From the Publisher: Christ: The Great Divide

America’s most famous contemporary philosopher, Richard Rorty, has at first glance made it easier now to write from the express viewpoint of Christian (or any other) faith. There is no mirror of nature, he writes. There are no objective foundations for knowledge. There is nothing over against which to measure the mind. There is, as Continental writers would put it, only the void. Rorty is a nihilist in American idiom. His nihilism is gentle, compassionate, liberal, and complacent.

The predicament of those who follow Rorty is that, having declared intellect impotent, they fall back on faith. They must “choose” a place to “stand.” For the choice of that particular place they can, of course, adduce these or those “reasons” but cannot claim that these reasons have any foundation in reality. For the denial of foundations is at the heart of their enterprise. So, indeed, is the denial of any rational connection between human consciousness and reality. There is, for them, only contingency and accident “all the way down.” Their choice, then, can be neither an intellectual construction nor a decision of reason. Their choice is, in the end, only a contingent and unfounded preference, a perfect mirror to their view of nature: accidental, contingent, absurd “all the way down.”

This standpoint deprives Rorty of the self-confident position of an earlier generation of antagonists of Christian faith. The latter could claim to look down from the heights of reason on those reduced to making life-commitments on “mere” faith. Rorty and his followers can in no way lord it over the Christian in the mode of rationalist philosophers of yore. Rorty can make fun of Christians, mock them, nudge and wink at his audience, but the joke in the end is on him. His position is self-confessedly absurd.

On his own account, Rorty’s position is at least as piteous as the one he ascribes to Christians: he and the Christian believer stand on the same ground; that is, on the same lack of ground. The onrush of life obliges each of them to make a decision. But there remains one essential difference.

Without equivocation, Rorty cannot claim for himself the dignity of making a “decision of faith”; all he can claim is willful preference. In the Christian tradition, by contrast, the words “decision of faith” carry with them a reference to truth. They are pregnant with meaning for reason and its homage to reality. (Those Christians who are tempted to welcome Rorty’s destruction of rationalism, metaphysics, and the Western commitment to intellect, in order to gain equal footing with him, need to attend carefully to this fateful equivocation.)

To make an act of Christian faith is also to commit oneself, implicitly, to intellect—to the Creator of the world and the world He made, in that intelligible narrative of history that is “the economy of salvation.” More dramatically still, for the Christian, Jesus Christ is the Logos, through whom and by whom and with whom everything was made. Every hair that falls from every head, every swallow that falls in the field, every blade of grass—all things are infused with intelligibility and being by Him who is one with the Creator.

At the appointed time this Logos became flesh, suffered and died for our sins, and rose again to sit at the right hand of the Father, with whom He is one in being. Indeed, this wondrous entry of God into history has broken history in two, into the before and after, B.C. and A.D., as the world’s chronology has indicated ever since. The coming of Christ is the great divide.

Is nature then, contra Rorty, a “mirror” to our minds? It is certainly signed through and through by the knowledge and love of its Creator. In a Christian light, the word nature is not univocal but analogous; one needs to be careful with it. Nature such as it has appeared in the philosophia perennis from Aristotle forward has a quite intelligible meaning from a limited point of view: only as it appears to inquiring intellect (without knowledge of the Logos, of the creation in time, of the fall and of the redemption). Restricting nature to the horizon of inquiring intellect does not empty it of validity. World and mind spring from the same Creator.

In this way, Christian faith vindicates the proper powers of human intellect. It passionately embraces intellect as a God-given tool for inquiring into the intelligibility of all things. From this confidence, as Alfred North Whitehead once observed, in which the West was tutored for many quiet centuries, arose the elan of modern science.

The Christian holds that philosophy can take one a long way toward understanding human action both in its aspirations and in its falling short. The staggering achievement of Aristotle’s Ethics, together with the good work of so many other philosophers before and since, shows this to be true. Still, as Rorty, Camus, Bertrand Russell, and other philosophers have in the end confessed, much that they cherish about the human ideal comes from Jesus. Such words as conscience, person, and even will would not have their modern meaning apart from reflection on Christ’s testament. Such ethical ideals as concern for the vulnerable, the weak, and the poor come not from the Greeks or Romans but from the testament of the Jews and from Christ.

