The Role of Philosophy in the New Evangelization

I recently had a brief conversation with a former colleague of mine who is Catholic, and who wanted to inquire about certain aspects of the faith that she was struggling with. She mentioned to me that, while she goes to Mass on Sundays and “has faith,” she nevertheless expressed a desire that there was more “proof,” or evidence for the truths of the faith. This question regarding the “evidence” of faith is at the heart of Catholicism, where the great synthesis between reason and revelation is fully and fruitfully discovered. Even though my former colleague does not have a particular fondness for philosophy, she is a philosopher nonetheless because, in fact, she does have a philosophy, whether it is implicit or explicit. Pope John Paul II taught that every person is a philosopher, for everyone seeks to know the ultimate meaning of life, and ponders why there is a world or a human nature that is just “there” without our creating it, or being involved in its manifestation.

Religious talks are often disconcerting, due to the fact that religion is frequently understood to be “private, nonrational, and unverifiable,” whereas science is public, rational, and verifiable.  The truths of religion are based on the supposition that they do not have any connection with objective reality. This idea unfortunately leads to an intellectual dualism, as well as a philosophical and moral perspective which can not intelligently and reasonably show that we are all apart of the same world, the same reality. Our tendency in these matters is to perceive of science and religion as two separate categories of human experience and cognition. This reductionistic conception of the relationship between science and religion sees science as the study of the empirical constitution of the universe, while religion is the search for ethical value and spiritual meaning.

Catholicism, unlike other religions (excluding Judaism) and certain philosophic traditions, proposes something quite different. The ultimate questions such as Who am I? Where am I going? Does God exist? Why is there evil? presuppose definitive answers. Aristotle remarks in the beginning of the Metaphysics that all humans desire to know, and what we desire to know is what it means to be fully human. If these questions didn’t have answers that we could know, then we would not ask them. If life had no definitive, intelligible purpose, then it would be completely absurd to seek an answer or meaning to it. The Austrian psychiatrist, Viktor Frankl, would always begin his therapy sessions with the same question that prompted Jean Paul Sartre’s philosophical inquiry: “what is preventing you from killing yourself?” A disturbing starting point, but it is only when we admit that there is a meaning and order to existence that we will come to know it, and hopefully, delight in it.

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Philosophy Aids Our Understanding of Revelation
Catholicism teaches that we can know certain things of God through the natural light of reason (i.e., that God exists, that he is all-powerful, that God is the cause of all things, that He is one, that He is simple, etc.). The great philosophers that preceded the Judeo-Christian Revelation demonstrated many of the truths about God and the faith that are affirmed in Scripture, and are what St. Thomas calls the preambles of faith. However, the Church also teaches that there are truths about God and about ourselves that can only be known through God’s self-revelation, or rather, God telling us (i.e., that God is a Trinity, that Jesus Christ is fully God and fully man, that we are destined to enjoy eternal life with Him). Someone cannot intellectually construe these truths, which are the articles of faith, since they exceed human reason’s capacity and limitedness. Without the light of faith, nobody could conceive of God being a Trinity of persons that are fully distinct and yet completely one. Without Revelation, we could not conceive Jesus Christ being fully God and fully man. It is for this reason that the Church has such a great interest in philosophy. Through philosophical inquiry, we can ponder the truths about faith and come to understand them more fully, even though we will not understand them completely until the life hereafter.

St. Thomas Aquinas taught that the truths man could know are not just the heritage of the philosophers, but of anyone that is born into the human race. Philosophic truths are often based upon what one already knows through his experience of the world around him. One need not be a professional philosopher to discover this. In fact, being a professional philosopher could be detrimental to this realization. The certitude of man’s confidence in knowing the world outside of his own mind, and the confidence that what we know about the external world is actually true, is the great patrimony of perennial philosophy. Ralph McInerny once commented that the scandal of the history of philosophy “was not that so many said false things so much as that they have all believed there were true things to say” (Characters in Search of Their Author, 41).

