Questions and Answers

The essence of modernity stems from Machiavelli, Hobbes, and Bacon. Its project is to build man’s estate on the basis of “rights” that he himself defines. No transcendent order can be located. The City of God and the City of Man are not separate. Only the city of man’s own making “exists.” Man has no transcendent end, nor any information about himself except what he wills to acknowledge. Revelation, even if it were possible, must be ignored because its origin is not in man.

Man knows himself to exist and to exist as the kind of being he is. Why he is this kind of a being, however, is not something that he himself has formulated. Nor did he cause himself to exist, to come to be out of nothingness. The human condition is complicated by the fact that man knows this condition. His self-reflection cannot but leave him with wonderment about why he is at all, about why he is not something else.

Evidently, things other than himself exist and pose the same questions to man’s curiosity. Why does something besides one’s-self exist? Likewise, many things that might exist do not. A world of “imagined” or “possible” beings might have come about. While it is not particularly fruitful to worry about the so-called “might-have-beens,” the fact that we can pose the questions concerning them still causes us to wonder about the exact nature of things that do and do not exist. 

Moreover, we never find “existence” itself confronting us, only existing things. What we find are things limited to be this or that kind of existing being. Our minds seem to be such that we can know all that is. The Latin expression that mind is “capax omnium,” capable of all things, seems accurate. At first sight, this capacity is perplexing. It incites us to pose a series of “why’s,” almost as if this posing was what this power is for.

However, we do not ask merely the “why?” of something. We ask both: “Why is it this way and not that way?” and “Why is it at all?” The “why’s” are directed to answers to the questions. Clearly, some questions can be satisfactorily answered both intuitively and by a systematic answer that holds up in logic and experiment. In this sense, the answers to questions are more important than the capacity to ask questions in the first place.

Answers to questions can be dangerous. They mean that we have to stop asking and begin doing something about what we have found out. The skeptic can find a certain comfort in his lofty question-asking posture. Man is not fully defined as the being who asks questions. He is the being who also lives by answers to the questions he has asked.

What we often find out, perhaps not unsurprisingly, is that we do not want to know certain answers. We do not want to know abortion is the killing of a begun human life. We do not want to know that evidence exists indicating the world was created by a transcendent intelligent being. We do not want to know that not all religions are the same.

Why is this?

Some things we prefer not to know because knowing them and admitting them would make us inconsistent with how we live. Many a philosopher has argued we do not have enough evidence to conclude that God exists. Yet, if we look at the lives of the same philosophers, we can often see reasons why he might not want God to exist. This topic brings us to the curious fact that we can choose not to know in order that we can be “free” to act as we will.

Some will argue that if there is a God, He should have given us enough evidence of His will so that we would not be in doubt. Since He did not do this, the argument goes, He therefore does not exist and we are “free.”

The most perplexing question of all is this: Did God, in addition to what we can figure out by ourselves, tell us anything, by whatever means, that we might need to know so we might become what we are intended to be? If the answer to this question is “yes,” we wonder: Why is it so difficult to accept? Isn’t revelation mind speaking to mind? Would not revelation complete in an elegant way just what it is we need to know?

The answer to this latter question is, again, “Yes, it does complete what we need to know.” But what it does not do is remove our capacity to reject even the truth about what we are by the way we choose to live. We can reject what we are. Some even call this capacity a “right.”

About James V. Schall, S.J. 153 Articles
James V. Schall, S.J. taught political philosophy at Georgetown University for many years until recently retiring. He is the author of numerous books and countless essays on philosophy, theology, education, morality, and other topics. His most recent book is Reasonable Pleasures: The Strange Coherences of Catholicism (Ignatius Press). Visit his site, "Another Sort of Learning", for more about his writings and work.