The God of the Philosophers I by Jean Daniélou

February 14, 2012

The Christian Scientist … “When I was undertaking my doctoral research in molecular biology at Oxford University, I was frequently confronted with a number of theories offering to explain a given observation. In the end, I had to make a judgment concerning which of them possessed the greatest internal consistency, the greatest degree of predictive ability. Unless I was to abandon any possibility of advance in understanding, I was obliged to make such a judgment… I would claim the right to speak of the ‘superiority’ of Christianity in this explicative sense” Alister McGrath

Although not as well-known today as his fellow Jesuit Henri de Lubac and theological contemporary Hans Urs von Balthasar, Jean Daniélou occupies a key place in twentieth-century Catholic theology, recognized for his dialogue with other world religions, his writings on the Church Fathers and Scripture, and his insights into the nature of divine revelation and Tradition. Trained in philology — the study of classical languages — and theology, Daniélou was a professor at the Institut Catholique in Paris and a vital member of the controversial “New Theology” or ressourcement movement.


 The God of the philosophers is one of the signs of the contradictory nature of religious thought. Christian theology,  from St. Thomas Aquinas to the Vatican Council, has always maintained the possibility of a rational knowledge of the existence and attributes of God; and this remains a principle of Catholic thinking. But even in the heart of Christianity another current has never ceased to pulsate — that which regards the God of reason as a stumbling block, to whom the God of faith is opposed.

Thus Pascal speaks of “the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, not the God of the philosophers and scholars”; thus Kierkegaard, for whom reason leads to despair, and despair to faith; thus Chestov [Lev Isaakovich Shestov was a Ukrainian/Russian existentialist philosopher. Born in Kiev (Russian Empire) on February 13 1866, he emigrated to France in 1921, fleeing from the aftermath of the October Revolution. He lived in Paris until his death on November 19, 1938. In France he is well known as Léon Chestov], contrasting Job, the Christian philosopher, with Socrates, the wise man after the flesh; thus Barth, denouncing the God of the philosophers, in whom the spirit of man is reflected, as the supreme idol.

My plan here is not to inquire whether in the order of existence philosophy has ever led man to God, for this is a fictitious problem. Conversion to God is always a development of the whole man; and since the order in which we find ourselves historically is an order of grace and sin, the real progress of man is not a progress of pure reason. My purpose here is different. I set myself within this real order, which is in fact an order of grace, within the history of salvation. I ask myself what is the status of philosophy within a theological perspective, just as I have asked this question about religion. And as with the god of the religions, I shall attempt to prove that there is a good and bad use of philosophy, that there is a false god of the philosophers, and yet also a true philosophy of God.

Before studying the means by which philosophy may approach the knowledge of God, we must first deal with the legitimacy of such a practice, for this is what is now in question. Its legitimacy is challenged from widely differing motives. For some, reason, being fundamentally corrupted on account of original sin, is incapable of attaining to truth. For others, God being in essence beyond the capture of the human mind, all claim on the part of this mind to know him cannot be other than illusory. Some are struck by the contradictions among the philosophers and think that it is dangerous on this account to put their faith in God on rational grounds. Positivist minds, trained in scientific disciplines, are disconcerted by the trend of metaphysics, in which they fail to find their criteria of certainty and take refuge in religious experience.

All these objections contain something valuable and rightly warn us against any blind confidence in reason. The encyclical Humani Generis, while endorsing the possibility that reason may arrive at the knowledge of God, recognizes that man in fact attains it with difficulty unless he has the support of grace. Moreover, it is true that the ancient philosophers never reached any but imperfect and conflicting notions of God, and that reason has not been able to gain right knowledge of him except with the help of revelation.

This is the meaning that Gilson rightly gives to the idea of Christian philosophy. It is still more true that the living God cannot be circumscribed by the intellect, and that a god who was entirely intelligible to man would surely not be the true God. Finally it is true that metaphysical certainties belong to another order than mathematical certainties, and that the same criteria of evidence cannot be applied to both.

But all the same, do the limitations of reason justify us in depreciating it? Many men of our time contrast it with personal religious experience. Certainly it is a fact that the knowledge of the true God always implies a personal encounter and an inward conversion. But first of all, religious experience is preeminently subjective. The certainty to which it attains is incommunicable. One is tempted to conclude, then, that the knowledge of God is the expression of an instinct connected with man’s psychological structure. There will be religious and nonreligious temperaments; belief in God will be regarded as the expression of an inner need, the projection of a thirst for happiness that cannot be satisfied by any created thing.