Catholicism provides immense clarity in distinguishing between the orders of knowledge and belief. One hindrance towards a better understanding of these two terms is that they are most often used interchangeably, almost as if they were synonymous with each other. Knowledge and belief are vital to helping possess a better grasp of the truths of faith, and ultimately deepen our gratitude towards God and the Church. St. Thomas provides the most thorough and simple explication of the distinction between knowledge (science), belief, and opinion in the De Veritate, Q. 14, A. 1 and 2. What follows is a rather brief exposition of Aquinas’ position, so one should rather consult what he says as primary and understand that what I have written as merely a primer.

Knowledge, Belief and Opinion Explained
When I profess knowledge of something, I am proposing that the opposite or contradictory of this particular knowledge to be rejected as false. For example, if I say that I know 2+2=4, then I am also saying at the same time that 2+2 does not equal 5 or anything else. Knowledge rules out all opposites and contradictions with certitude. Opinions, on the other hand, leave open the opposite position as possibly true. If you said, “In my opinion, Brian Jones is the best looking guy in the Woodlands, Texas,” you leave open the reality that I could be the ugliest, or that someone is still better looking than I. Opinion can become knowledge, but cannot be equated with it, nor can true knowledge ever become opinion.

Belief, for many people, means something opposite or contrary to knowledge, as if all belief is simply irrational, a sheer act of the will. This is frequently the case in Protestant conceptions of faith, whereby faith is not a light produced in the intellectual faculty, but reduced to sheer willing. However, belief is always rooted in knowledge and presupposed by it. Here one could think of a husband and wife as they exchange vows on their wedding day. When a groom professes, “to be faithful in sickness and in health, good times and bad,” is it the case that the wife-to-be knows with certitude that this is true? No, she cannot. She has to trust and believe that he will be faithful to his promises. Furthermore, this wedding imagery clearly protects one from any notion of faith as being blind or a mere leap in the dark. If this were marriage number 5 for the groom, it would be contrary to common sense for his new wife to say, “I know he means it, this time.” Past history and experience profess otherwise.

As an infused habit of the mind by which eternal life begins in us, faith is that which makes the intellect assent to things that are not apparent. The object of faith is that which is absent from man’s understanding, since his reason cannot lead him to see the things that pertain to faith. The doctrines of the Trinity, Incarnation, and the forgiveness of sins are such that they are proposed to man for belief. I am unable to understand these truths because they transcend the scope of natural reason. When my former students approach me and tell me that they want to be chemists or engineers, they often remind me that they finally have come to understand what I taught them. Although I frequently confused them because of my own inabilities, they recognized that they no longer believe what I told them: they know it themselves. This is why Aquinas concludes that it is impossible to have faith and knowledge about the same thing and at the same time.

These reflections have brought us back to the initial question proposed by my colleague: where is the evidence for the truths of the faith? Her inquiry is one that hopefully all of us pose, at some point or other, since it rests upon the integral connection between philosophy and theology, faith and reason. Much to the dismay of many contemporary philosophies and philosophers, Catholics need not put aside their antecedent intellectual convictions that are a result of their faith. Rather, we ought to rejoice and be confident in our ability to philosophandum in fide, that of philosophizing in the faith. Philosophy need not be a hindrance to the faith, but will be a key component to the New Evangelization, a point that Pope John Paul II stressed in Fides et Ratio.  It is the Church that is constantly reaffirming that the truths of the philosophical and theological order are distinct and of their own order, but nevertheless come from the same source.  The healing of man and culture will ultimately come about through a restoration of the unity between faith and reason. When the Christian faith is authentic,

It does not diminish freedom and human reason; so, why should faith and reason fear one another if the best way for them to express themselves is by meeting and entering into dialogue? Faith presupposes reason and perfects it, and reason, enlightened by faith, finds the strength to rise to knowledge of God and spiritual realities. Human reason loses nothing by opening itself to the content of faith, which, indeed, requires its free and conscious adherence (Pope Benedict XVI, Angelus Address on the Feast of St. Thomas Aquinas, January 28, 2007).

Editor’s note: The image above of St. Dominic preaching was painted by Claudio Coello in 1691.


  • Brian Jones

    Brian Jones is pursuing a graduate degree in philosophy at the University of St. Thomas in Houston. His writing has appeared in the New Blackfriars Journal, The Fellowship of Catholic Scholars Quarterly, Catholic World Report and Homiletic and Pastoral Review. He and his wife Michelle have three daughters.

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