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Philosophandum in Fide

By Ralph McInerny

For some centuries now it has been the practice of secular philosophers and historians of philosophy to bracket the work of believing philosophers, judging that it cannot count as “real” philosophy, “real’ philosophy being secular philosophy. In this way, the Christian philosopher is excluded by stipulative definition and often a thousand years of thinking is thus marginalized. To be sure, such historians will sometimes search the middle ages to see if they can find there an instance or two of the “real” philosopher.

Believers have often reacted to this by taking a defensive stance, accepting the terms of their exclusion, and begging nonetheless to be included in the ranks of genuine philosophers. Their faith, they insist, has really nothing to do with their philosophizing.

Another reaction is to marginalize “real” philosophers by claiming that, apart from the aid of faith, the human mind is incapable of attaining the truth, and that puts all non-believing philosophers outside the pale.

The first reaction is effectively apostasy while on the job; the second opens the way to fideism. The conception of Christian Philosophy has been developed to provide a via media between these reactions. Many many books have been written on this subject; the French Thomist Society devoted a whole meeting to it in the early 1930s. John Paul II, in Fides et Ratio, has put the matter before us in an eloquent way.

It seems clear that the relation between faith and reason cannot be settled once and for all, each of us has to think it through for himself. John Paul II spoke of “separate” philosophy, by which he meant, I take it, the first reaction mentioned above.

For the believer to blush for the faith would be craven ingratitude. Perhaps it is in Josef Pieper’s distinction between philosophy and philosophizing that the best solution lies. Just as any intellectual activity is encompassed by the moral, so for the believer it is encompassed by the faith. Just as we pray that our intellectual efforts may be successful so the faith generally sustains and guides our pursuits. But the upshot, the arguments, are assessible by criteria common to believers and non-believers.


NB: Ralph wrote this piece for the Thomas International Center in July 2006.