There is no need to emphasize the danger of such an outlook. It justifies the frequent taunt of nonbelievers who hold that belief in God is prompted by the need for security, inward comfort, and consolation. To this we must reply that belief in God has nothing to do with the religious instinct. It is objectively imposed alike on the mystical and the positive temperament.

But far from admitting that the harmony between God’s existence and our affective desires is a criterion of his existence, we must state on the contrary that God’s reality is imposed on us far more in an objective manner, in that he contradicts our desires, in that his reality disconcerts our intellect and his will upsets our plans, in that we are compelled to recognize him, in some sense against our will.

On the other hand, if it is true that the encounter with God is a personal event, it is no less true that this event needs afterward to be controlled and placed within the scheme of things. It is never a development of pure reason, but it must always be subsequently submitted to criticism and sifted by reason. It is only then that I can make certain that I am not the plaything of an illusion, that I am not being carried away by an affective impulse. Only a belief in God that has thus been tested by reason and found solid, which has been brought into relation with the other data and acknowledged to be consistent with them, carries real weight and assures us that our conviction has a sound basis.

Just as reason is necessary to the establishment of the knowledge of God, so is it necessary in exercising this knowledge. Nothing is more dangerous than a religion that claims to have outdistanced reason; it can only lead to fanaticism, illuminism, obscurantism; it is lost in a jungle of superstition. Above all, it runs the risk of being an idle solution. Recourse to the supernatural easily turns into an escapist’s paradise. It claims to find mystery where there may only be ignorance, and thus to justify the positivist critic for whom religion corresponds to a prescientific stage of thought. But the true religious mystery is quite different; it is concerned with what cannot be explained in any other way. Yet there is a danger of confusing the two regions. The function of scientific criticism is precisely that of clearing up this confusion.

If rationalism and that pride of the mind which claims to possess God and deal with him are a serious danger, how noble, on the other hand, are the courageous efforts of the intellect, which in respect for mystery never renounces its determination to understand and which goes on to the limit of its capacity and never halts until it is conquered by the overwhelming pressure of a blinding light! This boldness of the intellect in exploring the mystery is the quality on which the imperishable greatness of St. Thomas Aquinas rests. It implies a difficult equilibrium, seldom realized, between the abyss of rationalism and that of fideism. But it is doubtless this perfectly balanced equilibrium that the instinct of the Church acknowledged when she proclaimed him as the supreme theologian.

This is particularly relevant to the very problem we are discussing. For none has shown better than he, both the limitations and the value of the rational knowledge of God. First, as to the limitations: until his time Christian philosophers, especially St. Augustine, more or less yielded to the temptation presented by Platonism, of seeing in the divine the proper object of the intellect, obscured only by its immersion in the flesh. St. Thomas had the courage to break entirely with this tendency and to refuse to admit that we could form for ourselves any sound or intelligible notion of God, since our concepts are always abstracted from the sensible world. He thus reaffirmed the view of Gregory of Nyssa, whom, however, he scarcely knew. Christian tradition gave him good reason to reject any kind of ontologism, and to deny that there could be any natural intuition of God.

Thus reason can never approach God except mediately, insofar as his existence is postulated by the contingency of what it does not attain. Reason can affirm existence and transcendence. But, as Gilson says so well in his summary of St. Thomas’ thought:

Once this is said, all that man can say is said. This divine essence, whose existence he assumes, is not penetrated by his intellect, and we know that of himself he will never reach it. Denys is right in saying that the God toward whom our reason strives is still, so to speak, an unknown God. For we know well that he is, and what he is not. But what he is remains for us entirely unknown.
The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy, Etienne Gilson

In other words, reason can know God — and that is its supreme greatness; but it can know him only from outside, and that is its infinite limitation. Reason is compelled to affirm him in order to remain faithful to itself; and by this very affirmation reason recognizes its limits.

But this is at the same time a courageous affirmation of the power of reason. For if the knowledge that it has of God is never adequate, it is none the less perfectly real. There is no trace in St. Thomas of skepticism or agnosticism. In fact, reason has a secure knowledge of God’s existence. The latter, as necessary cause, is implied in the existence of contingent being; as absolute truth, it is presupposed by the very exercise of the intellect; as perfect good, it is postulated by the existence of morality. Not only does reason know his existence, but it can form for itself some idea of him, insofar as he participates in contingent being, and insofar as all the perfections of the latter are a defective, but real, image of his infinite perfection.

