Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Catholics, Evangelicals and Philosophy

One of the most attractive things about the Roman Catholic Church is its openness to reason and its long-standing resistance to anti-intellectualism, obscurantism, relativism and shallow thinking. The Enlightenment movement tried to portray itself as the voice of reason over against the superstition and ignorance of Christianity, but the Church was battling sophists and irrational mystics long before anybody ever thought of the Enlightenment and now continues to champion reason as Enlightenment-inspired scientism spirals down into nihilistic solipsism.

Here is an encouraging little note from Rome about adjustments to the curriculum for priestly formation. Evangelical colleges, seminaries and universities should take note.
"With the human ability to think under fire from relativism, priests and theologians need to study more philosophy, the Vatican says.This was one of the main points of the "Decree on the Reform of Ecclesiastical Studies of Philosophy," which Benedict XVI approved Jan. 28 (the feast of St. Thomas Aquinas), and Cardinal Zenon Grocholewski, prefect of the Congregation for Catholic Education, presented Tuesday.

The cardinal explained that the Church is always adapting to respond to the needs of changing historical-cultural circumstances, and that many ecclesial institutions today are lacking in philosophical formation.

This absence is particularly noteworthy at a time "in which reason itself is menaced by utilitarianism, skepticism, relativism and distrust of reason's ability to know the truth regarding the fundamental problems of life," he reflected.

New guidelines are in accordance with Pope John Paul II's "Fides et Ratio," the cardinal added, which notes that "theology has always had and continues to have need of a philosophical contribution."

Cardinal Grocholewski said the Church intends to recover metaphysics, namely a philosophy that will again pose the most profound questions of the human being.

The Vatican official stressed that technology and science cannot "satiate man's thirst in regard to the ultimate questions: What does happiness consist of? Who am I? Is the world the fruit of chance? What is my destiny? etc. Today, more than ever, the sciences are in need of wisdom."

He said that the "original vocation" of philosophy needs to be recovered: "the search for truth and its sapiential and metaphysical dimension."

The cardinal also emphasized the importance of logic, calling it a discipline that structures reason and that has disappeared because of the present crisis of Christian culture.

The rector of the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas (Angelicum), Dominican Father Charles Morerod, added that there is no contradiction between philosophy and faith.

"Christianity presupposes a harmony between God and human reason," he said.

"The importance of philosophy is linked directly with the human desire to know the truth and to organize it," the rector explained. "Experience shows that knowledge of philosophy helps us to better organize, in cooperation with other disciplines, the study of any science."

"Metaphysics seeks to know the whole of reality -- culminating in knowledge of the First Cause of everything -- and to show the mutual relationship between the different fields of learning, avoiding any closing in on themselves of the individual sciences," he added.

Ecclesiastical philosophy degrees will thus increase to 180 credits, going from two-year programs to three-year. There will also be more stringent requirements for professors, with greater demands for doctors in philosophy, preferably with degrees earned from an ecclesiastical institution. Theology degree programs will not be longer, but will have more philosophy credits during the first years."

A couple of statements in particular stood out to me as important. First, "With the human ability to think under fire from relativism, priests and theologians need to study more philosophy." This statement, it seems to me, goes deep down toward the heart of our cultural crisis. The problems with relativism go far beyond ethics to matters of epistemology, logic and truth.

A second statement, from Cardinal Grocholewski, that stood out was: "the 'original vocation' of philosophy needs to be recovered: 'the search for truth and its sapiential and metaphysical dimension.'" Our culture is in dire need of philosophy, but most of the philosophy done in universities has made itself irrelevant and uninteresting because it has abandoned its "big picture" search for truth about reality and how the different aspects of will, passions, and intellect relate to each other. Theology could pursue this task but it is almost entirely marginalized. Philosophy is desperately needed, but is apparently not up to the task. This leads me to think that the most important philosophy in the decades ahead will be done outside the secularized universities of the West.

Evangelicals need to recover philosophy if they are to bear a witness to Christianity as a worldview with culture-renewing power and inspirational vision. The Roman Catholic Church is resisting the spirit of age. Why can't we?


bossmanham said...

Hey Craig. I'm not sure it's 100% accurate to say that evangelicals aren't paying attention to or pushing philosophical learning. In fact, as far as I can see it, some of the best and most important philosophers in Christianity today are evangelicals. ie JP Moreland, William Lane Craig, and Alvin Plantinga. I think these three are the most responsible for the upsurge in the interest in apologetics among the church laity. Biola university and its seminary, Talbot, is one of the most important institutions that is really pushing philosophy, and it's evangelical.

Granted, this needs to be continue its dissemination, and we have to fight Christian anti-intellectualism, but I think Catholics have to fight that in their ranks too.

Craig Carter said...

I can't disagree with you on Biola. And it is true that Evangelicals and conservative Protestants are among the leaders in contemporary philosophy of religion.

But look at the average Evangelical seminary. Philosophy is a very small part of a pastor's education. Usually it is optional.

bossmanham said...

That is very true, and something I hope drastically changes. Much of the theology that these people are learning is based on hundreds of years of philosophical thought. Yet they aren't taught the underlying philosophical reasoning behind much of this theology.

While it is true and important to understand that philosophy is the handmaiden of theology, many evangelicals treat it as a kind of necessary evil or something.