Swimming to the Reef

Swimming to the Reef


When I was a boy I lived in Hawaii from 1961-1964 (the picture is at Barbers Point Beach, 1963). Hawaii had just become a state. My father was a Marine stationed at Kaneohe Marine Corps Air Base. He also lived there as a boy when his father was stationed at Pearl Harbor in the late thirties. We lived right on Kaneohe Bay. We could see it from our windows and we would often walk the beach. We could see the reefs out in the distance, coral and rock formations breaking the waves and causing huge eddies and swirls of water and flying surf. The beach was off limits for swimming because of the sharks, the eddies and the danger of the rocky reefs that would gash and crush the unwary swimmer. But they were a sight of beauty and they gave the eye a resting point from which to take in the shimmering bay and the unbounded sea beyond. I envied the daring lad who once made his way out to the reefs at low tide and stood atop it craggy points.

Perhaps this childhood memory inclined me to relish the passage in Fides et ratio where Pope John Paul II described the relationship between faith and reason as a meeting on a dangerous reef, the “reef” of the gospel: “The preaching of Christ crucified and risen is the reef upon which the between faith and philosophy can break up, but it is also the reef beyond which the two can set forth upon the boundless ocean of truth. Here we see not only the border between reason and faith, but also the space where the two may meet.” §23

This image of the reef helps to explain my new blog and the new venture The Pope John Paul II Forum for the Church in the Modern World. I am on the reef like that daring lad of old who feared not the sharks or the surf but ventured forth to the reef to see things up close. As a philosopher professor and a Christian I look for the space where the two may meet — it is on the reef. And John Paul II, as a philosophy professor and as a Bishop and as the Pope, spent his life always searching for the meeting point for faith and reason.

So where or what is this “reef”? And why such drama about its discovery?

Socrates cultivated the daring lads, but not all philosophers would wish to throw caution to the winds like him. Take John Locke. In the Essay Concerning Human Understanding, John Locke says that “The philosopher should avoid the ‘vast Ocean of Being’ wherein man has no sure footing” (Book 1 chap 1 section 7). Locke was afraid that human words were too arbitrary and the s of rational arguments too tenuous for human beings to venture very far into philosophy in its search for wisdom. So if you follow the counsel of Locke you will never discover the reef.

The reef is located at the points where human reason has come to exhaust itself in its strenuous efforts to plumb the depths of human existence or to take a measure of the origin and end of the cosmos, precisely where we lose our sure footing. The mystery of good and evil, the suffering of human beings, the origin of the world, the first stirrings of life, the advent of freedom and self-consciousness or the ultimate end and destiny of man and the world: here one encounters the reef of reason, a place of deep waters and strong currents. We cannot quite get to the bottom of our inquiry about the meaning of it all. Perplexity will not leave our questions about happiness. Virtue and power, the golden rule, pleasure and pain, friendship and love . . . How should one live? Reason crashes against the absurdity of things, the injustices of life, the treachery of friends, the irrationality of institutions, the ugliness of the real,the antinomies of logic.

A sense of wonder remains about the development of virtue and the fate of a truly just man in the world. Locke is right — venture too far and the footing is gone. But how can we not venture on? If we swim in the ocean at all we shall come across the reef. The reef could be a place of ruin or a place of rest and harbor. For autonomous reason, the reef often becomes the ruinous shoals of life. But for faith, the reef becomes a harbor, for the reef is the cross of Jesus Christ, said Pope John Paul II.

Could this be the reason for our being? In the midst of travail we hear these words: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are the meek, blessed are those who mourn, blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice, blessed are the merciful, blessed are the pure of heart, blessed are the peacemakers, blessed are you when men persecute you.” At first such words seem to defy reason and possibility. Nietzsche railed against them. But their plausibility plans a seed of truth in the mind and heart. They bring into view a beckoning light, a view out into that “vast ocean of being” as Locke calls it. A sure footing is found when we take them to heart and step out of the dangerous eddies and utter a prayer — “give us this day our daily bread, forgive us our trepasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Follow Shukov in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich as he reaches the barrier of reason and endurance. The currents pull him way out to the reef and he learns the meaning of these words from the Baptist prisoner, Alyosha. At the point of despair — he finds hope, at the point of darkness, he finds light, at the point of hatred, he finds love.

Here is the full passage from Fides et ratio: “The crucified Son of God is the historic event upon which every attempt of the mind to construct an adequate explanation of the meaning of existence upon merely human argumentation comes to grief. The true key-point, which challenges every philosophy, is Jesus Christ’s death on the Cross. . . . . Reason cannot eliminate the mystery of love which the Cross represents, while the Cross can give to reason the ultimate answer which it seeks. . . . .What a challenge this is to our reason, and how great the gain for reason if it yields to this wisdom! Of itself, philosophy is able to recognize the human being’s ceaselessly self-transcendent orientation towards the truth; and, with the assistance of faith, it is capable of accepting the ‘foolishness’ of the Cross as the authentic critique of those who delude themselves that they possess the truth, when in fact they run it aground on the shoals of a system of their own devising. The preaching of Christ crucified and risen is the reef upon which the between faith and philosophy can break up, but it is also the reef beyond which the two can set forth upon the boundless ocean of truth. Here we see not only the border between reason and faith, but also the space where the two may meet.” §23

As we approach Good Friday I hope that we can follow the way of the cross — and come to see the message of Christ’s suffering and death as a between philosophy and faith; Pope John Paul II was a philosopher who set out into the deep and he found a sure footing in faith. Behold, the wood of the cross. This year, Good Friday is April 2, the fifth anniversary of the death of Pope John Paul II. Let us follow the words he took from Jesus – “Put out into the deep.” Following the path of philosophy we are led to points of faith. We find the true measure of life in the humble carpenter from Galilee. The wisdom of the beatitudes. The wisdom of a life in death. The grace to be a good man, the grace to be a new man.

It is bound to happen — we reach the reef from the side of reason, the barrier of endurance and incoherence of our limited schemes. We hear the pounding of the surf. We taste the salt of the sea and scrape upon the rocks below. Ahead is the beacon of faith, the cross of Christ. Behind? To turn back is to drown in the the eddies and swirls of our own lusts or to crash on the jagged rocks of our own pride and folly. Oh man, thou art in peril!

Hannah Arendt said: “Augustine, the first Christian philosopher and, one is tempted to add, the only philosopher the Romans ever had, was also the first man of thought who turned to religion because of philosophical perplexities.” Life of the Mind/Willing, chap. 10. Like St Augustine, Pope John Paul II found that philosophy, pursued with daring, leads one to embrace revealed truth and to find safe harbor in those craggy points of faith..

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