We must go further still. Imperfect as it is, the created spirit still has a capacity to become all things. If its proper object is created being, it remains true that no created being exhausts its possibilities. It is thus a frontier between two worlds, as St. Thomas admirably describes it. The created spirit lies on the far side of all determinate beings, and yet remains on the near side of that Being who transcends all determinacy. Thus, if it cannot directly grasp him, there is yet in it an instinct to grasp him, the “natural desire” of that real, though ineffective, vision which the grace of God could bring to perfection by communicating to it, through grace, a mysterious share in the divine Being.

Such is the admirable manner in which St. Thomas defines the status of reason in the sphere of the knowledge of God. By presenting at the same time in a rigorous fashion the value and the limitations of the rational knowledge of God, he reveals the paradox of the philosophical quest. For God is at the same time its object and its boundary, its supreme end and its question mark. The goal of philosophy is to prove his existence, but it can do this only by acknowledging its powerlessness.

In that it refuses to make this confession of its limitations, in that it yields to the Platonist temptation, the god at whom it arrives is not the true God. In fact, it is clear that, as Gregory of Nyssa says, “God being beyond all determinacy, he who thinks that God is something determinate deceives himself when he believes that what he knows is God”. [Life of Moses, Gregory of Nyssa] Thus the problem of God reveals the inward contradiction of philosophy; and it is here that at the same time he justifies it and defines its position.

But it is precisely this position, which constitutes the status of philosophy in the Christian scheme of things, that the majority of philosophers refuse to accept. Philosophy seems to them to lose its significance if it lacks a complete grasp of the intelligibility of being, if it is not supreme knowledge. They do not resign themselves to having to acknowledge a principle that is not perfectly intelligible to them. It is this perfect intelligibility that they call by the name of God; and it is this false god of the philosophers that we may justly oppose to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. But this deity is not the God of reason, but the idol of rationalism.

Let us be more precise. The requirement of philosophy is a requirement of intelligibility. Confronted by the apparent disorder of things, the philosophical mind seeks to establish order, to build up sequences, to demonstrate a chain of causes. Beyond concrete realities, it seeks to disclose the very structure of being itself. In this search for being, it desires to arrive at the first principle, that which is at once the cause, the pattern, the end of all that is. This principle is called God. The philosophical quest comes necessarily to the problem of God, which is in reality the only one that concerns it.

But here it meets temptation. For the principle that it calls God, it arrives at through its demand for intelligibility. He represents for philosophy a requirement. Philosophy proceeds to apply to God the principle that has led it to him; God is expected also to be intelligible, and the intelligibility that philosophy applies to him is the law of the human mind. Thus philosophy proceeds to define him with its accustomed categories, calling him the One, intellectual Love, absolute Mind, and so forth. Many great philosophers have reduced the totality of the real to a perfectly coherent system, of which God is the immanent law. Their mind is perfectly satisfied with thus having mastered the totality of being.

But it happens that, by a strange contradiction, it is precisely at the moment when they imagine in their audacity that they have reached God that they have in reality lost him. In fact, they thought they had reached him when the demand of their mind for intelligibility was completely satisfied. But for all that, they had made their mind the measure of God. Yet the very essence of God is precisely to be that which is measured by nothing and which measures all things.

On the level of God, the problem of intelligibility is reversed. He is the unintelligible for whom everything else is intelligible. But in reducing him to intelligibles, they deny his specific reality. He is not found within intelligibility, but he is that which constitutes it. So, as Pascal says, the most reasonable course is the disavowal of reason; and that is where the knowledge of God lies.

But this runs counter to the claims of reason. It refuses to leave open this wound in its side, this crack in its edifice. Erecting into an absolute the intelligibility that is proper to itself, it pulls everything down to that level. Reason cannot allow anything to escape it. It refuses to acknowledge that it is checkmated; yet it is just this checkmate that was the knowledge of God which threw wide the gates of mystery. It would have found God by acknowledging its powerlessness; it loses him by claiming to possess him. The One of Plotinus, the Brahman of Sankara, the Being of Spinoza, the absolute Mind of Hegel, are finally idols, not so much by being the object of reason as by being the sufficiency of reason.

