GILSON ON THE RATIONALITY OF CHRISTIAN BELIEF
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The underlying skepticism of ancient Greek culture made it unreceptive of philosophy. It was the Catholic Church that embraced philosophy. Still, Étienne Gilson reminds us in Reason and Revelation in the Middle Ages that some early Christians rejected philosophy. Their rejection was based on fideism: the view that faith alone provides knowledge. Philosophy is unnecessary and dangerous, fideists argue, because (1) anything known by reason can be better known by faith, and (2) reason, on account of the sin of pride, seeks to replace faith. To support this twofold claim, fideists, like Tertullian and Tatian, quote St. Paul. However, a judicious interpretation of St. Paul’s remarks show that he does not object to philosophy per se but to erroneous philosophy. This interpretation is reinforced by St. Paul’s own background in philosophy and by his willingness to engage intellectuals critical of Christianity in the public square. The challenge of fideism brings up the interesting question: what would Jesus himself say about the discipline of philosophy? Could it be that Jesus himself was a philosopher (as George Bush once declared)? As the fullness of wisdom and intelligence, Jesus certainly understood philosophy, although not in the conventional sense. But surely, interpreting his life through the lens of fideism is unconvincing. Instead, an appreciation of his innate philosophical skills serves better to understand important elements of his mission. His perfect grasp of how grace perfects nature includes a philosophy of the human person. This philosophy grounded in common-sense analysis of human experience enables Jesus to be a profound moral philosopher. Specifically, he is able to explain the principles of personal actualization. Relying on ordinary experience, where good philosophy must start, he narrates moral lessons—parables—that illumine difficulties regarding moral responsibility and virtue. These parables are accessible but profound, showing how moral understanding must transcend Pharisaical legalism. Additionally, Jesus’ native philosophical power shows in his ability to explain away doctrinal confusions and to expose sophistical traps set by his enemies. If fideism is unconvincing, and if the great examples of the Patristics, the Apostles, and Jesus himself show an affinity for philosophy, then it is necessary to conclude that Christianity is a rational religion. Accordingly, the history of Christian culture is arguably an adventure in faith and reason. Since God is truth and the author of all truths, there is nothing in reality that is incompatible with Christian teaching. As John Paul II explains effectively in the encyclical, Fides et Ratio, Christianity is a religion that is rational and can defend itself. This ability to marshal a defense makes Christianity a religion for all seasons.
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