How is it possible to have a Christian philosophy? Does not the fact that the thought is Christian, and thus dependent on Christian revelation, vitiate its philosophical character?
This charge is typically leveled against philosophers who also hold Christian convictions in general, but especially against Thomists and others who philosophize in the traditions of certain medieval thinkers. It is a serious charge, and one that should be handled soberly and fairly by anyone claiming that his or her philosophy is truly rational knowledge and also truly Christian. What follows is a brief exploration the problem as it is dealt with by Etiene Gilson and others.
Faith and Philosophy
In the first chapter of The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy, Etienne Gilson addresses the question of whether a Christian philosophy is possible. The philosophical objection to Christian Philosophy is that it is a basically incoherent, i.e. contradictory, notion. Gilson describes two groups of philosophers who subscribe to this view, the rationalists and certain neo-scholastics. Both share the view that philosophy is in essence independent of religion, and that anything that has an intrinsic or necessary relationship to religion and faith is not philosophy. While the rationalists believe that religion can have no relation to philosophy, neo-scholastics believe that philosophy can be related extrinsically to faith, as facilitating religious belief, or as corrective of philosophical errors.
For Gilson, however, the notion of Christian philosophy requires that there be an intrinsic relationship between Christian revelation and the philosophical knowledge which results. It is when the Christian philosophizes upon what he holds by faith that he becomes a Christian philosopher.
This effort of truth believed to transform itself into truth known, is truly the life of Christian wisdom, and the body of rational truths resulting from the effort is Christian philosophy itself. Thus the content of Christian philosophy is that body of rational truths discovered, explored or simply safeguarded, thanks to the help reason receives from revelation.p. 35.
It is the nature of this help that concerns us, and whether the revelation enters into the philosophic process. For Gilson, faith is an inherent component in Christian philosophy.
Unless the expression be emptied of all positive content it must be frankly admitted that nothing less than an intrinsic relation between revelation and reason will suffice to give it meaning.Ibid.
The Christian philosopher asks “whether among those propositions which by faith he believes to be true, there are not a certain number which reason may know to be true” (P. 36) The discovery of what reason can know in and among what faith believes is the birth of philosophy. When the Christian finds among the truths of his faith
…some that are capable of becoming objects of science then he becomes a philosopher, and if it is to the Christian faith that he owes this new philosophic insight, he becomes a Christian philosopher.Ibid.
The insight provided by faith, then, seems to consist in making available for rational discovery what is susceptible to philosophical investigation in the content of the faith. Faith, as it were, sets the table at which Christian philosophy finds delightful fare, but the utensils Christian philosophy uses are completely rational and natural.
Moment of Discovery and Moment of Truth
The question then arises whether the relation between faith and philosophy which Gilson describes is truly intrinsic as Gilson claims it must be. John Wippel makes use of a distinction between two moments in the philosophic endeavor to illumine the role that faith may play in making a philosophy Christian. The moment of discovery occurs when the philosopher is presented, or presents to him- or herself some aspect of reality to investigate. The moment of proof comes when one has reached a demonstrative conclusion as the result of syllogistic reason. The moment of proof is strictly philosophic both in its form and content, for what it knows is open to reason, and how it knows it is by rational principles. The moment of discovery, however, is philosophic in content, albeit not systematized or tested; i.e., it is not philosophic in form.
As Wippel uses the distinction, the influence of faith upon philosophy is intrinsic in its moment of discovery and extrinsic in its moment of proof. Medieval philosophy, then, could have been influenced by faith and revelation in its moment of discovery. Wippel readily grants “that a typical Christian medieval thinker was influenced in his original acceptance of a given point by his prior religious belief in the same, or in what might be called the ‘moment of discovery.'”(John Wippel, “Thomas Aquinas and the Problem of Christian Philosophy,” p. 23) He wishes therefore to restrict the name of Christian philosophy to this philosophic moment.
