Regular Faculty

The Role of Philosophy in the New Evangelization – A Response to the Lineamenta

Fr. Anselm Ramelow, OP

When Fr. Michael Sweeney asked me to share some reflections, I had to wonder: what on earth does a philosopher have to say about the new evangelization? The Lineamenta lin themselves did not seem too helpful, insofar as they put more emphasis on witness than on reasoning.

1. But certainly there is a role of philosophy as the preparatio evangelica. A faith that is itself open to reason can find in reason common ground with other faiths as well as with the secular world. There should be ways in which we can reasonably talk to an atheist, provided we are beyond reduced forms of rationality that are limited to technology and the observable. If reason itself is open to ultimate questions, then we can help the agnostics and seekers to entertain their questions about the meaning of life or the whence and whither of their existence. We can help them to ask these questions more poignantly. After all, being able to ask the right questions is already an anticipation of the answer; and this sort of questioning is something we philosophers can engage in.

This might then also be the task that the Vatican envisions for the “courtyard of the gentiles” (# 21) – a forum that the Vatican has instituted in analogy to that courtyard in the temple of Jerusalem, which Jesus cleansed so that gentiles and seekers could come to approach the still unknown God. If Jesus did this for the temple, then we might wonder what we would need to do, in order to cleanse the courtyard of the Catholic Church in these days, so as to make this encounter possible. It is a question that I am asking without having a clear answer. (Philosophers tend to be better at asking questions than answering them.)

2. Another thing that philosophers can do is helping the gentiles clean their own courtyard as well. This might mean, for example, deflating their reasons for unbelief. We can do that be spelling out some of the inconsistencies of typical secular attacks on the faith – perhaps using the tools of our logic course, insights on informal fallacies and the like. Or simply indicating where they contradict themselves. G.K. Chesterton was quite good at that; but so is also our Holy Father. The Lineamenta lin quote him in # 21 with the following paragraph:

If there is a lack of respect for the right to life and to a natural death, if human conception, gestation and birth are made artificial, if human embryos are sacrificed to research, the conscience of society ends up losing the concept of human ecology and, along with it, that of environmental ecology. It is contradictory to insist that future generations respect the natural environment when our educational systems and laws do not help them to respect themselves.

Now this is not a theological statement, but a simple use of reason applied to human affairs, and an example of how reason on its own might help the unbeliever to reconsider and ask the pertinent questions.

3. More positively, human reason and the human heart will have intimations of God that philosophy can help to articulate. This is what St. Paul does when he is evangelizing in Athens, the capital of philosophers. He quotes to the Athenians the formulations of their own philosophers, namely on the God “in whom we live and move and have our being.” And he can point to the altar of the “unknown God” and say that “this is the God I proclaim to you.” Perhaps with this altar the Athenians were paying their due to the god of Socrates – the Socrates who only knew that he did not know, but thereby knew that there was more, a greater truth, and that we are responsible with our lives for that truth. So, in spite of Tertullian, the philosophia perennis of Athens does after all have something to do with Jerusalem.

This is the courtyard of the gentiles in action, and it might be what the Lineamenta lin have in mind with the idea of "initial proclamation"(#19).

Unfortunately, we should also notice that St. Paul was a failure. Especially after talking about the resurrection of the dead. Some might think he should not have gone too fast from reason to faith. But bishop Fulton Sheen believes that, on the contrary, St. Paul failed because he did not mention the name of Christ even once. He was being too sophisticated and intellectual with them. I don't think that this is so clear. While I think one can indeed beat too much around the bush, we should not dismiss too quickly what St. Paul was able to do. And he did have to talk about a philosophical creator God, before he could talk about the Jewish Messiah. Otherwise the incarnation would have sounded like just another metamorphosis of Zeus.

4. There might, however, be another role of philosophy for evangelization. It struck me that the Lineamenta lin in so many ways emphasize the connection between the evangelization of the world and the evangelization or inner renewal of the Church herself. It sounds like the good Thomistic philosophical axiom that “action follows being”. After all, you cannot give what you do not have; zealous action follows zealous being, and you cannot hand on a faith that you do not have and own yourself.

“…missionary activity ad intra is a credible sign and a stimulus for missionary activity ad extra, and vice versa. Being Christian and "being Church" means being missionary; one is or is not. Loving one's faith implies bearing witness to it, bringing it to others and allowing others to participate in it. The lack of missionary zeal is a lack of zeal for the faith. On the contrary, faith is made stronger by transmitting it.”

So it is a question to our faith, and how vibrant it is. But that might raise some questions for the role of philosophy. Not untypically, people assume that zeal and fire are extinguished by the dry rationalism of philosophy. After all, aren't Pentecostals with their rejection of philosophy more on fire?

Here I can only speak from my own experience. For me it was a source of excitement to discover scholasticism and St. Anselm's attempt to penetrate the content of our faith by reason. Fides quaerens intellectum – that made intuitively sense to me. And far from making faith dry or uninteresting, the content of faith gained a whole new life on its own, being elucidated by reason. That this is so, however, does not seem plausible to everyone.

In Germany, I am acquainted with a wonderful evangelical family (“evangelical” as distinct from the mainline established protestant church); they are intelligent, sincere in their faith, in prayer and in their sense of evangelization. However, when I mentioned that I am teaching philosophy, they were quite puzzled and irritated. Reason, philosophy and science really seemed like the work of the devil to them. All they could think of was the impact of modern enlightenment rationalism, evolutionary biology and historical-critical method for biblical studies. Since all of this had undermined people's faith, in their minds reason and philosophy needed to be rejected. Against reason's apparently inherent hermeneutics of suspicion, it needed to be replaced with a voluntaristic blind trust in God. I found this outlook even among traditional Catholics in Germany, who for this reason were allergic to Thomas Aquinas, to whom they preferred St. Bonaventure and Hans Urs von Balthasar.

