A philosophical and theological doctrine or attitude that minimizes the capacity of the human intellect to attain certitude and assigns faith as a criterion of the fundamental truths. Thus, God's existence, the immortality of the soul, principles of morality, the fact of divine revelation, and the credibility of Christianity cannot be proved by reason alone, but must be accepted on authority. The term fideism (from the Latin fides, faith) was used for the first time by Eugene Ménégoz, Réflexions sur l'évangile du salut (Paris 1789), and was then applied to traditionalism and other theories of similar strain.
Forms. Fideism can be divided into two main forms: the broad sense and the strict sense. The former is any theory according to which the fundamental truths of the speculative and practical orders cannot be established by reason alone, but must be admitted on the authority of other men or because of a human, spontaneous propensity to do so. To this kind of fideism belong various theories. Some of them place a criterion of truth in common sense, be it conceived as a spontaneous impulse of instinct (Thomas Reid, d. 1796; Charles S. Peirce, d. 1914), or the common tenets of philosophical systems (Victor Cousin, d. 1867), or, again, universal reason (H. Felicité R. de Lamennais, d. 1854, in his later period); other theories connect the knowledge of truth with sentiment, as did Friedrich E. D. Schleiermacher (d. 1834), Friedrich H. Jacobi (d. 1819), Johann G. Herder (d. 1803), and William James (d. 1910); still others see an approach to the truth in ethical postulates, as I. Kant (d. 1804) and some of his followers did.
In the strict sense, fideism ascribes man's knowledge of basic truths to God's revelation. Such fideism is to be found mainly in the teaching of William of Ockham (d. 1349 or 1350), in Protestantism, in traditionalism, and in contemporary Christian existentialism.
From fideism in the strict sense one must distinguish semifideism, which holds that man reaches truth by reason, but with probability only and not with certitude. This form of fideism is accepted mainly by some scientists.
Origin and Development. Since fideism touches on the problem of the relationship between faith and reason, it can be traced back in some of its features to pagan philosophy, notably to the Sophists; and, in the Christian era, to the early patristic period, particularly to Tertullian's (d. 222 or 223) "certum est quia impossibile" (De carne Christi 5; Patrologia Latina, ed. J. P. Migne [Paris 1878–90] 2:760). However, the Sophists intended to show the incapacity of man's intellect to reach the truth; the negative position of the patristic period concerning man's intellect can be explained as a reaction against pagan philosophy rather than a denial of the natural capacity of the human intellect to reach the truth.
More precise expression of fideism occurred in the medieval Arabic thought, particularly in Algazel's (al-Ghazzālī, d. 1111) Destruction of Philosophers, in which he opposes his faith in the Koran to Avicenna's (d.1036) philosophy. Subsequently his position was rejected by Averroës' (d. 1198) Destruction of the Destruction.
Strict fideism was advanced by william of ockham. According to him, it is by faith alone that one attains certitude about God's existence, the immortality of the soul, and moral law. One finds a similar teaching in Nicolas of Autrecourt (d. c. 1350), and later in the teachings of Michel de Montaigne (d. 1592), Blaise Pascal (d.1662), and Pierre D. Huet (d. 1721). Ockhamism, widely spread in Europe, influenced Protestantism. Luther rejected philosophy as an exaltation of reason and of nature. Consequently, he conceived faith as confidence able to justify. In his position, however, there are implied two aspects of faith, that Ménégoz, op. cit., discerned in the position of the orthodox and liberal Protestants of his time, namely "the gift to God of the heart" and the adherence of the spirit to the revealed truth. By fideism Ménégoz meant sola fides that consists of the movement of oneself to God, independently of the adherence to certain beliefs or to revealed truths; such faith is justifying faith. Louis A. Sabatier (d. 1901), being in agreement with Ménégoz, finds in the Bible symbolic meanings only. The Bible expresses beliefs; faith expresses the movement toward salvation. Fideism means this movement realized by faith. Such a position, however, was criticized by some Protestants, especially by E. Doumerque in his L'Autorité en matière de foi et la nouvelle école (Paris 1892) and Le Dernier mot du fidéisme (Paris 1907).
Catholic usage of the term fideism, particularly in the teaching of the traditionalists, gives the opposite meaning to this term; fideism means the acceptance of the fundamental truth on the authority of God; hence faith becomes a criterion of truth.
Doctrine. Fideism presents in its negative aspect a critique of reason, which is made to appear unable to ascertain absolute truth through human effort. In its positive aspect it combats scepticism and agnosticism by inducing a specific source of certainty. This source is faith, an extrarational factor that allows man to grasp the fundamental truths immediately, particularly those in the field of religion, such as God's existence and the authority of the Bible. Faith provides an object for reason, and not only grace, as a subjective aid that helps man to attain the truth. This role faith plays with regard to basic natural truths, as well as to strict supernatural mysteries. These are tenets accepted also by the strict traditionalists.
