Reflections on Fides et Ratio -3

Reason Finds In Revelation The Possibility Of Being Truly Itself

Bishop Rino Fisichella                                                                 Reflections Index

A document of the Magisterium always calls for particular attention. The teaching it offers stands in relationship to the Church's faith and is meant to provide believers with an opportunity for reflection and growth. It does not escape this condition; quite the contrary. Reading it enables us to enter a world that directly involves us and, because of the topics it addresses, it is certainly offered to a wider public than the believing community.

A hurried reading of this Encyclical is definitely not advisable. Valuable insights, wise comments and profound analyses would inevitably be missed. From this standpoint, the incipit could be misleading and prevent one from grasping its subtle originality. Fides et ratio suggests emphasizing the two subjects that characterize the entire document. In fact, faith and reason remain the pivot on which John Paul II's teaching rotates in his 13th Encyclical; yet reading it immediately shows us that the real centre lies elsewhere. The heart of this Encyclical is actually Revelation. It is to Revelation that faith and reason look, even if for different reasons and for different purposes. Revelation is the central reference-point, and without it the entire content, in a way, is left hanging in mid-air.

The reference to the theme of Revelation already made in the Introduction shows the route to be kept in mind: "Sure of her competence as the bearer of the Revelation of Jesus Christ, the Church reaffirms the need to reflect upon truth" (n. 6). The truth which Fides et ratio examines, then, finds its starting point in the Revelation of Jesus Christ. As if to say: truth is not a theory or a mere speculative exercise; it is articulated, instead, on the basis of an historical event. Here God reveals the definitive truth about himself, man and the world, and indicates a path to be taken so that truth can be expressed in a full and complete way.

Development in the theology of Revelation

We have to consider the theme of Revelation, then, if we are to understand the meaning and value that the Church attaches to truth and the various ways of investigating it. The first chapter is entirely dedicated to this theme. In these numbers John Paul II offers a genuine synthesis of the theology of Revelation, as it was newly set forth by the Second Vatican Council. Jesus, revealer of the Father, is the door leading into the revelation of God's Wisdom. This perspective is nothing other than a transposition of the teaching of Dei Verbum, frequently quoted in these numbers. Certain characteristic features of the Council's Constitution can be clearly seen: the Trinitarian connotation of Revelation, the centrality of Jesus Christ, the gratuitousness of God's self-manifestation, and the call addressed to humanity to share in the divine life. The first four numbers of Dei Verbum are summarized and explained here, with the primary objective of showing the profound link between God's Revelation and the human search for meaning.

The context in which it is presented, however, allows us to take a further step. Everyone is aware of the real progress John Paul II has made with this Encyclical in explaining Revelation. It makes more explicit what Dei Verbum had only hinted at and shows us how much development has occurred since Vatican I. As we know, the theme of Revelation was treated at the two Vatican Councils. Dei Filius, to tell the truth, was not primarily concerned with Revelation. When the Fathers dealt with its supernatural aspect, they did so with reference to faith. At a time when all possibility of supernatural knowledge was being denied and the knowledge of truth was being restricted to reason alone, the Magisterium was obliged to intervene in order to defend the nature of Christian faith and its non-contradiction with the truth attained by reason. Fides et ratio sums up this period when it says: "The First Vatican Council teaches that the truth attained by philosophy and the truth of Revelation are neither identical nor mutually exclusive" (n. 9).

At the outset, the Second Vatican Council was not primarily concerned with Revelation either. The schema De fontibus revelationis shows quite clearly that the Council's intention was to resolve the vexata quaestio left open by the Council of Trent about the relationship between Scripture and Tradition in the transmission of the content of revealed truth. But the Spirit's plans often differ from those of men, and in the end God's action always prevails in the most varied and unexpected ways. De fontibus revelationis was withdrawn at the end of the Council's first session and the mixed commission began its work, finding its first major agreement precisely on the new title to be given the Constitution: De divina revelatione. The change envisaged was not only at the level of its title. What the Fathers achieved was true progress and development in doctrine. Revelation, centred on Christ, its "mediator and fullness" (Dei Verbum, n. 2), retrieves the category of "economy" found in the thought of the Church Fathers. It would not be out of place in this context to recall a passage from the intervention made by the Melkite Bishop Georges Hakim during the discussion on the first schema of the Constitution. The Bishop gave the following reason for his non placet to the proposed text: "The schemata certainly contain the riches and values of Latin theology and we would like to pay our ardent respects to the magnificent 'intellectus fidei' which this theology has provided for the Church; but we are not pleased that, in completely overlooking

