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Philosophy 101 Taught by Pope John Paul II

When most of us think of philosophy, we think of a college course we took, the content of which probably seemed pretty remote from the concerns of everyday life. But philosophy is for everyone, and one of the great gifts Pope John Paul II left the Church was a reminder of that. We may not be aware of it, but as reasoning human beings, we engage in philosophy every day. For example, each of us has some standard by which we judge whether a statement is true or false—this is epistemology. Each of us has some standard by which we judge whether an action is right or wrong—this is moral philosophy. Each of us has some standard to distinguish mere appearance from reality—this is metaphysics.

Lesson One: Every Person Is a Philosopher

Man is by nature a philosopher. In his encyclical Fides et Ratio, Pope John Paul explains it this way:

Who am I? Where did I come from and where am I going? Why is there evil? What is there after this life? . . . They are questions that have their common source in the quest for meaning that has always compelled the human heart. In fact, the answer given to these questions decides the direction that people seek to give to their lives (FR 1)

Because we all confront such philosophical questions, and because we all want to know the truth rather than be deceived by falsehoods, we are all in a sense philosophers.

In this context, Pope John Paul writes:

The Church cannot but set great value upon reason’s drive to attain goals that render people’s lives ever more worthy. It sees in philosophy the way to come to know fundamental truths about human life. At the same time, the Church considers philosophy an indispensable help for a deeper understanding of faith and for communicating the truth of the gospel to those who do not yet know it (FR 5).

If all people are by nature philosophical, those who wish to deepen their faith and their understanding of faith (theology) must be even more so. Fides et Ratio specifically focuses on the need for philosophy for theology and apologetics. He called upon theologians, professional and lay, to take up the study of philosophy as “fundamental and indispensable to the structure of theological studies” (FR 62).

Apologetics is a branch of theology that makes special use of reasoning to show unbelievers the rationality of Christian belief. Of course, not all.aspects of Christian belief can be “proved” through arguments based on reason alone. But philosophical reason can show the truth of some Christian beliefs (such as God’s existence and some Christian moral duties, such as not to kill innocent human persons). Philosophical reason can reveal problems with various objections to Christian belief, and it can remove obstacles to religious belief, opening the door to every human person who by nature seeks the truth.

Lesson Two: Theology Is More Than “Experience”

Certain kinds of contemporary theology take human experience as the foundation of all religious belief and practice. In some versions, human experience is replaced by “women’s experience” or “the experience of people of color.” As used by some theologians, “experience” becomes a litmus test by which religious beliefs or practices are determined to be valid or worthy of rejection. One example is Fr. Richard McBrien (for background on Fr. McBrien, see “Dealing with Dissent,” This Rock, July-August 2005), who writes:

We cannot accept teachings as “truths revealed by God” if they have no apparent connection with our own understanding of ourselves, an understanding derived from our experience as human beings (Catholicism, Harper & Row, 130).

It is this sort of error that Pope John Paul rejects: “Deprived of reason, faith has stressed feeling and experience and so runs the risk of no longer being a universal proposition” (FR 48). A theology of women’s experience, men’s experience, or even human experience generally is not enough. If there is such a thing as revelation, then revelation, while always related to human experience, may reveal things that simply could not be known through normal human experience. Philosophical reason, and by extension theological reason, seeks to establish what is universally true rather than to examine the particular experience of a person or group of persons.

Such theologies of human experience are also often radically inconsistent. McBrien, in discussing alleged miraculous occurrences in Worcester, Massachusetts, reveals that he does not think all human experience merits affirmation but only human experience that confirms previously held beliefs. Although numerous laypeople and priests reported miraculous healing through the intercession of an ill fourteen-year-old child, McBrien writes:

God continues the divine healing work on our behalf not through outlandish and bizarre happenings [i.e., miracles], but through ordinary people rendering ordinary service to others through the ordinary events and activities of life” (“Where is God to be found?” The Tidings, October 23, 1998, 11).

Human experience must yield in this instance to a philosophical naturalism that dictates that God does not intervene in human history in this way. It seems that when the sense of the faithful does not so accord, revisionist theologians bemoan that Christian faithful need to be better educated and more open to change. Human experience is selectively invoked or ignored depending upon its usefulness in arguing for previously accepted positions.

