Jacques Maritain Center: Thomistic Institute

Entrusting Ourselves:

in fides et ratio and in Augustine's de utilitate credendi

Anne Barbeau Gardiner

In fides et ratio, Pope John Paul declares that "In believing, we entrust ourselves to the knowledge acquired by other people" (32). Such entrusting comes naturally to us, for, as he explains, "there are in the life of a human being many more truths which are simply believed than truths which are acquired by way of personal verification" (31). This is especially the case for us who have come late in history: "Who in the end could forge anew the paths of experience and thought which have yielded the treasure of human wisdom and religion? This means that the human being--the one who seeks the truth--is also the one who lives by belief" (31). We are dependent, then, upon the past and upon those who have transmitted to us the accumulation of human wisdom and tradition. The Pope speaks also of a "trusting dialogue" between friends as another form of entrusting ourselves, noting that ancient philosophers proposed "friendship as one of the most appropriate contexts for sound philosophical enquiry" (33).

But besides these universal forms of entrusting, there is another kind that has its roots in the Bible. The Pope points out that "biblical man" understood himself "only as 'being in relation'--with himself, with people, with the world and with God" (21). In particular, the Chosen People were dependent for their belief upon those to whom God had spoken directly and did not approach the truth by way of theory and abstraction, as the Greeks did (16), but by way of entrusting themselves to holy men whom God himself had entrusted with his revealed word. Theirs was the God of Abraham and Jacob, of Moses and the Prophets.With the Incarnation of Christ, this "being in relation" was brought to fullness: God immersed himself in time to speak to us "as friends" and take us personally "into communion" with him (10-11).

Fides et ratio is pervaded by this biblical sense of fiduciary trust as the ground of our quest for truth. The Pope sees each of us as on a journey toward "a truth recognized as final, a truth which confers a certitude no longer open to doubt" (27). But interestingly enough, he thinks that this "ulterior truth" about the meaning of life can be attained "not only by way of reason but also through trusting acquiescence to other persons who can guarantee the authenticity and certainty of the truth itself" (33). One may ask, though, how is it possible to ascertain who is worthy of our trusting acquiescence? How is one to distinguish between a Jacques Maritain and a Teilhard de Chardin? The Pope does not answer this question in the present encyclical. He simply asserts that God has endowed us with "inherent capacities of thought" to enable us "to encounter and recognize a truth of this kind" (33). That is, we have the ability to discern, by the grace of the Holy Spirit, the persons we ought to trust. By engaging ourselves in trust--in an age gone mad with individualism--we will avoid using our freedom only for ourselves. For the Pope remarks, in Crossing the Threshold of Hope: "If we cannot accept the prospect of giving ourselves as a gift, then the danger of a selfish freedom will always be present" (p. 202).

St Augustine makes a similar point, but in sterner language, in de utilitate credendi: "It is authority alone which moves fools to hasten unto wisdom" (34). That is to say, only a person speaking with authority for the Church can quickly set on the right path one who is just a beginner on the journey to truth. Such a beginner would seriously delay his progress if he went about to reinvent the wheel, that is, if he tried to rediscover by himself all that God had already revealed to the Church and which a Catholic teacher was able to transmit to him. Just as one who goes to court puts his trust in an expert in the law rather than trying to master the law by himself, so a searcher after truth entrusts himself to a guide who is a fitting conduit for the deposit of Catholic truth about God and man.

The idea of personal entrustment that informs fides et ratio is related to the principle of "personalism" which the Pope developed in some of his previous works, such as Love and Responsibility and Crossing the Threshold of Hope. In the latter, he wrote, "This principle [of personalism] is an attempt to translate the commandment of love into the language of philosophical ethics. The person is a being for whom the only suitable dimension is love." And there he added: "Man affirms himself most completely by giving of himself" (Crossing, p. 201-2). It seems, then, that this entrusting of ourselves which he urges in the recent encyclical is an affirmation--in an age of depersonalization and lovelessness--of our personhood and our need for love. The Pope finds it beautiful and rich that our journey towards truth should have been designed by Providence to be personal and loving, to be in some sense, incarnational. Our entrusting of ourselves to others, he declares, is "often humanly richer than mere evidence, because it involves an interpersonal relationship and brings into play not only a person's capacity to know but also the deeper capacity to entrust oneself to others, to enter into a relationship with them which is intimate and enduring" (32). Indeed, he adds, "the capacity to entrust oneself and one's life to another person and the decision to do so are among the most significant and expressive of human acts" (33).

