Posts Tagged ‘Philosophy’

Pope John Paul II

It is unfortunate so few Catholics read the Church’s own writings.  This is especially true in our age of great confusion and crisis of identity within the Church.  Far too many rely on what they think they know about the Church, which often comes from a childhood Catechism class, dimly remembered.  It is time to turn once again to the wealth of materials the Church presents us in order to truly know our faith and thereby come to love it even more.

Considering Pope Benedict XVI’s recent address on St. Thomas Aquinas and the harmony between faith and reason, it is particularly fitting to consider Pope John Paul II’s encyclical Fides et Ratio.  Released on September 14, 1998, this encyclical on the relationship between faith and reason was directed primarily toward the Bishops, philosophers, scientists and theologians, but is very profitable for any Catholic who desires to better understand his faith.

The fundamental theme of Pope John Paul II’s encyclical is the deep connection between faith and reason.  As the Pope puts it: “Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth; and God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth – in a word, to know himself – so that, by knowing and loving God, men and women may also come to the fullness of truth about themselves.”

Throughout human history, we find all cultures share a fundamental desire to seek answers to ultimate questions about existence and purpose.  We also find the more people know reality and the world, the more they know themselves in their uniqueness with the question of the meaning of things and their very existence becoming ever more pressing.  In other words, we are “programmed” to seek the truth.  This innate desire to discover the truth of things is one of the greatest aspects which define us as human beings. (1)

In Pope John Paul II’s first encyclical, Redemptor Hominis, he told us: “We have become sharers in this mission of the prophet Christ, and in virtue of that mission we together with him are serving divine truth in the Church.  Being responsible for the truth also means loving it and seeking the most exact understanding of it, in order to bring it closer to ourselves and others in all its saving power, its splendor and its profundity joined with simplicity.”

Philosophy, as the love of wisdom, shares with theology the search for answers to the ultimate questions of human existence and purpose.  From the early Church fathers to the present day, the Church has held philosophy in high regard as a means of increasing our knowledge of God and aiding in our understanding of divine Revelation.  Indeed, the Pope tells us, “She [the Church] sees in philosophy the way to come to know fundamental truths of human life.  At the same time, the Church considers philosophy an indispensable help for a deeper understanding of faith and for communicating the truth of the Gospel to those who don’t yet know it” (5).

The reason the Church so strongly supports philosophy is because philosophy (rightly done) and theology are mutually supportive endeavors.  Since both arrive at the truth, they cannot contradict one another.  As the First Vatican Council tells us, the truth obtained by philosophy and the truth of revelation are neither identical nor mutually exclusive. (9)

The problem arises, the Pope tells us, due to the state of modern philosophy:  “Abandoning the investigation of being, modern philosophical research has concentrated instead upon human knowing” (5).  Modern philosophy no longer ponders people’s ability for knowing the truth and instead emphasizes ways this ability is limited and conditioned.  Modern philosophy makes the fundamental error of assuming all positions are equally valid, a position which leads to agnosticism and relativism.

As various schools of modern philosophy have rejected the meaningfulness of being, this has led to society to a general, and dangerous, attitude of nihilism (90).  Nihilism is both a denial of all foundations and a negation of all objective truth.  Not only does Nihilism conflict with the demands and content of God’s word, it also denies humanity and the very identity of what it means to be human.

The Pope warns us, “Is should never be forgotten that the neglect of being inevitably leads to losing touch with objective truth and therefore with the very ground of human dignity.  This in turn makes it possible to erases from countenance of man and woman the marks of their likeness to God, and thus to lead them little by little either to a destructive will to power or to a solitude without hope.  Once the truth is denied to human beings, it is pure illusion to try to set them free.  Truth and freedom either go together hand in hand or together they perish in misery.” (90)

We see signs of this illusionary freedom all around us, from abortion as a “right” to science gone mad, and even, quite fearfully, in modern democracy.  The “scientism” school of philosophical thought claims only knowledge derived from the positive sciences is acceptable and says all thought from religion, theology, ethics and aesthetics is mere fantasy (88).  This leads to the belief we see today that if something is technically possible, it’s morally acceptable.  Yet if technology is not ordered towards a higher good, but only utilitarian ends, it can quickly become inhuman and even a potential destroyer of the human race (81).  Similar pragmatic thinking infects modern democracy, which rejects any sort of reference to unchanging values, but instead believes any course of action is acceptable if determined so by majority vote (89).

