Philosophy And Theology by Avery Cardinal Dulles, S.J.

October 21, 2011

St. Stephen by Carlo Crivelli (1476)

Before he passed away in 2008, Avery Cardinal Dulles was asked to write an essay for a series of seminars sponsored by the Center for Catholic Studies and the St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity at the Unversity of St. Thomas in Saint Paul MI. The following extended meditation on the nature of philosophy and theology was the fruit of that effort.

Among academic disciplines, philosophy and theology have a particular affinity with each other because both are concerned with ultimate meaning and transcendent truth. Both deal with the nature and order of reality as a whole and with the final purpose of human existence. They grapple with similar, even identical, questions: Why is there something rather than nothing? What is the place of human beings in God’s plan? Whence do we come, why do we exist, what must we do, and what may we hope for?

Intimately related though they are, the two disciplines differ in their method and to some extent in their object. Philosophy ponders naturally knowable truth by the natural light of reason. It makes inferences from things known by common human experience, which is available to believers and nonbelievers a Theology, by contrast, uses human reason assisted by the added light of faith understand the truth that God has revealed. But since truth is always compatible with truth, the findings of philosophy and theology must, in the end, agree.

The question often arises: how is philosophy related to faith? I am sure that is a very actual question for all of you who teach philosophy in Catholic institutions or to Catholic students. It would be a mistake, I believe, to insist on any one answer to that question. Philosophy can be cultivated in a variety of relationships with faith and theology. I find convenient to distinguish four situations, giving rise to four states of philosophy.

The first state is one of philosophy untouched by Christian faith. All the philosophy produced before the time of Christ would fit into this category. Greeks, in particular, rose to great heights in the time of Plato and Aristotle, to mention but two pre-Christian philosophers. Many Christians have sought to write philosophical works that in no way depend upon the truth of Christian Revelation. Such reasoning at its best can establish many truths that are important for Christian faith; for example, the capacity of the human mind to attain abiding truth and to transcend shifting phenomena; and the possibility of demonstrating the existence and attributes of God, the spirituality and immortality of the human soul, and the obligation to do good and avoid evil.

The Catholic Church teaches that truths such as these can be proved by natural reason, without dependence on Christian faith. (The Church does not teach that these proofs have been constructed by nonbelievers, but only that it is possible for them to be so constructed.)

Philosophy of this type does not deliver a complete and self-contained system. It ends up with some pressing questions that, according to its champions, cannot be solved without revelation. Maurice Blondel, for example, ended his philosophical dissertation on Action with the open question as to whether or not there is a supernatural. Others would say (in the spirit of the early Karl Rahner, S.J.) that philosophy can raise the question of a possible revelation, but that it cannot say whether God will freely disclose himself, still less what that revelation will contain. Will God’s final word be one of condemnation or of pardon and absolution?


In a second state, philosophy is in dialogue with Christian faith. In a Christian civilization such as that of the West since the fourth century, it is almost impossible for philosophy not to be influenced by faith. It is forced to grapple with questions on which believers have taken a definite position, but it does not allow religious faith to dictate the answers to philosophical questions.

This second category is a very broad one because it makes room for philosophers who are variously disposed toward the Christian religion. Three subcategories may be distinguished.

  1. Some are relatively orthodox; they are convinced that philosophy delivers results fully compatible with Christian faith. This would be the case with Malebranche, Leibniz, Kierkegaard, and Marcel.
  2. A second subcategory contains those who remain Christian but who bend the doctrines of faith to some degree to bring them into conformity with their philosophy. Examples might be furnished by Locke, Kant, and Hegel, who were believers but not by most standards orthodox.
  3. The third subcategory would be those who were in dialogue with Christianity but who came to oppose it on philosophical grounds. As examples, one might think of Feuerbach and Marx, Comte and Nietzsche, Heidegger and Sartre. Even though they were atheists, their views about God, the world, and human destiny were profoundly influenced by their exposure to Christianity, the religion they had deserted.

Philosophers never begin their work in a cultural vacuum. Judeo-Christian ideas and values have so permeated the culture of the West that no philosopher can ignore them. They establish the framework in which philosophers think about the dignity and rights of the human person, freedom and responsibility, the human nostalgia for the transcendent and the divine, and many such themes. Even philosophers who do not want to be Christian deal with themes like these in ways closer to Christianity than any pre-Christian thinkers.

It can, of course, be debated whether the influence of Christian culture on philosophy is favorable or detrimental. A nonbeliever might try to escape any such influence as far as possible. But it has to be admitted that philosophy has developed to greater heights in the West than elsewhere in the world. The stimulus of Christianity has contributed significantly to that development.


In its third state, philosophy operates under the aegis of faith. The philosopher is confessedly a believer, who will not admit any contradiction between philosophy and what God has revealed through the Church. But at the same time, he or she recognizes a difference of method between the disciplines and does not wish to behave as a theologian. Writing strictly as a philosopher, he affirms only what can be established by philosophical methods. This is what John Paul II in his encyclical, Fides et Ratio, describes as Christian philosophy. As an example, one might also think of Jacques Maritain.

