David Braine - Reflections 'Fides et ratio'-14

The relationship between philosophy and cultures

David Braine                                                                                Reflections Index

The Encyclical Fides et ratio sees the desire for the fundamental truth about oneself, one's roots and one's goal, and about the world and its wonder, as the ground of the desire for wisdom, in response to which faith and reason cooperatively contribute. Faithful to the tradition of the wisdom literature of the Old Testament, the Pope traces the development of this cooperation between faith and reason from Romans: 1, through Justin, Clement of Alexandria, Origen and Augustine, into medieval times in which St Anselm and St Thomas appear as the supreme exemplars of how one should approach and do philosophy (nn. 36-48). Later, in n. 74, he exhibits the great width of his conception of philosophers or contributors to this wisdom.

Certain matters in the Encyclical need elucidation to the modern Westerner, and such elucidation is also needed for those of other cultures to understand their significance.


To many it seems strange that any philosopher should have a special place. Coming to St Thomas from outside, out of a background of Anglo-Saxon analytical and linguistic philosophy as I did myself, gives a special freshness to one's appreciation of the rightness of the Church, the Pope following his Predecessors, in giving a special place to St Thomas' philosophy as well as to his theology. The value lies in certain key elements of St Thomas' teaching and understanding, as well as the privilege he gives to argument and analysis in arriving at truth and his rejection of any double truth as if one thing might be true in theology and another in science or history (n. 43). The Church gives no privilege to any "philosophy" (n. 49), especially with the modern proliferation of full-fledged "systems" of philosophy (n. 51). The Pope does not think of St Thomas as presenting a system but rather of many "Thomistic" schools (n. 58).

The Anglo-Saxon can locate the special philosophical situation of St Thomas in four key areas, first in relation to the philosophy of mind, second in his capacity to sift Aristotle's contributions to what one might call general logic, third in his development of Aristotle's special contribution to ethics, namely in their together mapping out a way in which ethics can be teleological—man being directed to various goods in his actions—and yet not by judging between actions according to their consequences in the manner of the utilitarians. In ethics, it is a matter of considering the good of the individual person and of each relevant level of common good in a way which is structured and takes account of virtue in motive and emotion, rather than considering pleasures and pains in some merely additive way. This finding of a philosophical middle between consequentialism and Kantianism is something on which any moral theology depends. The fourth aspect of St Thomas' philosophical importance, namely his metaphysics, I shall treat separately.

I. 1) The Anglo-Saxon, approaching St Thomas from outside, derives a key advantage in appreciating Thomas' thought in the first two areas from study of the so-called linguistic philosophy which predominated from 1930 until around 1970, having swept away previous fashions in English academic philosophy (fashions successively centred on Bradley, on Russell and on the Vienna Circle). This centred round Gilbert Ryle, the later work of Wittgenstein, and John Austin. The importance of these philosophers lay above all in their opening up of ways of thinking about the human being incompatible with materialism and equally incompatible with dualism. These ways of thinking imply man's animal nature, sharing perception and emotion with the higher animals, and so exclude not only man but also animals from being mere machines. They anticipate there being some special peculiarity about man: as Ryle conveys in Concept of Mind (1949, p. 328), when we have discovered that man is an animal, not a machine, then we may be ready to discover what it is for him to be a man.

Ryle and Austin, unlike Wittgenstein, were directly influenced by Aristotle. But all three think about mind in a way which fits with Aristotle and Aquinas, maintaining approaches quite incompatible with any forms either of materialism or dualism. Their thinking echoes Hebrew wisdom in the way it requires an inseparability of the mental and the physical in man's nature and conscious life. Jewish tradition and all its progeny have seen this unity of man reflected in all the artistic, imaginative and sacramental aspects of human life.

All these philosophers share the view that the human being is a single subject, and that this same subject thinks in language and understands, perceives, and moves bodily from place to place. But this is precisely the logical point on which St Thomas' refutation of dualism turns and likewise his refutation of Averroism and other rival interpretations of Aristotle. These modern philosophers have thus fixed onto one of the key aspects in which St Thomas' philosophy. is perennial, its insistence on the unity of man.