Now this deserves an answer, because it is a dangerous thing not only for evangelization, but for our very faith itself as well. A childlike trust in God is asked from all of us; but this cannot be opposed to the use of reason. For why would we have a childlike trust in God, unless God can be found to be trustworthy? In some of their expressions the voluntaristic God of nominalism seems to make his reappearance in this kind of piety. But this God of Nominalism is a God who is so free and independent from all reason and wisdom, that he is also free to reverse his covenants, to send saints to hell and command us to hate him. I would suggest that this is not only not the God of the Bible, but it is an outlook that also empties the word “trust” itself of any meaning. If this trust could require just anything from a the trusting person, then it could also mean anything from the allegedly trustworthy person. Trustworthiness becomes coextensive with abuse as well. Childlike trust becomes tantamount to some kind of Stockholm syndrome. A God who is beyond reason and beyond the principle of non-contradiction could indeed be trustworthy and non-trustworthy at the same time. Such a being seems rather manipulative, unpredictable and frightening.

By contrast, for Thomas Aquinas, the Christian God acts according to his reason and wisdom, and he communicates this wisdom to us as well; anything else Thomas Aquinas literally calls blasphemy (nefas). God cannot be a God of love, unless he is also the God of reason and wisdom, someone about whom we can inquire philosophically as well.

It might be a cause of worry if some who embrace this outlook would end in rather voluntaristic, fideistic and sectarian environments, perhaps even splintering the body of the Church itself into various movements each considering itself as the navel of the Church, without a common space of reason to encounter each other, let alone the world which it wishes to evangelize. “Circling the wagons” is rather the counter-paradigm to evangelization, even though it might feel like a strong affirmation of the faith. Yet circling the wagons might be all we can do, if we do not use our minds.

It might be worth quoting Monsignor Lemaitre, the Belgian priest who discovered the Big Bang theory; he said: “Philosophy and theology, when kept in isolation from scientific thought, either change into an outdated self-enclosed system, or become a dangerous ideology.” What is true for the use of reason in science in particular would be even truer for philosophy in general.

And so I think the true childlike trust in God is to trust and believe that our faith cannot contradict whatever is true philosophically and scientifically, even if we do not always understand immediately, how this could be so.

Having a way to account for our faith by reason will also help us to evangelize. If we can feel that our faith can be lived and loved with intellectual honesty, then we do not have to feel defensive about it, but can rather see evangelization as joyful occasion to break out of “situations imprisoned by fear” as the Lineamenta lin puts it. Philosophy can help us to do what the apostle Peter asks us to do: to give an account and provide reasons "for the hope that is in you” (1 Pt 3:15). Hence, Pope Benedict asks us (#16) to “devise new forms of response (apo-logia) to those who ask the logos, that is, the reasons for our faith. It will help, as he says, the “capacity of every Christian actively to take part in the conversations taking place within real-life situations and the workplace, so as to bring to these situations the Christian gift of hope” (ibid.).

Philosophy can thus transform blind fanaticism into the joyful enthusiasm of the new evangelization. (Perhaps this is what it might mean for us to cleanse our “courtyard of the gentiles”?) Philosophy humanizes the faith by allowing us to make it truly our own, as the rational animals we are. We are indeed to approach our faith childlike, but we are God's children precisely in that we are not like the “servant who does not know what his master is doing.” Such a God will not only be feared but can truly be loved; and only knowing such a God will generate the joyful enthusiasm for evangelization that the Lineamenta lin are hoping for.

Understood in this way, reason is not alien to or stifling our love for God, but quite the opposite. Contemporary anti-intellectualism might sound pious, but it actually is impious, because it leaves the object of faith outside of the human heart, as an opaque and unintelligible entity that might only generate either submission or superficial enthusiasm. Contrary to popular assumptions, the heart is not the opposite of the mind. The mind is the organ of the heart, reason is our way to take something truly “to heart,” appropriate it, interiorize it, make it our own. [1]

Yes, faith is meant to challenge us beyond our preconceptions. But faith could not even do that, if we did not understand it, if we did not know how it applies to the rest of our world and thought. We need to use our mind to understand how faith applies. Not using our mind can otherwise even become a convenient way to keep away the implications and the challenge of our faith. It would keep faith itself at a distance. Using a phrase of Kant, we might say that “faith without concepts is blind;” but do we not want to see what we love? [2]

The Lineamenta lin themselves can sometimes appear to make up a false dichotomy between catechesis as a personal encounter and a supposedly merely theoretical and objectifying instruction. Nobody will deny that the personal encounter of faith has to come first; but I think it is this faith itself that will set us out on the road to seek understanding. The God whom we encounter by faith, Jesus Christ in whom we believe , is the divine Logos. We would reject him, if we would not use the mind he gave us as his image and likeness, to inquire into the divine wisdom he is. From this can unfold the depth of an encounter that will naturally spill over into evangelization – an evangelization that can be joyful and fearless in encountering the world and its thought, science and academy.



[1] It will then also survive dry spells in our experience of an encounter with God; we will hold fast to what we have understood, even if the feelings of our heart come and go. Back to text.

[2] And reason just makes it shine brighter and more strongly; it illuminates what we love. Back to text.