Christian Philosophy?


I’ve just started reading Etienne Gilson’s The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy, a thick book based on a series of Gifford Lectures he gave around the 1930’s. I usually have trouble writing about this kind of book, because there are so many ideas in it; and by the time I get to the end I’m so tired and so unable to summarize the mass of them that I don’t usually say much more than, “Oh, I liked this one,” or “Oh, I was disappointed.” That is, if I say anything at all. But my previous posts of philosophy have been reasonably popular, and so I hate to say nothing.

Consequently, I’m going to say something about the two chapters I’ve read. That way, I’ve said something, even if I say nothing else. (And by the time I’m done, perhaps the coffee will have kicked in, and I can get on with working on the novel.)

One of Gilson’s big topics was the notion of “Christian Philosophy”; and at the time he gave the lectures he was swimming against the tide, for most people thought that there was no such thing. The argument against “Christian Philosophy” is fairly simple:

  • If you’re dealing with truths that can only be known by divine revelation, then you aren’t doing philosophy (even if you’re using the methods of philosophy); rather, you’re doing theology.
  • If you’re dealing with truths that can be known by pure reason, then these truths are accessible to anyone, and hence aren’t specifically Christian (except in the sense that, God being Truth, all truths are Christian).

This argument presumes that truths are divided into two distinct, non-overlapping categories: truths known by divine revelation, and truths known by pure reason. Theology deals with the first, philosophy with the second.

Gilson’s counter-argument is also simple: these categories overlap. There are truths that God has made known by divine revelation that can also be known by pure reason. St. Thomas Aquinas says that God has revealed many truths needed for salvation that can also be known by philosophical methods, because relatively few men have the time to do the philosophical work needed to discover them, and because men are inclined to make mistakes.

Because of this overlap, the Christian Philosopher is inspired to seek the rational foundation for revealed truths, and so comes to understand the purely philosophical in a deeper way. For example, says Gilson, Aristotle understood the Unmoved Mover as Truth but not as Being itself; that was a truth revealed by God, who told Moses “I Am”. But if the Unmoved Mover is Being itself, then all other being flows from it; we have a Creator. From this comes St. Anselm’s Ontological Argument, and St. Thomas’ Five Ways. These are truths accessible to reason, but which reason did not attain until Christianity pointed the way.


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