Christian Philosophy

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St. augustine was the first, it seems, to have employed the expression Christian philosophy to designate the teaching proposed to men by the Church and to distinguish it from the different wisdoms taught by the philosophers of antiquity. Before him, however, the term philosophy had been used by a number of Christian writers, ever since tatian, as a means of establishing contact with the speculative and practical thought that was widespread in the cultivated world in which the newborn Christianity developed. During the Middle Ages, the relationship between faith and reason was made more precise, to the extent that natural intelligence began to be seen by theologians as autonomous in the domain assigned to it by God. In modern times, philosophy claimed a growing independence, aiming at forming a body of doctrine as free from nonrational influences as possible and thus, in effect, opposing itself to the teaching of revelation. The relations between philosophy and Christianity have thus undergone changes in the course of time. It was, though, only in the mid-20th century that the notion of Christian philosophy became an object of explicit discussion. The exposition that follows reconsiders the essential definitions that explain a priori the difficulties contained in the idea of a Christian philosophy and makes as precise as possible the meaning of the debate; it then proposes a clarification, in brief résumé, of the sense of the history of philosophy that is present within Christian revelation and a concluding summary of the significance of Christian philosophy in present and future thought.

Difficulties in the Notion. A complex concept expressed by the union of a substantive and an adjective is definable only if both terms have a precise and relatively fixed signification. If, on the contrary, one or other of the terms conveys different (and nonequivocal) meanings, certain problems necessarily pose themselves by reason of the variable relationships that ensue between the two terms and thereby affect the subject of the expression taken as a whole. Thus it is profitable to examine here each of the terms that compose the expression Christian philosophy and the problems that pose themselves a priori with respect to its subject.

Philosophy. By this word one may mean (1) any doctrine that proposes a wisdom destined to conduct men toward their end by making known the origin and destination of all things, whether that wisdom be acquired naturally or revealed by God. Again, one may mean, more precisely, (2) an ensemble of truths discoverable by the human mind left to its own devices, without, however, excluding the influence of nonrational data. It is generally admitted that Greek philosophy, even when it ended in an encounter with Christianityto which, in the persons of its last representatives, it opposed itselfhad this conception of philosophical wisdom. Finally, one may mean, in a yet stricter sense, (3) a body of doctrine that possesses the coherence and certitude proper to the sciences, as these are understood in the modern sense. Philosophy, in such an understanding, would proceed from a simple and absolutely certain point of departure to draw out the entire sequence of its propositions in a necessary order. This conception has reigned since René descartes under the various forms of rationalism and positivism. The ideal of philosophy as a rigorous science adequately defines this conception of philosophical knowledge.

The Adjective Christian. There must also be noted a diversity of meaning concerning the adjective Christian. This results from the manner in which the Catholic Church, on the one hand, and the disciples of Martin luther, on the other, conceive the relationship between nature and grace, granting the reality of sin and of its corruptive effects. On the one hand are the efforts at synthesis that Catholicism continually promotes by reason of its teaching concerning man's intelligencean intelligence, it holds, that original sin was unable to alter substantially and that grace sustains and restores according to need. On the other is a tendency in Lutheran thought to divorce reason from grace, which is hostile to all that might resemble, proximately or remotely, an intrusion of nature into the order of salvation by faith.

The Problem. These reflections, summary though they be, allow one to eliminate at the outset two extreme positions, both negative, concerning the notion of Christian philosophy. The first, founded on the notion of philosophy in sense (3), rejects a priorias contradictory to the true notion of philosophyany influence that might be considered as properly Christian. The second, founded on the notion of Christian that implies a radical corruption of human nature by sin, rejects every pretension of natural intelligence, left to itself, to collaborate usefully in the discovery of the truth concerning God and the relationship of man with God. The Word of God alone, received in its purity and nudity, is the source of truth and of salvation.

One can pass rapidly over the notion of Christian philosophy founded on the concept of philosophy in sense (1). This offers no difficulty, since it signifies simply that the gospel, which contains the life and teaching of Jesus Christ, brings to man the only true doctrine of salvation and thus the only true wisdom, the only true philosophy, understood in a very broad sense.

