Why Philosophy is Crucial to Understanding Theology
Philosophy influences people and culture and shines light on the science of theology
A basic understanding of philosophy is needed in order to really understand theology.
This may sound like a terrifying prospect, especially if you have ever had to take a class in philosophy that seemed like “navel gazing,” being all too abstract, but it is essential.
Philosophy is the handmaid to theology. It provides theology with the concepts, the “skeleton,” if you will, upon which we can hang our understanding of Divine Revelation. Philosophy helps us understand God, the human person, the world and our relationships with them.
Philosophy influences people and culture. For example, people may not be able to express a specific a philosophy of relativism, but, as is apparent in so many conversations with people today (just go to any blog!), many are relativistic in their attitudes and practice.
Although the Church does not have an “official philosophy,” the perennial philosophy that comes from the thought of the great Doctor of the Church, Saint Thomas Aquinas, offers us the clearest and most realistic philosophy from which we can learn to “do” theology. Countless popes, from Leo XIII to Francis, have recommended that Saint Thomas’ thought be the wisdom that should guide our philosophical journey. Pope Leo XIII noted that Thomas’ theology was a definitive exposition of Catholic doctrine, and directed clergy to take Thomas’ thought as the basis of their theological positions.
I must admit that my own philosophical education was sorely lacking in many areas. I had studied philosophy in the early 1990s. I came away knowing modern and contemporary philosophy very well, but knowing almost nothing about ancient and medieval philosophy. This has been a major lacuna in my own studies and I am still, many years later, trying to make up for it.
I had the opportunity for several years to teach classes in fundamental, dogmatic, liturgical and spiritual theology to candidates for the permanent diaconate. I am very grateful that I was afforded this opportunity because it helped me learn to be a professor of theology and also to communicate some key doctrinal ideas in a manner that was engaging, thorough and pastoral. There is a big difference between teaching theology to high-school students and teaching theology to adult men who wish to be ordained for service in the Church. There is a massive distinction between pedagogy (teaching young people) and andragogy (teaching adults), a distinction that I had to learn pretty quickly as a professor for these diaconal candidates.
One of the things that I quickly came to recognize is that many of these diaconal candidates had little to no background in philosophy. When teaching dogmatic theology, attempting to make distinctions about person and nature in the Most Blessed Trinity, without a solid philosophical background life is much more difficult than it need be.
Philosophy gives us categories, definitions and distinctions and offers us a real framework on which to base our theology. It does not tell us necessarily what to think, but it teaches us how to think. And when we study the history of philosophy, we can see the great interchange that exists between faith and culture. One needs only to look to the formulation of the Nicene Creed to see how much we use philosophical terms to express our theological faith.
Well, we have to nuance the question a bit, making the distinction between someone who is studying theology formally and someone who just wants to learn more about his faith. In either case, philosophy will certainly help, but academically, the Church has made suggestions as to what classes one should have in philosophy before one begins a serious, academic study of theology.
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, in their Sixth Edition of the Program of Priestly Formation (2008, which is, in turn, based on Pope Saint John Paul II’s masterful post-synodal exhortation Pastores Dabo Vobis (1992), suggests the following plan of study:
1. The history of philosophy. When we learn what the great thinkers of the past and the present, those with whom we agree and those with whom we must, as people of faith, disagree, have taught, we learn about what humanity is thinking. From the ancients, like Plato and Aristotle, we can learn some of the thought that influenced the Evangelist Saint John and the Father of the Church, Saint Augustine — as well as, in the case of Aristotle, the thinker whom Saint Thomas Aquinas “baptized” by adapting his ancient, pre-Christian wisdom to the formation of a true Christian philosophy.
When we study the thought of the medieval philosophers, not only Saint Thomas, but John Duns Scotus and William of Ockham, as well as so many others, we can see the roots of our contemporary world’s notion of self and reality. This is especially true when we read and study the history of modern philosophy, with thinkers like René Descartes, whose “turn to the subject” forever changed the way in which most Western people view reality, whether they are aware of it or not! When we study contemporary philosophy, learning about existentialism, personalism, and many other “-isms,” we can see the far-reaching impact on how this has affected the expression of our faith.
2. Logic. One may ask why the study of logic, something more commonly associated with Star Trek’s Mr. Spock and his fellow Vulcans, help us in our understanding of the faith of the Church. When I am asked this question, I usually raise my eyebrow like Leonard Nimoy and mention that there is no real separation between faith and reason, although they are certainly distinct and that learning how to reason and how to make a coherent argument can only aid in understanding and transmitting the faith credibly.
3. Epistemology. This is the study of how we know, an examination of human knowledge. It is vital to understand this topic before studying any form of theology, especially moral or dogmatic theology.
4. Metaphysics. A solid grounding in metaphysics is essential for the creation of a Catholic theological method. Metaphysics, as a branch of philosophy, is concerned with essence and existence.
5. Ethics. “Do good, avoid evil” was a basic axiom of Saint Thomas Aquinas and the study of ethics teaches us precisely to do this.
6. Natural Theology. This is an essential preparation for the study of theology, because it examines the nature of God, his existence, and his attributes.
7. Philosophical Anthropology. At its essence, this is the study of what it means to be a human being. If we can begin to understand the mystery that is humankind, this, in turn, can lead us to a study of what it means to be a human being in light of Christ, a field of dogmatic theology, a study entitled theological anthropology.
8. Political Philosophy. This field is one that the Vatican’s Congregation for Catholic Education is now insisting that students beginning their study of theology have already completed. The essential reason is that the Christian, although not of the world, must be in the world and become an active participant in the life of the polis, the city, bringing his Christian faith to enlighten every situation.
Yes, philosophy is the handmaid of theology! Philosophy, as stated above, teaches us not what to think, but how to think. And in our world, where everyone on the internet has a voice (including me), we need solid philosophy more than ever!