Gilson on Intelligence in service to Christ the King

Gilson on Intelligence in service to Christ the King

In 1939 Etienne Gilson published an essay entitled on “The Intelligence in the service of Christ the King.” (found in Christianity and Philosophy, edited by Ralph McDonald, C.S.B. Sheed and Ward). It is one of the best essays on Christian philosophy because he explains the spiritual orientation of the philosopher. He relates philosophy to the issue of grace and theology.

He points out that the “world” won’t let you leave it or renounce it, because it wants your homage, especially the homage of your mind. Because intelligence is highest, the world longs to arrogate its homage and subject it to itself alone. Thus Gilson asserts “to deny it homage is first duty of Christian.” Christ is King.

As Gilson put it, “the intelligence is good, but it is only so if, by it and in it, the whole nature turns toward its end, which is to conform itself to God.” But, he continued, “by taking itself as its own end, the intelligence has turned away from God, turning nature with it, and grace alone can aid both of them in returning to what is really their end, since it is their origin. The ‘world’ is just this refusal to participate in grace which separates nature from God, and the intelligence itself is of the world insofar as it joins with it in rejecting grace.”

The Catholic philosopher affirms nature and loves the intelligence — but he says that we must distinguish two approaches to knowledge: we can develop the mind in order to turn its toward visible and transient things, to explain and master them (Descartes) or we can develop the mind in order to turn toward things invisible and eternal (Augustine).

The Catholic must be committed to excellence in science and fields of intellectual pursuit, for piety does not dispense with technique. “No one, nor anything,” Gilson observed, “obliges the Christian to busy himself with science, art, or philosophy, for other ways of serving God are not wanting; but if that is the way of serving God that he has chosen, the end itself, which he proposes for himself in studying them, binds him to excellence….That is the only way of becoming a good servant.”

So what then distinguishes the Catholic philosophy? He mentioned the orientation towards the eternal and higher truths. This turn is stabilized and made good through a knowledge of theology. Theology he calls the “technique of faith” and by it we can ” together the science they have acquired with the faith they have preserved.” So it is impossible to be a Christian savant, philosopher of artist without having studied theology. Theology can no longer be the “privilege of some specialists devoted to its study by the religious state” (Gilson wrote this in 1939). “It is necessary that those who wish to work as Christians in the great work of science, philosophy or art, themselves know how to hear His voice, and not only be instructed in His principles, but also and above all be imbued in them.” They can then direct science, art, philosophy towards God.

To restore in their fullness the theological values, to do so in such a way that they descend into the thought of the savant who calculates or who experiments, into the reason of the philosopher who meditates, into the inspiration of the artist who creates, is truly to place the intelligence in service of Christ the King, since it is to promote the coming of His reign, by aiding nature to be born again under the fruitful action of his grace and in light of His truth.

Gilson has nothing but scorn for the Catholics who would seek to hide their faith in order to get on in the world of the mind. “One of the gravest evils from which Catholicism suffers today is that Catholics are no longer proud enough of their faith.” We need to listen to the Word and to refer to it “publicly when necessary.” He counsels that “it does not depend upon us that it be believed, but we can do very much towards making it respected; and if it happens that those among us who are not ashamed of the Gospel fail to get others to follow them, those who are ashamed of it can be sure not even to get others to respect them.”.

1 Comment
  1. Gilson's comment about "hiding" one's faith, and the previous post on prayer both bring to mind a constant question I had when I was a student at a Catholic university: why don't all professors begin each class with a prayer? In my years as a student I had only three profs out of many who did that. I continue to be amazed and disappointed by that fact- and grateful to those three profs.

    Both of these posts give enough to think about for the rest of my life. Thanks

Join us!

* indicates required