In its moment of proof, however, it proceeds from principles known to reason alone. Such a medieval thinker could never, of course admit a revealed premise into his attempted philosophic demonstration of a given conclusion without thereby passing from philosophy to theology. One should not, therefore, refer to philosophy as Christian in its “moment of proof” (pp. 23-4). Wippel thus does not consider philosophy in the moment of proof as susceptible to the appellation Christian. The relationship of faith to philosophy in this moment of the philosophical enterprise is an extrinsic one.
However, one can inquire into the epsitemological status of faith in this moment of discovery. For the believer, the articles of faith are true statements. But if the believer is a philosopher, one may wonder whether in the moment of discovery and as part of a philosophic enterprise, an article of faith is taken as a true statement. If it is, then faith as faith makes an intrinsic contribution to the philosophic process. Wippel does not explore the relation between the moment of discovery and the faith that gives rise to it.
Knowledge and Belief in the Moment of Discovery
It is generally agreed that the method of seeking a moment of discovery is dialectic. According to Aristotle, dialectic is employed by all the sciences because, as a method, it does not depend on any one area of inquiry, i.e. any subject genus (Posterior Analytics, 1.11, 77a32-35). In every science in which it is used, it discovers the principles or bases of that scientific inquiry, by asking questions with regard to received opinions(Topics, 1.2, 101a36-b4).
Reasoning is dialectical which reasons from generally accepted opinions. … Generally accepted opinion … are those which commend themselves to all or the majority or to the wise — that is to all of the wise or to the majority or to the most famous and distinguished among them.Top 1.1, 100a30-100b23.
Thus, in order to gain the perspective on reality that characterizes the science in question, one dialectically examines the generally accepted opinions about it.
In employing dialectic, one examines opinion in order to test their validity. Thus, the science which uses dialectic does not consider the opinions examined as true until the examination is completed (Nicomachean Ethics, VII.1 1145b2-7). Thus, according to Aristotle as dialectic is opposed to demonstration, so “generally accepted opinions” are opposed to the “primary principles” of demonstration (Top. I.1 101a26-30). Both principles and demonstration are constitutive of knowledge, and knowledge is certain: “if any fact is the object of unqualified knowledge, that fact cannot be otherwise than it is” (APo I.2, 71b15). “By demonstration I mean a syllogism which produces scientific knowledge, in other words, one which enable us to know by the mere fact that we grasp it” (APo I.2 71b18-19). Opinions, as such and by contrast with demonstration, are not certain, and so are not called knowledge.
Applying Aristotle’s understanding of dialectic to the question of Christian philosophy, one may wonder how faith would actually influence Thomistic metaphysics? Dialectic is used to determine the principles and subject matter of a science. Since the subject matter of metaphysics is ens commune or ens inquantum ens, dialectic would be used to determine it. Faith might influence the line of inquiry in the following way. In the dialectical beginnings of metaphysics one asks: “What is being as being? Is it the same thing for something to be and to be material? Is there anything that is but is not material?” In considering the received opinions one would note: “The Christians say that there are things that are not material, e.g. angels and God.” This position would then be tested to determine its truth or falsity, as well as the implications which follow from it. This could open the nascent metaphysician to the Thomistic starting point that to be is not the same as to be material.
What is relevant to our point, is that faith is considered as an opinion, not as an assertion of truth. When in this dialectical process, the nascent metaphysician considers the Christian position, it is tested for truth as are all generally accepted opinion. As opinion, however, the Christian position is not considered as true, but as a sort of working hypothesis. Without the truth claim, it seems that article of faith is not a matter of belief. But, if Thomistic metaphysics is to be well-grounded, and established as a bona fide science, some positively immaterial subsistent (God or an immaterial soul) does need to be proven. Thus, it seems that while one is engaging in a natural proof for God’s existence, for instance, one is not considering the conclusion to be either true or false. But, if in the moment of proof, what was believed to be true in the moment of discovery is no longer being considered as true (e.g. God’s existence), that does not mean that it is now considered false. Rather, until the moment of proof arrives at a demonstrated conclusion, on the basis of natural reason, it is not considered true (judgment is suspended); but on the basis of divine revelation, the proposition is still considered true. For a discussion of this issue with respect to the existence of God, see the article on Natural Theology.