By Dulles, Avery
First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life
The possibility of a Christian philosophy was fiercely debated in the late 1920s and the early 1930s, especially in France, where several distinguished historians of philosophy, including Emile Brehier, vigorously denied that there had been, or could be, any such thing. It was, Brehier said, as absurd as a Christian mathematics or a Christian physics. Genuine philosophy, in his opinion, had been suffocated by Christian dogma in the Middle Ages, and did not reemerge until the seventeenth century, when Descartes picked up about where the Greeks had left off.
The Catholic medievalist Etienne Gilson led the counterattack. He opened his Gifford Lectures on The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy with two chapters devoted respectively to the problem and the notion of Christian philosophy, which he defined as "every philosophy which, although keeping the two orders formally distinct, nevertheless considers the Christian revelation as an indispensable auxiliary to reason." In a series of books and articles published over the next few decades, Gilson demonstrated the vibrancy of medieval philosophy. He convincingly argued that the biblical concepts of God, creation, history, and the human person had made a decisive impact on the whole history of modern philosophy.
In our own time, at least here in the United States, there seems to be a rather general recognition that Christians have a distinctive approach to philosophy. We have had since 1926 an American Catholic Philosophical Association, which now has some 1,200 members, but there was nothing equivalent for Protestants until 1979, when William P. Alston, Alvin Plantinga, and several of their friends established the Society of Christian Philosophers. Today, twenty-one years later, it counts more than a thousand members, and enrolls a rapidly growing number of younger scholars. It is thoroughly ecumenical in its constituency.
These initiatives, however, are scarcely typical of the university world, which finds the concept of Christian philosophy paradoxical, even nonsensical. Some philosophers simply rule out any consideration of revelation as lying beyond the purview of their discipline. Emotivists in the tradition of A. J. Ayer still dismiss religion as noncognitive. A host of agnostics, pragmatists, relativists, and deconstructionists, while differing among themselves, form a common front in opposition to revelation as a font of abiding truth.
Pope John Paul II, in his 1998 encyclical Fides et Ratio, shows himself acutely aware of the present intellectual climate. With his customary courage, he dares to challenge current trends in both philosophy and theology and in so doing raises the question of Christian philosophy in a new form. From the very beginning of the encyclical John Paul II reminds his readers that philosophy, in its etymological sense, means the love of wisdom (para. 3). Philosophy, therefore, is a human search for truth about ultimate questions (73); it is a journey awakened by wonder springing from contemplation of creation (4).
In a stricter sense, philosophy is a rigorous mode of thought; it elaborates a systematic body of knowledge in which the elements are held together in organic unity by logical coherence (4). Ideally the system should comprehend reality in all its dimensions, but the Pope acknowledges that no one system achieves this ideal. Because of the limits of the human mind and the particularities of human cultures, every philosophical system is partial and incomplete. For this reason philosophical inquiry holds primacy over philosophical systems (4).
Philosophy, according to the Pope, operates within the order of natural reason (9), using its own methods (49), which differ from those of theology. Although philosophers disagree among themselves about the methods of their discipline, they appear to be unanimous in holding that philosophy does not derive its proofs from the word of God received in faith. …