The error of all rationalism is that of putting God on the same basis as other objects of reason, higher, no doubt, but not really other. To paraphrase Gabriel Marcel, God cannot be treated as a problem. He represents the boundary of reason. His dazzling light prevents the eye from seeing him. Consequently, all that we say of him is inadequate. He cannot be contained by any concept. But at the same time all that we say of him is true. “He is all that is and nothing that is”, says Pseudo-Dionysus.

The moderns will say knowledge of him is dialectical, that all statements about him imply their opposite. Already St. Thomas showed that all that is said of him must also be denied, that negative theology is the necessary complement of positive theology. This is that very doctrine of analogy which enables us to speak of God in words borrowed from creation, but on condition that we make it clear that they apply to him in a different way from that in which they apply to his creatures.

Moreover, we can see that what is true of God is also true of other “limit problems” that imply an apparent contradiction, and about which it is only possible to construct propositions that seem to be irreconcilable because the place where they are reconciled is beyond the reach of sight. So with liberty, which is a limit problem, and one that is irreducible to complete intelligibility, since we must at the same time say that man is free and that God is the cause of all and since nobody has ever shown or will ever show how these two statements are to be reconciled. So, too, with evil, which is imposed upon us as a tragic reality and seems irreconcilable with the goodness of God. The real problems of metaphysics are also those that bring metaphysics up against a boundary line.

But their function is precisely to do this. They prevent reason from getting shut in on itself; they are windows opening toward the mystery of being. That mystery cannot be fathomed by reason, but at least it can lead toward it, and this is indeed its function. It leads the spirit as far as its frontiers; it discerns the region of mystery. By clarifying all that is within its domain, reason prevents us from placing the mystery where it does not lie. It demystifies the natural realities that people are trying to make into mysteries. This is its critical, purifying function. But none the less it points toward the true mysteries. It would betray its mission if it refused to acknowledge them and denied the reality of all that the brightness of its gaze does not penetrate.

But these limit problems, the thresholds of reason, are not characterized only by the fact that they are placed somewhat beyond its reach and so cannot be neatly defined. Another feature that they possess is that they cannot be broached from the standpoint of straightforward discussion, but demand a total outlook, an existential conversion.

So it is with suffering — all attempts to provide an explanation are unbearable. We cannot hold a discussion with a man who is suffering. That is what Job’s comforters did, and it cannot be tolerated. Neither can suffering be analyzed and counterattacked. This is why Christ seems the only answer to it, because he gives no rational explanation, but unravels it existentially. So, too, with hell, which is a limit problem, at the same time necessary (for without it nothing would any longer be important or serious) and nevertheless intolerable — and again it can only be met by an existential attitude.

If limit problems compel us to conversion, that is because they involve the being of a person, they engage his existence. I have no right to treat anyone as a mere object of thought; moreover it is impossible to do so, for a person represents a nucleus irreducible by discursive analysis; he presents himself as existing in himself, as a distinct spiritual center. This irreducible nucleus can be reached only by love, which compels me to go out of myself. This is why an idealist philosophy that reduces everything to thought is a truncated philosophy. An integral philosophy could only be a spiritual realism, which would compel me to hold on by love to the person of the other, and make me reach in that other what is really real, that is, what I cannot make use of, what cannot be reduced to having and remains in the region of being.

This is really true of God. He is, above all, the one whom I cannot make use of. The error of false philosophies is precisely that of making God an object, of claiming to possess him through the intellect. But that which the intellect possesses could not be God. On the contrary, it must be said that the encounter with God drives the intellect to a fundamental conversion, to a decentralization from the self; and this conversion is the knowledge of God himself. For God can be broached only as an existent and as a personal existent. On his level, my act of intellect seems itself to be an existential act, the act of an existent; and thus far it depends on God. To know God is not, then, to hold him in my intellect, but on the contrary to rediscover myself as measured by him.

So we see at the same time how the knowledge of God is a work of reason and a challenge to reason. It is in this sense that “nothing is more reasonable than the disavowal of reason”. Reason is the necessary means of knowledge in that it prevents us from placing God where he is not and keeps us from idols, including that of the mind of man himself. Surveying the world of bodies and the world of spirits, it fails to find God there. Reason implores the angels to reveal his name, but they refuse to tell it. Then “she [reason] understands that the true knowledge of Him whom she seeks and her true vision consist in seeing that He is invisible and in knowing that He transcends all knowledge, separated from all things by His incomprehensibility as by darkness.” [Gregory of Nyssa, Life of Moses]

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