Minimally, faith operates as a negative norm. The philosopher knows that his discipline cannot prove anything contrary to the word of God. If philosophy seems to be inclined to assert this, it must have gotten off the track. Revelation therefore prevents philosophers from making mistakes they might otherwise make. It alerts them to errors such as atheism, pantheism, polytheism, materialism, determinism, etc.

As John Paul II remarks, the contribution of faith is not merely negative. It makes a twofold positive contribution, subjective and objective. Subjectively, faith purifies the heart of the philosopher, rendering him more perceptive. It overcomes the pride and presumptuousness that so often blind philosophers, and at the same time gives them the courage to tackle problems that might seem too daunting. Objectively, it gives a view of the universe that commends itself to human reason.

It suggests answers to properly philosophical problems that are in principle accessible to reason, but which philosophers might not be able to find without the hints given by revelation. I like to compare this situation to a textbook in mathematics that has the answers to the problems in the back of the book. Knowing the answers helps is no substitute for solving the problem; however it can help the student find the right solution. So, too, revelation suggests answers to philosophical problems that philosophers might not be able to find on their own.

Examples from the field of natural theology come readily to mind. Assisted by biblical revelation, philosophy is able to establish that there is only one God; that God is wise, loving, and personal; that he is eternal, infinite, immutable, etc. The arguments that philosophers make from the nature of God as ipsum esse subsistens do not depend intrinsically on any premises from revelation. They are philosophically valid but would not have occurred to philosophers without the extrinsic help of revelation.

So likewise in the field of anthropology, philosophy is able to show that the human being has a spiritual soul that is naturally immortal. In a Christian civilization, philosophers can find a solid philosophical basis for asserting the dignity and rights of the individual person, the freedom of the will, the capacity to commit sin and to merit rewards, etc. The contemporary debate about abortion too often overlooks the foundation for the rights of the unborn in reason. The problem is treated almost exclusively as a religious issue, indeed as a sectarian one.

The field of cosmology offers many instances of philosophy operating under the aegis of faith. As Christians, we believe that the world was freely created by God and this belief has suggested to philosophers arguments that the world does not exist by necessity, as the ancient Greeks supposed, but only because of a free decision of God’s will. The universe, therefore, is radically contingent. It lacks any reason for existence in itself.

The question of evolution has been a focus of heated debate. Here, again, Christian philosophers are called to make a contribution. Does intelligent design on the part of a Creator mean that God has to intervene at particular points in the process, or can a process that looks like sheer chance from below be identical with the execution of a divine plan? Scientists, philosophers, and theologians all have something to say in this area, but they can do better in collaboration than if they revive the wars of the past.


The fourth situation of philosophy is within theology. John Paul II, turning to this situation in Fides et Ratio reflects on the term ancilla theologiae. At this point philosophers put their skills at the service of theology for the purpose of better understanding the data of revelation. The Greek Fathers and the early councils, as we know, made extensive use of philosophical terms and categories in order to ponder mysteries such as the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Eucharist, and predestination. While contributing their skills to theology, Christian philosophers enriched their own discipline.

The idea of subsistent relations, important for the doctrine of the Trinity, could not have arisen apart from theology. The same may be said for the concept of transubstantiation, much used in Eucharistic theology. Although these concepts first arise within philosophical theology, they have implications outside of theology. The theory of causality was perfected, for example, by the Christian doctrine of creation — a causal operation that presupposes nothing on the part of the recipient. Modern personalist philosophy has derived great benefit from theology. Personalist philosophy, for example, builds on the distinction between person and nature that was developed in theology.

At this fourth level, the distinction between philosophy and theology is more difficult to maintain. The philosophical theologian must be adept in both fields but still keep them apart. The same individual can speak now as a philosopher and now as a theologian. St. Thomas Aquinas, O.P., for example, wrote a number of purely philosophical works, such as his commentaries on Aristotle and his De ente et essentia. Francisco Suarez, S.J., produced the first Christian textbook on metaphysics, a purely philosophical work. Karl Rahner, S.J., composed some purely philosophical works, such as his Spirit in the World, and Karol Wojtyla did likewise in his The Acting Person.


The question may now be raised — and I put it only as a question — whether there is a level of discourse that transcends the distinction between philosophy and theology, blending them into one. As usually understood, theology deals with the contents of Christian revelation rather than with reality as a whole; philosophy deals with reality as a whole, but only without the light of faith. Believers have a hard time putting their faith into brackets and saying only what they could say if they lacked the help of revelation. For this reason I would like to think that there could be such a thing as integral wisdom, which studies the whole of reality with the tools of philosophy and theology together.

This kind of overarching worldview with the combined resources of reason and revelation does not lack a certain foundation in the Bible. In the very first paragraph of Fides et Ratio, John Paul II points out that similar questions are asked in the sacred literature of Israel and in that of India, China, and Greece.