One of the representatives of fideism, L. E. M. bautain (1796–1867), explains in greater detail the fideistic position, although with a flavor of ontologism, notably that man's reason is a passive faculty that can know the truths of the supernatural order and more subtle truths of the natural order only after having previously received the knowledge of them in germ. This germ is communicated by faith living in the Church, the Bible, the Prophets, the Apostles, and even poets. His most relevant work is Philosophie du christianisme, 2 v. (Paris 1835).
The ontological participation in the truth imparted to men by God was taught more clearly by A. Gratry (1805–72), a disciple of Bautain. Gratry maintains that there must be something of God in man in order for him to know God's existence (La Logique, 2 v. Paris 1855). It is a divine attraction present in every soul that enables men to experience God. Thus, by a sort of "divine sense" one recognizes Him (De Le Connaissance de Dieu, 2 v. Paris 1853).
Traces of fideism are noticeable also in contemporary thought, particularly in contemporary existentialism. SØren Kierkegaard (d. 1855) emphasized, mainly in his Philosophical Fragments (Copenhagen 1844), that one knows God's existence and the truth of the divine mission of Christ by faith alone; there are no rational proofs for those facts. A similar teaching has been advanced by Karl Barth (1886–1968), Rudolf Bultmann (1884–1976), and Martin Buber (1878–1965); and some traces of such a position are to be found in the writings of Gabriel Marcel (1889–1973) and in those of Karl Jaspers (1883–1969).
Ecclesiastical Documents. The Church's warnings against fideistic tenets are already found in the condemnation of the errors of Nicolas of Autrecourt, issued by Clement VI in 1347 (H. Denzinger, Enchiridion symbolorum, ed. A. Schönmetzer [Freiburg 1963] 1028–49). In 1835 and 1840, L. E. Bautain was compelled, with the approval of Gregory XVI, to sign theses contradicting his previous teaching and affirming that God's existence, the divinity of Mosaic and Christian revelation, the historical value of Christ's miracles can be proved with certitude; and that consequently, reason leads men to embrace faith, and it is not faith that must precede reason (Denzinger, 2751–56). In 1855 A. bonnetty also signed theses reversing his previous doctrine by admitting that God's existence, the spirituality of the human soul, and man's liberty can be proved with certainty (Denzinger, 2812, cf. 2811, 2813–14). The same capacity of man's reason was sustained by Pius IX in his encyclical Qui pluribus, 1846 (Denzinger, 2775–80); by Vatican Council I (Denzinger, 3008–09, 3026, 3033); by Leo XIII in the encyclical Aeterni Patris, 1879 (Denzinger, 3135–38); and by Pius XII in his encyclical Humani generis, 1950 (Denzinger, 3875).
The Church's rejection of semifideism can be deduced from its insistence, in the above cited decrees, on the proofs with certitude of God's existence, of the spirituality of the soul, and of the credibility of divine revelation. The particularly important decree for this certitude is that of Vatican Council I (Denzinger, 3008–09, 3026). Besides, Innocent XI in 1679 condemned, among others, the error that the supernatural assent of faith stays with only probable knowledge of revelation, and even with fear that perhaps God did not speak to us (Denzinger, 2121). oreover, Pius X in the encyclical Lamentabili (1907) rejected the opinion that the assent of faith is based on a series of probable opinions (Denzinger, 3425); and in Pascendi (1910) he called attention to the decree of Vatican Council I, that man is capable of knowing with certainty, by natural reason, God's existence and the credibility of divine revelation through external signs, and not only through a subjective experience or inspiration (Denzinger, 3026, 3034).
Critique. Fideism rightly stresses the importance of faith against all varieties of scepticism, agnosticism, liberalism, and secularism. Fideism also plausibly defends the suprarational character of the mysteries of faith against the rationalistic tendency of accepting only what can be proved by reason. Finally, fideism shows clearly a moral need of divine revelation and faith.
However, fideism goes too far in its negative attitude toward the credibility of faith. If faith had no reasonable basis, it would be faith again that would lead us to faith. This would amount to complete relativism, since the credibility of faith would rely on a merely subjective basis, varying from one individual to another. Besides, since faith is essentially mediate cognition, it must be based on an immediately evident cognition in order to be acceptable to a reasonable being; otherwise, faith would be a blind assent; but "nobody believes anything, if he previously does not think that it must be believed" ("nullus credit aliquid nisi prius cogitaverit esse credendum"—St. Augustine, Praed. sanct. 2.5; Patrologia Latina, ed. J. P. Migne [Paris 1878–90] 44:962). Consequently, in daily life, one assents on the basis of the intrinsic evidence of the object; if this is lacking, one believes only when the credibility of the witness has been proved. Thus, in divine faith one believes when the veracity of the sources of belief is reasonably proved. Hence, even children, when they believe, rely on the authority of their parents; this authority is evident to them.
As to the certainty of the proofs, which is a concern of semifideism, one may notice that the proofs can become certain to those who understand them. Besides, the fact of revelation and its credibility can be proved historically and philosophically with certainty, just as other facts are proved. Finally, it would be imprudent for a reasonable being to accept something as true if it is not evidently true either in itself or on the authority of the relating witness.
See Also: faith; god, 7, 8.
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[s. a. matczak]