
Interestingly, in Donne’s poem, reason isn’t the speaker’s, but instead it is God’s viceroy. The viceroy in the speaker feminizes him, for as a believer his role is not to exercise reason but to have faith.
Faith, here, is feminine. In the Christian paradigm, Jesus is the bridegroom and the believer is the bride. So in the poem, the conceit offers these sets of relations:
bridegroom :: Jesus
The poem goes through metaphors in search of just the right one, and in the final lines, it culminates in a paradoxical resolution. The speaker says, “for I, / Except you enthrall me, never shall be free / Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.”
“Enthrall,” of course, means both “to captivate or hold spellbound by pleasing qualities” and “to enslave or to bring into bondage.” “Ravish,” similarly, means both “to transport with the strength of some emotion or to fill with ecstasy” and “to rape or violate a woman.”
It is an extraordinarily radical proposal: My chastity is God raping me.
Although Donne feminizes—and even queers—his speaker, using rape as a metaphor to bring closure to a sonnet seems like the product of a “male mind.”
Even St. Teresa of Ávila’s famous description of mystical ecstasy is not rape. It is masochistic but not rape:
In [the cherubim’s] hands I saw a great golden spear, and at the iron tip there appeared to be a point of fire. This he plunged into my heart several times so that it penetrated my entrails. When he pulled it out, I felt that he took them with it, and left me utterly consumed by great love of God. The pain was so severe that it made me utter several moans. The sweetness caused by this intense pain is so extreme that one cannot possibly wish it to cease, nor is one’s soul then content with anything but God.
During this experience, St. Teresa says she wanted nothing, “only to embrace [her] pain, which was a greater bliss than all created things could give [her].”
Donne and St. Teresa tread on similar but separate ground.