Here we have a glimpse into the very heart of Christianity. For the entrusting and interdependence of believers within the Mystical Body of Christ, which is the Church, is a reflection of the communio personarum of the Trinity. The Pope speaks of a real and abiding intimacy of persons as lying at the core of reality. Personhood is inscribed into the ground of being itself. It follows, then, that our journey towards truth will deeply involve our being persons related by trust to one another. Men and women are really on a double quest, he explains, "a search for the truth and a search for a person to whom they might entrust themselves" (33). These two searches converge at the point where we meet Jesus Christ, who is "Truth in Person, Truth "embodied in a living and personal way" (34), who invites us to entrust ourselves to him and fully realize what we are when he says, "Come, follow me." Through the Incarnation, the Pope explains, Christ "fully reveals man to himself" (60). Our Savior shows us how precious our human form is which he did not disdain to take for himself. From now on, God "takes a human face" (12), enters history, and speaks to us with a "living voice" in the Church to whom Christ said, in the person of his Apostles: "He who hears you, hears me" (Lk 10:16).

A similar motif of self-entrusting is woven deep into the fabric of de utilitate credendi. Augustine wrote this treatise when he was still only a deacon. He observes here that for the one who cannot come to the truth by himself, a guide is near at hand in the Catholic Church to make him ready, to cleanse and purify him for his journey (34). It would be "ungrateful" of him to refuse the guidance that God has provided with so much labor (35). Augustine urges his friend Honoratus, who had followed him earlier into Manicheeism, now to "entrust yourself to good teachers of Catholic Christianity" (36). Augustine explains that he himself had needed to entrust himself to the guidance of such a Catholic teacher--Ambrose, bishop of Milan. Whatever gifts and skills he and Honoratus may have in the sight of the world, they are still only "fools," Augustine insists, when it comes to the true "knowledge" of God and man (27). Beginners like themselves need to trust wiser men like Ambrose, rather than follow their own judgment.

One cannot help but be struck by Augustine's humility when he explicitly includes himself, as well as Honoratus, among the "fools." In fides et ratio, the Pope remarks aptly that faith "liberates reason from presumption" and teaches it "humility" (76). Augustine is a perfect example of this when, at mid-life, he entrusts himself like a child to the holy and learned bishop of Milan. In another section of his recent encyclical, the Pope cites the Confessions, where Augustine remarks, regarding his first steps in the Catholic faith, that he found it "modest and not in the least misleading to be told by the Church to believe what could not be demonstrated." In Manicheeism, on the contrary, he had begun with a proud pretense of rationality and ended up embracing the most absurd beliefs (40). One cannot help but compare his trajectory as a Manichean to that of some modern thinkers, who started with an exorbitant idea of the autonomy of reason and ended up embracing totalitarian ideologies like Maoism and Stalinism.

Like Augustine, the Pope alludes to the Wisdom books of the Bible and speaks of the "fool" as one who may be skilled in learning, who may know many things in the sight of the world, but who is incapable of fixing his gaze on what really matters in life. Such a person needs to have his reason set free by way of entrusting himself to another. This entrusting will set him speedily on the quest for the ultimate meaning of existence (18). What is desired when we entrust ourselves, the Pope explains, is not philosophical truth but "the truth of the person--what the person is and what the person reveals from deep within." It seems that in this kind of trust, love mediates the truth directly from one heart to another, as in the Eucharist. The poet John Dryden describes such a process well, in a poem called Eleonora (1692), where he gives us a model of the Catholic saint. This saint is so much wiser than the friends who entrust themselves to her that he compares her to "swelling Seas" commingling with "gentle Rivers." But as these unequal waters merge in the love of friendship, the truth of each person is fully communicated:

For 'tis the bliss of Friendship's holy state
To mix their Minds, and to communicate;
Though Bodies cannot, Souls can penetrate (Eleonora, 250-2).

This is what the Pope is speaking of in fides et ratio--a friendship of souls where the mutual self-giving is like Holy Communion. When Dryden uses the word communicate for the way minds and souls mix and penetrate each other, he alludes to Holy Communion. For even in the mid-eighteenth century, two generations after him, the first meaning of the term communicate in Samuel Johnson's Dictionary (1755) was still, to receive Holy Communion.

Self-entrusting, then, is profound communication in the context of true friendship. What we see in such friendship is what the Pope calls "faithful self-giving" on both sides, that is, a commingling of tides, a sharing of gifts that is dynamic and fruitful because of a mutual trust that produces "fullness of certainty and security." In this loving context, truth is relayed from heart to heart and leads the beginner gently from the knowledge of belief to that of experience. As the Pope explains, "knowledge through belief, grounded as it is on trust between persons, is linked to truth: in the act of believing, men and women entrust themselves to the truth which the other declares to them" (32). In this day and age, when friendship is too often set aside for the sake of private ambition, it is good to be reminded of its inexpressible value in the quest of truth.

