On the Meaning of Sex: An Index and a Coda (Or, the Oversimplifying Thomist)

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I’ve been looking for an excuse to get all of my posts on J Budziszewski’s On the Meaning of Sex  into one place, and I found one: I just discovered that Budziszewski has a blog! That’s right. In case you want to wade more deeply into the mind of the man who takes Dante and Beatrice as his ideal for marriage, now you can read his assorted thoughts on, well, everything.

In one post he writes about “the collapse of the universities,” which he blames on a rejection of the medieval/scholastic concept that “the universe makes sense, that knowledge is grasping that sense, that the mind can really grasp it, that all knowledge is related, and that all of its parts form a meaningful whole.” The medieval scholastics, he thinks, rejoiced in what we spurn: “the coherence of universal reality and its friendliness to the rational mind.”

Against this view he poses the modernist view of physicist Werner Heisenberg, who wrote, ‘Not only is the Universe stranger than we think, it is stranger than we can think.’

Just what you’d expect, right? “Medieval” isn’t an insult for him—it’s a badge he wears with pride. Which is normal for the Catholic Right.

But damn if Budziszewski’s rejection of Heisenberg’s statement doesn’t explain so many of the problems we saw in On the Meaning of Sex. Budziszewski has to imagine that the universe is “friendly” to the mind, so he avoids any evidence that challenges or complicates what he wants to believe. He builds a simple, even sometimes elegant, argument—but he has little interest in whether or not that argument matches reality. If a fact challenges what he believes, it has to be rejected. Or, better, ignored.

Budziszewski’s blog is called the Underground Thomist. I’ve outlined before how his conclusions, even more than his methods, come right from Thomas Aquinas. This semester, he taught an upper-division course on Thomas Aquinas. One imagines, therefore, that Aquinas is Budziszewski’s model of the grasping scholastic, the hero of his medieval vision of a “friendly,” easily comprehensible universe.

Except that’s not what I see in my reading of Summa Theologiae. Now, admittedly, my reading is less expert than Budziszewski’s. But Joseph Bottum has my back: “Too careful, too honest, simply to condemn everything except the sanctified monogamy that Christianity had given him,” Bottum writes, “Thomas works through an escalating series that ends up preferring the Christian idea of nuptials as the richest, most meaningful form of marriage—without condemning even polygamy as necessarily a violation of the most philosophically abstract application of the natural law.”

When I approach Thomas’ writings, I see complexity, and challenges, and answers that, while brilliant, are questionable and not necessarily at odds with Heisenberg’s physics, or with relativity, or existentialism, or any of the things that define the modern mind—and that Budziszewski hates. In fact, I’d argue that Thomas’ writings led to those things.

There’s also the sticky fact that Thomas didn’t finish his Summa Theologiae, reputedly because he realized that his science and language were incapable of capturing the mystery of “universal reality.” “All that I have written is but straw,” he’s said to have told his secretary, Reginald of Piperno, when asked why he wouldn’t write more.

Josef Pieper, whom Budziszewski cites in OTMS, writes:

The last word of St. Thomas is not communication but silence. And it is not death which takes the pen out of his hand. His tongue is stilled by the super-abundance of life in the mystery of God. He is silent, not because he has nothing further to say; he is silent because he has been allowed a glimpse into the expressible depths of that mystery which is not reached by any human thought or speech…

The mind of the dying man found its voice once more, in an explanation of the Canticle of Canticles for the monks of Fossanova. The last teaching of St. Thomas concerns, therefore, that mystical book of nuptial love for God, of which the Fathers of the Church say: the meaning of its figurative speech is that God exceeds all our capabilities of possessing Him, that all our knowledge can only be the cause of new questions, and every finding only the start of a new search. (h/t Andrew Sullivan)

That sounds a hell of a lot like “Not only is the Universe stranger than we think, it is stranger than we can think,” doesn’t it?

Anyway, my whole series on On the Meaning of Sex is linked below. It was fun work, so I hope you enjoy reading it. Please share it if you come across someone who swears by Budzsiszewski, or who replicates his thinking (which is about everyone on the Catholic Right). Or just because you want to share it. And thanks for reading!

A Series Introduction

Chapter 1: Your students are smarter than you think

Chapter 2: Don’t believe in modern love

Chapter 2(b): And two will become one

Chapter 2(c): Some quick-hitters

Chapter 3: On sexual differences

Chapter 3(b): When mothers wage war

Chapter 3(c): What happened to unique and unrepeatable?

Chapter 4: On the perfect marriage of Dante and Beatrice (Hey! Wait a second…)

Chapter 4(b): More Dante and Beatrice (and what about Gemma?)

Chapter 5: Such creatures?

Chapter 5(b): On talking (and listening) to others

A Musical Interlude

Chapter 6: Now go away or I shall taunt you a second time

Chapter 7: Time to transcend this book

(Image via Wikimedia commons)

 

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3 thoughts on “On the Meaning of Sex: An Index and a Coda (Or, the Oversimplifying Thomist)

  1. I have to say, Heisenberg and the other physicists were at least being honest about what they observed. When I read Finding Darwin’s God, I read an excerpt from one of the first physicists to develop quantum theory. He apparently found it to be a source of great personal anguish, and talked about going for long walks at night, looking up in the sky wondering if the universe could possibly be as random and as nonsensical as his experiments implied. It was difficult for scientists to accept quantum theory (Einstein proclaimed, “God does not play dice!”) However, they eventually had to accept the results of the scientific data.

    Budziszewski, of course, would probably not engage in the anguished soul searching and philosophical pondering that these men did. He would just reject quantum theory outright, ignore it, or try to find scientists who will poke holes in it (as he did (and perhaps still does) with evolution). Of course, it’s probably a lot easier to dispute biology than physics, because physics is all math.

  2. “Budziszewski, of course, would probably not engage in the anguished soul searching and philosophical pondering that these men did. He would just reject quantum theory outright, ignore it, or try to find scientists who will poke holes in it (as he did (and perhaps still does) with evolution).”

    That’s the drill, isn’t it?

  3. Pingback: I get comments! | Letters to the Catholic Right

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