Inevitable choices

I would like to set out four world views which people, and especially university students, encounter today and to show how each of them has developed on the basis of a particular understanding of the role of faith and reason in the quest for truth. More specifically, I intend to show that these worldviews are mutually exclusive and that any person living in the West is bound to choose one of them. I conclude that the choice now facing each of us is between Mohammed, Descartes, Nietzsche and the Pope.

The four worldviews are:

1) Fideism, which says that faith is the sole means at our disposal in the quest for truth; we can therefore refer to it as the philosophy of sola fides;

2) Modernism, also known as rationalism, scientism or positivism, which says that reason is the sole means we have in our quest for truth; we can refer to it as the philosophy of sola ratio;

3) Postmodernism, also known as cultural or moral relativism, or nihilism, which says there is no such thing as objective truth and that, therefore, faith and reason are of no use; we can call this philosophy that of nec ratio, nec fides; and

4) Catholicism, which says that the search for truth requires both faith and reason; we can thus refer to it as being based on fides et ratio.

Before describing these worldviews in greater detail, one must specify what is meant by "truth", "faith" and "reason". By truth is meant an agreement or concordance between intellect and objective reality. Faith means believing in something to be true, as opposed to knowing it to be true. There is faith when a truth claim is accepted, not on the basis of solid evidence, but rather on the basis of the testimony of someone else. We believe something because we believe someone. This does not mean, however, that faith is "blind" to evidence. Indeed, faith is usually reinforced by some experience which it cannot fully explain, as when I trust my doctor that his medical prescription will relieve my pain, although I can’t explain how it does so.

Reason means knowing something to be true on the basis of either what our senses tell us or what our mind or intellect tells us. Knowledge acquired though our senses is sense knowledge, also known as empirical knowledge, ie, knowledge of things material and measurable. Knowledge acquired through our intellect is knowledge of abstract truths, like logic and mathematics. Logical and mathematical truths are sometimes referred to as necessary truths because the formulation of truth claims is impossible without them.

What this means is that faith and reason are quite different. Faith requires a free assent of the will, while reason calls for compelling evidence or self-evident truth. However, the two serve a common purpose, which is to serve as foundations in our quest for truth. Put another way, both make sense only in relation to truth. Reason is a way of understanding truth, discovering it or proving it. Faith is a way of discovering it. Without this relationship to truth, faith and reason make no sense. Both are roads to truth with respect to religious as well as non-religious matters.

Fideism or sola fides

The first worldview is fideism, or sola fides. It includes all systems of beliefs that proclaim a God without reason. Whereas modernism divorces reason from faith, fideism divorces faith from reason. The Catholic Encyclopedia defines fideism as "a system of philosophy or an attitude of mind, which, denying the power of unaided human reason to reach certitude, affirms that the fundamental act of human knowledge consists in an act of faith, and the supreme criterion of certitude is authority".(1)

Nowadays, the most prominent form of fideism is Islam.(2) Beginning in the middle of the 9th Century, Islamic theologians began to reject Greek philosophy. What this led to is a theology where God is understood as pure will and the universe as devoid of any rational order. This in turn led to a denial of the principle of causality.

For example, in The Incoherence of the Philosophers, an important 11th Century treatise, the Muslim theologian Abu Hamid al-Ghazali, perhaps the most influential Muslim thinker after Mohammed, fought against the Hellenizing influence of Avicenna’s disciples by arguing that "the source of their infidelity was their hearing terrible names such as Socrates and Hippocrates, Plato and Aristotle". He emphasized that God is not bound by laws of nature and that, consequently, there is no sequence of cause and effect, as in "the purging of the bowels as a result of the using of a purgative." Things act according, not to their nature, but to God’s will at the moment.

The same idea can be found in explanations given by the Jewish philosopher Maimonides who, in the late 12th Century, explained the thinking of Muslims by noting that, in their understanding, the regular occurrence of a natural phenomenon is no guarantee for its occurrence in the future. For example, although the sun rises every morning in the east, it might happen that, tomorrow, it will rise to the south or to the north. The reason for this uncertainty is that there are no secondary causes, as willed by Allah, but only the immediate will of Allah. The Koran itself stipulates: "Dost thou not know that God has the power to will anything?" (2:106).