Eastern catechesis and theology, that of Cyril of Jerusalem, Gregory of Nazianzus and Gregory of Nyssa, Maximus, John Damascene and so many other Eastern Fathers, the writers of the draft monopolized the universal faith to the advantage of their particular theology, so much so that they seem to want to raise to an exclusive conciliar truth what is a valid, but local and partial expression of God's Revelation. In Eastern theology - where the liturgy is the effective place for the transmission of the faith, where initiation occurs within the sacramental mystery and not in an abstract instruction lacking symbolic ties - the mystery of Christ is directly presented as an 'economy' which unfolds in history: prepared by the old covenant, achieved in Christ and fulfilled in the time of the Church. Theoretical explanations, however legitimate and necessary they may be, are never separated from the Scriptural narrative and the testimony of the Fathers". The ancient and highly significant term "economy" echoed once again in the nave of St Peter's Basilica, making it possible to recover the biblical understanding of history by relating it to the saving plan fulfilled by the Incarnation of God's Son.

Revelation constitutes a point of reference

On this point we must acknowledge John Paul II's great theological wisdom and the original contribution that Fides et ratio makes. It can all be summed up in this simple sentence: while Dei Filius defends the theme of knowledge by faith, Fides et ratio clarifies the way of knowledge by Revelation. This is truly an innovative element that merits consideration. Revelation itself is presented as a form of knowledge and as a vehicle for an ever deeper knowledge of the mystery and of being. Certainly, faith remains in itself the primary way to know the content of Revelation. This is really the most adequate and coherent way for Revelation to be expressed in that depth which is concentrated in the mystery. The Holy Father clearly stresses this point: "Faith alone makes it possible to penetrate the mystery in a way that allows us to understand it coherently" (n. 13). Revelation, however, remains as something continually new that is offered to reason so that it can increase its knowledge and advance in its quest for truth.

John Paul II returns several times to the danger of subjectivism and the consequence of reason being confined within it own limits. Under the illusion that it is the only source for the knowledge of truth, reason "has wilted under the weight of so much knowledge and little by little has lost the capacity to lift its gaze to the heights, not daring to rise to the truth of being" (n. 5). Revelation, then, is the high road offered to reason to retrace its steps and to recover its speculative thrust. It is too constricting to think that the content of Revelation pertains only to faith; Fides et ratio rightly asserts the universal nature of this content and its profound meaning for philosophical reflection: "From the teaching of the two Vatican Councils there also emerges a genuinely novel consideration for philosophical learning. Revelation has set within history a point of reference which cannot be ignored if the mystery of human life is to be known. Yet this knowledge refers back constantly to the mystery of God which the human mind cannot exhaust but can only receive and embrace in faith" (n. 14). Revelation, the Pope continues, "stirs thought" (n. 15) because it enables the latter to enter the realm of the mystery.

"Mystery" is an often recurring word in this section. Revelation is set against the background of the mystery and is itself presented as a mystery. But the strong emphasis is not meant to limit the scope of reason's inquiry so much as to stress its autonomy vis-a-vis the ultimate challenge posed by the mystery. For those often accustomed to giving up in the face of what they do not understand, it has become a cliché to identify mystery with anything man cannot know. Fides at ratio, however, follows another path. The mystery is presented as the space offered to reason so that it can go beyond itself in search of a truth which can be given always and only as gift. If you will, it is precisely in connection with the reality of the "mystery" that we can rediscover the lost balance between the subjectivity of personal knowledge and the objectivity of the knowledge offered. The subject's angle of view must recognize that the object of his knowledge is always greater than anything he can encompass. This, however, is precisely the condition of reason's strength, and it cannot be renounced without causing irreparable harm to reason itself.