I. 2) Ryle was an Aristotelian not only in his good instinct in matters logical, following in the steps of Frege, but also the way he appreciated the full significance of wider features of Aristotle's logic: the categories, the distinctions between acts or states which have their completion in themselves and processes and activities which of their nature take time or go on over a time, between states or dispositions and their episodic realizations and between positive states and privations. Ryle's idea of the polymorphousness (Collected Papers, vol. 2, n. 19) of thinking, knowing and living echoes St Thomas In insisting that the same word can be used in its proper sense with quite different implications but no explanation by paraphrase (so-called "intrinsic analogy"). He shared Aristotle's and Thomas' clarity in distinguishing singular names and propositions from general ones, and in distinguishing concrete and predicative expressions from abstract terms. All this belongs to a "general logic", the second element in a perennial philosophy, vital to coherence in philosophy and equally in theology, key to the analysis spoken of in (n. 66) and the conditions of truthful inculturation (n. 72), cf. IV below.


These elements from modern philosophers should point an Anglo-Saxon philosopher towards St Thomas. Yet, these modern philosophers shared the presumptions of those they opposed, the presumptions derived from Hume and Kant, that causation consists in states of affairs or events occurring in conformity to law, and with it the same consensus that explanation and causation belonged to history and science and the same rejection of metaphysics (nn. 55, 61, 84 and 88).

This rejection of metaphysics by most contemporary philosophers has gone so deep as to rob the word "metaphysics" of any clear meaning whether to philosophers or to the ordinary man. This then is the second problem which needs elucidation in order to help people appreciate the Pope's emphasis on enquiry's reaching its full "metaphysical" range (nn. 22, 83 and 105). Even more, the phrase "philosophy of being" (n. 97) has no unambiguous sense. The root of the modern rejection of metaphysics lies in a lack of a sense of the need to enquire into what is involved in what we uncritically call "concrete reality".

Firstly, modern philosophers have lost or rejected Aristotle's understanding that the primary locus of efficient causation is a substance, sometimes an inanimate substance and sometimes an animate one, exercising its active power. A "substance" here means the kind of thing or person which can exercise active power whether in external activities such as pushing, carrying, fighting, speaking or teaching, or inner ("immanent") activities such as enjoying, desiring, imagining or understanding. These ideas of agency and active power enabled scientists such as Michael Faraday to form the notion of field, despite having been set aside by the philosophers. Yet, if one shifts attention

human Individual, it is difficult to see how any idea of the person as the author of his own actions and of a human freedom can be formed without his being conceived as a casual agent: otherwise all one has is a collection of states of belief and desire engendering an action which is either determined or merely chance, and in neither case properly free.

Secondly, modern philosophers have failed to take seriously the difference between (a) the kind of existence implied whenever we make a statement about a logical subject, e.g., about blindness, about a hole, about a colour or a number, or about a set, viz. that blindness exists, that the hole exists, that there is such a colour or number or set, and (b) existence in the sense of the present actuality of something real enough to "act". In this sense they have ceased to talk about existence in the sense which most concerned St Thomas: "esse in the sense of actus essendi". Yet,this is the key to "what is metaphysics" as the Pope refers to it.

When Aristotle inquires about the efficient cause of a substance, he is inquiring into the causes of its coming into existence. But, when St Thomas asks about the cause of a thing's existence, he is asking about the cause of its being as such, i.e., the existence which is as much in need of being preserved as of being initiated. If Thomas' arguments hold (seen most fully in his De Potentia, q. 3, aa. 4-8, and q. 5, aa. 1-4), only God can cause being as such. And if God ceased to uphold them In existence, beings would cease from existence as surely as, if the sun ceased to shine, the air would become dark. This realization that only God can cause the being of a thing, there being no room for an intermediary, is the key to a non-metaphorical understanding of the immanence or immediacy of God, so vital in Indian religion.

This, then, was the fourth thing that an Anglo-Saxon, following the philosophy of science from Newton through Hume to the present, finds in St Thomas. The idea that everything can be explained by nature will not serve as an explanation of existence because nature presupposes the existence of whatever operates according to that nature. Nature, as the principle according to which the system of things operates, can be no explanation either of the beginning or of the continuance of this system of things: it would have to already exist in order to cause existence and have already continued to exist in order to cause this very continuance. Such is the logic of the way that metaphysics has to go beyond the inquiries of physics. The universe is a complex spread through time, requiring explanation from outside itself.

