Philosophy vs. Revelation?

This started out as a comment to Bruce Charlton’s post of November 24, 2013, titled “God of the philosophers versus God of revelation“. But it got too long so I decided to post it here.

Bruce takes issue with C.S. Lewis’ answering the question “What is God?” with the answer, “God is self-subsistent being, cause of himself.” Bruce says this is “a definition which could be made only by a trained intellectual, and only be understood by a trained intellectual.”

In contrast with Lewis, Bruce quotes with approbation Pascal’s description of God as “God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob – not of the philosophers and scholars.” Bruce writes,

“Pascal (himself one of the greatest of philosophers) was teaching that the proper answer to What is God is to refer to revelation, to our knowledge and understanding of the experiences and teachings of scripture and Christian authorities. It is NOT to answer with philosophical definitions that 1. Beg all the most important questions and 2. Put God onto an intellectual plane incomprehensibly far above 99 percent of humans – past, present or future.”

But are not philosophy and revelation simply talking about the same thing from different viewpoints?

To me it seems similar to the question “Who is John Smith?” This could be answered in two ways: “Loving son, husband and father, loyal friend,” and so forth; or “carbon-based life form, male specimen of species homo sapiens, composite of soul and body,” etc. The former is the personal answer, for those who know John; the latter the scientific or philosophical description for those who are discussing John as an object rather than as a subject, so to speak.

Which answer you give will depend on the context of the conversation. It may also depend on whether you’re talking to people who know him personally.

The statement of Pascal’s which Bruce cites was apparently connected with a mystical experience resulting in his conversion. Naturally, this is a personal description of God because it arose from a personal encounter with him. Just as those who have known John Smith personally might think of him as “the John Smith of Freddie, Linda and Bobbie [his children]”, the one who cares for and encourages them, etc., and not merely as an anonymous “human”.

Pascal’s point, I believe (and perhaps Bruce’s too), was to argue that philosophical reasoning is non-salvific, that one may only be brought to true faith, and thereby saved, by knowing God personally. This is quite true, however it is not denied by, for example, St. Thomas or his followers. Indeed St. Thomas writes,

“[T]he perfection of the rational creature consists not only in what belongs to it in respect of its nature [e.g. reason], but also in that which it acquires through a supernatural participation of Divine goodness. Hence it was said above (I-II, 3, 8) that man’s ultimate happiness consists in a supernatural vision of God: to which vision man cannot attain unless he be taught by God, according to John 6:45: ‘Every one that hath heard of the Father and hath learned cometh to Me.'”

“In many respects faith perceives the invisible things of God in a higher way than natural reason does in proceeding to God from His creatures. Hence it is written (Sirach 3:25): ‘Many things are shown to thee above the understandings of man.'”

Summa Theologica II.II, Q. 2, A. 1.

Further,

“[H]uman reason is very deficient in things concerning God. A sign of this is that philosophers in their researches, by natural investigation, into human affairs, have fallen into many errors, and have disagreed among themselves. And consequently, in order that men might have knowledge of God, free of doubt and uncertainty, it was necessary for Divine matters to be delivered to them by way of faith, being told to them, as it were, by God Himself Who cannot lie.”

Summa Theologica II.II, Q. 2, A. 4.

Bruce’s assumption appears to be that while most people can’t understand philosophical explanations of God, anyone can fully grasp the God of the Old and New Testaments. I consider this debatable. Aside from the difficulty many people have in developing an accurate understanding of God and his nature from reading the scriptures, a lot of people haven’t read the scriptures in any great depth to begin with. It could often be the case that the philosophical explanation of God would be the most helpful as an introduction to Christian belief. Of course authentic Christian instruction wouldn’t stop there, but I see no reason why it couldn’t serve as a good introduction to some of the principles involved, or what St. Thomas refers to as the preambles of faith:

“The reasons which are brought forward in support of the authority of faith, are not demonstrations which can bring intellectual vision to the human intellect, wherefore they do not cease to be unseen. But they remove obstacles to faith, by showing that what faith proposes is not impossible….”

Summa Theologica II.II, Q. 2, A. 10.

Finally, as to Bruce’s assertion that the philosophical answer given by Lewis has “nothing to do with actual revelation”: Do the scriptures positively not depict God as self-subsistent and uncaused? I hope Bruce would admit that that’s at least debatable.

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3 thoughts on “Philosophy vs. Revelation?

  1. @Ag – You may, or may know, know that I deeply revere CS Lewis! – I have about three or four shelves of books by and about him, he was as much responsible for my becoming a Christian (and for my Christian education) as anybody. Which was why I happened to read this passage in a very obscure collection of memoirs of Lewis! It is typical of Lewis who was substantially a Platonist, and whose first degree was in Oxford Classics (a four year elite course in Latin and Greek, including History, Literature and Philosophy).

    My point here is that by answering the question in the way he did, Lewis built-into the nature of God a particuar piece of partisan philosophy. It is not that this philosophy is wholly wrong – of course it isn’t, and I don’t say so – nor do I ever deny that people with wrong philosophies about God can be superb, saintly, Christians (indeed, I feel very strongly that people with worng philosophies can be, are and (especially) have been superb Christians right up to the Holiest of Saints).

    But, there is a big price to pay for implicitly making Christianity conditional upon the acceptance of a particular philosophy – there are bad consequences; not necessarily fatal consequences, but bad enough that in some people they may cause a failure of faith.

    Therefore I believe that *as a rule*, and perhaps especially nowadays, it is an error to answer the question What is God? by giving a philosophical answer such as Lewis did.

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  2. I think the distinction is ‘who is God?’ as opposed to ‘what is God?’ I suppose the first is for those of us with a closer relationship to God and the second for those of us who would like to take a more objective view and who remain to be convinced.

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  3. Bruce:

    Thanks for the further explanation.

    You write, “But, there is a big price to pay for implicitly making Christianity conditional upon the acceptance of a particular philosophy – there are bad consequences; not necessarily fatal consequences, but bad enough that in some people they may cause a failure of faith.”

    It seems to me there is also a price to pay for making Christianity compatible with just any philosophy. Surely some are excluded. But once you start including some and excluding others, have you not already begun to develop a specifically Christian philosophy?

    I personally found Thomistic philosophy/theology a great help in the process of my conversion. I was completely philosophically ignorant to start with, and felt it a great enlightenment to see how Christianity fit in with a coherent metaphysics. Indeed I find that the better I have come to understand St. Thomas, the more strongly I believe the Gospel. It seems to me that my faith is coming closer and closer to knowledge, if that makes sense. Now of course it will always be faith since some things can’t be arrived at by the intellect alone. But taking the articles of faith as premises and reasoning from those to further conclusions, I am sometimes amazed at how real these things start to become for me. Whereas before I believed some things simply because they were revealed, later I started believing them also because I understood why they must be so. For me this often makes the things of faith more real and concrete and helps me to assimilate them more thoroughly.

    There may be people for whom philosophical thinking about religion has no meaning or value, or for whom it may prove a stumbling block. But some are also like me.

    Now if your main point is that we should not tie them together, as if the philosophy were as authoritative as the revelation — as if to say, before you can follow Christ you also have to follow Thomas — I totally agree with you. But is that what Lewis was doing? Not having the context of the quote I can’t say.

    For my part I hope I make it clear in talking to people that Aquinas is merely trying to elucidate what is found in revelation. When citing him that really is all I intend. He certainly makes it clear himself that he submits his own judgment to what he understands to have been revealed by God.

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