Jacques Maritain Center: Thomistic Institute

Fides et Ratio and the Graceful Redemption of Philosophy

Jennifer Hockenbery

I am so thankful to be here. Especially since I am something of an interloper, having three strikes against me at this conference of Thomists. First, I am catholic only with a small "c". Second, I am a student of Augustine, and I am rather ignorant of Aquinas. Third, given a choice, I prefer to climb about on Plato's divided line, rather than swim through Aristotle's Metaphysics. But with these three strikes against me, rather than being "out" I have been invited in. And in being invited in, I have been allowed to learn a great deal. So you as a group have served as a human example of the divine graciousness that will be the theme of my quodlibet.

You might wonder why I, a young Protestant female philosopher with Augustinian leanings, wanted to attend this seminar. I wanted to come, and I wanted to come badly, because I loved this encyclical. I loved this encyclical for the same reason I first fell in love with the writings of Saint Augustine. I loved it because in its pages I saw the hope of redeeming philosophy. By this I mean that I saw here a program to restore to philosophers the real hope of finding the truth. The core of this program is that we cannot hope to find truth using reason alone. That project has failed. But the Pope claims, like Augustine before him, that by using faith and reason together, we might advance in our understanding. And I claim that what allows the Pope, as it allowed Augustine, to be hopeful as a philosopher using faith and reason, is an epistemology of grace. I mean by an epistemology of grace the idea that the truth, the object of the search of philosophy, is interested in being found. An epistemology of grace states that God, who is the truth, wants us to know and helps us in our path towards wisdom. With such an epistemology, philosophy can really be what its etymology reveals--not an erotic love for wisdom, but a friendship with wisdom.(1)

To put forth my argument that it is an epistemology of grace that allows for philosophy's redemption, I have divided the paper into four parts. First I must show that philosophy does in fact need redemption, for some contemporary philosophers would argue against that first point. Second I want to examine the Pope's two-fold project for the redemption of philosophy which includes recovering philosophy's original vocation and discovering the need for faith and reason. Third I hope to demonstrate that this two-fold project is grounded in a belief in grace. And finally, I will discuss why a belief in grace is philosophically acceptable.

Does Philosophy Need Redemption?

Throughout this week we have been discussing the 'crisis of meaning' that the Pope claims is occurring. This is a crisis for everyone, for all people by nature desire to know, as Aristotle instructs us. We, as human beings, crave understanding of ourselves. We crave to know more about our world. And we crave to know more about God who is the Truth. The crisis of meaning occurs when we begin to lack hope that there is any real wisdom for us to find, or when we worry that even if such wisdom exists it is beyond our ability to discover it. This lack of hope, this despair, is the sickness of nihilism. It is a sickness that whispers to its victim that the very thing the human soul most longs for is unattainable if not altogether non-existent. It is a sickness that whispers that the pursuit of truth is "quixotic, absurd and dangerously arrogant."(2)

And if this fear that we shall never rest in the truth is a crisis for everyone, it is much more a crisis for the professional philosopher who has devoted much of her working life to the search for truth. As Larry Cahoone writes in his book, aptly titled The Ends of Philosophy, this is a crisis that has every professional philosopher on trial just as Socrates once was. He writes, "For if philosophy cannot do or be what it claims, if it cannot serve the ends for which we choose to practice it, then our lives are threatened, too, not with death, which must befall everyone, but with waste, a fate Socrates would have thought considerably worse than hemlock."(3)

If we professional philosophers cannot find a way to save philosophy as a real and hopeful pursuit of truth, we admit that we are earning our keep by playing a game with no goal. And worse, we are seducing others, our students and our readers, to this goal-less game. We are wasting our time and theirs. We ought to be out doing something of more value. Or, if there is no real meaning, we ought to at least do something more lucrative.

So, philosophy needs redemption. This is especially true for those of us in the profession. But as the Pope claims, this is true also for all of humanity, for whether we recognize it or not, each of us is restless until we can rest in the truth.