Needless to say, theology can make legitimate and proper uses of human experience, whether this is understood in terms of empirical studies of behavior, scientific research into the influences that affect human action, opinion polls, or a legitimate sense of the faithful moving the Church toward new endeavors, ministries, or insights. But, as John Paul II notes:

A theology without a metaphysical horizon could not move beyond an analysis of religious experience, nor would it allow the intellectus fidei to give a coherent account of the universal and transcendent value of revealed truth (FR 83).

In other words, without the influence of philosophy prompting the seeking of universal truths, theology devolves into a “cultural studies” model that focuses on human experience as the ultimate arbiter of belief and moral choices.

Lesson Three: You Need Philosophy to Study Scripture

The Second Vatican Council taught that “the study of the sacred page is, as it were, the soul of sacred theology” (Dei Verbum 24). The Council’s emphasis on Scripture has led to both professional theologians and laypeople returning to the study of Sacred Scripture in new and varied ways. Thanks also to apologists such as Scott Hahn and many others, there is a growing sense among Catholics that personal study of the Bible is part of Christian development. Yet the study of the Bible alone is not sufficient for all of theological reflection. As Pope John Paul noted:

Those who devote themselves to the study of Sacred Scripture should always remember that the various hermeneutical approaches have their own philosophical underpinnings, which need to be carefully evaluated before they are applied to the sacred texts (FR 55).

No text, not even the Bible, can interpret itself or provide its own theory and methodology of interpretation. Adjudicating among various theories and methodologies of interpretation belongs not to theology itself but rather to philosophy, with its study of the way language communicates and the way human beings come to know. Implicitly or explicitly, the study of Scripture—even by those who claim to be taught by Scripture and Scripture alone—is informed by some interpretive method, a method that is brought to the text of Scripture and should be justified by good reasons, reasons philosophy can provide.

Philosophy also becomes highly relevant to Scripture studies when it comes to the existence of miracles. The biblical text in numerous places recounts miraculous events. Some philosophers such as David Hume argue that miracles are in principle impossible. If some scriptural exegete assumed that this philosophical view were valid, then the interpretation of various passages and even the dating of New Testament books would be skewed to reflect that bias.

For example, Jesus predicts the invasion of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple in various passages (e.g., Matt. 24:1–2; Luke 21:24). Historians record the invasion of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple in A.D. 70. Now, if miracles are impossible, then Jesus could not have known that the temple would be destroyed some forty years before it happened. Therefore, the Scripture scholar reasons, this passage or perhaps the entire Gospel must have been written after the destruction of the temple in A.D. 70. An erroneous philosophical proposition—miracles cannot take place—is explicitly or implicitly taken for granted and thereby shapes the reading, or in this case, misreading and dating of Scripture. Theology needs philosophy, even theology understood as scriptural exegesis.

Lesson Four: Theology Needs Philosophy

Many Protestant and Eastern Orthodox theologians do their work as if theology and philosophy were two independent and hermetically sealed areas of investigation. Increasingly, Catholic theologians do too. It’s as if being a philosopher and a theologian makes as much sense as being a soccer player and piano player—there’s no necessary connection. Indeed, for many such thinkers, there is a mutual opposition between “worldly wisdom” and “revealed truth,” between the philosophers and the theologians.

Such a conception misunderstands not just philosophy but also theology. As Pope John Paul says:

Without philosophy’s contribution, it would in fact be impossible to discuss theological issues such as, for example, the use of language to speak about God, the personal relations within the Trinity, God’s creative activity in the world, the relationship between God and man, or Christ’s identity as true God and true man. This is no less true of the different themes of moral theology, which employ concepts such as the moral law, conscience, freedom, personal responsibility and guilt, which are in part defined by philosophical ethics (FR 66).

Theology invariably borrows words and concepts from philosophy, just as Scripture makes use of words common to the time and place of its composition. Such borrowing is, as Augustine put it in On Christian Doctrine, like the newly freed Israelites stealing gold from the Egyptians. Whatever is good, true, and beautiful ultimately belongs to God and, by God’s graciousness, to the people of God, his Church. As Pope John Paul noted:

It is necessary therefore that the mind of the believer acquire a natural, consistent, and true knowledge of created realities—the world and man himself—which are also the object of divine revelation. Still more, reason must be able to articulate this knowledge in concept and argument. Speculative dogmatic theology thus presupposes and implies a philosophy of the human being, the world and, more radically, of being, which has objective truth as its foundation (FR 66).