Even in God, his explain his existence: his nature is not some theory or definition which might explain his existence, it is this reality itself. This reality, his esse, remains incomprehensible and unknown: this is the logical and metaphysical root of the negative way. All philosophy and theology gives us is certain truths, beginning with the very fact of God's existence, and continuing with similitudes and analogies drawn from consideration of his creatures—all are subject to the rule that in whatever respect there is some likeness between God and creatures there is a greater unlikeness (A.D. 1215, Lateran IV).


Since the 1960's, Anglo-Saxon philosophy has mostly developed in such a way as to bring it into uncritical accord with an already existing Western mentality. Slight adaptations in exposition often alter nothing: e.g., the logical difficulties of identifying mind and brain differ from the logical difficulties in saying that the only realization of mental states is in brain states.

In ethics, there is a constant tension within the Anglo-Saxon mind as to whether the human being can be considered in this physical way, a way popularized in much science fiction, or whether the person has to be transcendent in some way. Yet in this last case the way of thinking is usually assumed to be along the lines of Cartesian dualism, fitting with some New Age and Christian fundamentalist ways of thinking, but mostly dismissed by philosophers.

Philosophers deceive themselves if they think that attitudes to metaphysics have no consequences for the ethical. It has become the customary norm to assume that the ethical can be established only either subjectively by the individual or else by some social consensus. The Church has a quarrel with many conventional norms which have become part of a common Western consensus, a quarrel with the undervaluing of marriage, with the overrating of sexual acts unrelated to the person-orientated priorities and setting of marriage, a quarrel with abortion and an incipient quarrel with euthanasia and the undervaluing of the elderly.1

Such are the difficulties which issue from physical materialism as a view of man. Resistance comes from Protestant, Muslim and other groups, but the traditional appeal to reason is dead, and if Aristotle or Aquinas are right, then dead for no good reason.

Yet it is this kind of philosophy, which .the Encyclical labels scientism (n. 88), with its ethical consequences on the economic organization of the world and its infectiousness within the educational systems of developing countries—ever in danger of undermining those elder cultures to which we should look with respect, those of India, China, Japan and Africa in particular. Indeed, it is in regard to these that particular emphasis has been laid on the importance of the Inculturation of the Church's wisdom into their terms and forms. Here, the Church may have the role of a rescuer (see V below).


This brings us to the consideration of the kind of rescue which can be achieved, which is the question of what the inculturation of Christianity into culture may mean for that culture. We can get some idea of this by considering the Church's relation to earlier cultures.

The question of the Church's inculturation into Judaism never arose because Christian tradition by its origin incorporated Jewish tradition and wisdom, thereby drawing also on the elder wisdoms of Mesopotamia and Egypt which had enriched Jewish wisdom. And it is because Muslims and Jews shared this background that they were able to assist in the dialogue by which St Thomas (n. 43) so much clarified Christian thought about God, his incomprehensibility, unity and freedom. Thomas' argument and debate was with the orthodox Muslim Avicenna in Persia, building on Al Farabi, with the less orthodox Arab Averroes, vital as "the Commentator" on Aristotle, and with the Jews Avicebron and the Rabbi Maimonides.

IV. 1) Therefore the first real problem of inculturation for Christianity was in relation to Greek culture. But here what developed should be understood, not as a Hellenization of a Jewish religion, but as a Hebraicization of Greek philosophical concepts. This involved the employment of the Church's knife, firstly to secure the unity of God, Athanasius following St John and Irenaeus in his expounding Jesus as the Wisdom of the Father; secondly to secure the understanding of Jesus and his Father as two persons, Jesus able to pray to his Father, a distinct hypostasis (as St Thomas explains, a first substance in the sense of Aristotle's Categories, i.e., a primary subject of predication); and thirdly, the insistence on Jesus not only being perfectly divine but also as being truly man. Yet even this occasioned a difficulty in respect of philosophical terms: the Greek world physis was used in two ways, one corresponding to the Latin natura, so that one would say Christ was one person in two natures, the usage of the Church in Constantinople, and the other signifying something like independent reality, the usage of the Alexandrian Church seeking to follow St Cyril. We see here one instance of the vital need for philosophy's contribution signaled in n. 66.