The Path to Redemption -- Recovering Philosophy's Original Vocation

Philosophy's original definition has changed over the years, as has been mentioned several times in these papers. Once philosophy was the love of wisdom. It was the love of the wisdom of ourselves, our world, and God. Indeed, philosophy in its ancient sense seems to have an almost mystical goal of spiritual union with the divine. Today, philosophy's definition is rather narrow. It is an autonomous, independent, and rational pursuit of answers to a set of very specific questions. It is a field that claims to be different and independent from physics, psychology, history, anthropology, and theology. Although we must admit that questions of cosmology, of the soul, of human progress, of human nature, and of God all used to be at the heart of philosophy.

The Pope calls us to remember philosophy's "original vocation"--to recall philosophy's "sapiential dimension". This means that we are to remember that philosophy is about the love of wisdom--the wisdom of ourselves, our world, and of God who is wisdom.

To give us a sense of what this original vocation looked like in the ancient world, I'd like to read Augustine's description of his conversion to philosophy. In reading this, we see what philosophy meant in antiquity. The passage is a famous one from the Confessions. At the time of the conversion, Augustine had done quite well for himself by Roman standards. He had a concubine whom he loved, and he had a son. He was doing exceedingly well in school, as his parents had hoped. And he wanted to continue to do well in the academy. So he studied, and as he studied one night his homework assignment was to read Cicero's Hortensius--a dialogue about the merits of philosophy. And suddenly Augustine was converted. He was transformed. He writes about the occasion,

This book changed my affections. It changed my prayers to you Lord. It produced in me new promises and desires. Suddenly every empty hope became worthless to me, and I longed for Immortal Wisdom with an incredible rage of fire in my heart, and I began to awaken in order to return to you . . . . How I burned, my God, how I burned to return from the earth to you, although I knew not what you might do with me! With you is indeed wisdom. The love of wisdom has the name in Greek of philosophy. With this love I was inflamed. (Confessions, III.4)

What is apparent about philosophy in its original sense is that philosophy was above all else passionate. Augustine is on fire, he is raging, he is inflamed. Nothing else matters to him but finding wisdom. Philosophy is about the greatest love a human has, the love of wisdom. Augustine explains this love erotically, claiming in the Soliloquies that he wants to hold Wisdom naked under the sheets. He says that he would give up his friends, his wealth, his leisure time, even his life itself to have her. He asks in On Free Will, "If men exclaim that they are happy when they embrace the beautiful bodies, deeply longed for, of their wives, shall we doubt that we will be happy in the embrace of truth?" (De Libero Arbitrio, 2.13.35) Truth is more desirable than a beautiful woman, and we all know how Augustine felt about beautiful women.

It is an interesting aside to mention that in Augustine's passion for truth, the first place he turns is to the Bible. Also, Augustine mentions that not only were his affections changed by philosophy, but also his prayers. For Augustine, there was no distinction between philosophy and religion. He would use any and every thing he could to find the truth he loved.

So, I think that recovering philosophy's original vocation means recovering the passion for truth, in its most absolute sense. We must recover the passion the Pope claims seems to be missing in modern philosophy. Perhaps this is because in modern philosophy we are no longer looking for the wisdom that will fulfill us, complete us, make us happy, and soothe our souls. This is why the ancients did philosophy. As Augustine claims there was only one reason to do philosophy in antiquity, to search for the "beata vita"--the blessed or happy life.(4)

We don't have to take Augustine's word for this; we can turn to other ancient writers. Plato claims through Diotima in the Symposium that the goal of philosophy makes all of the rest of life's goals--gold, success, beautiful young men--pale in comparison.(5)

Epicurus says that philosophy is our only hope to find happiness.(6)

Cicero, skeptic though he was, agrees and says that we will remain wretched unless we seek the art of healing the soul which is philosophy.(7)

This is the ancient attitude of philosophers, that we must seek to know the self, the world, and God in order to find satisfaction and happiness. It is this attitude that must be recovered if philosophy is going to be redeemed.

