The Catholic Church has been a great patroness of philosophical wisdom, with Augustine and Aquinas being perhaps the greatest representatives of this tradition.
Some Christians think this emphasis on philosophy in the Catholic tradition, however, contradicts the Bible. For example, in his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul identifies the message of Christ crucified as the wisdom of God and contrasts it with the wisdom of the world:
For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the cleverness of the clever I will thwart.’ Where is the wise man? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? . . .For the Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified . . . Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God [Christ crucified] is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men (1 Cor. 1:18-25).
How can the Catholic Church promote philosophy, it is thus argued, when Paul clearly says such wisdom is folly? Shouldn’t we stick to preaching Christ crucified and leave all that Greek wisdom behind?
Here are a few ways we can respond.
First, if we take God’s words “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise and the cleverness of the clever” to mean that he disapproves of philosophical reasoning, then he would be acting foolishly and therefore contrary to his nature.
It belongs to our nature as rational animals to have an intellect. And that intellect is naturally directed to contemplating reality. So, to engage in philosophy, which is basically the quest to know the ultimate causes of things through natural reason, is a good thing. And whatever knowledge of reality that we can use to direct our lives toward God, which is the virtue of prudence (a sort of cleverness), it’s good that we do so.
Therefore, for God to command us to not engage in philosophical reasoning would be to command us to act contrary to the good of our nature.
Now, for God to command us to act contrary to the good of our nature would be for him to command us to direct our lives away from him as our ultimate end or goal. In other words, God would be commanding us to not love him.
But God can’t command us to not love him, because that would entail a failure for God to love himself, which is impossible, given God’s perfect nature. A failure to love himself would involve God falling short of being fully actualized in his loving power. Since that can’t be given that God is pure actuality itself, or pure existence itself, he can’t fail to love himself.
Therefore, it can’t be that God intends to express disapproval of philosophical reasoning when he says, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise and the cleverness of the clever.” Nor can this be Paul’s intended meaning, for he, inspired by the Holy Spirit, would not contradict what we can know by the natural light of human reason.
So, what does God, and thus Paul, mean with the words “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise and the cleverness of the clever?”
We can look to St. Thomas Aquinas for some help. In his commentary on 1 Corinthians, he writes:
[God] does not say absolutely, “I will destroy the wisdom,” because “all wisdom is from the Lord God” (Sirach 1:1), but I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, i.e., which the wise of this world have invented for themselves against the true wisdom of God, because, as it says in James 3:15: “This is not wisdom, descending from above; but earthly, sensual devilish” (Lecture 1-3, 50; emphasis added).
God promises to bring an end by the power of the cross the disordered reason by which human beings strive to live for this world and the goods of this world alone. Again, Aquinas explains:
Similarly, he [God] does not say, “I will reject prudence [cleverness],” for God’s wisdom teaches true prudence, but the prudence of the prudent, i.e., which is regarded as prudent by those who esteem themselves prudent in worldly affairs, so that they cling to the goods of this world, or because “the prudence of the flesh is death” (Rom. 8:6).
This tendency to live for worldly affairs alone drives our attempts to explain the world. Just as we tend to live only for the goods of this world, we tend to explain the world only in terms of the things in the world, restricting our explanations to natural causes and not allowing recourse to a transcendent reality or the possible light of divine revelation. This is what Aquinas means when he says in his commentary, “On account of the vanity of his heart man wandered from the right path of divine knowledge” (1 Corinthians Lecture 1-3, 55).
According to Fr. Thomas Joseph White, in his 2014 Nova et Vetera article “St. Thomas Aquinas and the Wisdom of the Cross,” it’s this misery of the human condition that the wisdom of God in the crucified Christ heals, “opening [reason] up to an authentic horizon of intellectual universality.” In the words of Aquinas, “God brought believers to a saving knowledge of himself by other things, which are not found in the natures of creatures” (1 Corinthians Lecture 1-3, 55).
A teacher who recognizes that his students are missing his point, if he wants them to learn, will change tack and use another example or explanation to get the point across. Similarly, God, recognizing that men have a hard time understanding the meaning of their lives and the world with the language of nature, employs the language of the cross to convey that meaning.
But what’s that meaning? It’s love.
The language of love that Jesus expresses on the cross opens man’s reason to the reality that we are called to a loving relationship with God the Father through Jesus Christ by the Holy Spirit. In the words of Fr. White, the “love of Christ crucified . . . redeems the human mind by introducing it at once to the heights and depths of the mystery of the Trinity.”
And how do we achieve such a loving relationship? By imitating the crucified Christ and offering our lives for others in self-sacrificial love.
So, rather than opposing philosophical wisdom with the wisdom of the cross, Paul, and ultimately God, invite us to allow the wisdom of the cross to redeem human reason and elevate it to the noble place of serving the Faith. The Catholic Church, therefore, can continue being the patroness of philosophical wisdom without fear of contradicting the Bible, ordering philosophical knowledge to its proper end: our union with God.