22 October 2011


Dr. Mary Contrary (a philosopher, former Catholic, and now self-described agnostic) does not think that philosophy should ever venture to ask questions about God, truth, or anything metaphysical in the classical sense of the term.  Rather, for her, philosophy is to explore questions that arise from our use of language.  Explain Fides et Ratio for her in its context, structure, and purpose. [from a recent midterm examination]

Dear Mary,

You may recall from the old days that wonderful passage from 1 John:
"That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands concerning the Word of Life — And the life was made manifest to us; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us.  We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard so that you might have fellowship with us.  And our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son, Jesus Christ.  We write these things so that our joy may be complete."
I hope starting my letter with scripture isn't scandalous to you, but given what you've told me about your newfound passion for Wittgenstein's Tractatus, I thought I'd reply with some considerations based on my reading of the encyclical letter Fides et Ratio, by Pope John Paul II.

I would recommend you read it yourself, but it's long and if you're in a Wittgensteinian mood you'll probably fine JPII's style somewhat irritating.  Nonetheless, he has great things to say.

I'd like to use the passage from 1 John to remind you of a few points about philosophy and its role:

  1. The task of philosophy
  2. Its relation to faith
  3. Common contemporary errors

First of all, we desire happiness and with that a clear knowledge of the truth.  "We write so that our joy may be complete."  Aristotle grounds his philosophy on 3 pillars:
  • Logic
  • Wonder at the Truth
  • Desire for Happiness
All philosophy must somehow return to these points, if it is to have any significance for humanity.  The goal of philosophy is to know the Truth, and it does this with rigor and clarity.  Philosophy is frequently classed as a kind of Inquiry.  This is true, but it is just as important that philosophy be able to answer its questions, and thus become a kind of teaching (doctrine) and a mode of wisdom.

Obviously, modern skepticism is repugnant both to the idea of wisdom and to the possibility of answers about life's meaning, our first beginning and our last end.  The project of Descartes and Kant (to put philosophy on a firm foundation) has progressed through skeptical methodologies to the point where many philosophers have given up reality altogether, either in a kind of relativistic eclecticism, a historicist modernism or other more degenerate forms of thought.  The Tractatus itself is an example of bizarre amoral positivism which encourages philosophy to cede almost all its proper territory, residing only on the barren garden patch of formal manipulations.  But this is not what we want, and, though the truth is not subject to practical or democratic principles, we sense that Philosophy in the west has gone astray from its true calling.  Man's meagre, finite minde is not capable of providing clear answers about the ultimate source and destiny of things, it is true.  But we moderns are all too ready to leap from the sad recognition of our own finitude, frailty and inadequacy to the nihilistic conclusion that there are no intrinsic meanings, that there cannot be an ultimate source or destiny simply because I am not it.  This variety of nihilism (frequently only implicit in our thought) is everywhere in modern culture, especially in the academy, and it is simply and obviously repugnant to reason and to every vital instinct in man.  Philosophers must stop blinding themselves to reality.

But, you say, if philosophy cannot supply the answers, surely I am not going to just leap into a fanciful myth-world or fideistic frenzy to find artificial comfort!  Here we move to another point: the common belief that "fiath" and "reason" are opposed and incompatible.  To be frank, this is a fundamentally protestant idea, and could only be suggested on the basis of a flawed, protestant understanding of what faith is.  JPII calls faith and reason "two wings" on which the human spirit rises up to truth.  So let's begin to be clear about the matter: what is faith?

Most philosophers since Aristotle and Plato, including pagans and Christians and even muslims, have recognized that because the human intellect is finite, we cannot hope to comprehend anything whose essence surpasses our own mental capacities.  Since a little thought can easily show us that both the meaning of life and the source of existence are such things, it belongs to philosophy simply to point out what these things are not.  Were we to come to know positively what they are, our very minds would need to be expanded and informed by a power greater than us: a power as great as that which we were to learn of.  This infused ability to know things beyond the ordinary capacity of the human mind, (both the act of knowing and the substance of what is known — Heb 11:1) this is faith.

Faith is not, you will notice, any sort of self-contradictory irrationalism à la Kierkegaard, nor is it mere emotivism, nor is it a simple dependence on what someone else told you while using drugs (as with the Pythia).  Faith is genuine knowledge, supernatural in that it transcends our abilities, but because of its source and content faith is more genuinely knowledge than anything derived from the senses.

Furthermore, faith, because it concerns the things closest to human concern, enables us to fundamentally reorient our lives toward the truth.  Fait his no occult mystery — it is active.  As St. James writes: "I will show you my faith by my works, and in St. Paul we read how God predestined us for salvation in His Son for the sake of the good works we would achieve in Him.

Now, the nature of the truth is first of all to be common to all.  Hence it is fitting that those of us gifted with faith do our best to proclaim it to the whole world: to proclaim, as St. John says, "What we have seen and heard, so that you might have fellowship with us."  This is not to say that the faith itself which is given to us is caused simply by human words — no, it is from God.  but faith comes through preaching, which fittingly binds all mankind together in one truth.  As Saint Paul says in Ephesians: "One Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is in all..."

Faith shows us the truth not only in a simple factual way, to be expounded upon and elaborated through reason, but also as goodness and love and mercy.  The nature of the gift of faith is "συγκαταβασις" — condescension of the infinite and almighty to make himself low, to reveal himself to mere human minds. To have faith is to know God, and in knowing him to love him, and in loving him to love his creation.  And what greater gift can one give, Mary, to the suffering wanderers of the world, than a chance to see their perfect happiness and to become friends with that almighty King who loved them—loves us all—enough to empty himself, become man, and die.  We write these things, and speak of them, ceaselessly, because he has filled us with joy, and so that together with Him our joy may be complete.  In Christ we know the fulness of the truth, and in that truth alone can we know ourselves, as the Pythia commanded.  For Christ is the eternal λογος, the reason, the path to truth, the meaning of our lives.  He is the eternal word who gave himself up to die for us, whose very substance is our nourishment, who calls us to be one with hum, buried deep in the love of the Father, with the Holy Spirit, for all eternity.

In Him,
with love and blessings,