There remain, then, philosophy in sense (2) and the concept of a relationship between the order of nature and grace that in no way rejects a priorias threatening the purity of the gospel messagethe notion that by his natural intelligence man can discover useful truths concerning both God, as Creator and End of the universe, and the natural foundations of human life, individual and collective, that grace elevates but does not destroy. Here the problem of Christian philosophy poses itself theoretically in the following manner. If one admits that there can exist a relationship between philosophy, as a work of human intelligence, and supernatural revelation, how is one to conceive any influence of revelation on philosophy without philosophy itself being transformed either (a) into a theology in the classical sense of the word, or (b) into a hybrid discipline composed of philosophy and data borrowed from faith (and tacitly guaranteed thereby), or (c) into a partial or total secularization, through transposition into abstract or scientific terms, of the concrete and historical account of the work of salvation accomplished by and in Jesus Christ? Does there even exist a choice among these three possibilities? Is it not necessary to exclude a priori any intermediary between theology properly so-called and speculations that simply subsume, in another mode, Christian data in their totality, as did G.W. F. hegel, or in their parts, as existentialism and personalism are accused of doing? Is a positive influence of revelation, faith aside, a Christian influence? If the answer is no, can one speak of "Christian influence" as anything more than that of the general climate of Western civilization? If the answer is yes, then what sort of symbiosis can be established between two modes of knowledge and of relationship to God that differ as much as do faith in the revealed word and a search for truth merely in function of natural evidence and certitude? The assent of supernatural faith and natural assent doubtless can coexist in one and the same mind, but one may identify them formally only by admitting a contradiction. If, therefore, one qualifies a philosophy as "Christian," even understood in sense (2), one must show that the epithet effectively qualifies the substantive without corrupting the essence of it.

Historical Perspectives. Since its beginning, the Church has made an effort to present to men of different epochs, of different levels and types of culture, the message addressed to humanity by God in Jesus Christ. Such an effort must continue till the end of time. Since this message is the Word of God revealing supernatural mysteries, it is impossible that it not exercise a positive influence of transformation and elevation, both directly, on the conceptions and even the languages that are used to express it in a mode proper to each culture and epoch, and indirectly, on everything within a given mentality, individual or collective, that gravitates around revealed data as a center. There is thus room for theology, in the precise and classic sense of the word, which is the work pursued through the centuries to express more and more precisely (against heresies or possible false interpretations) and systematically (i.e., organized in the light of wisdom) the mysteries of salvation; and, apart from this, for other effects of the Church's effort, which are seen in the transformation and the progress achieved in solving the great philosophical problems that humanity posed for itself independently of Christianity. It is these latter effects that are principally discussed in the debate over Christian philosophy.

Leaving aside, even though they are important, the problems that have been raised concerning the passage of the revealed message from the Hebrew language and mentality to Greek and Latin cultures, the following historical survey treats the relation of that message to philosophy.

Attitude of Faith. The first attitude to be notedafter an early period of reserve, if not hostility, the echo of which is found periodically throughout the centuriesis that which utilizes philosophy as a discipline interior to faith with the intention of understanding, defining, or defending the content of faith. The philosophy first so utilized was platonism or, more precisely, neoplatonism in its various forms. By reducing all things to a transcendent principle and a universe of intelligible Forms, Platonism seemed to lend itself most naturally to the service expected of it, though not without making the faith run serious dangers or without undergoing, on its part, profound transformations. Philosophy interior to faith, during the first 10 centuries, may be characterized by its pastoral and monastic, i.e., basically religious, intention. It remained interior to a movement that proceeds from God's initial revelation to men back toward God, to whom the spirit of man returns guided by the Word Itself, but assimilated and, as it were, acclimated to the epoch and to the individuals at different levels of culture within it.

Scholarly Attitude. Despite the profound differences that separate the apologists, the Greek and Latin Fathers, St. Augustine, and St. Anselm, the ensemble constitute a period that is clearly distinct from scholasticism, although not by the central attitude, which remained turned toward the comprehension and assimilation of Christian doctrine. In the earlier period, this assimilation was effected in a new style that was no longer immediately pastoral and contemplative, but scholarly and scientific, under the form of a dispute with an interlocutor, real or supposed, who was regarded as defending a contrary thesis. In the high scholastic period, especially through the influence of albert the great and Thomas Aquinas, the philosophy of Aristotle came to replace that of Plato in theological teaching and to hold this position for a long time. Certainly, from the 13th century onward there begins to emerge, particularly with the masters of the faculties of arts, a purely philosophical thoughtof which Latin averroism is the best-known representative, even though it has been necessary to reevaluate this movement in the light of recent studies. Besides, theologians themselves contributed as much as (or more than) members of the faculties of arts to transform and advance the great themes of philosophy, notably the metaphysics of being, natural theology, psychology, and moral science.

