Fides et ratio and Philosophy of Being

Richard S. Aladics MA STL.

In a world subdivided into so many specialised fields, it is not hard to see how difficult it can be to acknowledge the full and ultimate meaning of life which has traditionally been the goal of philosophy. (FR, 56)

Today, as in the past, humanity is faced with situations, which call for a response in which the search for understanding and meaning holds a primary place. The modern world is characterised by human achievements, scientific and technological, and especially those of communications technology. On the other hand, the Church is today characterised by the new evangelisation: the making known to humanity of its highest goal. This highest goal is life in Jesus Christ, for '
what is revealed in him is "the full truth" (cf. Jn 1: 14-16) of everything which was created in him and through him and which therefore in him finds its fulfillment' (cf. Col 1:17). (FR, 34)

Part of humanity's true quest today is precisely to engage faith and reason so that, on the one hand, faith may express itself coherently and appropriately to modern man, and on the other hand, so that reason may be able to concern itself not just with man's creative and cultural enterprises, but also direct itself to the heart of man's quest: the question of the meaning of his life, the question of his 'being'.

The Encyclical Letter Fides et Reason of Pope John Paul II, promulgated in 1998 refers the Church, in the new evangelisation, to this quest in order that the nature and role of faith and reason, and the relationship which exists between them, may be clearly recognised by all. A part of this quest concerns the importance of Philosophy of Being for both faith and reason. Reason becomes incongruent to itself without a Philosophy of Being; theology also has always manifested a similar need. A Philosophy of Being is of its nature an essential element of all philosophy because it is concerned with fundamental truths. Traditionally, Philosophy of Being has been concerned with 'ontological, causal and communicative structures. It is strong and enduring because it is based upon the very act of being itself, which allows a full and comprehensive openness to reality as a whole.'(FR, 97)

In this essay I wish to show how the Holy Father treats of this matter in his Encyclical Letter, and of how he proposes the good of both the faith and reason of contemporary men and women, in their urgent and evangelical task of seeking ways to express, in the modem world, the fundamental truth about man.

The question of Being is a basic human exigency: man is an intelligent being and seeks knowledge about himself and his world. The more human beings know reality and the world. 'the more they know themselves in their uniqueness, with the question of the meaning of things and of their very existence becoming ever more pressing' (FR, 1). The Church in fact, is in possession of the ultimate truth of Being 'through the Paschal Mystery' (FR, 2), and has the mission to manifest and express that truth, to make it known. Nevertheless, whilst the Church is the guardian of truth, truth itself can remain hidden unless it is given access to man through practical expression. Truth needs an agent. Man's rational nature proposes reason as the first and primary agent of truth. Thus, the Church 'sees in philosophy the way to come to know fundamental truths about human life' (FR, 5)

Philosophy however, cannot necessarily be relied upon to transmit fundamental truths. Indeed, 'the search for ultimate truth seems often to be neglected' (FR, 5) as is witnessed to in the history of philosophy. Essentially, the reason for this rests with human weakness or sin. Man often finds himself seeking to take possession of the created order, including knowledge itself, forgetting that his capacity for knowing includes knowing 'a truth which transcends' (ibid.) Modern philosophy in this regard, is especially culpable for 'abandoning the investigation into Being' (ibid.). However 'the coming of Christ was the saving event which redeemed reason from its weakness, setting it free from the shackles in which it had imprisoned itself' (FR, 22).

Another factor, which is important for a Philosophy of Being, is precisely that of language or means of expression. Traditionally, metaphysics has been presented in a dry, colourless, even boring manner; this factor is also perhaps responsible for the lack of attention to what is, after all, a fundamental dimension of philosophy. A Philosophy of Being today, needs a '
graphic' means of expression in order to help man respond to the questions he raises about his life. The Holy Father, aware that this is the case, speaks of the need for 'culteral expression' (FR, 6) in metaphysical investigation and dialogue. Truth needs to be adapted, made accessible, to the modem mind.

The expression of, and transmission of truth needs philosophy, and whilst the vagaries of human nature can cloud that truth, faith comes to truth's rescue. 'The knowledge which the Church offers to man has its origin not in any speculation of her own, however sublime, but in the word of God which she has received in faith'. (FR, 7). This knowledge, which is acquired by faith 'perfects all that the human mind can know of the meaning of life'. (ibid.). Human knowing, then, can by guided not only by reason, but also by faith: reason is guaranteed by faith. Faith renews man's potential for responding to his fundamental questions in life. Indeed, without that knowledge which faith welcomes, those fundamental questions about life become nothing more than a frustrating irritation which man cannot resolve. Without the light of Revelation 'the mystery of personal existence remains an insoluble riddle'. (FR, 12)

Christian Revelation then, is the 'ultimate possibility offered by God for the human being to know in all its fullness the seminal plan of love which began with creation' (FR, 15). Revelation guides philosophy in its search for truth even to the very root of truth. In opening up the way to knowledge of the truth and therefore to knowledge of being, both theology and philosophy share the same purpose and complement one another by their methods. (cf. ER, 15.3)

