Part I: Introduction

Lesson 1: Theology Needs Reasoned Reflection on Human Experience

1) Pope John II's Encyclical Fides et Ratio (Faith and Reason) defends the power of human intelligence to arrive by its natural powers at least some certain truths. This defense was made necessary because in today's culture the "information explosion" with all its discordant and self-interested voices has led to a widespread skepticism or relativism about objective truth. There is a "hermeneutic of suspicion" that undermines all trust and claims one opinion is as good as another. This is not a new phenomenon; since at the beginning of Western scientific culture among the Greeks there were also the Sophists who were relativists and the Skeptics who argued that no statement is certain, not even the statement that "No truth is certain." Such despair of reason, however, is not truly critical thinking, but simply abandonment of any real effort to think. Some Christians respond to this situation by granting that human intelligence is so depraved through sin that we must simply put blind faith in God. Catholic Christianity, however, although it also teaches that human intelligence has been clouded by sin and needs redemption through grace, has always defended the power of our God-given reason, when it is rightly used, to arrive at least a few truths with certitude. Faith is not irrational, but redeems and perfects human reason and human reason, because it is the Creator's gift, can be of great help both in preparing the way for faith and in deepening it. That is why St. Anselm wisely defined theology as "faith seeking understanding."

2) We should, therefore, distinguish between human knowledge achieved by our purely human powers of experience, our senses, imagination, and reason, from revealed knowledge given us through the inspired Sacred Scriptures as they express Sacred Tradition and are rightly interpreted and enriched by it. Today the term "experience" is often used in a very broad way to include both natural human experience and supernatural graced experience. Indeed in actual practice these are not always easy to distinguish. Christian faith, however, is not in the strict sense an "experience" since it is "the evidence of things not seen" (Heb 11:1), yet believers can experience the effect of faith in their lives through their growth in love of God and neighbor. Properly speaking, therefore, "experience" refers first to what we learn through our senses and the intellectual insight and reasoning by which we separate in this data the essential from the irrelevant for the practical and contemplative purposes we have in mind.

3) Because theology or "sacred teaching" (sacra doctrina) as St.Thomas Aquinas calls it, is "faith seeking understanding" it must somehow express and explain the Word of God in terms that come from this human experience. Only in this way can its mysteries that exceed human understanding be made gradually more and more meaningful to us. As John Paul II says, this process of rational understanding particularly concerns the "ultimate questions" of human life: Is there a God? Is God personal? For what destiny did God make us and the world we live in? What must we do to attain that destiny? As we grow in this understanding we also have the responsibility to share this saving truth with others who perhaps are still in the dark. This means that theology must be able to speak to our culture and its people in terms that are familiar to them, yet without adulterating the Word of God. But why do we need "philosophy" to do that? Is it not the case that few people in our culture study philosophy or know enough about it to understand its complex and obscure concepts? This objection is sound if we take "philosophy" only in the narrow sense in which it is often understood today to mean either (a) "metaphysics," "the science of being as being," i.e. a very advanced kind of thinking whose validity is rejected by many of our contemporaries; or to mean (b) simply the "clarification of language" as many professional philosophers today use the term; or finally (c) simply as the history of disputes among schools of thought. In this course, however, "philosophy" will be used in the sense that the Greeks used it, and as was common up to about 1700 to mean all kinds of human knowledge that are grounded in carefully examined basic assumptions. If students of theology do not recognize the use or misuse by theologians of this type of knowledge how can they use rightly it to seek understanding of the Word of God?


Read John Paul II, Fides et Ratio and Dulles, The Craft of Theology, pp. 119-133


1) What does the study of "philosophy" in its original, broad sense include?

2) What is the difference of philosophy in this broad sense from theology?

3) Is philosophy only "the clarification of the language of other disciplines"?

4) Are "metaphysics" and "philosophy" the same study?

5) Why is it a waste of time to study theology without adequate preparation in philosophy in this broad sense?


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