Rationalist Attitude. It is nonetheless beginning with Descartes that a conception of philosophy appears that views itself as built on its own foundations, as purely rational, and as proceeding along lines similar to those followed by mathematics. This it attempts through the construction of a system that relies on a natural certitude as solid as the Cogito, a system of which the philosopher is the architect without being personally involved therein. That such an enterprise, carried on by different means, was not in fact able to break the bonds that attached it to the overall structure of the culture fashioned by Christianity is easy to show. It was, nonetheless, an effort to form a philosophical thought detached from all nonrational influences.

Changing Attitude. The rationalist conception, popularized by C. wolff in university circles, came to be adopted by a number of scholastics beginning in the 19th century. Against this view rose philosophers who pointed out in various and somewhat opposed ways the fictitious character of a philosopher who is at once constructor and spectator. Such thinkers were led to place in evidence the true condition of man's confrontation with philosophical truth and to make philosophy resume the path toward an ultimate end that it followed, at least since Plato, until the dawn of the modern period. The relationship of such philosophers to Christianity has shown itself to be markedly different, i.e., either more positive or more brutally negative, than that of rationalism and its various developments.

Origins of the Current Debate. In the early 20th century, many Catholic philosophers maintained that revelation exercises a control over philosophy that is negative and extrinsic, namely, by notifying a philosophy that may have come to a conclusion manifestly contrary to faith of its error. There then remains for philosophy the task of redoing its demonstrations and discovering the error. This solution implicitly presupposes the complete autonomy of the order of philosophical research and its extrinsic regulation by faith.

Gilson. This solution was questioned, indirectly, by the historical studies of É. gilson concerned with Christian philosophy. Beginning with an examination of Cartesian thought, Gilson soon perceived that Descartes, far from constituting an absolute point of departure, could be understood only in continuity with medieval thought; for it was from this thought that he had inherited his vocabulary and a great number of his essential notions and major theses, notably in natural theology. Gilson's study of medieval thought went on to show, furthermore, that the latter was not simply a repetition of Greek thought, particularly that of Aristotle, but offered an original treatment of most of the main theses of metaphysics, natural theology, and psychology. These novelties could be understood only in terms of the unquestionable influence that revelation exercised over the work of great theologians such as St. bonaventure and St. thomas aquinas. A purely extrinsic regulation would not suffice to account for the facts such as they present themselves to the historian of Christian thought.

What Gilson wished to call to the attention of historians was the necessity of revising their concepts relative to the great periods in the history of Western philosophy. Instead of gaps between antiquity, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and modern times, he held for a real continuity that was disguised by arbitrary and false classifications. At the same time, he found himself placing in evidence the positive and intrinsic influence of Christian revelation, and this not only on the theologians of the Middle Ages but, through them, on the whole Western philosophical tradition. The latter differed profoundly from Greek thought, he argued, only because of transformations in the major themes of philosophy attributable to Christian influences during the centuries of medieval speculation.

This position could not but provoke a theoretical discussion concerning the notion of Christian philosophy, its a priori possibility, and whether or not it implied some type of contradiction. Those holding to the scholastic tradition, and notably those defending the doctrine of Aquinas, saw no intermediary possible between a pure philosophy and theology. They conceived philosophy as concerned with a completely independent orderas had been postulated by Descartes and those who followed himwith its own point of departure that would permit the construction of a coherent system, free from doubt as well as from nonrational or religious inspiration.

Maritain. J. maritain, while maintaining the essential possibility of a pure philosophy, first proposed to distinguish this from philosophy's historical states. Later he came to formulate his thesis of a moral philosophy adequately understood, which he felt could be only Christian since it must be based on knowledge of the last end of man, an end that concretely is supernatural.

