Becoming real in a mysterious world

by John Wijngaards

Published in the Tablet 14th October 2006

Philosophy is not an arcane past-time indulged in by spectacled men who squabble over obscure questions in the closets of dusty old libraries. Philosophy underlies education, commerce, politics and religion. Get your philosophy wrong and you will pay a heavy price.

I am grateful to The Tablet for having directed the discussion of the Pope’s Regensburg address to its real intent which focuses on religion and reason. Yes, the Church is fortunate in having a supreme pastor who understands the crucial role played by ideas and who calls for a free and open discussion, an invitation we may not ignore.

I agree with what Benedict XVI says about the need of coupling faith and reason. Assent to faith should be guided by reason, and its contents probed and plumbed with the help of reason. No one may claim a monopoly on reason, in particular the modern sciences who tend to reduce all reality to what is perceived by the senses. The Pope is right to decry ‘a reason which is deaf to the divine and which relegates religion to the realm of sub-cultures’. But does the ideology of the Pope himself stand up to scrutiny? We need to examine more fully what Anthony Carroll calls ‘the unfinished project of correlating or aligning faith and reason in our post-secular age’.

For, in spite of claiming not to wish to return to a time before the Enlightenment, and in spite of concessions he promised in his discussion with Jürgen Habermas, the Pope defends a philosophy that has its roots in Aristotle (384 – 322 BC) and that culminated in the thought of Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274). The main thrust of the Pope’s Regensburg speech is to affirm that Europe, and the Christian faith, should hold on to Greek thinking. We should resist ‘de-hellenisation’ which, he affirms, has assaulted the Church in three waves. The Pope, in fact, proposes Aristotelian and Thomist metaphysics as a mode of ‘universal thinking’ that is sanctioned in Christian tradition and that could convert today’s secular sceptics. I believe he is mistaken.

An Imprimatur on Greek philosophy?

The Pope believes that the inspired Scriptures somehow have stamped divine approval on Greek philosophy. This is clear from his Regensburg speech, but also from the EncyclicalFides et Ratio (1998) which he wrote for John Paul II as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

It is true that the Book of Wisdom, which was written in hellenist Alexandria, draws on Greek thinking when stating that the Creator can be known from power and beauty in nature (Wisdom 13,1-9). Paul knows this argument (Rom 1,29) and quotes some Sophist texts when addressing philosophers on the Areopagus in Athens (Acts 17,23-31). But does this prove an endorsement of Greek philosophy? Are such arguments not rather an adaptation to the hellenistic audience? The Pope himself cites the Qur’an in his address. Are we to understand by this that he commends the Qur’an as an inspired writing?

The Old Testament expression ‘I am who am’ or simply ‘I am’ (Exodus and Isaiah) do not constitute, as the Pope claims, an almost Socratic attempt to overcome and transcend mythical thinking about God. The expression means that God is the one who is there, who is powerfully present, who shows his presence in deeds, mainly by his liberating his people.

The New Testament was written in Greek and we do find allusions to Greek philosophical thinking. But may we really maintain that ‘Greek thought and revealed faith’ have been inextricably linked? The first lines in John’s Gospel read: “In the beginning was the Word (logos) and the Word (logos) was God, etc.”. The Pope points out that ‘logos’ could also mean ‘reason’. Yes, rarely so, for instance in Plato and Aristotle. But in ordinary Greek speech it simply meant ‘word’. It does so here as its reference to the creation story implies. “God said: ‘Let there be . . . and it happened’.” The Logos is God’s plan (Hebrew dabar, ‘word’) to create us and communicate with us, a plan that unfolded with creation and became flesh in Jesus Christ.

The point of this sketchy analysis is to show that while Scripture no doubt affirms rationality, it does not endorse Aristotelian metaphysics as a necessary ingredient of Christian faith, which brings me to Thomas Aquinas.

Talk of ‘being’ and ‘nature’

When the Church in the Middle Ages was in dire need of a consistent system of thought to express its beliefs, Aquinas was the genius who did the job. He discovered Aristotelianism in the translated works of Muslim scholars and he successfully adapted it for use in Christian theology. Aquinas was indeed a master mind. Not only could he hold vast quantities of data in his memory, he managed to mould these into a logical whole not less impressive than the majestic Gothic cathedrals that began to adorn Europe.