Universality of truth and its saving value

With the reference "to the sacramental horizon" of Revelation, John Paul II touches on a point of great probative force. Once again he confronts reason with the mystery, but in order to challenge reason to discover the intelligence that the mystery holds. Precisely because reason inquires autonomously into the mystery, it encounters signs that express it and that spur reason to go further and further in trying to reach the meaning they hold. In a context in which various linguistic analyses emphasize the value of signs, but without grasping the profound value of their reference to the underlying meaning, this dimension opens another area for dialogue and research with philosophical thought.

The primacy that the Encyclical assigns to Revelation from the very first chapter is not lost during the course of its discussion; quite the contrary. When John Paul II explains the particular "requirements" and "indispensable" demands made of philosophy, these are taken up and mediated by the Word of God. The three fundamental requirements presented by Fides et ratio are found in the very heart of Revelation: the first concerns the question of meaning (n. 80), the second consists in verifying "the human capacity to know the truth" (n. 82), while the third leads to the metaphysical horizon. From start to finish, the Encyclical never changes its original approach and organizes all its teaching around God's Revelation.

F. Rosenzweig, a keen Jewish thinker, wrote in The Star of Redemption that "it is theology's concept of revelation which creates that bridge between the extremely subjective and the extremely objective". This text immediately came to mind as I was reading Fides et ratio. With this Encyclical John Paul II has really created a bridge between philosophy and theology so that both can begin again to talk and dialogue together on the theme of truth. It is truth that Revelation brings and expresses in itself, a truth that enters human history not to impose itself extrinsically, but to challenge every person to enter into himself and discover where truth really dwells. In this regard the Holy Father makes a stimulating appeal: "Christian Revelation is the true lodestar of men and women as they strive to make their way amid the pressures of an immanentist habit of mind and the constrictions of a technocratic logic. It is the ultimate possibility offered by God for the human being to know in all its fullness the seminal plan of love which began with creation. To those wishing to know the truth, if they can look beyond themselves and their own concerns, there is given the possibility of taking full and harmonious possession of their lives, precisely by following the path of truth" (n. 15).

God's Revelation, then, becomes the synthesis and meeting point for the respective paths that faith and reason take in investigating and searching for the truth. In a period like ours, marked by a profound "crisis of meaning" (n. 81), Fides et ratio makes it possible to recover one of the essential elements in the common legacy of theology and philosophy: the universality of truth and its saving value. This is an achievement in which Christians have been true pioneers and the first line of defence. In this process, Christian thought cannot be accused of arrogance or any form of intolerance. A glance free of all preconceptions would clearly show the decisive contribution that Christianity has made (cf. n. 38). The unbreakable bond between truth and salvation makes the Christian message always and inevitably a message of truth about man and his condition. Man must not be deceived into thinking that he can be freed of his conditioning and fears; he must realize instead that his freedom is truly such only when he discovers the truth about himself. His call to transcendence and gives meaning to life to communion of life with God, the supreme form of personal freedom, is possible however, if he acknowledges his own sin and opts for the way of conversion.

Fides et ratio will be debated, but it will endure as a milestone in the history of Christian doctrine. If philosophy, for its part, wants to have a significant future, it will have to leave the blind alley of distrust to which it has relegated reason and look to the horizon marked by the radical newness which comes from the incarnation of God's Son. When seen in the light of Revelation, faith and reason can thus coherently form two sciences - theology and philosophy which, while remaining autonomous and self-consistent, engage in dialogue as they explore the one truth that gives meaning to personal existence. Reason, then, finds in Revelation the possibility of being truly itself: free to search for truth, capable of exploring it once it has been found and bold in self-abandonment to that truth by recognizing its own limits.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
13 January 1999, 10-11

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