One of the subtexts of fides et ratio is that many moderns are unable to entrust themselves to others because of their radical individualism. They have fallen into an "ever deepening introversion, without reference of any kind to the transcendent" (81). They exalt their individual freedom of thought into an absolute, and regard their private reason as having total sovereignty when it comes to deciding what is good and evil or what is true. Indeed, they even think they can determine their "own truth, different from the truth of others" (98). The Pope thinks this exorbitant idea of autonomy which is rampant in the modern world is a recapitulation of the Fall of Man. For Original Sin was just such a refusal of entrustment for the sake of a radical idea of personal freedom: "the blindness of pride deceived our first parents into thinking themselves sovereign and autonomous, and into thinking that they could ignore the knowledge which comes from God" (22).

Like Pope John Paul, the Catholic poet Alexander Pope spoke of this modern pride in the sovereignty of reason--a pride already pervasive among 18th-century intellectuals--as an echo of Original Sin:

In Pride, in reas'ning Pride, our error lies;
All quit their sphere, and rush into the skies.
Pride still is aiming at the blest abodes,
Men would be Angels, Angels would be Gods.
Aspiring to be Gods, if Angels fell,
Aspiring to be Angels, Men rebel....(An Essay on Man, 1:123-130)

In a chapter on the legacy of Descartes in Three Reformers, Jacques Maritain likewise speaks of a serious disease of the modern mind--the sin of angelism. The modern aspires to think like an angel, Maritain declares, that is, to be entirely independent of things, as if he were a disembodied spirit, and to be a unique species all to himself. But by such a "denaturing of human reason," he goes "beyond the limits" of our species. For he even claims for our intelligence "the perfect autonomy and the perfect immanence, the absolute independence...of the uncreated intelligence" (p. 79). But even as modern man usurps this "superhuman condition" of mind, he marches, ironically enough, toward an ever greater brutalization and depersonalization of his species. Civilization founders because the more he tries to think like an angel, the more he acts like a beast.

From the viewpoint of a contemporary solipsist or postmodern, the idea of entrusting oneself to another might seem to be the opposite of personal freedom and dignity. But this is not the case. The Pope explains that the "grandeur of the human being" does not lie in self-sufficiency, but "in choosing to enter the truth, to make a home under the shade of Wisdom and dwell there" (107). Our freedom is "real but limited," for we are only creatures. We have a "seed" of freedom which we are meant to cultivate by an openness to truth. But all too often we use our freedom merely to choose "finite, limited and ephemeral goods," thereby losing all passion for truth and allowing our reason to be shackled. Jesus Christ came to free our reason and to animate it in pursuit of the truth. Indeed, our "freedom itself needs to be set free" (veritatis splendor, 86).

And so, just as Augustine urged Honoratus--who had long been shackled to Manicheeism because of its initial appeal to his pride in human reason--to find freedom by entrusting himself to a Catholic teacher, so the Pope urges the modern thinker, imprisoned by what Maritain calls the sin of angelism, to entrust himself to the "Good Teacher," the "living voice" of the Gospel. For the humanity of persons is "all the more affirmed the more they entrust themselves to the Gospel and open themselves to Christ" (102). In veritatis splendor, too, the Pope had noted that when we entrust ourselves to the guidance of the Magisterium, we are far from being demeaned or diminished. Indeed, we become more fully ourselves, because the Church does not bring to our conscience "truths which are extraneous to it," but rather unfolds and confirms what was already latent there from the beginning (64). The Pope assures us that though the knowledge acquired by our entrusting ourselves to other persons seems at first "an imperfect form of knowledge," yet it can afterwards be "perfected gradually through personal accumulation of evidence" (32). "Faith accepts divine truth as it is," and then a new horizon opens up that "stirs reason to move beyond all isolation and willingly to run risks so that it may attain whatever is beautiful, good and true" (44, 56). Entrusting ourselves leads, then, to a level of ardor and courage in the pursuit of truth that would otherwise have been lacking. Reason itself now "grows more penetrating and assured because of the support it receives from faith" (106).