IV. 2) The Church's inculturation into Latin culture raised different problems for later theology, the Latin contribution to the theology of the universal Church shows itself most prominently in its injection of Latin legal ideas, shown in the preference given to the idea of Christ's supplying satisfaction for sin in explaining our redemption and in the preoccupation with questions of free will, grace and predestination. The Western preoccupation with the doctrine of original sin, reinforced by engagement with Protestantism, is puzzling to secular Westerners today, but before that has sometimes puzzled Eastern Christians .2 This provides an illustration of the difficulties which arise in the process of inculturation, in this case inculturation into a Latin style of thought. Yet, even from within Latin resources, recent development may have an enlightening effect. St Thomas' emphasis on the importance of incorporation into Christ, along with his Headship of the Church as his Body, has been developed in recent times, particularly by Emil Mersch and in Plus XII's Mystici Corporis Christi. If we see community both at the natural and supernatural level as a gift God was determined not to remove from man in punishment for sin, then the sin of one human being must affect all, in order that all be saved together in one community. This illustrates one particular way in which an existing process of inculturation may yet be carried further.

IV. 3) Christian philosophy has deeply influenced later thinking, e.g. in thinking of law not just as an exercise of the will of the ruler but as an expression of practical wisdom in the care of the community, so that equity is integral to all just implementation of law, a wise mercy being a duty, not an arbitrary whim. The making of Greek and-Hebrew ideas of friendship and brotherhood into the very basis of political community, and the insistence on the equality of human beings of all races, of man with woman master with slave, initiated a gradual transformation of Western society, extending to monogamy and respect between the sexes, still influencing the rest of the world, now largely mediated through secular influence. Belief in the equality of human beings in their status as persons lay at the root of the rejection of slavery and of the caste systems, a rejection Christians share with Buddha and Gandhi.

Particularly notable is the notion of .person". In the thought of Augustine and later of Richard of St Victor and Aquinas, the very esse of the Persons of the Christian Trinity consisted in the exercise of the relations between them. Human beings exist first as individuals and develop richer relationships through many stages, so that in a sense they are first individuals largely separate from each other and only called persons because their very nature is to develop in and through enrichening relationships, the full meaning of what it is for them to be persons only realized in the completion of this development. For an Aristotelian, differences between different persons, all being of the one species, are the results only of accident, whereas in Jewish and Christian thinking each has his particular character and role in God's providence. The modern notion of personality, the value of the distinctiveness of each individual person, even the legitimacy of such notions, are borrowings from Christian ideas.


Every true attempt at the inculturation of Christianity into a freshly met culture requires a deep preliminary penetration of the life and thought world of that society, the kind of penetration attempted by Matteo Ricci in China and Roberto Nobili in India. Everywhere the first step towards inculturation is an actual penetration of the culture concerned. E.g., we find expressions of respect for ancestors (reminding us of appropriate Christian and Jewish practices of looking after graves and praying for the dead), strongly represented in Chinese,3 Japanese, African and South American culture, each of whose forms needs to be understood before being questioned or adapted .4 Such expressions are of a piece with respect and care for the elderly and a sense of the mutual obligations between members of the extended family, again much valued in African and Middle Eastern society, but currently undermined by the pressures on these societies from Western cultural and economic forms of pressure. A closely related aspect of most of the cultures I have instanced is the high value set on hospitality and the care of the poor, and the sanctity of the situation of anyone accepted as a guest.

Westerners approaching other cultures suffer the constant danger of understanding Eastern cultures according to already established Western models. For instance, the Mahayana, already strongly distinct from other Buddhist traditions, itself takes very different forms, e.g. Zen being almost as much a development of Taoism as of Buddhism. Over-attention to Zen may have reinforced the Western academic tendency to give Buddhism a straightforwardly atheist interpretation, in addition repudiating the idea of human personality in favour of an atomism in which reality lies only in individual experience in its inexpressible character and particularly—now reflected in the theory of some Buddhist practice in the West.

Again, in relation to Hinduism, the need for ample study is vital. Some recent writing makes Hinduism fit the Modernist format described by Pius X in Pascendi, supposing an interior religious sense as initially latent in the subconscious—an inner beginning of revelation from which each religion sprung as something with both a natural and supernatural aspect. The idea of God as one found by looking inwards has been very popular in recent centuries, but examination of Hindu scriptures invites inquiry along different lines, firstly along the lines of a comparison with negative theology and the way of antinomy or paradox as these are found above all in the Eastern Orthodox tradition but also in St Thomas and in Nicholas of Cusa, and secondly exploring the possibility that the word maia in Sankara's classic writing means contingency or transitoriness, rather than appearance or unreality. Such study often leaves uncertainty—but without it no healthy development can proceed. What is most clear is that although Hinduism is tolerant of all its native traditions, these are not all understood according to one single model.


