Philosophy and theology: avoiding the pitfall of human pride

Philosophy and theology: avoiding the pitfall of human pride

Fr John O'Neill

The fields of philosophy and theology try to cover everything. Philosophy used to be defined as the study of all things under the light of unaided human reason, while theology was the study of all things under the light of Divine Revelation. Philosophy and Theology married long ago, and together they make a very fruitful marriage, begetting a whole host of very happy discoveries.

Whether or not these great disciplines produce worthy fruit or not depends very much on what motivates the philosopher or theologian. What one wants with the will can get in the way of what one ought to discover with the mind. Saint Paul condemned the Greeks - who loved to philosophise - for not discovering the true God.

Our dear old catechism, now despised by today's disordered thinking, put it very simply: We know that there is a God by the things that He made. Perhaps Paul's condemnation did not apply to Plato or to Aristotle, who accepted that there is one God, with no tradition of Revelation to help them. The unaided mind can discover God.


What has happened to the rest of the philosophers, among the Greeks and in every age and place since that golden age of thinking? And, indeed, to so many theologians or Scripture scholars who, even after Divine Revelation, managed to get it wrong in most departments.

Very early the Christian stage was invaded by spotlight-seekers in the Gnostics and Nestorians, Montanists and Arians, and so down to our own times. Today we see the nihilism which results firstly from the confusion caused by breaking away from Christ's protective authority, and secondly from the consequent apathy.

Nevertheless, today's philosophers have to find an explanation for the phenomenon of man, and today's theologians an explanation for the phenomenon of Christ.

Why on earth do human thinkers insist, throughout the centuries and especially today, on forbidding the Divine Mind from taking part in their quest for fulfilment? Why ban the Source of Truth from the search for truth? What makes them prohibit God from His world and from His children?

Endless is the list of philosophers and theologians and Scripture scholars - and liturgists - who have led so many for so long, out into their deserts or their fruitless orchards. They are satisfied getting just a little way up the mountain. Who remembers those who got only half way up Everest, and worse, boasted they had reached the top while denying the mountain its summit?

They all must have had other things motivating them than the pure search for truth, and the willingness to submit to it once discovered. Fundamental in the explanation of man's ancient and ongoing restlessness is the very thing without which he is not human at all: his individual freedom.

A man's greatest enemy is himself if he allows to grow in him the determination that he needs no one but himself to arrive at fulfilment. Herein he makes the most anti- human of all errors: without realising it, he thinks he can satisfy his inbuilt yearning for the Infinite by trying to satisfy elements of his nature which are merely finite.

"You have made us for Yourself and our hearts are restless until they rest in You". For his happiness' sake, man must accept that he is dependent by nature. He should be able to do that easily, for his limitations are staring him in the face: his physical and mental limitations, and the glaring reality that his time on earth must end. But the proud man conceives of no one greater than himself, and ends up only disconsolate, for he will not admit that he needs more than himself to bring life's merriment into his soul.

Yet onward he proudly goes, kidding himself that he will soon find the ultimate for himself and his society. Pride of mind and the refusal to accept a morality that is not "imposed" as much as it is written into his nature for his own happy fulfilment, have been the two chief obstacles preventing the acceptance of the fullness of Christianity.

So we have seen, and still see, secular thinkers, ably assisted if not led by Church thinkers, trying to make man the master, even to the extent of obliterating, if they could, that person and event, which enlivens and holds together the whole human story, Jesus Christ and his Resurrection.

Meanwhile, back in the company of the humble - and only the humble are capable of being inspired, because they accept and submit to someone greater than themselves - there is the sharing of joy.


There is still some of this left in our Church in Australia, if one knows where to look and to whom to listen. The expertise, however, that had its roots in Christ's truth preserved, in Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition by the Holy Spirit guiding his Church's authority, in the greats like Augustine and Thomas, and Anthony and Teresa, is not as widespread as it used to be, and so we find it hard to fill the teaching chairs in our colleges and theological institutes with professors of great stature.

Please God our bishops will allow themselves to be advised truthfully and thus find genuine Catholic quality in those they choose to hand on the truth. The bishops more than anyone need to keep their heads, their vision, higher than the lowering ramparts their "experts" sometimes try to build around them.

For the mind that is filled with faith is the best judge of the philosophies on offer.

Fr John O'Neill is parish priest of Doonside in the Parramatta Diocese.

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