Because God is truth itself and because all created truth comes from God’s book of nature or book of revelation, whatever is true in any discipline—be it history, sociology, psychology, or philosophy—is not at odds with the truth revealed by God. The compatibility of faith and reason, so strongly championed in Fides et Ratio, means that the theologian need not fear the insights of the philosophers and likewise that the philosophers need not think of revelation as a stumbling block to greater philosophical insight. On the contrary, the two disciplines of thought aid one another and spur one another to greater understanding. To quote the opening lines of Fides et Ratio:

Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth; and God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth—in a word, to know himself—so that, by knowing and loving God, men and women may also come to the fullness of truth about themselves (cf. Ex. 33:18; Ps. 27:8–9; 63:2–3; John 14:8; 1 John 3:2).

Indeed, theological borrowing in one form or another from philosophy takes place whether it is recognized or not. Pope John Paul pointed out that when the borrowing is not recognized—or when a philosophical perspective is adopted without due concern for its ultimate compatibility with the truths of revelation—there are unfortunate results:

In some contemporary theologies, for instance, a certain rationalism is gaining ground, especially when opinions thought to be philosophically well founded are taken as normative for theological research. This happens particularly when theologians, through lack of philosophical competence, allow themselves to be swayed uncritically by assertions that have become part of current parlance and culture but are poorly grounded in reason (FR 55).

It’s not possible to do theology without philosophy—when true philosophy is not being used, a false philosophy is operative nevertheless:

Were theologians to refuse the help of philosophy, they would run the risk of doing philosophy unwittingly and locking themselves within thought-structures poorly adapted to the understanding of faith (FR 77).

Lesson Five: Thomas Aquinas Is the Model

The Church does not impose any particular philosophy on its members. But it does propose a model for philosophical and theological insight: the medieval Dominican saint and Doctor of the Church, Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274). It was Pope Leo XIII in his encyclical Aeterni Patris who first underscored the value of Thomas’s thought, making it the gold standard for Catholic philosophy and theology. About this work, Pope John Paul wrote:

More than a century later, many of the insights of his encyclical letter have lost none of their interest from either a practical or pedagogical point of view—most particularly, his insistence upon the incomparable value of the philosophy of Saint Thomas (FR 57).

Leo’s encyclical paved the way for the Thomistic revival that brought the Church much fruit, including the work of Jacques Maritain, Etienne Gilson, Joseph Pieper, and Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P., Pope John Paul’s dissertation director.

It is sometimes pointed out that the language of the Second Vatican Council is less strictly tied to Thomistic modes of expression than the language of the magisterial teaching in the years preceding the Council. That is true. Still, the Council did not in any way repudiate Thomistic thought. The Council’s decree on priestly formation noted:

By way of making the mysteries of salvation known as thoroughly as they can be, students should learn to penetrate them more deeply with the help of speculative reason as exercised under the tutelage of St. Thomas (Optatam Totius 16).

Sadly, this recommendation was not widely adopted after the Council. Instead, there was a large-scale rejection of Thomism in many Catholic centers of higher education. Pope John Paul was not satisfied with this communal intellectual experiment:

If it has been necessary from time to time to intervene on this question, to reiterate the value of the Angelic Doctor’s insights and insist on the study of his thought, this has been because the magisterium’s directives have not always been followed with the readiness one would wish. In the years after the Second Vatican Council, many Catholic faculties were in some ways impoverished by a diminished sense of the importance of the study not just of Scholastic philosophy but more generally of the study of philosophy itself. I cannot fail to note with surprise and displeasure that this lack of interest in the study of philosophy is shared by not a few theologians (FR 62).

One way to take the teaching of Fides et Ratio seriously is to look again, or perhaps for the first time, at the teaching of Aquinas. It is not an easy thing to master, but it is nevertheless of signal value for the intellectual life of the believer. With the help of contemporary guides to Thomas such as Ralph McInerny, Romanus Cessario, Russell Hittinger, John Haldane, and Jean Pierre Torrell, all of us—theologians,.aspiring theologians, and budding apologists alike—can make great strides in having a sure foundation and reason for the hope within us. Fides et Ratio argues that the philosopher has a great deal to teach the theologian, and both can learn much from an exemplar of both philosophy and theology at its best, St. Thomas Aquinas.

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