This is not just a hypothesis, the Pope insists. It is something that has already been shown in history. For the Church Fathers "succeeded in disclosing completely all that remained implicit and preliminary in the thinking of the great philosophers of antiquity" (40). He adds that "a good part of modern and contemporary philosophy would not exist without this stimulus of the word of God" (76). But, of course, this great debt of theirs to Christianity is precisely what most modern philosophers will ignore or even deny. And, as Father Stanley Jaki has shown, the immense debt of modern science to Christianity is also their well-kept secret. And here I cannot help but recall John Dryden's apt reproach, in Religio Laici (1682), to the Deist philosopher of his day for ignoring his debt to Judaeo-Christianity. Dryden tells him that his idea of a Creator, of a universe designed according to the Divine Mind, and of personal rewards or punishments after death were all truths given to the Deist by the very Bible he claims he has renounced:

Vain, wretched Creature, how art thou misled
To think thy Wit these God-like Notions bred!
These Truths are not the product of thy Mind,
But dropt from Heaven, and of a Nobler kind.
Reveal'd Religion first inform'd thy Sight,
And Reason saw not, till Faith sprung the Light. (62-68)

Thus, the 17th-Century Deist repudiating his roots is the father of the postmodern who sees nothing important as having been conceived before the "Early Modern Period."

But the beauty of self-entrusting for the sake of truth, of holy friendship, is that it can span the centuries and millenia. Dante entrusted himself to Virgil in his journey through Hell and Purgatory more than a thousand years after Virgil's bodily death. And there have been many "sons" of St Benedict and St Francis down the centuries. In fides et ratio, the Pope speaks of how the writings of St Anselm and St Thomas Aquinas still inspire us across the ages. He mentions also the blessed martyrs who personally witness the truth to us by the sacrifice of their lives. By their "act of trusting abandonment to Christ," he says, they are for us who live after them the "most authentic witnesses to the truth about existence." They invite us to "confidence" and "emulation," persuading us to belief by a "love that has no need of lengthy arguments." Indeed, they "stir in us a profound trust because they give voice to what we already feel" (32). Assuredly, those who inspire "emulation" and "trust" by their personal sacrifice are, in a manner of speaking, still alive to us as persons, as friends, across the ages.

It seems, then, that there is nothing degrading to our human freedom and dignity when we entrust ourselves to each other for the sake of truth. As the Pope observes in fides et ratio, truth itself is set in "the context of interpersonal communication." The Pope points to the Blessed Mother, the Seat of Wisdom, as the best example of how personal entrusting does not diminish our dignity. For "in giving her assent to Gabriel's word, Mary lost nothing of her true humanity and freedom...." She is our model "in giving birth to the Truth and treasuring it in her heart"(108). Through her, the Truth himself came into the world as a Person. Likewise, in veritatis splendor, the Pope cited St Ambrose as saying that Our Lady herself is the "model" for every Christian in her trustful self-giving. And both recent encyclicals conclude with the Pope's entrusting us--that is his word--to Mary, Seat of Wisdom.

Ultimately, self-entrusting for the sake of truth has a Trinitarian dimension. For as Jesus entrusted his Apostles with his word, saying "He who hears you, hears me" (Lk 10:16), so he acknowledged that the Father had, in turn, entrusted him: "The word which you hear is not mine but the Father's who sent me." In Redemptor Hominis (1979), the Pope explains this passage as meaning that the word of Christ is the "property" of God himself, since "even He, 'the only Son,' who lives 'in the bosom of the Father,' when transmitting that truth as a prophet and teacher, feels the need to stress that He is acting in full fidelity to its divine source" (19). And so, the Church guides to whom we entrust ourselves to learn about the truth have themselves been entrusted with the word coming from the Father through the Son. Truth, then, has an ineffably Personal source within the Trinity.

In Sign of Contradiction (1977), the Pope speaks of the love between the Persons of the Trinity as a parallel to our communio personarum within the Church. He says that we offer to each other here in the Mystical Body "gifts of truth and love" in the same way as do the three Persons in God throughout eternity. When Jesus, in John 17:21, prayed for us to be one, the Pope says he implied "a certain similarity between the unity of the divine Persons and the unity of the sons of God in truth and charity" (20:2). Now this is a very profound insight into the revealed truth of man's having been created as imago Dei. Man was made personal just like God, to be in loving intimacy with others. As we read in Genesis 2, "It is not good for man to be alone."

The Mystical Body of Christ is the place, then, of fraternity and friendships. It is the redeemed garden of mutual self-entrustings spreading in, and taming a wild, alienated world. The Church offers to the rest of mankind a beautiful image of the Personal love in the Trinity. Indeed, in this encyclical, the Pope himself offers an image of this love. He seems to stand waiting with widespread arms, like the old father in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, waiting for his erring modern son to return and entrust himself, that the entire family of Christ may rejoice and communicate together.