Today, there are some Muslim thinkers who believe that Islam must reform itself by restoring the primacy of reason in order to develop some kind of philosophy of nature admitting of laws of nature and of a natural law foundation limiting the role of government. However, these thinkers are strongly challenged by more traditional Muslim thinkers, who seek to maintain the status quo.

Fideism is not unique to Islam. One can find examples of it in Judaism, Protestantism and Catholicism. In a book titled Kuzari, Judah ha-Levi, a 12th Century poet and follower of al-Ghazali, argued that the most profoundly religious people were those who accepted God’s teaching without understanding them. "I consider him to have attained the highest degree of perfection," he wrote, "who is convinced of religious truths without having scrutinized them and reasoned over them." How one could be convinced of something without having actually reasoned over them does not seem to have been of any concern to his followers. There are also strong manifestations of fideism amongst 19th Century Protestant theologians, particularly Friedrich Schleiermacher, who claimed that religion constituted its own sphere of knowledge, utterly unrelated to the realm of science, and Søren Kierkegaard, who viewed faith essentially as a "leap" beyond the grasp of reason.

As Pope Benedict XVI pointed out in his Regensburg Address of 2006, there have also been manifestations of fideism within Catholicism. He mentioned in particular the "voluntarism" of medieval theologian Duns Scotus, who believed that God’s freedom was such that he "could have done the opposite of everything he has actually done". This, said the Pope, could lead "to the image of a capricious God, who is not even bound to truth and goodness." A fideist attitude of mind is also very much present in 19th Century French thinkers such as Louis de Bonald and Félicité de Lamennais, who viewed the rule of certitude as residing essentially in "common consent". In the Encyclical Fides et Ratio, John Paul II warned against the resurgence of certain forms of fideism, in particular "Biblicism", which he defined as a tendency "to make the reading and exegesis of Sacred Scripture the sole criterion of truth."(3)

The main point, however, is that the Catholic Church has generally held fideism to be heretical. The reason for this is that, while it has always affirmed God’s omnipotence, Christian revelation also asserts Christ as Logos in the Gospel of John. If the Second Person of the Holy Trinity is Logos, it follows that God is ratio. This is what has been thought by all the great theologians of Christianity, in particular Augustine, Bonaventure and Aquinas. They contended that authority, even the authority of God, cannot be the unique criterion of certitude, and an act of faith cannot be the primary form of human knowledge. Consequently, it affirms that "the ‘supreme rule of her faith’ derives from the unity which the Spirit has created between Sacred Tradition, Sacred Scripture and the Magisterium of the Church in a reciprocity which means that none of the three can survive without the others."(4)

Modernism or sola ratio

The second worldview we consider is that of modernism -- sola ratio. This was the dominant worldview in the Western world between the French Revolution and the early 20th Century but is now largely a spent force. It is still being preached by some high priests of secular humanism, like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, and still enjoys the support of several scientists and university professors. However, it no longer holds sway over the modern mind as it did a century ago.

It began with Descartes in the early part of the 17th Century and evolved in an increasingly complex way under the influence of various thinkers such as Hobbes, Newton, Locke, Rousseau, Kant, Hume, Bertrand Russell, John Rawls and many others. The central issue in modernism is epistemology: what is knowledge and how can we know? Very broadly, modernist philosophers are divided into two camps: the rationalist-idealist camp (Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Kant, Hegel), which asserts that knowledge flows essentially from reason, and the empiricist-positivist camp (Bacon, Hobbes, Locke, Hume, Comte), which asserts that it derives from the senses. Within each of these camps, many systems of thought have developed, such as sociologism, pragmatism, structuralism, Marxism, existentialism, evolutionism, etc.

This is perhaps the distinctive character of modernist thinking. In contrast to classical philosophers (essentially Greek and Medieval), who generally limited themselves to providing a philosophical account of reality, those of the modern era each seek to develop a philosophical system of their own, ie, a systematic and all-encompassing explanation of reality unknown prior to them. For example, Descartes thought that he could explain everything through his theory of innate ideas; Marx maintained he could explain everything that is worth knowing about mankind through a process called dialectical materialism; and Freud argued that all human behavior could be reduced to repressed desires rooted in our childhood.

