By Rev. Wojciech Giertych, O.P.
Theologian of the Papal Household
Thomas Aquinas College 40th Anniversary Gala
September 17, 2011
You foolish men!
1. “You foolish men! You foolish men!” These are the words that Jesus said to the disciples as they were on the way to Emmaus (Lk 24, 25). Incidentally, the same expression was used by St. Paul as he criticized the Galatians or rather the missionaries that followed him to Galatia and tried to distort the purity of the Galatians’ adherence to Christ in faith by imposing upon them Jewish traditions and an external Law: “You foolish Galatians!” (Ga 3, 1). Cleopas and the other disciple going to Emmaus sincerely testified that they had their own hopes and ideas about the Messiah and that was why they were so discouraged after the crucifixion. Jesus reacted directly telling them that this was foolishness, and during the long walk, Jesus gave them a lengthy exposition on theological hermeneutics. The basic key in the light of which the Scriptures and also human projects, ideas and plans are to be read is the eternal plan of the heavenly Father that has become manifest in the Paschal Mystery. “Was it not ordained that the Christ should suffer and so enter into his glory?” (Lk 24, 26). The human mind is to be open towards the divine mystery that has been disclosed in the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus, a mystery that can never be fully exhausted but can be known, and whoever does not permit the penetration of his mind by that mystery, is foolish!
2. The Council of Chalcedon in the year 451 clarified that in Jesus Christ there are two distinct natures, the human and the divine and that they are unmixed, α̉συγχύτως, [asynkhytos] within the one Person of Jesus Christ. Something similar has to be said about the thinking mind of the believer. Reason and faith are to be kept in the mind as distinct and unconfused.1 Unfortunately both the Gnostics of antiquity and our contemporary Gnostics muddle these two discourses. When this confusing mix happens, it is always faith that becomes distorted. Gnosticism is an attempt to change faith into a science. The revealed truths of faith are then subjected to hetero-interpretations in the light of axioms that come from without the Paschal Mystery. Whenever there is an attempt to scan the divine mystery according to this-worldly criteria, be they scientific, coming from linguistics, archaeology, history, comparative religion, astronomy, philosophy, psychology, political science or from ideologies such as political and personal projects, or ideas about pastoral relevance, then faith is subordinated to merely human ideas. When the truths of faith are basically said to be nothing other but the same as what other sciences are saying according to their methods, such a facile concordism destroys faith. All attempts to make to make faith work or credible according to a this-worldly relevance that then becomes supreme, in which the faith is adapted, refashioned according to our own ideas, all such attempts lead to confusion.
In the Gnostic approach the mind does not confess the truth and therefore is closed upon the divine mystery. The mind is locked in some form of reductionism and it cannot reach out to the fullness of truth, and Revelation is reduced to the level of just one more argument that may or may not at whim be taken into consideration. A true believer notices that something has gone wrong, that a shift has appeared and that even within the pretence of a religious discourse, the true light coming from the living God has been snuffed out.
In fact, in the life of faith we do not scan the revealed mysteries according to our own criteria, but we do exactly the reverse. We scan our own lives according to the supreme criterion that is the truth revealed supremely in the Paschal Mystery. We believe God, because God has spoken, and has enabled us to enter into a relationship with Him, on His terms, not ours. The revealing God is the prime object of our faith, and also the motive for our faith. Believing God, because of God, we allow God and His truth to penetrate our minds, and also our intellectual life, our culture, our decision-making, our morals and our affectivity.
3. In the New Testament we find several terms describing Jesus. He is called the rabbi, teacher, king, prophet, the way, the truth, the light, the gate and the shepherd. But there a two terms that are given special prominence. Jesus is the Son of the Eternal Father and He is the Word, the Logos of the eternal Father. Meditating on the significance of the Word, the Verbum, Aquinas discovered that in the psychology of cognition there comes a moment in the search for truth, when the mind moves from reflection, opinion, doubt or persuasion, to a moment when a concept, a mental word appears in the mind, and the knower can say that he knows.2 That appearance of that word, the Verbum means that the truth has been grasped. The mind receives the truth in its fundamental contours with conviction.
In the Word that was made flesh, in Jesus Christ, the divine concept for man became visible for us. In Jesus we find the initial divine project for us, disclosed. That divine project consists in our being planned to become children of the heavenly Father through our brother Jesus Christ. This initial divine plan precedes our coming into existence, our creation. It also precedes sin, both the sin of Adam and our own sin. St. Paul tells that “before the world was made… God chose us… determining that we should become his adopted sons, through Jesus Christ” (Ep 1, 4). And St. Peter tells us that Christ is the “lamb without spot or stain… who though known since before the world was made, has been revealed only in our time” (1 P 1, 19-20).