In Redemptor Hominis, Pope John Paul II says that “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (Jn. 8:32) is at once a fundamental requirement and a warning.  On one hand, the words define an honest relationship with truth as a condition for authentic freedom.  However, they are also a warning “to avoid every kind of illusory freedom, every superficial unilateral freedom, every freedom that fails to enter into the whole truth about man and the world.”

The solution, the Pope says, is for philosophy and theology to rediscover one another (101).  While the Church does not endorse any particular school of philosophy, the Magisterium does have the right and duty “to respond clearly and strongly when controversial philosophical opinions threaten right understanding of what has been revealed, and when false and partial theories which sow the seed of serious error, confusing the pure and simple faith of the People of God, begin to spread more widely” (49).  Therefore it becomes the Magisterium’s duty to discern and promote philosophy not at odds with the faith (63).

While reemphasizing that the study of philosophy is “fundamental and indispensable” to the study of theology (62) and that it must be carried out in light of valid philosophical tradition (106), the Pope lists three requirements of philosophy (81-83).  First, philosophy must recover as its primary purpose the search for “ultimate and overarching meaning of life.”  Second, philosophy must verify the human capacity to know the truth and the ability to arrive at objective truth by reasonable use of the intellect in the tradition of the Scholastic doctors.  Third, philosophy must regain its genuine metaphysical range “capable … of transcending empirical date in order something absolute, ultimate and foundational in its search for the truth” (83).

This reunion of philosophy and theology is vital, for as the Pope puts is: “Philosophical inquiry can help greatly to clarify the relationship between truth and life, between event and doctrinal truth, and above all between transcendent truth and humanly comprehensible language.  This involves a reciprocity between the theological disciplines and the insights drawn from the various strands of philosophy; and such a reciprocity can prove genuinely fruitful for the communication and deeper understanding of the faith.” (99)

Different philosophical systems have deceived man into believing he is his own master.  However, it is entering into true Wisdom that we find authentic freedom and full knowledge of God (107).  Consequently, we see much harmony between the vocation of the Blessed Virgin and the vocation of philosophy (108).

The early holy monks called Mary “the table at which faith sits in thought.”  Likewise, the Pope turns our final thoughts toward Mary: “May Mary, Seat of Wisdom, be a sure haven for all who devote their lives to the search for wisdom.  May their journey into wisdom, sure and final goal of all true knowledge, be freed of every hindrance by the intercession of the one who, in giving birth to the Truth and treasuring it in her heart, has shared it forever with all the world.” (108)

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10 Books That Screwed Up The World: And 5 Others That Didn’t Help. By Benjamin Wiker, PhD.  Regnery Publishing, 2008. 260 pages, hardcover.  $27.95.

In his introduction, Dr. Wiker relates a story of the eminent Scottish essayist and philosopher Thomas Carlyle.  While at a dinner party, a guest scolds Carlyle for constantly talking about books: “Ideas, Mr. Carlyle, ideas, nothing but ideas!”  A remark to which Carlyle replied: “There once was a man called Rousseau who wrote a book containing nothing but ideas.  The second edition was bound in the skin of those who laughed at the first.”  Carlyle referred to the bloodbath of the French Revolution largely inspired by the ideas of Rousseau.

Ideas have consequences.  Just as good ideas have good consequences, bad ideas have bad consequences.  The bad ideas become even more dangerous when written down and passed on from generation to generation, for this means they far outlive their original author, and quite often inspire others’ even worse bad ideas as time progresses.  Consequently, one cannot help but imagine the world would be a much better place if not for the propagation of these bad ideas.  Unable to turn back time, the best we can do now is arm ourselves with the truth in the fight against these bad ideas and their very real consequences.  This is the heart of Dr. Wiker’s book.