As Jacques Maritain pointed out, such facts carve out a special role for Christian philosophy, precisely as philosophy, quite different from the role of a full-blown Christian theology. The Christian philosopher is led by faith to push his strictly philosophical methods into areas that philosophy alone might never think to look (but could look if it would). Without becoming theology, such a philosophy can be of great intellectual and practical utility, particularly in certain conversations conducted without reliance on premises of faith.

In the light of Christian faith, philosophy alone lacks certain crucial premises; it is too weak to develop an adequate vision of man. For man made in and through the Logos bears imprinted on his nature the image of God. To overlook this is to overlook a great deal. Moreover, the repeated evidence of man’s weakness and perfidy inflicts much damage on rationalistic theories. Nor can the human capacity for renewal and new life be fully understood apart from the redemption won by Christ, even for those who do not know His name, but only seek Him through fidelity to truth. For the Christian, Christ is the measure and norm of human action. To fall short of Christ’s compassion, for instance, is to fall short of one’s own humanity.

Christian moral theology, therefore, also in that branch thereof called “social teaching,” goes farther than Christian philosophy. It grounds itself in Jesus Christ, not only as “example” to be imitated, not only as norm and measure, but also in that deepest mystery of faith, whereby Christians are instructed that to live in critical and realistic love is to live in Christ. Their own poor actions, by the power of God’s grace, are infused with Christ’s own living presence. “Behold, not I live, but Christ lives in me,” St. Paul declared. This perception alters the awareness of the Christian. He (or she) acts not only for himself but as an extension of Christ into the world here and now, with these particular persons, at this particular time. That is why the sins of Christians, our sins, cause such scandal. They implicate not only ourselves, but also the Christ whom we purport to bear within us. They seem to falsify Christ’s witness.

Working out the implications of this full faith in Christ is, manifestly, what Pope John Paul II and Cardinal Ratzinger are trying to do, not least in the new beginning that they have given to Catholic social thought. This is the source of the remarkable originality of their conception of Christian liberty; their defense of democracy (for protecting the Imago Dei endowed in man by his Creator); and their guarded recommendation of the rightly ordered market economy (for protecting rights to personal economic creativity). Even though many of the terms they use and many of the institutions they discuss originate in experiments worked out in secular history, their own viewpoint is theological, not philosophical. The measure they choose is Christ.

Not all of us, of course, express ourselves professionally in theological language. Further, the Catholic tradition enables us to draw upon more than one school, not only in philosophy but also in theology. Thus one encounters today more frequent references to “love” than to “insight” as the primal experience for the expression of Christian faith; the theology of St. Bonaventure, rather than that of St. Thomas Aquinas, is making something of a comeback. As neither love nor insight can be understood without the other, so a preference for one tradition should not be seen as a denial of the validity of the other.

In my own lifetime, I have encountered Catholic scholars who are Augustinians, existential Thomists, neo-scholastics (of several schools), phenomenologists, language analysts, hermeneuticists, transcendental Thomists, Rahnerians, Lonerganians, Balthasarians, Kantians, Heideggerians, and Hegelians, among others… each working ad majorem Dei gloriam. The Catholic intellectual inheritance—in philosophy and theology, as well as poetry and aesthetics—is very rich. It has its own profound internal pluralism, which prepares it rather well for encountering the many-tongued pluralism of the existing world. Holding nil humanum alienum, it is not idly called “catholic.”

By contrast with Rorty and other moderns who inherit the wreckage of a prideful rationalism, the Catholic tradition cherishes many reasons for loving, trusting, and defending intellect. And one of those reasons is that a much-loved name for Christ is Logos. In everything that is, glimpses of our Beloved may be discerned.


  • Michael Novak

    Michael Novak (1933-2017) founded Crisis Magazine with Ralph McInerny in 1982. He held the George Frederick Jewett Chair in Religion and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute and was a trustee and visiting professor at Ave Maria University. In 1994, he received the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion. He was also an emissary to the United Nations Human Rights Commission and to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe.

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