What these modernist thinkers hold in common is the presupposition that true knowledge begins by positing Descartes’ tabula rasa – the notion that each individual mind is born "blank" and endowed with a power to understand things without the help of an inherited spiritual or intellectual tradition. Indeed, says the modernist, all that is necessary to allow for the discovery of truth is to "free" the mind, ie, to ensure that it remain "uncluttered" from any prejudice, and particularly from any religious prejudice. In short, modernism claims that all that is required to know truth is the free exercise of reason, and nothing else. This is the basic test of what we call the "Enlightenment" – the notion that clear thinking requires an intellectual cleansing, a deleting of any preconceived idea that might clutter up the mind, failing which there is no sound starting point in the search for truth.

As already mentioned, modernism has evolved over the past two and a half centuries along two broad traditions, rationalism and empiricism. The rationalist tradition is perhaps best represented by Immanuel Kant, a German philosopher who believed that Newtonian physics called for an entirely new theory of knowledge, known as Idealism, which redefined truth itself as being subjective, not objective. Kant rejected the assumption common to all earlier philosophies that truth means conformity to objective reality. In his own words, "Hitherto it has been assumed that all our knowledge must conform to objects… more progress may be made if we assume the contrary hypothesis that the objects of thought must conform to our knowledge".

Kant is largely responsible for the commonly-held view that virtually all knowledge, including religious knowledge, is subjective. Unfortunately, it did not occur to him that if "all knowledge is subjective", that assertion is itself subjective, thus making our intellect prisoner in an infinite hall of mirrors. His subjectivism led to the rapid erosion of the classical synthesis of faith and reason that had prevailed amongst philosophers and theologians up until the early 18th Century. While considering himself a Christian, Kant denied the possibility of establishing the existence of God through reason. We must simply assume that God exists because God is necessary to sanction our moral beliefs. In short, Kant believed in God not as a matter of truth but as a matter of practicality. He is largely responsible for the view held by Protestant and some dissident Catholic theologians that faith and reason are incompatible and that "supernatural" is a synonym for "mythical".

Kant’s views were developed largely as a reaction to those of David Hume, the leading figure of empiricism, which evolved into what came to be known as positivism or scientism. Positivists argue that the only things that exist are those that are either visible or measurable. Anything that does not fit that requirement is deemed not to exist. As David Hume put it in An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding:

If we take in our hand any volume of divinity or school metaphysics… let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.

What this means is that, for the empiricist-positivist tradition, knowledge is limited to: a) logic and mathematics; and b) propositions that can be experimentally tested, such as those that empirical sciences deal with. Any proposition outside the realm of logic, mathematics and empirical sciences is thus considered subjective – a matter of opinion. It can never claim to be truthful in the sense we generally understand that word. Thus, positivists view faith as utterly irrational and all religions as so many superstitions.

One major implication of this position is that reason is self-sufficient to explain everything about man and his world. Positivists reject Plato’s view that "God is the measure of all things" and reaffirm the pre-Socratic view, held notably by the Sophist Protagoras, that "man is the measure of all things". In other words, the world is measured by us rather than the other way around. And if the world is measured by us, there can be no real certitude about things. The only thing we "know" about the world is what reaches us through our senses and mental impressions. There is no way for us of being absolutely sure that those impressions correspond to reality. We believe certain ideas to the extent they can be said to "work", but we have no absolute certainty about how they actually fit with reality. Positivists thus define knowledge as no more than "true justified belief", ie, belief justified by experimental testing.

Another implication of positivism is materialism. Anything that is not visible or measurable, including God, is deemed not to exist. And since God does not exist, there can be no such thing as moral absolutes. Indeed, as the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre as shown, positivism cannot even admit of essential human purposes or functions. Unlike the classical tradition, which views man as being destined by nature "to fill a set of roles each of which has its own point and purpose: member of a family, citizen, soldier, philosopher, servant of God", positivism envisions man "as individual prior to and apart from all [such] roles", thus making it "implausible to treat moral judgments as factual statements."(5) A true positivist admits of only one value – utility. Properly understood, utility is not a moral value, but rather an opinion about the usefulness of an action or object based on an assessment of its consequences. No materialist can believe in moral values because values are immaterial and, therefore, neither visible nor measurable. Perhaps the only intrinsic value that a materialist accepts is pleasure. In moral matters, a positivist is essentially a hedonist.(6) His understanding of morality boils down to a set of practical rules aimed at making social life as least unpleasant as possible – in ensuring that "your right to swing your arm ends where my nose begins".

