Whether Faith Needs Philosophy

October 1, 2011

Reprinted below is an excerpt of an article written by Fr. Thomas Joseph White, OP, and published in the Aug/Sept issue of First Things.  Fr. Thomas Joseph White, O.P., is an assistant professor of systematic theology and director of the Thomistic Institute at the Pontifical Faculty of the Immaculate Conception.  His most recent book is Wisdom in the Face of Modernity: A Study in Thomistic Natural Theology.

Whether Faith Needs Philosophy

Philosophy fertilizes what postmodernity would sterilize.
Thomas Joseph White

Abelard, claimed St. Bernard, was a logic-chopping rationalist whose writings were symptomatic of the anti-contemplative theology of the universities. The true theologian is a monastic contemplative. Luther had harsh things to say about Aristotle and the Scholastics who appealed to him. The age we live in challenges any claim to a universal philosophy of enduring historical import, and many Christians concede the matter: We should accept the practical irrelevance of philosophy for the Christian life. Why so?

For one thing, it is said by many Christian thinkers, we no longer live in the age of grand metaphysical schemes. Whatever the glories of Thomism, the old Catholic claim to a universal philosophical patrimony was mind-numbingly naive. This was the error of thinking oneself in possession of a comprehensive form of thought that was applicable to all but that in fact was simply excessively abstract and ahistorical. One of the key insights of modernity is that we are historically conditioned, meshed with other persons relationally in culturally situated contexts outside of which we become unintelligible.

Consequently, there is no way to freeze the process of thought around a set of ahistorical essences or ideas that endure through all of time.

Modern Christianity, we are told, needs to move in the inverse direction: to adopt a narrative vision of reality. Primacy of place should be accorded to experience and phenomenological description, not to intellectual systems. If we want to find God, we need to experience him in history, not try to escape into an abstract universalism. The historical God has wed himself to our fragile human condition, bound himself to us within time and place, and so it is there we can look for him. This way of thinking leads into the contextual theologies of our time: liberation and feminist theologies, dialogue with the world religions, and various forms of pragmatic evangelical theology (promoted both by Protestant evangelicals and by Catholics) that focus on the ethical and psychological concerns of our contemporaries.

A very different objection to emphasizing the importance of a metaphysically ambitious philosophy in Christian life comes in response to scientism, the view that the only real knowledge worth having is that procured through the empirical studies of the modern physical sciences. The hard-core empirical scientist, it is argued, thinks that classical philosophy is nearly as useless a folk medicine as the theologian’s potions. When thought gets serious, it gets scientific.

Given that this is the prevalent worldview of many of our secular contemporaries, why should we work very industriously to articulate a vision of reality that is merely philosophical when that is just a doomed apologetic? We should simply articulate our core Christian beliefs lucidly, try to live an integral Christian witness, and believe in the power of the Resurrection and the grace of God to convert even the most hardened hearts. St. Paul would counsel us to do nothing less; to seek to do more is implicitly to evade the formal imperatives of the gospel.

Last, but not least common, there is the postmodern objection, the most friendly but also the most deadly. It is the viewpoint most prevalent among the professional theologians. Talk of a perennial philosophy-of an analysis of reality that is of enduring and universally applicable import-is intrinsically attractive. But this is fool’s gold. No one human articulation of meaning is necessarily binding on the human intellect. Man is not only a factory of idols but also an endless forger of intellectual systems, and the metaphysics he formulates are pluralistic and mutually exclusive in their incompatibility. Tertullian asked, “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” but we can also ask, “What has Athens to do with Königsberg, or the Sorbonne to do with Cambridge?”

Philosophies endlessly and inevitably refute philosophies, and there is no common ground from which to adjudicate what is true philosophically. In fact, people inevitably disagree even on the first principles of rational thought. Our innate aspiration toward universal knowledge can be redeemed only “from above”-that is to say, from recourse to divine revelation. The theological truth of the gospel alone, explicated through Christian doctrine, provides a universal and enduring intellectual science of reality. Everything else is a false substitute.

Whatever the power of these objections, they are not novel. Nor are they uniquely Christian in origin. The ancient Greek sophists and atomists employed similar arguments against philosophical realism long ago, and they were contravened by the best classical practices of philosophy itself. Plato and Aristotle, for instance, showed that philosophy can identify a set of enduring structures in reality and that it can offer a perennially valid account of ethical norms. True philosophy cannot be reduced, therefore, to a mere exercise in political manipulation or to a discourse relative only to a given age. Nor can the meaning of things be reduced to a mere study of material parts, such that basic questions about goodness and being are ignored.

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Subscribers to First Things can read the remainder of the article at the First Things website.

The article is © 2011 by First Things and this excerpt is reprinted with their permission.

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