The journey in one’s faith life provokes many questions. Some will ponder complex questions and others have more basic questions. We can be accidental or intentional philosophers—but we are all philosophers, directing our lives according to a philosophy we consider or fail to consider.
Life’s questions and the search for meaning are nearly inescapable. Philosophy manifests itself not only in academia but in everyday life. We all try to make sense of our lives. Our actions and our choices reflect something about us. Saint John Paul II wrote, in Fides et ratio, philosophy is “a noble task”. This is not to say that it is only for an academic mind.
The Nobility of the Everyday Philosopher
A noble mind thinks noble things. A noble Church thinks noble things, too. The nobility proposed by Catholicism is found in The Magisterium of the Catholic Church. It proclaims a valid philosophical inquiry, the faculty of reason and the divine revelation that constitutes the deposit of faith. It honors the human dignity of the person, created to share in the divine life of wisdom and goodness, as The Catechism of the Catholic Church instructs:
295 We believe that God created the world according to his wisdom.141 It is not the product of any necessity whatever, nor of blind fate or chance. We believe that it proceeds from God’s free will; he wanted to make his creatures share in his being, wisdom and goodness: “For you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created.”142 Therefore the Psalmist exclaims: “O LORD, how manifold are your works! In wisdom you have made them all”; and “The LORD is good to all, and his compassion is over all that he has made.”143
Thus, how we live often reveals what we think and what we believe.
Thinking and Belief
In his encyclical, Fides et ratio, Saint Pope John Paul II wrote,
The truths of philosophy, it should be said, are not restricted only to the sometimes ephemeral teachings of professional philosophers. All men and women, as I have noted, are in some sense philosophers and have their own philosophical conceptions with which they direct their lives. In one way or other, they shape a comprehensive vision and an answer to the question of life’s meaning; and in the light of this they interpret their own life’s course and regulate their behaviour. At this point, we may pose the question of the link between, on the one hand, the truths of philosophy and religion and, on the other, the truth revealed in Jesus Christ…
This means that the human being—the one who seeks the truth—is also the one who lives by belief.
(§ 30, in part, Encyclical Letter Fides et ratio, Pope John Paul II)
The Paradox: Source of the Thinker’s Passion
Some questions can confound us. They are reflective of paradox and the substance of faith. Soren Kierkegaard wrote of paradox, “One must not think slightingly of the paradoxical…for the paradox is the source of the thinker’s passion, and the thinker without a paradox is like a lover without feeling: a paltry mediocrity.” One has to wonder, then, about a kind of thinker who would act as a ‘lover without feeling’—highly educated, but dispassionate and woefully opposed to beauty, transcendence and mystery. Great thinkers avoid the temptation to Kierkegaard’s “paltry mediocrity”.
Sustaining Reason, Amicable Discourse
Ancient philosophical inquiry also proposed friendship in disagreement. Unfortunately, the modern conversation succumbs to hostility frequently. Authentic academic pursuit and casual conversation require authentic dialogue that share the universality of reasoned discourse and an amicable context. In Evangelium vitae, Saint Pope John Paul II reinforced teaching on human dignity, writing, “when God is forgotten, the creature grows unintelligible”.
He also wrote,
It must not be forgotten that reason too needs to be sustained in all its searching by trusting dialogue and sincere friendship. A climate of suspicion and distrust, which can beset speculative research, ignores the teaching of the ancient philosophers who proposed friendship as one of the most appropriate contexts for sound philosophical enquiry.
(§ 33, in part, Encyclical Letter Fides et ratio, Pope John Paul II)
Universal Knowledge and Wonder
In addition, the search for truth respects the universal experience of human beings as creatures with a shared and common destiny.
Driven by the desire to discover the ultimate truth of existence, human beings seek to acquire those universal elements of knowledge which enable them to understand themselves better and to advance in their own self-realization. These fundamental elements of knowledge spring from the wonder awakened in them by the contemplation of creation: human beings are astonished to discover themselves as part of the world, in a relationship with others like them, all sharing a common destiny.