Problems with positivism

There are several problems with the positivist worldview, not the least of which is its claim to be strictly rational. Positivism says that the only thing that counts as real is what is experimentally tested. But that criterion is itself not susceptible of being tested. It is grounded in an act of faith, not of reason. By denying that anything other than what is experimentally tested is real, positivism denies itself. Put another way, positivism decrees that we can only be sure of one thing, which is that we can’t know anything for sure. But if that is the case, how can we hold that little to be true? Modern positivism thus involves a radical scepticism that is self-contradictory. It cannot stand up to its own requirement.

A second problem raised by modern positivism is its atheism. It claims that the existence for God is a matter of faith, not of reason. That is simply not the case. Positivism fails to distinguish between two different issues: the existence of God and the identity of God. The former is an ontological problem, one that has to do with the question: what is? The latter is a specifically religious problem, one that has to do with the question: who is He?

On the question of the existence of God, three points should be made. First, it is impossible to demonstrate that God does not exist because it is impossible to prove the non-existence of something or someone. Second, the notion that there is no God runs in the face of common sense, which tells us that there has to be some good reason for everything. This corresponds to what philosophers call the principle of sufficient reason, according to which there must be a sufficient reason for why whatever exists or happens does so. In other words, any contingent being, ie, anything that does not have to be, requires a cause sufficient to account for it. And since the world in which we live is not something that "has to be", there is every reason to believe that God exists. Atheists have no explanation for the contingency of the universe and no answer for the most radical philosophical question that has ever been asked – why is there something rather than nothing? Anyone who says there is no answer to such a question is, in effect, saying that there is no meaning in the universe, that everything is meaningless. This perhaps explains why the pleasure principle is so prominent in the utilitarian tradition. Third, atheists cannot explain the emergence of rationality. If there is no God, then one is bound to argue that rationality is a by-product of biological evolution. But then, of course, that would imply that rationality grew out of non-rationality! One is reminded of G.K. Chesterton’s famous remark: "When people stop believing in God, they don’t believe in nothing – they believe in anything."

The third difficulty raised by positivism is its materialism. It assumes that thinking is a process entirely determined by chemical or electrochemical activity -- a by-product of non-rational forces. But if that is the case, positivism is compelled to conclude that all beliefs, including belief in the non-existence of God, are the product of non-rational forces. Moreover, given that the notion of free will – what Christians call conscience - entails some kind of internal indetermination, which is denied by materialism, positivists must conclude that there is no such thing as free will.

A fourth difficulty with positivism is that by equating the Christian faith with some kind of mythology devoid of any rationality, it renders itself unable to explain the unique achievements of Western civilization, which grew out of the Christian faith. Christianity borrowed from Antiquity, to be sure, but it also considerably enriched it. It created the medieval universities, from which grew our modern universities; it contributed to the development of scientific research within the Western scholarly community and, through Jesuit missionaries, introduced Western science into far-off places such as China and India; it sponsored the establishment of the first hospitals in most major European cities, and, thanks to the Catholic Church’s canon law, it was instrumental in developing the modern Western legal tradition, including the concepts of human rights and separation of Church and state. Positivism cannot explain the rise of modern rationality and all the great achievements of Western civilization. It has to assume that the latter historically grew out of a system of belief that is pure fallacy.

Postmodernism or nec ratio nec fides

The third worldview is more recent and goes under the name of postmodernism. It is also referred to as nihilism, or cultural and moral relativism. Just as modernism can be said to be the prevalent view among scientists and engineers, postmodernism appears to be the dominant view in the world of social sciences, communications, the arts and humanities.

In order to understand postmodernism, we must recall briefly the worldview which it claims to replace, ie, modernism. As mentioned earlier, modernism was characterized by a profusion of systems that sought to explain all of reality. These systems gave rise to a number of grand myths or paradigms which, for some people at least, have come to define Western culture. Among the most prevalent of these myths are the gradual elimination of various forms of suffering through science and technology, the regression of religion under the influence of progress in education, the disappearance of wars and conflicts resulting from the increase in world trade and prosperity, etc. Postmodernists refer to these myths as "meta-narratives" because of their all encompassing nature.

