The Problem of Christian Philosophy

God is not an answer to the enigma of being; He, veiled and hidden, tenuous to the human eye, is wrapped in its center

In a 1935 series of lectures, Martin Heidegger asserts that Christian philosophy is a contradiction in terms. If philosophy—especially metaphysics—is the exploration of the fundamental question “Why is there being rather than nothing?”, then religion, and dogmatic religion in particular, cannot be an honest partaker in investigation. One cannot authentically question if he believes he already has the answer. And if one knows the answers he wants his questions to have, then at best he can be an apologist, but never a philosopher. 

This general position was not unique to Heidegger. During the same decade, French philosopher and historian Émile Bréhier controversially raised similar challenges to Christian thought and elicited responses from some of the greatest Catholic minds of France, such as Jacques Maritain, Etienne Gilson, and Maurice Blondel.

Such a position presents difficulties for Christian thought. If dogma is indeed inimical to authentic philosophy, we would be forced to conclude that all of the great Christian luminaries from the past two millennia were not truly authentic investigators with free philosophical thought. Instead, they would only be potent thinkers who bent the tools of human questioning to their preconceived ends. 

Philosophy would then be nothing more than a tool for theology with which one calculates new conclusions from Revelation by using a machinery of syllogisms, thus expanding theological claims into other fields of knowledge. If this were the case, then the Christian thinker could at best develop theologies which serve as a kind of artificial, rationalistic extension of dogma. He would be a mercenary of the mind who expands the suzerainty of Faith over otherwise independent realms of human thought. An authentic philosophy would have to wrest itself from the grasp of Faith, from its servitude as a handmaid of theology, and claim the autonomous freedom which is absolutely necessary for its existence. After all, how can a man investigate what he cannot question?

From this perspective, any contribution that dogma could make to philosophy would be due to its mythical and extra-rational insights into reality. Like the role that religion and mythology played in the eventual development of Presocratic thought, Christian dogma could provide raw material for philosophical reflection, but only because its expressions are primitive and symbolic renderings of intuitive insights, and not because of any intrinsic truth value.

This view of Faith, in which its benefits are emphasized over its content, is perhaps a common narrative for our times, when religion is often reduced to its therapeutic element. Man, who has come to the full stature of maturity, must take proper stock of his own prejudices and offer the due diligence of setting them aside to see reality as it really is, and not as he wants it to be. Christianity would be reduced ultimately to fideism, whose only justification would be in a contrarational and existentialist belief.

Some men may find themselves, due to their intellectual formation or the specific circumstances of their affective and cognitive perception of God, forced to cling to such a belief. Such, perhaps, would be the situation of a new convert who has relied on the testimony of others to make an act of Faith without yet fully understanding what it implies, or the case of a Christian who experiences severe depression and cannot access God through the channel of human emotion upon which so many rely. Another instance, the rarest and most beautiful of all, occurs with the mystic who, following the way of St. John of the Cross, is slowly being stripped of all things in a great and terrible purgation of soul so that he may at some point—he knows not when—gain full and profound union with God. These exceptional states of being, however, do not establish belief “because it is absurd” as a norm. Christian life embraces the whole of the human person: mind, will, and heart. Our reason is not sidelined by belief, but should rather be stimulated. Nevertheless, belief is necessary.

The mind, in the process of knowing, first encounters realities which it must accept as given. These “givens,” which come from perceptions, concepts, and language, must be encountered and embraced before any reasoning can begin. They are natural dogmas, so to speak; we must accept that there is being to be able to ask why there is being. The question of whether Christian philosophy can be philosophy is ultimately a question of authority. What kind of authorities are acceptable for authentic knowledge? Conversely, is it possible for authentic authorities that impart true knowledge to become inimical to the method and integrity of philosophical and scientific thought?

We must first establish that it is ultimately impossible to have any sort of knowledge without some kind of authority. Whether we choose to find that authority in nature, as did the pre-Socratics, or in psychological experience, as did Descartes, we must encounter some assumption, some first cornerstone , upon which to begin building our thought. Without this primary and intuitive acceptance of some kind of reality, the acts of reflection and deduction are impossible. In order to ask the question, “Why is there being rather than nothing?”, we must first accept that there are such things as being and nothing. Coming to the table with these assumptions does not inhibit honest inquiry. It makes inquiry possible in the first place.

The acceptance of good authority can, nevertheless, sometimes hinder the development of philosophical and investigative thought. This occurs when man is too willing, perhaps out of weakness or inability, to accept authority instead of giving due diligence to the evidence of experience and reflection. Authority is used as a substitute for discourse. Such is the case when, for example, a harsh parent invokes a commandment of God so as to impose a request on their child, rather than explaining the interior reason of their request, even when that reason is a valid one. We should never use the knowledge granted to us by Christian Faith as a pretext for dismissing other valid means of knowing. It would leave our vices uncorrected and our ignorance unenlightened.

To the contrary, love is a creative and a productive force, and one who loves the truth that has been revealed to him will seek to grow in his comprehension of the Faith he has received.

Just as grace strengthens and heals the heart and the affections, it also seeks to enlighten and develop our rationality. Theology, which relies on philosophy for its development, in a paradoxical way both develops the reason and simultaneously humbles it before the mystery of He who is.

The name of God reminds us of the question that Heidegger places at the center of the philosophical enterprise. Why, indeed, is there being rather than nothing? When prompted, God answers that he is non-partisan. God is not an answer to the enigma of being; He, veiled and hidden, tenuous to the human eye, is wrapped in its center.

We would also do well to remember that which the mystics teach us—mystics which perhaps Heidegger would have more affinity for than mere theologians—that dogmatic formulas are an approximation to God, but are not God Himself. God, who is Mystery, evades being captured by the concepts of the mind, and all the means He Himself has given us to reach Him, Scriptures, Sacraments, Dogmas, will, in the end, be consumed in the unmediated light of God. Perhaps it is ultimately humility that will make the mind of the Christian authentically philosophical on Heiddegerian terms.

Colton Duncan is a junior studying International Business and Classics.

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