The Role of Faith and Reason

But perhaps the reason that philosophers have lost the passion of the original project is because the goal of wisdom seems impossible. We have used our rational faculties and we have not found truth. We take our Descartes' Mediations into our room at night and we think and we think and we think. And at the end of the night, not only do we not know truth, we don't even know if the room exists, if our chair exists, if we are really wearing our dressing gown and sitting in front of the fire. After all our meditating we actually feel farther from truth than we did before. Of course Descartes believed he had found knowledge of God and the external world, but for most philosophers the rationalist project leaves us desperate, sure only of our own momentary existence proven in the cogito ergo sum. We can't prove God's existence, we can't prove the existence of external objects, and we certainly can't find the wisdom that is the key to the happy life. So our first enflamed passion begins to die, as we fall into skepticism and nihilism. Reason only seems to prove that reason cannot bring us to the truth.

And we can't return to simple faith. Unlike Tertullian, moderns, and really people of every age, cannot believe because it is absurd. We have been hurt to many times by such faith. We have trusted one scientist only to have her facts disproved the next week. We have trusted a political leader only to later see we have been deceived. We cannot find wisdom in belief.

So the Pope says that we must not use faith or reason. We must use faith and reason. Our only hope is to start with premises that are believed but not proven. We must then continue to think, to use reason and phenomenological experience to test our faith and explore it further. Faith needs reason to keep it from error. Reason needs faith to keep it from skepticism. Using both together we can get closer to our original philosophical goal of greater understanding of ourselves and our world.

The Need for Grace

Using faith and reason together is pragmatic. Indeed, it is our usual way of inquiry. Daily we trust certain authorities--our parents, our teachers, our newspapers. We do not try to verify everything for ourselves. We could not survive if we did. But we do continue to use reason and experience as well. If experience and reason contradicts the authority, we re-examine that authority and then re-examine our experience until we can come to some conclusion.

Augustine, in his own skeptic crisis, realized that faith and reason were part of everyday life. He realized that he had to trust his parents' claim that they were his parents. He had to trust his teachers' and books' claims about places he had not visited and events that preceded his birth. And he also had to use his rational faculties to correct errors he had previously believed.

But while this is pragmatic and necessary for daily life, there is no promise that this method will really lead us to true wisdom. While Augustine knew he had to use faith and reason in everyday life he refused to use faith in his philosophical quest for truth. He would rather claim to know nothing absolutely, than believe something about wisdom only to later find he was wrong. He had been embarrassed by his commitment to the Manichees, and promised that in philosophy he would not entrust himself without certainty.

What changed Augustine's mind, and allowed him to use faith and reason not just in daily life but in philosophy, was an experience of grace. This passage is also a famous one from the Confessions. Augustine describes the scene saying that he, philosophically skeptical though he was, had begun to study himself according to the Platonic command. In his study he becomes aware of a light above him. It is not a corporal light, but the light of truth. Unlike the Platonic sun, this light does not merely shine upon him while he begins to see clearly. Instead, this light lifts Augustine up. It picks him up, and beats back his weakness so that he can see clearly. And moreover, after he asks an impetuous question about whether truth exists, the light even speaks to him saying "I am that which is." Suddenly Augustine can no longer doubt the existence of truth.

On this day, Augustine learned that the truth not only existed, but that the truth was gracefully, personally, and lovingly interested in him being able to see the truth. It was this encounter with grace that allowed Augustine to trust faith and reason, because he realized that the truth wanted to be known. Indeed as Kierkegaard wrote many centuries later in the Philosophical Fragments, the truth wants to be understood by us as much as any lover wants to be understood by his beloved. If the truth wants to be known, we using our faculties of faith and reason, are given access to the truth. Augustine explains it this way,

We have a promise, who shall annul it? If God is on our side, who is against us? Ask and you shall receive. Seek and you shall find. Knock and the door shall be opened to you. Everyone that asks will receive, that seeks will find, that knocks will have the door opened to him. These are your promises and who needs fear deception when the Truth promises?" (Confessions, XII.1)

The message is, if God is gracious and wants us to find wisdom, surely we will find it. This message is interwoven throughout Fides et Ratio. Phrases such as "as the source of love, God desires to make himself known," "knowledge expresses a truth based upon the very fact of God who reveals himself, a truth which is most certain, since God neither deceives nor wishes to deceive," "God has willed to reveal himself in history" abound in the document, for only if the truth wants to be known can faith and reason help us find it. Perhaps most important in the document are the words that remind us of the Incarnation. In Jesus, we learn that God wants us to understand truth so much that the truth became flesh to walk among us, speaking words with a human tongue so that our human ears could understand. Truth came in the flesh so we could touch it, taste it, see it, feel it. How can we despair that we will never find truth when we have a god who does that?

