Maritain on Christian Philosophy

Pope John Paul II commends Jacques Maritain in his Fides et ratio:

We see the same fruitful relationship between philosophy and the word of God in the courageous research pursued by more recent thinkers, among whom I gladly mention, in a Western context, figures such as John Henry Newman, Antonio Rosmini, Jacques Maritain, Etienne Gilson and Edith Stein .  .  .  [they] offer significant examples of a process of philosophical enquiry which was enriched by engaging the data of faith. One thing is certain: attention to the spiritual journey of these masters can only give greater momentum to both the search for truth and the effort to apply the results of that search to the service of humanity. It is to be hoped that now and in the future there will be those who continue to cultivate this great philosophical and theological tradition for the good of both the Church and humanity.

I recently had reason to re-read some passages by Jacques Maritain. In one of his last works, Approach without Shackles or Untrammelled Approaches, he questions whether we ought to use the term “Christian philosophy” because it may suggest a form of dictation or a shackle on the work of reason. But Christian philosophy liberates the intelligence. So Maritain admits he is too harsh to criticize the phrase “Christian philosophy.” Obviously there is something called Christian philosophy, as long as Christians philosophize. Maritain is clear about this –

After all, a Christian can be a philosopher. And if he believes that, in order to philosophize, he should lock his faith up in a strongbox- that is, should cease being a Christian while he philosophizes — he is maiming himself, which is no good (all the more as philosophizing takes up the better part of his time). He is also deluding himself, for these kinds of strongboxes have always poor locks. But if, while he philosophizes, he does not shut his faith up in a strongbox, he is philosophizing in faith, willy-nilly. It is better that he should be aware of it. When one becomes aware of it, then one is forced to admit that there is a “Christian philosophy.” It is philosophy, and its work is a work of reason, but it is in a better position to perform its work of reason.  Peasant of Garonne, p. 142

It would be absurd impugn the notion of Christian philosophy , perhaps because it is an embarassment among the secularists, or perhaps it demands that we come to know and live our faith. Philosophers have many reasons they may resist the light of faith. The great Peter Geatch even said that he was afraid that Christian who philosophizes could apostasize. We saw what Newman says about the “high Lords of Light,” demons in the Gerontius. The ancient pride of Adam, and Lucifer, raises high his head, when our Lord praises the little ones to whom the Father has revealed the secrets of the kingdom. So faith actually sets the philosopher free; free from the cursed pride, free from the endless subtlety, free from the games of sophistry, and free from the moral disorders that pull the soaring mind to earth to crash in the roughs and bogs of passion and self-seeking. No, our friend Jacques would never pull back from the life of Christian philosophy. He just wants us to understand what a great gift it is. So after admitting that he was lacking in gentleness, here is his reformulation of the issue:

Given the naturally high estate proper to philosophical problems and at the same time the limitations of human intelligence, as well as the wounds of nature which affect the human mind itself, we should not be surprised that even among the greatest minds philosophy considered simply as such might very well become a stumbling block. .  .  .  .  And when, thanks to the efforts of Albert the Great and of St. Thomas (and these two men alone were able to carry it off), Aristotle entered into the service of theology, in the midst of astonishingly contrary circumstances and at the cost of how many battles, an immensely important turning point in history was passed which saved the Christian intelligence and its entire future. Whether there is question of a philosopher or of any man of faith, that faith impregnates the Christian intelligence completely. It deputizes philosophical reason to the single search for Truth, delivering it from its subjection to the world and from any form of servility to the fashions of the times. This is why what we call “Christian philosophy” is a philosophy set free, and ought to be called philosophy understood fully as such.

The Catholic university needs to nurture and raise up such thinkers. St Thomas is their guide.

The philosophy of St. Thomas (and especially his metaphysics) is not merely a Christian philosophy, but is the Christian philosophy par excellence.  .  .  . “For us to repeat what Thomas Aquinas did” means, in reality, “to descend once more from revealed truth to the philosophies of our time in order to enlighten them, purify them” and ransom the truths they hold captive.” An immense task,” as Gilson wrote, “but one in which Thomas Aquinas has gone before us and can still show us the way.” In this immense task, he can of course show us the way, provided we go forward with him. And this is dreadfully urgent. Peasant of Garonne, p. 146

May the Lord preserve the Center for Thomistic Studies at the University of St. Thomas, and may their faculty remain true to their faith and be authentic Christian philosophers..

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