Central to Aristotelian/Thomist thought is that each being has a ‘nature’ that expresses the substance or essence of that kind of object. A horse has the nature of being a horse. Accidentals of colour, size, height, etc. do not change a being’s nature. That is why a grey, an Arab, a palomino and a Shetland pony all share the same nature. They are all horses. In more general terms, there is a pyramid of natures, from inanimate beings to plants, then to animals, to human beings, to angels and finally to God. Each has its kind of nature.

A being’s nature is universal and fixed. The natures of original beings have been fixed by the Creator. Birds have wings by nature, so they fly. Pigs cannot fly. Flying goes against their nature, or to put it differently: goes against the natural law for pigs. Once you accept this premise, the main task of theologians is to define everything’s nature: the nature of a sacrament, the nature of the Church, etc. and by analogy the nature of God.

Pope Benedict recommends this ‘philosophy of being’ as the ideal bridge between faith and reason:

“Set within the Christian metaphysical tradition, the philosophy of being is a dynamic philosophy which views reality in its ontological, causal and communicative structures. It is strong and enduring because it is based upon the very act of being itself, which allows a full and comprehensive openness to reality as a whole, surpassing every limit in order to reach the One who brings all things to fulfilment.” (Fides et Ratio § 97).

The problem is that Thomist philosophy no longer matches the real world as we have come to know it. Pigs do fly. The Pope’s failure to recognise the misfit damages Christian life and our ability to re-evangelise Europe.

Thomism falls short

Take the question of marriage. Thomists define openness to conception as belonging to the nature of the marriage act. When Cardinal Ratzinger joined the Congregation for Doctrine, Pope Paul VI decreed that ‘each and every marriage act must remain open to the transmission of life’. The Pope declared the use of contraceptives which render procreation impossible ‘intrinsically evil’ (Humanae Vitae, 1968, §14), that is: they go against the nature of marriage as established by God. In this view, contraceptives may not be used as a means to space the planning of children. They are not even allowed to women who need to protect themselves against drunken husbands infected with AIDS.

But what is this assessment of the nature of marriage based on? Originally men and women had intercourse without even realising its link to the procreation of children, as anthropology has documented. In the course of thousands of years marriage arose as a social institution with a multiplicity of forms. Its main purpose was to give stability to families and to protect common property. Marriages were polygamous or polyandrous. Trial sex before marriage was common. What was natural or unnatural in all such marriages?

Rather than ascribing a fixed, unchangeable nature to marriage, why not accept marriage as a dynamic, complex, interconnected reality, always somehow original between specific partners, with unique biological, social, cultural and psychological aspects?

Again and again the Pope’s Thomism betrays reality. Sex is forbidden to gays and lesbians by ‘natural law’ (Persona Humana 1975; reaffirmed in 1986, 1992 and 2003). A woman’s nature bars her from ordination (Mulieris Dignitatem 1988). The Pope says violence ‘goes against God’s nature for God is reason’. What reason? The burning of heretics under the Inquisition was justified with refined Thomist sophistry. The ‘common good’ (bonum commune) of scaring the public away from heresy was said to overrule mercy for the individual. The same ‘common good’ argument has been invoked in our own day to refuse communion to Catholics who are divorced and remarried even though they are reconciled with the Church, to refuse priests who have left the priestly ministry permission to marry in church, and to deny victims of clerical child abuse their full rights. Pope Benedict surely realises that it is the human rights movement of our modern world that exposes such errors, not the Church’s own principles. Can Thomist reasoning be trusted?

As the Pope points out, the stakes are high. We live in a new exciting and frightening world whose grandeur is unfolding before our eyes in all dimensions, from the cosmic to the microscopic, from our evolutionary past to unprecedented challenges. If anything, mystery has intensified. The search for the meaning of life cries out for an answer – which Jesus’ message of God’s love can provide. But what language shall we speak to bring that message?

The ‘analogy of being’ which the Pope sees as the only way to save God-talk, is flawed in its base. We need to explore other options. If meta-language is language about language for instance, meta-meta-meta-language expresses the level of meaning, the level to which God-talk seems to belong. God is not less real because we can only think and talk about her in images, and in categories of ultimate significance.

Greek ontology and Thomism will not do any more. Even if we do not see a suitable alternative just now, at least we should recognise the problem. The project of aligning faith and reason in our post-secular age is, indeed, unfinished.

Dr John Wijngaards is Director of Housetop Centre for Adult Faith Formation. He is the author of the multi-media project How to Make Sense of God which received two international awards. See also: