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Faith & Reason: Richard J. Bernstein

I am writing this response to John Paul II's encyclical letter Fides et Ratio as a philosopher who does not believe that "the truth of Christian Revelation, found in Jesus of Nazareth" is "the absolute truth." Nevertheless, I find a great deal that is praiseworthy in this document, as well as many claims that are also extremely troubling. I do not want to criticize the letter from an "external" point of view but rather from an internal perspective, because I believe that even the most sympathetic reader ought to pay attention to the internal tensions and conflicts that it reveals. Let us keep in mind, in the spirit of generosity in which it is offered, that an encyclical letter is not a philosophical or theological treatise. The letter doesn't offer detailed arguments for the claims that it makes. It is rather a statement directed to "the bishops of the Catholic Church" that is intended to serve as guidance in understanding the relationship of faith and reason.

The very opening announces the major theme: "Faith and Reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth." The letter is a defense of the importance of reason and philosophy for any true believer. In this respect it articulates what many would consider the best in the Christian tradition—that there is no incompatibility between reason and faith, but rather an ultimate harmony. Faith is not op posed to reason; rather, it requires the full development of reason. And reason itself requires faith in order to strengthen, guide, and supplement its inherent limitations. The Christian has a supreme obligation to cultivate the full development of reason and to encourage the pursuit of philosophy. Reason that is not in formed by the true faith is itself deficient. The en cyclical sets forth a subtle relationship between faith and reason. Each is autonomous, yet they implicate each other, and in the final analysis they are harmonious. Although there are many paths to truth, there is an ultimate unity of truth. Philosophy cannot hope to attain the knowledge of faith that is given by revelation, but faith demands philosophy in order to understand itself. Consequently, true Christian theology and true philosophy are also compatible.

What is striking about this letter is its ecumenical and cosmopolitan spirit. It clearly recognizes that there are sources of wisdom that go far beyond the Catholic church. Christians and non-Christians, East and West, pagans and believers have all contributed to the journey for true knowledge—and their contributions must be acknowledged. The introduction to the letter does not begin with a citation from the Bible but rather from the pagan Delphic oracle: "Know Yourself." Even when the letter turns to a criticism of some of the "postmodern" tendencies in philosophy, it concedes that "the currents of thought which claim to be postmodern merit appropriate attention." Some of the sharpest criticisms are directed against fideism, which "fails to recognize the importance of rational knowledge and philosophical discourse for the understanding of faith, indeed for the very possibility of belief in God," and biblicalism, which "tends to make the reading and exegesis of Sacred Scripture the sole criterion of truth." Furthermore, "the study of philosophy is fundamental and in dispensable to the structure of theological studies." In short, a faith that fails to take philosophy and reason with full seriousness is not a true faith. This is a conviction that certainly can be shared by many religious believers, including Protestants, Jews, and Muslims.

The encyclical letter places the greatest emphasis on philosophical inquiry rather than on philosophical systems. The very language of the letter stresses the "search," "journey," "path," and "struggle" to attain the truth. There are many paths to truth, and many types of truth—including empirical, scientific, philosophical, metaphysical, and religious truth. When properly pursued, these different paths and types of truth are all compatible. The letter contains a strong defense of the need for philosophy to pursue metaphysics—"the need for a philosophy of genuinely metaphysical range, capable, that is, of transcending empirical data in order to attain something absolute, ultimate and foundational in its search for truth." At several points, John Paul II insists upon the autonomy of reason and of the need of philosophy to follow its own rules and methods without external interference.

This strong defense in support of the life of reason and philosophy is especially significant at the end of the twentieth century. Reason has been under attack from a variety of sources. There has been a prevailing suspicion that the appeal to reason functions as a deceptive mask for ruthless power; that all appeals to universality are disguises for violently suppressing cultural, ethnic, and religious differences; that reason is to be identified exclusively with technocratic reason. Philosophy as an academic discipline has been marginalized. It is no longer viewed as the queen of the sciences, or even as a discipline that can provide theoretical insight into reality or guide practical judgment. (We should not forget that the pope was trained as a philosopher.)