Because it results from a relatively recent cultural shift, postmodernism is difficult to define precisely. It can be described as a disillusion with the meta-narratives put forth by modernism. As Christopher Dawson has shown, the 19th Century was characterized by an unlimited faith in science. Perhaps the strongest expression of this faith in human progress based on science is found in The Future of Science, a book first published in 1848 by French philosopher Ernest Renan, which includes the following key statement: "We proclaim the right of reason to reform society by rational science and the theoretic knowledge of that which is. It is no exaggeration to say that science contains the future of humanity and that it alone can say the last word on human destiny and teach mankind how to reach its goal…Science is only valuable in so far as it can take the place of religion".

The interesting point here is that, in the preface which Renan wrote for a new edition of the same book some 40 years later, a deep pessimism had replaced the naïve optimism of the first edition. "It seems possible", he wrote in the 1887 edition, "that the collapse of supernatural belief will be followed by the collapse of moral convictions and that the moment when humanity sees the reality of things will mark a real moral decline. Under the influence of illusions the good gorilla succeeded in making an astonishing moral effort. Remove the illusions and a part of the factitious energy that they aroused will disappear. If you take away the working man’s beer you must not expect to get the same amount of work out of him."(7) Renan had lost his faith in scientism, just as he had lost his Catholic faith at an earlier age.

In the half century that followed, this sense of disillusion spread to most of the intellectual world. Writing in 1960, Christopher Dawson noted the following:

Liberal doctrines of progress and perfectibility of society by purely rational means are no longer accepted as undisputed dogmas by the thinkers and writers of the present day. The scepticism and unbelief which in the heyday of Liberal enlightenment were directed against traditional religion have now been turned against the foundations of Liberalism itself. And this development was inevitable, since… the Liberal faith owed its strength to the element that it had derived from the religious tradition that it attempted to replace. Thus, in so far as it succeeded in secularizing European culture, it undermined the foundations on which its own existence depended.(8)

It is in the wake of this general disillusionment that postmodernism seems to have taken shape as an intellectual movement, primarily under the influence of post-war French intellectuals such as Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida and Jean-François Lyotard. In 1967, Foucault published a book, Les mots et les choses, where he announced nothing less than "the death of man". The movement soon spread to philosophy, where its attacks were focused on rationality. Postmodernist thinkers believe that the grand meta-narratives of modernism carry no credibility because man cannot grasp the truth required to construct such grand pieces of intellectual architecture. Many go further and deny the very possibility of truth claims. Indeed, they argue that any truth claim only serves to cover a hidden attempt to wield power. This might sound self-contradictory, but apparently postmodernists are not bothered by contradictions. This leads American historian Thomas Storck to describe postmodernism as "the death of reason":

Texts are no longer arguments made to convince someone of some point of view, for, as we saw, post-modernism suspects every such argument to be a covert attempt to grab power. Instead in the last resort it is play, it becomes trivial. While modernism very often espoused error and made wrong arguments, post-modernism is not interested in making an argument. Rather it seeks to destroy every argument, every possibility of argument. Many of the modernist systems of thought contained implicit contradictions, which, if pressed, would logically have destroyed the very foundations of that system, but which the systems’ creators and expounders overlooked, and apparently hoped everyone else would overlook too. But, in theory, if you pointed out such a logical contradiction to the systems’ upholders, they would be embarrassed and seek somehow to explain themselves. But if you point to the post-modernists that their arguments destroy the very possibility of argument and truth, that they can hardly uphold their own point of view if what they assert is true, they will not react with embarrassment or anger. They are likely to react instead with a shrug, a smile, a nod in agreement. For yes, they have destroyed all argument, all truth, including their own. They do not desire to replace modernist systems with a new one of their own creation, but to remove any rational floor, any starting point, any fixed position about which we can have rational confidence. Absolute intellectual nihilism is the logical result of this. Man’s reason is dead…".(9)

The reference to nihilism appears to be quite appropriate. Nihilism is a philosophy associated with the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who is quite famous for a book titled The Anti-Christ. A diehard atheist, he argued that the "death of God" called for the rejection of both reason and faith, invited his readers to embrace passion, rhetoric and even deliberate hatred rather than reason, and proclaimed the supremacy of will. He became insane in his late years and died of syphilis in 1900, signing his last letters "the Crucified One". Although some philosophers say that he would have despised Nazism, German Nazis viewed him as their greatest intellectual hero. A significant portion of contemporary academics and writers consider him as an iconic figure of modern times. He is widely read by university students, perhaps more than any other philosopher.