In chapter 2, he notes that the Wisdom literature of the Old Testament picks up themes from that of Egypt and Mesopotamia. The first stage of divine revelation occurs in the book of nature, which, when read with the proper tools of human reason, can lead to knowledge of the Creator. But at a certain point human reason runs up against its limits and needs the added light of the gospel in order to transcend them. If it refuses this further revelation, reason becomes proud and turns into foolishness, as Paul points out in the opening chapter of Romans.

John Paul II seems to be pressing for a recovery of the broad concept of theology espoused by some of the early Christian thinkers. Clement of Alexandria, for example, declared that he had found in the gospel “the true philosophy,” and that “we call philosophers those who love the wisdom that is creator and mistress of all things, that is, knowledge of the Son of God.” Their philosophy, while it no longer restricts itself to the unaided light of reason, still seeks the wisdom that is the goal of philosophy itself.

Vatican II hints at this broader vision of wisdom. In the Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et Spes, the Council declares that faith does not simply disclose a number of revealed truths; it “casts a new light on everything, manifests God’s design for man’s total vocation, and thus directs the mind toward solutions that are fully human.”

In its closing message “To Men of Thought and Science,” Vatican II exhorted intellectuals to see real science and real faith as friends of one another. “Have confidence in faith,” it declared, “this great friend of intelligence. Enlighten yourselves with its light in order to take hold of truth, the whole truth.”

‘Throughout Fides et Ratio John Paul II urges philosophers not to take refuge in merely linguistic or historical studies but to grapple with the great metaphysical questions that have always been the concern of the wise. As philosophy comes to deal with the true, the beautiful, and the good in their full range, it enters into closer relations with revealed religion.


Before closing, I would like to say a few words about philosophy and the new evangelization. Paul VI, in launching the program, spoke of the need for an evangelization of cultures, because cultural situations can dispose people to be unreceptive to the gospel. The prevalent culture in the West, and increasingly throughout the world, is consumerist. Consumerism, though hardly a philosophical system, has philosophical roots that go back several centuries.

Influenced by the agnosticism of the Kantian school, people have lost confidence in the possibility of gaining real knowledge about anything that transcends what the senses can perceive. They consequently write off religious convictions as arbitrary decisions of the will, rooted perhaps in the unconscious or in ideology, but in any case unsupported by rational grounds. Religion is regarded as something like music — a hobby for those who are inclined to it. In this context people look for satisfactions here and now. The majority seek to pile up wealth and material goods that will secure such satisfactions.

Pope John Paul II in Fides et Ratio calls attention to a variety of contemporary philosophical deviations, such as subjectivism, relativism, historicism, scientism, and pragmatism. Because people doubt that it is possible to get to any solid truth in matters of religion, their religion is permeated with these errors. Subjectivism means an acceptance of the idea that there is no objectively binding truth, but that people may content themselves with finding what is true for them, as though each of us had a different truth. Historical or cultural relativism means that ideas are always culture-bound.

The wisdom of the past is no longer valid for today because it was conditioned by a cultural framework that no longer exists. The teaching of Scripture and tradition, therefore, can no longer be treated as having more than historical interest. Scientism means the presumption that true knowledge and progress are achievable only by exact measurement and rigorous calculation, which are thought to be the methods of science. Pragmatism means that truth is not to be found in abstract theory but in applicability, what actually pays off, what William James called “cash value.” Religion can be useful if it makes people happy and induces them to become better citizens, but it can also lead to hatred and violence, as is obvious in our day. Religion is therefore judged by purely secular criteria.

These errors, rather than others that are strictly theological, are the principal obstacles to religious faith and to the new evangelization. For this reason I would plead with you who are philosophers to take on these tendencies and expose their superficiality. I hope that as Christian and Catholic philosophers you will feel a sense of responsibility to secure the foundations of faith.

The new evangelization, to be successful, must be accompanied by a new apologetics. To clear the way for an effective proclamation of the gospel, philosophers must help to dispel the climate of opinion that makes people antecedently dismiss any such proclamation as incredible. Philosophers might also help to work out a theory of testimony. Paul VI and John Paul II agreed that the modern world is more influenced by witness than by argument. Most people, however, lack an adequate epistemology of testimony. What are the qualities that make a witness credible? The old textbooks spoke of competence and truthfulness, but further work is needed to show what witnesses are competent to be bearers of divine revelation, and what kind of truth is to be sought in the gospel. Some good work has been done in this field, but I doubt that it is known to most teachers and to their students.

While philosophy can make an essential contribution to the new evangelization, I would like to add a word of caution. Philosophy by itself cannot account for the whole process of coming to the faith. The key element in any conversion is the grace of God which enlightens the mind and attracts the will. To sort out the respective contributions of nature and grace requires a cooperative effort on the part of philosophers and theologians together. We must not be content to perpetuate a kind of departmental isolation that makes adherents of the two disciplines strangers to each other. This conference should help in a modest way to overcome the estrangement.

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