I recently finished reading Pope Saint John Paul II’s encyclical Fides et Ratio. Therein, the recent pontiff outlined some contemporary problems for a Christian understanding of the relationship between theology and philosophy (including science).
Among the challenges for the Christian community today, the Pope cited fideism, which he defined as the view that only the Bible can inform discussions of truth, whereas philosophical inquiry plays little to no role in the determination of truth. John Paul II also addressed the rise of scientism (an heir to logical positivism), which dismisses metaphysical claims to the level of “fantasy”. As I reflect on the state of modern Christianity and modern secularism, I cannot help but agree with the Pope’s assessment.
Our problems are indeed dire. As long as a climate of fideism rules the Christian world, Christian claims will probably continue to be ignored as irrelevant and logically null, and as long as scientific knowledge is considered to be the only ‘true’ version of knowledge we have, metaphysical arguments for the reality of abstract concepts, consciousness, and (most especially) God will remain unintelligible to secular critics of the Christian faith.
In terms of finding solutions to these problems, John Paul II mentioned the enduring value of St Thomas Aquinas for marrying the distinct spheres of theology and philosophy into a unified synthesis in pursuit of the truth. By embracing the power of philosophical inquiry (especially in the realm of metaphysics), we can become better theologians, and by internalizing the promises of theology — including the inherent value of every human being, the Incarnation of Christ as true man and true God, and the gift of grace in the sacraments of the church — philosophy’s (and science’s) dignity as a genuinely valuable sphere of knowledge is more greatly respected. In particular, the discoveries of science can thus be integrated into a comprehensive system of moral and ethical values that are based on the objective reality of being (metaphysics). This is especially important as technology continues to advance at an incredible pace, threatening to remain an instrument of utilitarian oppression rather than an occasion for the spread of peace and universal human dignity.
John Paul II also mentioned the incomparable worth of wisdom. According to St Thomas Aquinas, there are two kinds of wisdom. One is available to anyone with the mind to see it, but the other is a gift of the Holy Spirit. We must desire to cultivate natural wisdom and to receive by a gift of grace the supernatural wisdom of the Holy Spirit. I believe that if we seek wisdom, we will be equipped to avoid the intellectual pitfalls of our age and to contribute to the renewal of Christian thought in the modern age, a thought that is philosophically capable of communicating to people with very different beliefs from ours.
Speaking for myself, St John Paul II’s encyclical has inspired me to renew my desire for both kinds of wisdom. And what better place to seek wisdom than in the literature of the Bible, including Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Sirach, and (of course) the four gospels of our Lord?
In the closing meditation for the encyclical, John Paul II exhorts us to remember how the ancient Christian monastics saw Mary as “the table at which faith sits in thought”. If we philosophize in Mary, who obeyed all that the Lord asked of her, so too can we be transfigured into an icon of infinite love, a love that shines with the radiance of wisdom.