The moniker, ‘mutist’ hit me in the face like a good Metallica (or Megadeth) riff: it rung my bell.  The term is found on page 47 of Frederick D. Wilhelmsen’s book Man’s Knowledge of Reality: An Introduction to Thomistic Epistemology. It’s a must read for our skeptical “What-if-we’re-living-in-the-Matrix?” culture. (Well, unless you’re a nominalist or a Platonist or a conceptualist or…. Still, I commend the book to you). The milieu of Western society is deeply skeptical. This is especially so with postmodern deconstruction as it is applied to hermeneutics.  There is a ‘hermeneutic of suspicion’ present in most academic settings, which means the Bible is relegated to the trash bin in the Mythology Department.

Trying to pinpoint a single difficulty in championing the gospel in Western society is like trying to paint a single spoke on a spinning wheel. Hold that brush steady…steady…..  As numerous as 80’s bubble gum metal bands, reasons for unbelief from science, history, and philosophy prop up in every locker room corner: science contradicts Genesis; history denies the evidence for the reliability of both the OT and NT; philosophy denies the goodness of God (the OT on the Canaanites, women, homosexuals; doctrines like original sin, the atonement, suffering and evil, and hell). Of course, Ratio Christi seeks to answer those objections by making use of science, history, and philosophy.   

You’ve met the skeptic dude who isn’t sure he’s real, right? One night, after our chapter hosted a speaker, I met an older, seemingly sophisticated gent. He wore a top hat and a London Fog trench coat; his finely trimmed beard spoke of years of wisdom, beaming its silver and gray prowess. He stood leaning to one side. He only needed a cane and a monocle to wrap the whole package up nice. We began to discuss all things God, and the conversation quickly moved to the notion of skepticism. “Am I real?” I ask. “I don’t know,” he says. Sigh. And he’s educated and well-fed and doesn’t seem like he needs meds. He’s not insane, friends. He’s a Mutist!  How then shall we respond? Well, Wilhelmsen has a telling bit of commentary and advice. It is worth quoting at length here:

“The most common denial (of reality as such) is as old as civilization, as weary as disillusioned sophistication. This is the denial of the mutist—the man who says he doubts the principle of contradiction, but who refuses to give any reasons for his doubts and negations. This is not philosophy, not even false philosophy. It is a mood, a pose of despair. It is better not to talk to such men in philosophical terms because their problem is moral theological; it is not metaphysical. The mutist fears an affirmation and he fears an absolute affirmation more than anything else in the world. Perhaps he senses vaguely that the absolute may wound him, may be a sign of contradiction mocking his way of life. The attitude of intellectual mutism is widespread in a decaying civilization.” 

Wilhelmsen hits it on the money: apathy, fear, a mood of despair, and mutism as a sign of a decaying civilization, if it is widespread.  It seems that mutism is widespread. What should concerned Christians do in this situation? Should we give up apologetics for the sake of the mutist, who is really just in a certain mood, rather than an intellectual disposition? For the mutist, we should follow Wilhelmsen – we should focus on the disposition of their will, of their emotional state, of the demeanor of their heart. At the same time, we should be prepared to give answers which the intellect can grasp onto, and to which the will may choose to act upon. An example of this is the problem of evil. The problem of evil has both a theoretical and practical problem. The theoretical is the stuff we read in the professional, academic literature.  The practical is the stuff we pour out of our hearts to a pastor or counselor, or a good friend, or in prayer. The theoretical answers, however, have a way of bolstering our faith, and enabling us to meet the practical problems with faith, hope, and love.

It seems to me, that with a mutist—with someone who denies the plain, obvious truth about reality, or the law of non-contradiction, that the apologetic endeavor needs to stop. Rather, the mutist needs to be confronted with the disposition of his will.  Once that occurs, and once the honesty of this disposition is acknowledged, then we can engage with substantive talk of epistemic and metaphysical notions of what is real.