Gilson on the Possibility of a Christian Philosophy, part II

Written by on August 14th, 2013. Subject: Philosophy. Filed in Religion, about Etienne Gilson Christian Philosophy Fideism

|||Gilson, Etienne. The Spirit of Mediaeval Philosophy. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1991.|||

The Incredulity of Saint Thomas Faith, as faith, is self-sufficient, but it aspires to become an understanding of its own content; it does not depend on rational evidence, but, on the other hand, it engenders it. We learn from Anselm himself that the original title of his “Monologium” was “Meditations on the Reasonableness of Faith” and that the title of his “Proslogion” was none other than the famous formula: “A Faith seeking to Understand.” Nothing could express his thought more justly, for he does not seek to understand in order to believe, but to believe in order to understand; and he pushes it to such lengths that this very primacy of faith over reason is itself something which he believes before he understands, and believes in order to understand. p. 35.

This is the second of the reflections on “The Spirit of Mediaeval Philosophy” by Étienne Gilson, specifically on the possibility of a Christian philosophy. Previously we examined his answer to certain rationalists who argued that revelation as such has no place in the realm of rational human speculation. In this passage he deals with those who are sometimes called fideists, who believe revelation to be so far above human understanding that it must simply be accepted without any recourse to rational speculation. Some even go so far as to argue that any attempt on the part of reason to understand the contents of revelation does nothing except pervert the Word of God by trying to subject it to human ideas and precepts.

This is an opinion that has been with Christianity since the beginning. “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?”1. Tertullian once wrote, echoing the sentiments of certain Christians ever since. This attitude is not, strictly speaking, unwarranted. St. Paul warns the Colossians: “Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, following the tradition of men according to the rudiments of the world, and not in accordance with Christ.”2 This, however, is not a condemnation of philosophy in itself, but merely a condemnation insofar as it tends to set itself up as an alternative account to the teachings of the gospels. The proposition that the truths of revelation should be accountable to human reason, however,is categorically different from the proposition that these truths should be explored by human reason. The former is explicitly condemned by St. Paul, while the latter has been enjoined and employed throughout the history of Christianity, with the classic formulation by St. Augustine “credo ut intelligam” (“I believe so that I might understand”) being but one example.

Human beings will reason about things whenever they are capable of reason, and this applies as much to those who assent to revelation as it does to those who do not. Moreover, if one is to love God “with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind,”3. then this includes the primary activity of mind, namely, reasoning. As Gilson notes, Christianity does not depend on but rather engenders rational evidence, and the consideration of that newly-engendered rational evidence necessitated by the assent of faith is the task of Christian philosophy.

About Thomas Chaney

Thomas Chaney graduated from the College of St. Thomas More in 2007, and is currently pursuing a MA in Philosophy at the University of Dallas. He currently works as a Scholar’s Associate in Philosophy with the Walsingham Society School of Liberal Studies.

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  1. Tertullian Apologeticus pro Christianis, XIX-XX. 

  2. Col. 2:8 KJV. 

  3. Luke 10:27 KJV.