The way in which it is vital to any later inculturation of Christian belief to preserve the understanding secured in the earlier struggles involved in Greek and Latin inculturation, emphasized in nn. 69 and 72 of the Encyclical, becomes particularly plain in relation to Hindu systems of belief if we consider (a) the uniqueness of each human biography, completed in a resurrection not a reincarnation, (b) the character of grace and of human freedom, and (c) the gathering together of all rational creatures into one cosmic history, in no way cyclical. Corrected through struggle, the Greek and Latin expressions serve the preservation and better understanding of the Hebrew expressed biblical data. For, It is unmistakable that Christian understanding views the universe as having one history, and each human being as having one biography so that, although there is resurrection giving the restoration and completion of the previous historical person, there is no reincarnation.

The involvement of Jesus, the only Son of God, God from God, the Logos, the very Word later made flesh in Jesus of Nazareth, in preparation for the Incarnation is particularly plain in the Greek Fathers.

It is God's plan that human salvation should be of a kind adapted to man (nn. 11-12). This means that the final salvation which we are to come to includes a resurrection, a complete restoration of the bodily and communal in man, albeit in a manner unknown and mysterious to us now, each person having a distinct name, personality or role—each, as it were, a distinctive part in the heavenly orchestra. In traditional teaching, all grace before or apart from Jesus' work in his visible life in the flesh arose in anticipation of this work or continues- in virtue of it. His incarnation, life and death gave a human dimension to man's salvation, opening out after the resurrection a period in which all the riches of different cultures should be brought within the historical Church. It is not simply a question of each individual being rescued from damnation, but of each individual being willing to contribute his whole growth, including anything drawn from the riches of his own culture, to the shared heavenly concert.

In this way, just as the preparation for Jesus' coming was fully human- so the struggle and development which prepares the Church for the end of our present history is fully human, embracing all the riches of other cultures (n. 61), as Solomon's Temple drew on the riches of Sheba—a struggle of the Church in the flesh within history, as Jesus' struggle was a struggle in the flesh within history. It is for this reason that the saints of the Old Testament and others have to wait for the historical Church in order to enter into the salvation promised to them (Heb 11:40). For it is to one and the same final concert that all men are invited to take part the same salvation that all are invited to, in, through and with him, the very Wisdom of God, one divine person of one being with his Father, perfect God and perfect man, ever active in each human heart, building up human wisdom, faith and reason at one, in anticipation of his opening to us the very vision of the Father (St Paul, 1 Cor 13, and St John, Rev 22).


1. Yet many in the West, not moved by religion, still maintain a radical conviction as to certain values, e.g. execrating the racial divisions and the multiplicity of injustices and follies evident around the world, causing poverty and starvation to many millions. Whence this conviction? The belief in the absolute is often present even when the absolute is being denied. It is fortunate that God, the ultimate judge, will judge according to heart and not opinion, but alas if some be without heart or opinion, but mere followers of their peer group.

2 Hence the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of Mary, free from original sin at her very conception, expresses how completely she was redeemed. The puzzle for Greek and Syriac traditions has been, not as to how Mary might be sinless, but only why her exemption from original sin needed separate statement.

3. The Italian and French Jesuits held that the honour offered to Confucius and consuming of food laid out round the tablets marking the buried dead involved only honour to a great teacher and filial piety without worship or petition being involved in either case, and had this explicitly confirmed by the Emperor Wang Hsi. But the Franciscans and Dominicans held that whatever Confucius taught, the common people expressed worship of Confucius and a belief in the actual presence of the ancestors in the tablets. The Cardinals Commission in 1704 forbid such practices, to avoid risk of superstition, and this decision was only reversed in 1939, in response to the repeated insistence of the Chinese Government that these practices had only civil significance. As Confucianism revives this reversal may yet recover significance. Parallel types of disagreement arise in regard to almost every new culture which Christianity meets but the question was perhaps easier in the Chinese case because of the evidence that Confucius was primarily a moral or politico-social teacher rather than a religious one.

4 Cf. Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Book 1, c. 27 (answers 2, 5 and 8) and c. 30.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
4 August 1999, page 5

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