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The Pope's Encyclical

02 November 1998 08:54

This commentary on the Pope's recently issued encyclical 'Faith and Reason' (available by email on request) may encourage some to investigate it further.

On the morning in which the Pope's new encyclical, Fides et Ratio, was to be released, I listened with interest to the first reports of it on the news. I was puzzled - indeed amazed to hear the document described as oppressive and out of touch, aimed at theologians and designed to trawl all authority back to Rome. All this even before the encyclical had been released and read!

It sometimes seems that the secular media have only two lines when it comes to reporting on the Pope: good, when it has to do with his role in the downfall of communism, and bad, when it has to do with matters of intellectual freedom. Then, of course, there is always the suspicious question: "Who is this document getting at?" Granted, some of the recent directives from Rome make this suspicion on the part of the media understandable. Nonetheless, the Pope deserves a fair reading even from nonCatholics, and in this encyclical there is much we all need to hear.

Cardinal Hume, when interviewed, did much to put things right - stressing that the whole thrust of the Pope's letter is the importance of reason to faith and faith to reason. There can be, the Pope says (echoing the teaching of Thomas Aquinas and, before him, of Augustine), no conflict between faith and reason. Truth is one, and the believer has nothing to fear from its pursuit and much to gain (81).

The document is in fact aimed at philosophers more than theologians - all philosophers, whether they be believers or not. Indeed it emerges that the Pope believes all men and women "are in some sense philosophers and have their own philosophical conceptions with which they direct, their lives" (46).

True, the Pope raps modern philosophers sharply over the knuckles - not for neglecting theology or Christian faith, but for not doing philosophy bravely enough. They have been too modest, he says, and contented themselves with philosophical trivia while the big questions are left unanswered or unaddressed. The philosophers have made themselves marginal in a world that desperately needs their honest deliberations.

The big questions are those of metaphysics -- questions about being and the meaning of life. The Pope, we know, was a professional philosopher, and these words, at the 20th year of his pontificate, come fiom his heart. Nor does he think the matters he is dealing with are abstruse or unimportant to orbinarv people today. Quite the opposite -- our current era, he says, is marked by a "crisis of meaning". We find ourselves with more and more information a "maelstrom of data and facts" -- yet constantly told that, faced with this "plurality", it doesn't make sense to ask questions about meaning and truth anymore. The result is scepticism, indifference and ultimately nihilism.

Here we have the "post-modern Pope", for while post-modernity is often taken as a symptom of nihilism, the term itself, as the Pope notes, is ambiguous and indicates an evangelical opportunity. If Nietzsche is right in insisting on a connection between the Death of God and the 'Death of Man (that is, of all transcendent values by which we can guide our lives), then it is also the case that modern men and women, staring into this abyss of meaninglessness, may well say with integrity: "Perhaps God is not so dead after all."

I see this at Cambridge among my students - a young generation, brought up second and third generation agnostic - coming to religious faith. These are not credulous or silly young people. They've read Foucault and Bataille and Derrida, gazed at the forlornness, and thought, perhaps life is meaningless without God, so perhaps -- God.

This is part of what the Pope is getting at in his constant stress on the necessary autonomy of philosophy. Philosophy must be independent and free to do its job. The Pope is not asking philosophy to "prove" Christian faith to be true. Indeed this conviction comes only with acceptance of the truths of revelation. But a truly reasonable philosophy will recognise that faith cannot be ruled out as an option. It is, in short, not unreasonable to believe.

Some of the Pope's strongest admonitions are for theologians and seminaries to take philosophy more seriously. He doesn't favour a particular type of philosophy - there is no one "Christian philosophy" -- but nor do Christians need to take over uncritically everything the philosophers say. Our reason however is a good and a God-given thing and all' Christians must use it -- quoting a familiar principle he reminds us that "grace does not destroy nature but perfects it". For Christians (and again very much in the spirit of Thomas Aquinas): "The truth conferred by revelation is a truth to be understood in the light of reason" (53).

Some particular philosophers (not all of them Catholics) receive the Pope's praise, some philosophical tendencies (historicism, positivism, nihilism) receive his censure, but throughout, his concern is to find a balance between two opposing and equally unsatisfactory extremes both all too evident in late modernity. One is a rationalism, which makes claims for the powers of human reason too bold to be sustained, and the other -- and here many Catholics may sit up - is fideism and radical traditionalism, for its distrust of reason (79).

Fideism is a philosophical position (though it sometimes disguises itself as faith) that exclaims that religious assertions cannot be subject to critical scrutiny: "Don't ask Questions, just believe." This, too, from the Pope's perspective, is a form of nihilism - a counsel of despair that fails furthermore to value highly enough the gift of reason as well as of faith -- "two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth". Quoting Augustine he says: "Believers are also thinkers... If faith does not think, it is nothing" (11).

Faithful thinking will lead us to the truth, which can only be one and is
ultimately Christ. So we are all called to be philosophers. Seminaries
are taken to task for not taking philosophy seriously enough and

philosophers are taken to task for being too modest - for not asking the big questions of metaphysics and meaning.

If these questions go unaddressed in a culture of relativism that suggests such questions cannot even be put, the result is a world driven only by need and greed. We become imprisoned by what the Pope sees (in ways that echo Heidegger) as the worst aspect of technocratic mentality and its alliance with crude pragmatism - that is: "Since we can no longer ask what is true or good or beautiful, let's ask what works" (9, 25). In this, human beings become profit and loss automatons and fail to see their beauty as free creatures, graced with reason by a loving God.

Janet Martin Soskice is a fellow of Jesus College, Cambridge, and past-President of the Catholic Theological Association of Great Britain.

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