Unfortunately a current of thought appeared within Catholic theology that shifted the initial divine project of our adoption in Christ to after creation and after sin, viewing it as a post-lapsural divine response to our sin. This has led to the viewing of creation, of the cosmos and its nature as an autonomous reality, a “pure nature” that is to be studied by an autonomous mind, completely free from faith. In such a vision, divine creative omnipotence screened the Paternity of God. The cosmos began to be viewed as a self-justifying fact or as a fruit of an impersonal divine potency and not as a gift of the heavenly Father. Nature, including human nature was viewed as being free from grace, which was then treated as an extraordinary, optional and ultimately unnecessary gift. This has led, among others to a vision of morality, built uniquely on rational philosophical reflection, on the natural law, divorced from grace, from openness to the divine paternal love.
The Paternity of God can only be seen in faith through the Paschal Mystery of Christ. If we fail to see the hand of the Father in the Paschal Mystery we end up, like the disciples on the way to Emmaus, treating Jesus’ death as a mere penal or political event, and we remain focused on our own projects that leads to discouragement. When we attribute primacy to our own ideological or intellectual projects that we want to impose upon reality, we fall out of the filial relationship with God. The encounter with the living God, who has disclosed to us His Paternal, Personal face, made visible in Christ, the image of the invisible Father, becomes impossible, whenever in our minds our own word and not the Logos that was made flesh becomes supreme.
This shift has dangerous consequences. If our own word becomes more important than the disclosed divine Word, or if it becomes so intermingled and confused with the divine Word that finally it becomes the ultimate criterion, then we are witnessing to self and not to Christ. Then, in the celebration of the Eucharist, it is not the Paschal Mystery that is in the centre, but the celebrating priest or the celebrating community. And then in moral formation it is not the power of grace that enables a demanding ethos that is in the centre, but an adapted, refashioned ethos, reduced to the possibilities of weak and wounded human nature.
The revealed Word of God manifested in the Paschal Mystery has to remain in the centre of the human mind, it has to be received in faith and it has to be kept distinct and unconfused with purely natural thinking.
4. Faith as it inhabits the mind, does not cripple the mind. Faith is a gift of God that needs to be received, developed and expanded so that it will become the fundamental axis of life, of thinking and deciding. In the encounter with God faith that opens to grace has to be supreme. But faith does not deny the dignity of reason. It is not a brake imposed upon the reason by ecclesiastical authority. It is the extension of reason towards the salutary truth. And reason because it is reasonable, allows itself to be drawn, beyond its natural limits towards the revealed truth. The dogmas of the Church are a gain for the mind, and not an impediment, because they lead the mind to the life-giving truth. When faith is interpreted uniquely as a humble obedience of the mind, it is immediately concluded that the contents of faith is basically irrelevant. Many people think in this way, and so they do not treat their faith seriously. They declare their faith, out of obedience to the Church but that faith is only a thin veneer that does not penetrate their mind and influence their lives.
In faith, reason is dethroned, but its capacities are respected and even extended. Faith stimulates reason and invites it to go forward. As John Paul II taught in Fides et ratio reason is not to close itself in various forms of reductionism, demanding that reality be viewed only through some limited key, ideology or focus. Faith invites reason to the fullness of truth. In XVIII century Europe the ideas of liberty and reason were raised against the Catholic Church accusing the Church of furthering slavery and superstition. Today the Church is the only institution in the world defending liberty and defending the dignity of reason against the relativist and nihilist distrust of reason. Faith is telling reason: Have confidence in the natural power of reason, in its capacity to know fundamental truths on its own authority, truths about essence, being, nature, anthropology, the differences of the sexes, the principles of ethics, of psychology and pedagogy. Reason has a natural urge for truth and a capacity to arrive at it. That is why it also has a duty towards truth, once truth is known. And faith does not deny this capacity of reason.
Reason on the basis of its own dignity is therefore entitled to address all questions and to focus in all possible directions, including the most interesting direction, where however it finds a blind or rather a blinding spot. Reason as it engages in all scientific endeavors, it may also ask about God within the philosophy of God or as the English call this discipline, within natural theology. But in this cognition there is a limit, irrespective of the development of the cognitive methods in all other sciences. Reason itself cannot penetrate from within the inscrutable mystery of the living God. Since in God there are three Persons, God cannot be reduced to the rank of the answer to a riddle, or even to the rank of the all-explaining Absolute. A person is always a mystery that cannot be fully exhausted. And God hides in a mystery, which is to be accepted as such, and which can only be penetrated within faith, in which there is trust, and which leads to hope and charity. Therefore paradoxically hiding in the mystery, God reveals His personal face. The conclusions of a philosophical reflection about God are not the same as the encounter with the living God in faith. And that encounter in faith has to be kept pure. It is more important than philosophical knowledge, even knowledge about the Absolute and it is not to be distorted by considerations and principles coming from without faith.