Not only is the letter critical of those fideistic tendencies that tend to undermine the role of philosophy and reason, it is just as critical of those contemporary philosophic tendencies that speak of the "end of metaphysics" and "the end of philosophy." As the letter states, "Rather than make use of the human capacity to know the truth, modern philosophy has preferred to concentrate on the ways in which this capacity is limited and conditioned." This has given rise to "different forms of agnosticism and relativism which have led philosophical research to lose its way in the shifting sands of widespread skepticism."

In this respect, the encyclical is not only a statement about the relationship between faith and reason (and between philosophy and theology), it is also a direct intervention into the very condition of philosophy today. It admonishes philosophy to regain its true path to the knowledge of truth. Anyone who believes (as I do) that there is a proper philosophic place for the concepts of knowledge, truth, objectivity, reality, and universality—even in light of the current critiques of these concepts—will welcome the spirit in which the pope's letter defends reason and the tasks of philosophy. And anyone who believes that there need not be an incompatibility between religious faith and the rigorous open pursuit of philosophy (as I do) will also welcome the spirit of the letter.

But if there is so much that is praiseworthy in this document, then what precisely is so troubling? The more closely we study the letter, the more it reveals deep inner tensions and conflicts. It speaks the language of "openness," "search," "discovery" and "journey." But at the same time, it is quite explicit and firm—even dogmatic (in the pejorative sense)—about what will and must be the end of this journey, about what "genuine" philosophic inquiry will and must discover. It gives with one hand what it takes away with the other. It certainly makes sense that the pope would be critical of those philosophic tendencies that seek to denigrate or undermine Christian faith, and furthermore, that he should indicate how philosophic inquiry might proceed in order best to support a Christian faith. But the document goes far beyond this. Although it disclaims supporting any single philosophic system or path, it makes some very substantial claims about reason, truth, and philosophy that are, at the very least, rationally contestable. It reads like a document that encourages genuine search, inquiry, and openness—as long as one ends up in "right place." The Church already knows what this journey will discover. Let me illustrate what I mean.

The letter states—without any qualification—that although times change, it is possible "to discern a core of philosophical insight within the history of thought as a whole." This core includes the principles of "finality and causality, as well as the concept of the person as a free and intelligent subject, with the capacity to know God, truth and goodness"; there are also, the pope writes, "certain fundamental moral norms which are shared by all." The encyclical refers to these "truths" as an "implicit philosophy," shared in some measure by all, which can therefore "serve as a kind of reference-point for the different philosophical schools." Now if these claims are intended to be a statement of truths that are supposedly shared by all, then they are simply false. Philosophers (as well as others) have argued—and continue to argue—about the very meaning of finality, causality, and whether there are fundamental moral norms shared by all. If one is going to be true to the spirit of the autonomy of philosophy, then one must recognize that these alleged truths are still rationally debated by philosophers. It is disingenuous to speak about the openness of the philosophic search and yet claim that there is more substantial agreement than really exists.

Or consider another even more controversial claim. We are told that

people seek an absolute which might give to all their searching a meaning or an answer—something ultimate, which might serve as the ground of all things. In other words, they seek a final explanation, a supreme value, which refers to nothing beyond itself and which puts an end to all questioning. Hypotheses may fascinate, but they do not satisfy. Whether we admit it or not, there comes for everyone the moment when personal existence must be anchored to a truth recognized as final, a truth which confers a certitude no longer open to doubt.

If we analyze this passage carefully, the first point to note is the slide that takes place here. Suppose for the moment that one grants that people seek an absolute and that they are not satisfied with hypotheses: it certainly doesn't follow from this seeking that there exists "a truth recognized as final, a truth which contains a certitude no longer open to doubt." But even more important, a variety of philosophers have questioned the very idea of such an absolute and final truth. I am not referring to doctrines that celebrate extreme skepticism or "anything goes" relativism. I would argue that many of the best philosophies developed in the last one hundred years have attempted to move us beyond the blatant dichotomies: relativism or absolutism; subjectivism or objectivism. They have been essentially fallibilistic in spirit. Fallibilism is not relativism or skepticism; and it certainly is not (nor does to lead to) nihilism. It is rather the conviction that knowledge claims are always open to further rational criticism and revision. Fallibilism does not challenge the claim that we can know the truth, but rather the belief that we can know that we have attained the final truth with absolute certainty. Fallibilism can even be translated into religious terms as the principle that acknowledges our finitude and humility in the search for truth. This principle is by no means in compatible with a proper understanding of faith, although it would clearly reject the idea of a faith "which concerns a certitude no longer open to doubt."