The Philosophical Acceptability of Grace

This is all well and good. We see how much hope is offered to philosophers if the truth is gracefully interested in teaching them. But can we really believe in such grace? I think we can, using the method of reason and faith together. First using reason and phenomenological experience alone we have evidence that we were created by a Being that wishes us to know. For example, physicists tell us that the universe is made up of tiny vibrating particles and empty space. And yet we are constructed in such a way, that we don't see a buzzing chaos of sense data, but instead see people, trees, animals, stars and other things that obey scientific laws which we can discover. This ability seems to point to a creator who wanted us to be able to know about our world. Another example, brought forth in Louis Chammings paper on communication is the miraculous fact that I have immaterial ideas in my head and you have immaterial ideas in yours and yet I can give you my idea, my 'beetle in the box', simply by sending vibrations through the air which strike your ear. This, too, seems to present a case for a Creator that wishes us to be able to learn from and about each other. And as a final example, there is the rarer and yet universal case of a time when we are trying to understand something, a math problem perhaps. After lots of study and effort we sometimes still cannot figure out the solution. And then, suddenly, with no further effort on our part, the solution strikes us. Such experiences point to the possibility that not only were our brains constructed to know, but that continually in our lives, we are being taught by something higher than ourselves.

But these are just inferences. These examples may point to the idea that truth is gracefully interested in being known, but they cannot prove it. And a person could well ask why, if truth wants to be known, are we so frequently in error? The answer perhaps comes from our faith. As the Pope writes,

According to the apostle, it was part of the original plan of creation that reason should without difficulty reach beyond the sensory data to the origin of all things: the Creator. But because of the disobedience by which man and woman chose to set themselves in full and absolute autonomy in relation to the One who had created them, this real access to God the Creator diminished . . . All men and women were caught up in this primal disobedience, which so wounded reason that from then on its part to full truth would be strewn with obstacles. From that time onward the human capacity to know the truth was impaired by an aversion to the One who is the source and origin of truth (22).

Faith in the authority of Scripture, tells us something which is not at odds with what reason and experience discover--that while the Creator wished us to know truth fully by reason alone, by our own sinfulness we are unable to see that truth clearly. Further the faith makes the claim that the truth, not willing to let the unruly student be dismissed, continues to try to teach--coming to us on our own terms in the Incarnation, and also by the Incarnation washing away our error so that we might again see more clearly.

To conclude, the faith tells us, and reason infers that truth is gracefully interested in the seeker of truth. Because the truth wants to be known and is working with us to teach us even as we seek to learn, we can have real hope in the original project of philosophy, to know ourselves and our world and to come to a more happy and satisfying life lived in the light of Truth.

As one final remark, if we accept the epistemology of grace, I think we can and must study everything we can. We no longer need to fear studying other traditions and philosophies--the Pope suggests starting with those of India. We can study all the sciences. We can study other theologies. I think, and I may get some disagreements, we can even study Nietzsche. If the truth wants to be known, we need not fear getting stuck in deception. As long as we use reason and experience to explore a teaching, we know that the truth will be helping us to see error when there is error and truth when there is truth. It may take long periods of study, but with the help of the graceful god, philosophy can result in better understanding.

So I'd like to end with the same quote used by Father Michael Sherwin, from Edith Stein. "In God's grace the search for Truth [that is philosophy] leads to eternal life [that is salvation]." As Augustine says if the truth is on our side, no one is against us. So let us go forth in the friendship with God to search for the wisdom that will bring rest to our restless hearts.


1. See Carl Vaught. Faith and Philosophy. Monist 75 (July 1992): 325-326.

2. See Lawrence Cahoone. The Ends of Philosophy (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995) p.2.

3. Ibid., pp. 4-5

4. See Augustine. Sermon 150.4.

5. See Plato, Symposium, 211d.

6. See Epicurus, Letter to Menoeceus, 122.

7. See Cicero, Tusculan Disputations, 3.3.6.