Blondel. The debate over Christian philosophy could not fail also to recall the passionate polemics that were incited after 1893 by the theses of M. blondel on action and on the relationship of philosophy to revelation. Also, Blondel intervened in the debate to reproach Gilson for perpetuating the equivocation against which Blondel had energetically fought in all his works. Blondel had been concerned over the impossibility of philosophy's understanding itself without discovering in its heart, in its own insufficiency, an appeal to a supernatural support. For him, philosophy is not simply controlled from without by revelation, nor is it simply to be utilized on occasion by the theologian as an instrument. It must vigorously seek, on its own ground, to do what it can for humanity, while recognizing that it must ultimately ask help from another order whose necessity it points out while admitting its gratuitous character. To let it be believed that philosophy can be sufficient of itself is to hold that the order of grace has no point of attachment in the human spirit, that nothing calls it or prepares for it, that the supernatural is introduced into nature as a foreign body into a living organism.

On the eve of World War II the situation was therefore as follows: first there were the majority of scholastic theologians, who defended a radical separation of philosophy and revelation and a conception of philosophy somewhat similar, if not identical, with that of the current rationalism; then there was Gilson, who no longer confined himself merely to the role of a historian; and finally there were Blondel and his sympathizers, for whom philosophy erred totally with respect to its true nature when it thought itself capable of closing in upon itself and of giving meaning to human life without reference to the supernatural order.

After World War II the positions were profoundly modified by developments in both philosophy and theology.

Contemporary Philosophy. Under various influences, a goodly number of philosophers have come to believe that the point of departure proposed by Descartes for philosophy, which has been taken up again and again by "system builders," is too utopian. When philosophers reflect sufficiently on the real conditions of philosophy, they find that it cannot begin with a pure subject (e.g., the Cogito, or a transcendental subject, of whatever nature this might be) or with a pure given, as does mathematics. Man's thought begins, and can only begin, with an initial situation that implies the presence and openness of his being, at all its levels, to a world that makes sense from the beginning, a sense that he never ceases to interrogate in order to discover its deepest meaning. It becomes actually impossible to dissociate this initial (and ultimate) datum from the human condition.

Philosophers are turning more and more toward elucidating the real condition of the philosophical enterprise possible to man, such as it is seen to be when the illusions and mirages with which imagination and language continually cover it are dissipated. This work is a search for truth wherein the philosopher is led to reflect anew, on his own grounds, on a great number of metaphysical and anthropological problems to which revelation has also given answers that have transformed the perspectives of Western philosophy.

Contemporary Theology. Christian thought, on the other hand, has experienced a profound renewal through a return to its sources: Scripture, tradition (envisaged in all its amplitude and riches), and liturgy; and the development of Latin, Greek, and Oriental patristic thought, through the Middle Ages, to modern times. It is thus no longer possible to oppose the thought of Gilson or Blondel with the simple conception that appeared in the 1930s as the only possible view of philosophy and of its role in the immense effort pursued through almost two millennia by Christians concerned with stating or defending the content of faith.

The renewal of patristic studies in the mid-20th century brought about by Henri de lubac, Jean danielou, and other theologians associated with "la nouvelle théologie" contributed greatly to this appreciation of the varieties of Christian philosophical thought. From a speculative point of view, the more important contribution of de Lubac et al. had to do with the debate over nature and grace (see pure nature, state of). Their objection to the common scholastic hypothesis that a spiritual creature could, as created, have an end other than the vision of God involved a more general complaint that scholastic theology as it developed after Aquinas held an improper notion of the autonomy of the natural order. In their view, philosophical rationalism was a natural outcome of this development. While not denying that philosophy has its own methods that are distinct from those of theology, some of these theologians held that the formal objects of philosophy and theology are not so distinct. Studies in the thought of such theologians as Augustine and Bonaventure seemed to support this line of thought.

Papal Teaching. pius xii, in his encyclical humani generis (1950), spoke of the philosophy that reaches un-changeable, metaphysical truth as a philosophy "acknowledged and accepted by the Church" (HG 29). He contrasted this attitude of the Church with two related modern errors: a philosophical pluralism become a philosophical relativism, and an agnosticism about the ability of the human mind to know metaphysical truth. This philosophy is described as "Christian" simply in the sense that it attains metaphysical truth, and thus is a sound tool for the Christian to use in understanding the faith.