The appeal of nihilism for the people of our time is there for everyone to see. It pervades all aspects of life. It is part and parcel of modern culture – the air we breathe every day. It says that while the search for truth may be very noble, it is hopeless. Life is nothing more than an opportunity for feelings and experiences. Seeking the meaning of life is pointless because everything is fleeting and provisional. Life commitments become infringements on freedom.

Catholicism or fides et ratio

Unlike other worldviews, Catholicism says that faith and reason are both essential to the search for truth. Fides et ratio could thus be understood as its true motto. As John Paul II mentioned in an encyclical titled precisely Fides et Ratio, they are "like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth." This position is not shared by Protestant churches which generally turn out to be either modernist or fideist.

The notion of a natural complementarity between faith and reason is particularly offensive to all positivists who believe in reason "alone", or sola ratio. The problem with these positivists (or rationalists) is their refusal to acknowledge that there is no such thing as reasoning alone. One cannot demonstrate by "reason alone" the validity of sola ratio because any such demonstration would be circular and circular reasoning proves nothing. In other words, those who believe in sola ratio do so, not by an act of reason, but of faith. Not only does faith not contradict reason, it is indispensable to it. We cannot choose between having faith and not having faith. The only issue is where we place our faith.

Beyond these considerations, the Catholic position is predicated on the notion that reason raises questions that it cannot answer on its own and that faith provides answers that become intelligible only with the help of reason. Thus faith and reason are said to be "symbiotically, and not extrinsically, related" (10). Catholic Christianity has always posited a synthesis of faith and reason. This can be seen in the writings of the early Greek Fathers of the Church, some of whom, "having been converted to Christianity only late in their lives, and having received a Greek philosophical education at an earlier stage, were all the less inclined to condemn it as a whole, their own conversion appearing to them rather like the final stage of a quest for God begun by them with the philosophers".(11)

We find an illustration of this in the life of Origen, a Greek scholar of the 2nd Century who converted to Christianity and of whom we are told that, in teaching the Christian faith, "he considered it especially necessary for himself to be skilled in secular and philosophic learning".(12) It is in the light of such considerations that Cardinal Ratzinger wrote in his Introduction to Christianity: "Christian faith has made its clear choice: against the gods of religion for the God of philosophers, in other words, against the myth of mere custom for the truth of being."

But then, what is the nature of this relationship between reason and the Christian faith? How does it work? Perhaps the best way to answer this question is to illustrate the relation that exists between theology and philosophy. In the encyclical Fides et Ratio, John Paul II notes that the relationship is not merely one of theology using this or that philosophical concept and suggests that it is best understood by reference to a circle. "What matters most", he says, "is that the believer’s reason use its power of reflection in the search for truth which moves from the word of God towards a better understanding of it". In this movement, "reason is offered guidance and is warned against paths which would lead it to stray from revealed Truth and… is stirred to explore paths which of itself it would not even have suspected it could take. This circular relationship with the word of God leaves philosophy enriched, because reason discovers new and unsuspected horizons."(13)

The Church is thus saying that not only is there a necessary relationship between faith and reason, but that reason stands to gain from working in tandem with the Christian faith. The question we must therefore address is: What kind of evidence do we have in support of such a claim? Perhaps the strongest evidence is that Christianity ushered into the world one big, gigantic claim that had never been made prior to it, which is that everyone has a natural right to search for the truth. Indeed, this claim was so revolutionary that certain Greek philosophers of the 2nd Century, like Celsus, ridiculed Christianity for its attempt to attract "only slaves, women and little children".(14) Because free access to the truth is indispensable to knowing God, and also because the Christian God is the God of all people, Christian theologians have insisted from the very beginning on the universal nature of the right to search for the truth. In doing so, they undermined the old pre-Christian order and set the stage for the dismantling of racial, social and gender barriers. Never before had anyone dared to proclaim the equality of all men and women of all nations before God. This should be a source of pride for all Christians, and particularly those of Catholic persuasion.

According to the rationalist-positivist worldview, the Middle Ages were properly called the "Dark Ages" because they were characterized by a superabundance of theology and a dearth of philosophy, by an excess of faith and a shortage of reason. People who hold this view also believe that the Middle Ages ended when faith began to recede, leaving room for reason to assert its power and for a more "enlightened" age to emerge. Thus, the Enlightenment would have picked up where Greek-Roman philosophy ended 1,000 years earlier, as if there had been nothing else in between.

