Philosophy and Religion

“In the history of Western Culture, every chapter begins with the Greeks. This is true of logic, of science, of art, of politics, and it is equally true of natural theology….”—Etienne Gilson, God and Philosophy

In Truth and Tolerance, Pope Benedict XVI treats this same question of convergent faith and reason, and the meeting of Christian and Greek thought. As he explains, the pagans approached the question of divinity in three ways: 1) mythical theology; 2) civic theology; and 3) natural theology. This final discipline was embraced by Socrates and Plato. It was increasingly at odds with pagan worship—primarily a political cult of the city state. Hence, says Benedict, there arose the unusual situation in which “Civic religion does not ultimately have a god, merely ‘religion’; ‘natural theology’ has no religion, only a divinity.”

The reason Socrates was condemned for “atheism” was that he questioned poetic and civic religious habits. His creed was ethical, not political. Socrates and his followers represented the first (Greek) enlightenment which Benedict views as a positive development, unlike the skeptical “enlightenment” of modern Europe. This ancient intellectual movement paved the way for a new understanding of creation and its creator. With reference to St. Augustine

What is astonishing is that without hesitation he indicates that Christianity’s place is in the sphere of ‘physical [i.e., natural] theology,’ in the sphere of philosophical enlightenment. In doing so, he stands in complete continuity with the earliest theologians… the apologists of the second century, and indeed with the place Paul assigns to Christianity in the first chapter of the Letter to the Romans, which for its part is based on Old Testament wisdom theology and reaches back beyond that to the mocking of the gods in the Psalms. According to this view, Christianity’s precedents and its inner groundwork lie in philosophical enlightenment, not in [pre-Christian] religions.

According to early apologists like Justin Marytr, Christianity was the vera philosophia (true philosophy). This builds upon St. Paul’s critical assessment of the Greek thinkers (Rom. 4:8) which showed an agreement on philosophical morals. Yet there was a difference. According to Truth and Tolerance

Christianity went beyond the limits of the wisdom of the philosophical schools in that it went beyond ethical theory to a moral practice that was embodied and lived out in community…. We could simplify by saying that Christianity was convincing because of the connection of faith with reason by directing behavior by caritas, by loving care [for one’s neighbor].

Though faith cannot be “proved” by human reason, empirical evidence demonstrates that on a temporal level Christianity succeeded in the very things that pagan philosophy strived for, but could never attain. The new faith reunited religion with reason and provided an authoritative basis for ethical standards.

The new religion was also realist and objective. The Christian God was not identified pantheistically with impersonal nature or a “world soul,” in which the distinctions between creator and creation (and good and evil) were blurred. In the long term this meant Christianity encouraged material as well as spiritual progress. By contrast, those societies that remained mired in myth, cultural stasis, and a cyclical view of history were incapable of a truly enlightened culture and healthy self-criticism.

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