The topic of Christian philosophy was taken up again by john paul ii in his encyclical fides et ratio (1998). John Paul affirmed that "the Church has no philosophy of her own nor does she canonize one particular philosophy in preference to others" (FR 49). Philosophy has its own proper principles and methods, and it would not be proper for faith to dictate to philosophy on those points. Nevertheless, because the truth that comes from revelation and the truth that is recognized by reason in its own natural light are harmonious, the Church rightly takes on the role of "servant of truth" by pointing out parts of various philosophical systems that are incompatible with truth as known by faith (FR 50).

Pope John Paul refashioned the debate over Christian philosophy by emphasizing the proper end of philosophy: namely, understanding ultimate truth and the meaning of life (FR 3). Philosophy therefore has the same end as faith, though it differs in the method it uses to achieve that end. Respecting this autonomy of philosophy, faith nevertheless influences philosophy in several ways. It purifies reason, wounded by sin and tempted to presumption. It assures philosophy that its end can be known. Most importantly, "revelation clearly proposes certain truths which might never have been discovered by reason unaided, although they are not of themselves inaccessible to reason" (FR 76). Philosophy does not thereby become theology: the things revealed are proper philosophical objects. But the revelation of these truths guides philosophical inquiry, especially since it displays them as pertaining to man's end, which is the goal of philosophy. Thus, for example, the revelation of God as the free and personal Creator guides the philosophy of being; the revelation of the reality of sin guides philosophical reflection on evil; and the revelation of the dignity of the person guides philosophical anthropology.

Concluding Summary. The expression Christian philosophy is thus applied in different contexts. There is, first, the fact of revelation's influence on philosophyan undeniable influence, but one that is interpreted in various ways. It is necessary in any event to distinguish clearly the properly theological enterprise of faith's using philosophy in order the better to express itself and the influence that faith exercises in this way over philosophy and that goes beyond being a mere negative norm. There are, second, the efforts to form anew, within a civilization characterized as Christian, a philosophical order independent of Christian influence. This would constitute itself theoretically as if Christianity, in fact, did not exist: either by pretending to ignore it, or by trying to render it useless, or finally, by relegating it to another level of the intellectual life (with the secret intention, however, of meeting it again or of letting oneself be regulated negatively by it). There is, third and finally, the effort to form philosophies that, from the beginning, take into account the fact of Christianity no less than the existence of stars and planets. This would either form a system in which Christianity is reduced to the object of an abstract dialectic, or, alternatively, it would conduct its inquiry in a way that, without altering its natural character, opens philosophy to wait upon, or even to make appeal to, the order of grace.

Granted a formal distinction between the two orders of knowledge, natural and supernatural, that no Catholic philosopher would question, there remain different ways of conceiving the notion of Christian philosophy, a diversity that (at least for Catholic philosophers) depends in part on philosophers' opposed views of the nature of philosophy, but also on views that mutually complement, rather than completely exclude, one another.

See Also: existential metaphysics; theology, natural; god.

Bibliography: For a complete survey of literature, see the Chronicles of Bulletin Thomiste 4 (193436) to the present. Christian Philosophy and the Social Sciences (American Catholic Philosophical Association. Proceedings of the Annual Meeting 12; Baltimore 1936). The Role of the Christian Philosopher (ibid., 32;1958). m. nÉdoncelle, Is there a Christian Philosophy?, tr. i. trethowan (New York 1960). c. tresmontant, The Origins of Christian Philosophy, tr. m. pontifex (New York 1963). p. delhaye, Medieval Christian Philosophy, tr. s. j. tester (New York 1960). r. vancourt, Pensée moderne et philosophie chrétienne (Paris 1957), Eng. in prep. É. h. gilson, The Christian Philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas, tr. l. k. shook (New York 1956). j. maritain, An Essay on Christian Philosophy, tr. e. flannery (New York 1955). a. c. pegis, Christian Philosophy and Intellectual Freedom (Milwaukee 1960). j. f. quinn, The Historical Constitution of St. Bonaventure's Philosophy (Toronto 1973).

[l. b. geiger/eds.]

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Christian Philosophy

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Christian Philosophy