Is philosophy necessary to Christianity?

Some may recall that ten years ago, Pope Benedict XVI gave a speech at the University of Regensburg in Germany, which proved to be an occasion for worldwide controversy. The controversy arose from just a few sentences out of 4,000 words, in which he was accused, among other things, of branding Islam unreasonable, citing Ibn Hazm for the proposition that God is above reason and is “not bound even by his own word.”

But the Pope’s real concern “was less … Islam’s view of God’s nature than … the ways in which Christianity’s treatments of the place of reason has developed — and occasionally deteriorated — at different points of history”, including the present. “Benedict sought to draw our attention to … the waves of what he called ‘dehellenization’ which have surged through Christianity and the West at different points.”

“By dehellenization, Benedict meant any fading of the commitment to coherent philosophical reasoning which Christianity partly absorbed from the Greek world and used to further apprehend the truth which permeates the Scriptures.” “[T]o Benedict’s mind, ‘The encounter between the Biblical message and Greek thought did not happen by chance.’ Christian faith needed philosophy. It needed the tools of rational inquiry inscribed into man’s very reason: the same reason which itself is derived from the same God revealed in the Scriptures.” (A point I made here; see also this and this.)

From here on I will just quote from the article “Regensburg Revisited: Ten Years Later, A West Still in Denial” by Dr. Samuel Gregg (Catholic World Report, April 4, 2016) (from which the above quotes are also taken):

“Logos, for the Greeks, was not only a word for Divine Reason. It also meant to reason and explain one’s thoughts. The dismissal of Logos thus implies a choice to (1) decline to think critically, (2) refuse to debate and (3) shut off the capacity to give an account of what one believes in intelligible terms.

“Once such a choice has been made, three options remain. One is that which has been chosen by Islamic jihadists-violence replaces reason, and reason is subordinated to a Divine Will that itself has no interest in reasonableness. The second is mass sentimentalism and appeals to emotivism to terminate perfectly legitimate debates. The third is to reduce reason to its empirical dimension.

“Empirical and scientific reason have, Benedict affirmed at Regensburg, their place. They have been the source of much genuine progress and technological developments for which, he said, ‘we are all grateful.’ The downside is that empirical reason is ill-equipped to address, for instance, issues of good and evil or discern the proper ends of human choice and action. To the extent that they try to do so, such modes of reasoning cannot help but lurch in the direction of utilitarianism: that which tries to determine good and evil by seeking to measure that which cannot be quantitatively measured.

“These are just some examples of how, as Benedict stated at Regensburg, ‘The West has long been endangered by this aversion to the questions which underlie its rationality and can only suffer great harm thereby.’ The only way out of this cul-de-sac is to acknowledge that reason has greater breadth and depth which includes but also goes beyond the natural and social sciences. This, however, raises the question from where such reason comes. At that point, many Western minds turn away and decline to consider this matter. Why? Because it points straight to the question of God — an entity that much of the West has for some time been trying to do without, or reduce to the status of a soft-toy, which amounts to much the same thing.

*  *  *

“According to Benedict, [the] God of the Bible is also Divine Reason. To act in defiance of the Truth who is the revealed God is thus to act against reason. That is why the first verse of the Gospel of Saint John matters so much. When its author penned the words ‘In the beginning was the Logos,’ part of the point was to ground Logos in the God who manifests himself in the Book of Genesis, who identifies himself to Moses as ‘I AM’ (and thus as a real being rather than a myth or an idol created by human hands), and who Christianity teaches is definitively revealed in Christ. For, Benedict noted, ‘Logos means both reason and word — a reason which is creative and capable of self-communication, precisely as reason.’

*  *  *

“Yet for all Christianity’s attention to reason, Christians have not always managed the relationship between faith and reason, Revelation and philosophy, very well. The Protestant Reformation was partly a reaction against the hyper-scholasticism that — as no less than Catholic saints like Thomas More lamented at the time — characterized much Catholic thinking in the late-fifteenth century and which seemed to marginalize Scripture. This very real problem led, Benedict commented, many Reformers to believe that ‘they were confronted with a faith system totally conditioned by philosophy.’

“At Regensburg, however, Benedict sought to draw our attention to the flip-side of this problem: the waves of what he called ‘dehellenization’ which have surged through Christianity and the West at different points. By dehellenization, Benedict meant any fading of the commitment to coherent philosophical reasoning which Christianity partly absorbed from the Greek world and used to further apprehend the truth which permeates the Scriptures.

“Whenever such distancing from reason has occurred, some Christians have embraced a type of submission to God that avoids or even discourages exploration of the ‘whys’ of such obedience. On the other end of the spectrum, Benedict argued, many theologians from the nineteenth century onwards increasingly fell (like much of the academy) into the trap of equating reason with empirical methods of inquiry. They thus gradually ceased to think about Christ and Revelation from any standpoint other than that which could be verified by scientific research methods.

“Hence, in the words of James V. Schall SJ, ‘In eliminating philosophy from Scripture, we ended up by eliminating the divinity of Christ.’ And that, for all intents and purposes, nullifies the essence of Christianity. In this light, we see that the marginalization of Logos leads straight to the disappearance of natural theology, attempts to replace natural law with consequentialist ethics, a habit of excessive deference to disciplines such as sociology or psychology, and the insistence that people’s experiences trumps the conclusions of sound moral reasoning when we assess the goodness or otherwise of our choices.”

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3 thoughts on “Is philosophy necessary to Christianity?

  1. Pingback: More on the place of philosophy in Christianity — heart versus head? | Petty Armchair Popery

  2. It surprising how well “(1) decline to think critically, (2) refuse to debate and (3) shut off the capacity to give an account of what one believes in intelligible terms” applies to the so-called “regressive left”. “Appeals to emotivism to terminate perfectly legitimate debates” is a perfect description of the use of shaming (e.g. “that’s racist!”) to stifle any opposition.

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  3. Exactly. There is no longer any agreed-upon foundation and standard by which to judge the comparative validity of my arguments compared with yours, and so we’ve reached the point of “might makes right”; whoever can muster up the biggest and scariest mob wins.

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