(§ 4, in part, Encyclical Letter Fides et ratio, Pope John Paul II)
The Catholic Church, the Thinking Church
Equally important is the scholarly tradition. Father Richard John Neuhaus commented on thinking and feeling with the Church. In Latin, it is expressed as “sentire cum ecclesia”. The Catholic tradition embraces thinking and thinkers. There is more thinking in Catholic tradition than the popular media give it credit for; instead false narrative serves to constrict the evidence of the intellectual heritage of the Church. Therefore, popular media typically tends to be a poor source on what the Church teaches.
Similarly, many religious contributed to academic disciplines, such as George LeMaitre, a Jesuit priest, who posited the Big Bang Theory and Sister Mary Kenneth Keller, a Catholic nun who was the first woman to obtain a Ph.D in computer science. The cultural narrative that the Church disavows science is false.
Affirmation of Faith and Reason
The contributions by religious men and women have informed our understanding of the world and the Church. Their intellect was no less because of their Catholic faith. Many scientists retain the ‘wonder’ of their existence in scientific pursuit. Academics can offer faithful witness and intellectual contribution, even if it makes them an ‘outsider’.
Comparatively, Fr. Neuhaus commented in a First Things essay, “To decide for Christ as our contemporary is always a decision to be a cultural alien, to join Christ on his way of suffering and death as an outsider.” It is not an exaggerated perspective. Archbishop Charles J. Chaput’s book, Strangers in a Strange Land: Living the Catholic Faith, examines Catholicism in post-Christian America.
Neuhaus expounds on Kierkegaard’s fear of an established social order at a loss for the transcendent, mysterious and paradoxical. Fr. Neuhaus and Archbishop Chaput promote the idea that Catholics must live by example of life, to answer the question easily avoided by secularized modern culture: What does it really mean to be a follower of Christ?
In the words of Father Terrence Henry, TOR, we begin to understand: “The age of casual Catholicism is over, the age of heroic Catholicism has begun. We can no longer be Catholics by accident but instead we must be Catholics by conviction.”
Knowing Your Church, ‘Know Thyself’
Some individuals misconstrue fideism, the exclusion of reason in matters of faith, as Catholic teaching. Moreover, those who object to Catholic teaching often do so based upon the false impression that the Church affirms ‘biblicism’; but this is not in accord with the Church’s tradition. As a matter of fact, the Catholic Church guides the faithful to embrace the deposit of faith as Scripture and Sacred Tradition.
One currently widespread symptom of this fideistic tendency is a ‘biblicism’ which tends to make the reading and exegesis of Sacred Scripture the sole criterion of truth. In consequence, the word of God is identified with Sacred Scripture alone, thus eliminating the doctrine of the Church which the Second Vatican Council stressed quite specifically. Having recalled that the word of God is present in both Scripture and Tradition,73 the Constitution Dei Verbum continues emphatically: “Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture comprise a single sacred deposit of the word of God entrusted to the Church. Embracing this deposit and united with their pastors, the People of God remain always faithful to the teaching of the Apostles.74
(§ 55, in part, Encyclical Letter Fides et ratio, Pope John Paul II)
The admonition Know yourself was carved on the temple portal at Delphi, as testimony to a basic truth to be adopted as a minimal norm by those who seek to set themselves apart from the rest of creation as “human beings,” that is as those who ‘know themselves’.
(§ 1, in part, Encyclical Letter Fides et ratio, Pope John Paul II)
The Seat of Wisdom: Mary’s Immaculate Heart
In Fides et ratio, Saint Pope John Paul II explored philosophy and engaged scholars, intellectuals and lay people. He reestablished the importance of a valid philosophical tradition. Or, to put it more generally, he reminded us that philosophy leads us somewhere. We ought to know where we are going, avoiding a path that leads away from the divine wisdom and goodness of God.
The journey into human fulfillment requires a radical departure from mediocrity. It requires conviction. The Blessed Mother, The Seat of Wisdom, can guide us. The Church shares its wisdom in “philosophari in Maria.”
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 knowing, 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, in part, Encyclical Letter Fides et ratio, Pope John Paul II)
The wisdom of the Church extends an invitation to all people. Invite someone to walk in truth and to live in the nobility of the victory of the Cross.
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