All other scientific questions may be raised by reason. But reason, when it is open to the divine mystery in faith, it knows that in every reality that is studied, there is also a further dimension that relates that reality to the divine Paternity, and this dimension cannot be discovered by reason alone. Faith, therefore, as it enables the encounter with God, and includes a transmitted content accepted by reason on the authority of the self-revealing God, it supplies also a corrective and extending perspective to the thinking mind in all fields of human research. For this reason, theology that is thinking within faith is the queen of all the sciences.
5. Faith that is kept distinct and unconfused with reason allows the mind to look also into the truths of faith. The divine Logos is to be received by the mind of the believer, and then within theology, the mind can look into the intelligibility, but not the rationality of the mysteries of faith. The intellect as distinct from the reason is humble as it faces the truth The reason tries to prove that something is true, whereas the intellect merely stands fascinated by truth and views its interior coherence and beauty, its implications and ramifications. Aquinas in his speculative theology therefore never tried to rationally prove the truths of faith. He received them in faith, and then with his perspicacious intellect he viewed their interior logic, without ever, as Adam in the Garden of Eden or as the modern philosophers of suspicion, trying to check out to see whether God is true.
Aquinas was primarily a theologian, who with his penetrating mind viewed the mysteries of faith and then worked out a theological synthesis. In this he had a definite pastoral intent. He stressed the maternal role of theology as it furnishes the mind. Following St. Augustine, he said that sacred teaching is to generate, nourish, strengthen and defend the faith through which we are saved. Theology does not grant the life of faith, because it is a gift of God. A mother also does not give life. She transmits it, as she has received it from God. Theology then, like a mother, is to transmit the life of faith. Then it is to nourish that life of faith, so that it would not wither out of hunger. Next, it is to strengthen the thought structures of the mind as they accept the primacy of the truth disclosed by the divine Word. And finally theology is to defend the life of faith against opposite winds that may blast it out of the mind.
The study of theology in the school of Aquinas allows the student not only to believe, but also to know what is it, that is believed. The synthesis that Aquinas offers has the pastoral value of being clear and granting intellectual confidence within faith. But faith itself does not grow uniquely through knowledge, not even theological knowledge. It grows through the quality of prayer, of adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, through the practice of the theological virtues.
6. In the second half of the XX century many people in the Church reacted against Aquinas, looking for different approaches in theology. They were reacting against the excessive rationality of neo-scholasticism. Aquinas had been read as a philosopher not as a theologian. There was the idea that philosophical argumentation is sufficient, and that its conclusions are self evident and so they have to be convincing, and so logically, if somebody is not convinced by it, then this must be caused by ill-will! Moral obligation, moral law or even natural acquired virtues were in the centre of moral reflection, and not the living God. In presentations of moral theology it was the natural law and not the new law of grace that was the final reference. It is not surprising that such a reading of Aquinas generated resistances against his teaching. It must therefore be remembered that the point of departure of theology is not pure nature, the created reality that would be viewed by an intrigued mind. The point of departure is revealed truth, the divine Word disclosed in the Paschal Mystery leading to our divine adoption, and when that mystery is received in the humility of faith, then the confident and robust mind may look into it perceiving its life-giving richness.
7. The well educated Catholic mind needs to be formed in the Word, the Logos that has been received. But first of all the believer needs to be initiated into a life of faith. It is only then that the mind can ask questions, real questions, and it may search for answers within the great Catholic tradition that respects the mystery of faith. It is important that young adults will be offered a synthesis that respects the distinctiveness and primacy of faith and that strengthens the mind, inviting it to go forward in the journey towards truth.
But why am I saying all this. It seems that you have being doing this here for the last 40 years!
“I think about the entire world differently since I have come here. I have learned certain truths, whether in the natural sciences or philosophy, that I never would have imagined I could know.”
– Kathleen Murphy (’16)
“On behalf of the Church in Phoenix, I want to express my appreciation of the witness to Christ offered by the faculty, staff, and students of this exceptional institution, and to thank you for your love of learning and your desire to offer fitting worship to the Blessed Trinity.”
– Most Rev. Thomas J. Olmsted
Bishop of Phoenix