Beginning with Machiavelli’s The Prince, Dr. Wiker goes on to examine fourteen other books including Descartes’ Discourse on Method, Hobbes’s Leviathan, Rousseau’s Discourse on the Origin and Foundations of Inequality among Men, Marx and Engel’s The Manifesto of the Communist Party, Mill’s Utilitarianism, Darwin’s Descent of Man, Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil, Lenin’s The State and Revolution, Sanger’s The Pivot of Civilization, Hitler’s Mein Kampf, Freud’s The Future of an Illusion, Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa, Kinsey’s Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, and Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique.

Dr. Wiker treats a heavy subject with light and witty prose easily accessible for the average reader.  While the book is certainly not a doctoral dissertation (nor does it claim to be), it does not “water down” the message either.  Behind its readable style the work maintains an underlying academic rigor.  As a result, I believe a wide audience will find the book interesting and informative.

While the works Dr. Wiker critiques are certainly not the only “books that screwed up the world,” they are among the worst of the worst.  Some might object that the actions of the authors had more to do with causing problems in the world than the books they wrote.  Yet this is part of Dr. Wiker’s point: nothing ever happened without first being conceived as an idea.  Many of the authors examined built upon the bad ideas of those before them and some, such as Lenin and Hitler, put those bad ideas into action with exceedingly bloody results.  None of the authors examined wrote their words only as an academic exercise, despite some thinly veiled excuses.  Instead, they all intended their ideas lead to very real action.

A major common theme emerges in all the works examined.  All these bad ideas rest squarely on the shoulders of atheism.  It might be the “hard” atheism of Nietzsche which completely denied the existence of God with all the darkness where such a position logically leads or the “soft” atheism of Machiavelli and Hitler which gave a wink and a nod to “liberal” Christianity when it served the aims of the ruler.  Yet in the end, it all comes down to the notion that man is the highest power.  Man removed from God is accountable only to man.  Therefore all notions of absolute good and evil are thrown out the window, replaced with the false notion that man determines good and evil based on his ever changing whims.  “Good” becomes nothing more than that which brings pleasure and “bad” becomes simply that which brings pain.

Flowing directly from the common theme of atheism, another common denominator connects these bad ideas: the notion man can create utopia on earth.  Of course, says each author, the founding of this utopia can only come about by following his or her ideas.  They all cry out that every “injustice” can be solved if only the people put their ideas into action.  Utopia on earth will follow if only one race or class is eliminated, if only people throw off the “unnatural” bounds of “normal” sexuality, if only feminism breaks free of the draconian chains of matrimony and childrearing, and most important of all, if only people will give up the delusion of God.  Somehow, this utopia is always “just over the horizon.”  Consequently, it matters not how many suffer or die in order to move everyone else into enlightened utopia – after all it is all for the common “good” and as long as we are moving towards the author’s definition of “utopia,” the ends completely justify every means.  What are the means?  We know all too well the bloody history of Communism and National Socialism, as just two examples.  Least Americans think their hands clean; these ideas have led to the murder of roughly 48,000,000 babies since the Roe versus Wade decision in 1973, all in the name of “freeing” women from the “burden” of childrearing, so, as Barack Obama put it, they will not be “punished” with babies.

For those who have wondered how our society has gotten so far off track, this book is eye opening.  Reading this book is both enlightening and disheartening as one sees how ingrained many of these bad ideas have become in today’s society.  Since so many people have never seriously studied philosophy or Natural Law, they uncritically accept these bad ideas as “just the way things are.”  When one considers the millions of people slaughtered in the name of these ideas, the fact they remain so prevalent in our society is frightening indeed.

And so we return to the beginning: ideas have consequences and bad ideas have bad consequences, especially when written down and passed to future generations to build on even more bad ideas.  As truth seekers, we must fight these bad ideas.  The only way to fight them is head on.  We must know and understand the bad ideas in order to help lead people to the truth.  While I certainly do not consider this book a “fun” read, I do consider it one of the most important books I have ever read and highly recommend it to others who want to arm themselves with the knowledge to defend the truth.

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