This is the view of the Middle Ages that has been put forth in most Western universities over the past 200 years. Today, it is so widespread that it is taken for granted. Yet, it is a profoundly distorted view. If it were true, the philosophical notions of the founders of modern philosophy should have been fairly close to those of Greek philosophers. But that has been shown to be utterly wrong. Etienne Gilson, considered as one of the greatest historians of medieval thought, puts it as follows:

Something happened to philosophy during the fourteen centuries which we call the middle ages. The easiest way to see what happened to it is to remember the general view of the world propagated by the last Greek philosophers and to compare it with the interpretation of the world common to the founders of modern philosophy… In the seventeenth century, the commonly received philosophical notions of God, of the origin of the world, of the nature of man and of his destiny are strikingly different from those which the middle ages had inherited from the Greeks. Strict monotheism, an undisputed truth in the minds of all the metaphysicians of the thirteenth century, is only one of the points in case. In its content, the metaphysics of Descartes was much more a continuation of the metaphysics of the scholastics than of the Greeks… To overlook what happened to philosophy in the thirteenth century is to deprive the history of Western thought of its continuity and, by the same token, its intelligibility.(15)

Gilson goes on to note that while one may quite legitimately take a critical view of certain philosophical positions held by medieval theologians, "there is no excuse for those who describe the Middle Ages as a long period of philosophical stagnation". Indeed, the study of medieval thought reveals that there are "at least three main schools of thought which no Christian philosopher can afford to ignore":

Augustine will introduce him to a metaphysical method based upon the data of personal introspection; Duns Scotus will introduce him to a metaphysical universe of essences; Thomas Aquinas will tell him what happens to such a universe when existence is added to essences as a further metaphysical dimension. Had they bequeathed to us nothing more than these three pure philosophical positions, the scholastics would still remain for all Christian philosophers the safest guides in their quest for a rationally valid interpretation of man and the world.(16)

Thus, the argument that philosophy can be enriched by theology and reason by faith is borne out by scholarly historical accounts.


Fideism proclaims not simply the autonomy, but the self-sufficiency, of faith. It is self-contradictory in that it requires reason to argue against the use of reason. Modernism proclaims not simply the autonomy, but the self-sufficiency, of reason. It cannot meet its own criteria for truth claims and leads to nihilism, which negates both faith and reason and exalts the will. Catholicism proclaims the need for both faith and reason in the search for truth. It has built up an intellectual, moral and spiritual heritage unlike any other in the history of mankind. Thus, the choice facing us today is between Mohammed, Descartes, Nietzsche and the Pope.

Richard Bastien is director of the Catholic Civil Rights League for the National Capital Area and a regular contributor to Égards, a French-language quarterly journal of ideas.


1 Sauvage, G. (1909). Fideism. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved August 13, 2008 from New Advent:

2 Some of the remarks on Muslim fideism are drawn from an article by Robert Reilly, "The Pope and the Prophet", in the November 2006 issue of Crisis Magazine.

3 John Paul II, Fides et Ratio, s. 55

4 Ibid.

5 Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, Second Edition, University of Notre Dame Press, 1984, p. 59.

6 This is not true of all positivists. Auguste Comte, often considered as the father of positivism, was not a utilitarian and, indeed, believed in objective moral rules.

7 The quotes are drawn from an essay titled "Rationalism and Intellectualism: the Religious Elements in the Rationalist Tradition", in: Christopher Dawson, Enquiries into Religion and Culture, 1933, p. 152-153.

8 Dawson, Christopher, Progress and Religion, Sherwood Sudgen & Company, Peru (Illinois), USA, p. 217

9 Storck, Thomas, "Postmodernism: Catastrophe or Opportunity – or Both", available on line:

10 Rowland, Tracey, Ratzinger’s Faith – The Theology of Pope Benedict XVI, Oxford University Press, 2008, p. 5

11 Gilson, Étienne, La philosophie au moyen âge, tome I, Payot, Paris, 1976, p. 15.

12 Eusebius, Church History, Book 6, Chapter 19

13 John Paul II, Fides et Ratio, s. 73

14 Celsus on Christians, quoted in Origen, Contra Celsum, III, 44:

15 Gilson, Etienne, History of Christian Philosophy in the Middle Ages, Random House, New York, 1955, p. 542

16 Ibid. p. 544-545.


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