In this regard, I cannot help noting the letter's unfortunate and misleading characterization of pragmatism, described as "an attitude of mind which in making its choices, precludes theoretical considerations or judgments based on ethical principles." No serious student of the pragmatism of Charles S. Peirce, William James, or John Dewey could ever make such an irresponsible statement! For this is a caricature of pragmatism. Peirce, the founder of pragmatism, is one of the strongest modern de fenders of the idea of an objective reality that can be known by critical inquiry. He was also a committed fallibilist. He, as well as the other classical pragmatists, certainly did not preclude "theoretical considerations or judgments based on ethical principles."

What these examples illustrate is that although the letter stresses the search and the journey for knowledge, it contains a substantial and extremely controversial conception of what constitutes human knowledge. This can be summed up in a single word: "foundationalism." There is an absolute and universal truth that serves as the foundation for all knowledge whether it be the knowledge gained by natural human reason or the knowledge gained by faith. What is ignored in this document is that the very idea of such a foundation has been called into question by a variety of rational arguments. And once again I am not referring to fashionable forms of relativism or irrationalism. Rather, I am referring to those philosophers who have defended reason, universality, objectivity, and our capacity to know the truth, and yet have rejected any appeal to absolute epistemological, metaphysical, or ontological foundations.

Perhaps the rational critique of foundationalism in philosophy is misguided, but if it is, this must be shown by giving forceful reasons, and not by ex cathedra assertions. In an encyclical letter that presumably defends the autonomy of philosophy and reason, and insists that philosophy must proceed by its own principles, rules, and methods, it is disturbing to see how much of philosophy is ruled out as misguided or mistaken. If one questions the very idea of absolute foundations, if one questions whether we can ever achieve final certitude, if one has any doubts about metaphysical realism, if one questions whether there are moral norms that are shared by all, if one questions whether there are in deed "first universal principles of being," then one is presumably misguided and fails to understand the "true" tasks of philosophy. But it is difficult to reconcile such categorical assertions (presented authoritatively but without rational justification) with the insistence on open autonomous critical inquiry. It is difficult to reconcile the presumed spirit of openness with the judgment that would condemn as misguided the best philosophy of the past hundred years. The unspoken presupposition that is implicit throughout the letter is a dubious grand Either/Or. EITHER there is an absolute final truth that we can be known with absolute certitude, OR there is no escape from relativism, skepticism, and nihilism. But this presupposition itself is not subjected to rational critique.

Finally, I want to mention what is most confusing in this document. The word that is used with perhaps the greatest frequency here is truth. But it is used in a bewildering variety of ways: "ultimate Truth," "absolute truth," "universal truth," "the fullness of truth," "the different faces of human truth," "the truth attained by philosophy," "the truth of Revelation," "Jesus Christ as the truth," "the unity of truth," "different modes of truth," an "ulterior truth which would explain the meaning of life," "the truth of the person," are phrases repeated throughout the letter. Although it is clearly asserted that there are "different modes of truth," and that ultimately there is a harmony and unity of these truths, there is virtually no attempt to stand back and reflect upon the different meanings of "truth" and to show us precisely how they are all compatible. Nor is any attempt made to show us how we are to reconcile conflicting claims to truth. But this is the issue that must be confronted if one is to justify the claim that the truths of reason and faith form a harmonious unity.

Let me summarize what I take to be laudatory and troubling about this encyclical. At a time when philosophy and reason have been attacked and even ridiculed, it is encouraging to see the pope take such a strong stand defending the dignity and centrality of a life of reason and philosophy. But if one is genuinely to respect the integrity of the life of reason and philosophy as a search for truth and knowledge, then one cannot dictate from the outside what must be the results of this journey.

Richard J. Bernstein is Vera List Professor of Philosophy on the Graduate Faculty of the New School for Social Re search. He is the author most recently of Freud and the Legacy of Moses (Cambridge Univ. Press).

Other pages in our "Faith & Reason" section:

  1. Introduction
  2. Nicholas Wolterstorff
  3. Alvin Plantinga
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