An essential characteristic of that knowledge which comes from Revelation is that it fixes man's 'gaze upon the things that truly matter' (FR, 18), in other words, Revelation leads the mind towards truth and the understanding of being: it is God who leads man to discover the meaning of his life. Indeed, the Sacred Scriptures themselves assent to man's genuine capacity to reason; that faith needs reason. (FR, 20) This relationship between faith and reason can perhaps, be better grasped when we take into account that biblical man saw himself as 'being in relation' (FR, 21) to the word of God. In Revelation, man had a fundamental point of reference upon which to base his life. 'It was this which allowed his reason to enter the realm of the infinite where an understanding for which until then he had not dared to hope became a possibility' (FR, 21). In the New Testament, St Paul confirms reason's capacity not just for empirical and epistemological enquiry, but also 'for metaphysical enquiry' (FR, 22).

Looking again at philosophy's enquiry into reality itself we can see that such an enquiry is natural to reason; 'It is the nature of the human being to seek the truth' (FR, 33). However, it is faith that carries man the enquirer to the heart of truth. The dynamic nature of man's life and the dynamic nature of philosophical enquiry are matched by faith's content. Thus for instance, in the work of the Fathers, we see that 'because they were intense in living faith's content they were able to reach the deepest forms of speculation' (FR, 41).

The drama of the separation of faith and reason of which the Holy Father speaks (cf. FR, 45) also leads us to recognise the importance of a Philosophy of Being. This historical separation of faith and reason caused two fundamental trends: an exaggerated rationalism, which cast aside the quest to understand being, and a mistrust of reason, which denied the quest for Being. These trends had the consequence of focusing man's attention upon concerns which were secondary to, or even extraneous to the human person: 'technological progress','market-based logic' and the quest for 'power over nature' (FR, 46), have taken the place of a more human and moral vision of man himself. Thus, much of contemporary philosophical enquiry 'has largely abandoned metaphysical study of the ultimate human questions in order to concentrate upon problems which are more detailed and more restricted, at times even purely formal' (FR, 61). All contemporary trends in philosophy then, do not necessarily favour man as they should do, for philosophy to be authentic it should 'lead people to discover both their capacity for truth and their yearning for the ultimate and definitive meaning of life'. (cf. FR, 102).

The advance in understanding human history and the development of the empirical sciences cannot take the place of a Philosophy of Being (cf. FR, 69.1). This is confirmed in human experience; even human cultures express that which is in man, showing his 'openness to the universal and transcendent' (FR, 70). Philosophy then, is always called 'to go beyond the particular and concrete' (FR, 69), in order precisely to seek understanding of Being itself.

Philosophy, when it is guided by faith, should be noted for its attitude of integrity before truth. This means subjectively, that it is not a presumptive philosophy; objectively, it means that it will make the quest for truth its enterprise (cf. FR, 76.2). Conversely, theology, when it is guided by philosophy, can present in a coherent and accessible way the 'universal truth of its claims' (FR, 77). The fundamental fact at stake is that reason is set in relation to Being, if this were not the case knowledge and truth would form no part of man's life. All truth comes from Being. Thus, both theology and philosophy are primarily witnesses to Being. An authentic philosophy, and moreover a philosophy which is consonant with the word of God is ultimately, a Philosophy of Being (cf. FR, 79).

As we have seen 'a philosophy which no longer asks the question of the meaning of life would be in a grave danger of reducing reason to merely accessory functions, with no real passion for the search for the truth' (FR, 81). In respect of this, the Holy Father describes some necessary characteristics of genuine philosophy. First of all, that philosophy should be recognised for its 'sapiential dimension as a search for the ultimate and overarching meaning of life' (FR, 81.3). With this attitude philosophy finds its most natural foundation. Secondly, philosophy should be characterised by an epistemology, which is able to 'verify' the human capacity to know the truth (FR, 82). In other words, human reason can know objective truth. This said, it is clear that philosophy cannot truly carry out its task unless it possesses a 'genuinely metaphysical range'. Thus, since 'reality and truth do transcend the factual and the empirical, [metaphysics does] vindicate the human being's capacity to know this transcendent and metaphysical dimension in a way that is true and certain, albeit imperfect and analogical.'(FR, 83)

The Holy Father, here, refers philosophers specifically to the human person as the point of reference for metaphysical discussion, since 'the person constitutes a privileged locus for the encounter with being' (FR, 83), and at the same time presents au appropriate way for expressing metaphysical methods and truths.

So, in seeking to acknowledge the 'full and ultimate meaning of life' the Holy Father identifies the need for renewing Philosophy of Being, a dimension of Philosophy which acknowledges the natural basis of reason and supports theology's undeniable quest to give expression to Faith, which 'choosing to enter the truth' understands man's 'freedom in its fullness and [his] call to know and love God as the supreme realization of [his] true self' (FR, 107). Faith itself calls for a Philosophy of Being, for Faith has found the origin of all being and sets nothing aside which can help its understanding.

Fr Richard S. Aladics,

Harrogate, 12.6.01.

Section Contents Copyright © Mark Alder and Fr Richard S. Aladics 2000

This version: 16th June 2001.

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