"Mystifying Indeed": On Being Fully Human
| Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | March 28, 2006
"Mystifying Indeed": On Being Fully Human
| Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | March 28, 2006
"It is a curious thing that human beings spend so much energy denying
their own spiritual and rational nature. No other being tries with such
effort to deny that it is what it is. No dog or horse would ever try to
show that it is not a dog or horse but only a mixture of matter, force,
and accident. Mans attempt to deny his own spirituality is itself
a spiritual act, one that transcends space, time, and the limitations
of matter. The motivations behind this self-denial are mystifying indeed."
Robert Sokolowski, "Soul and the Transcendent Meaning of Persons."
"The serious discourse of Christ is now part of the life of thinking,
but there still remain situations in which Socratic irony is appropriate.
Christian revelation elevates but does not replace human reason, and it
leaves intact not only reasons power to discover the truth, but
also its dialectical and playful manner of doing so." Robert
Sokolowski, "The Autonomy of Philosophy in Fides et Ratio."
Every so often an event happens that causes us to stop, almost dead in
our tracks. We say to ourselves: "This is really significant."
This event is not ordinary, which is why we notice it, even though it
may chance to happen in the course of an ordinary day. We want to explain
why it is so striking. The event can be, and usually is, the meeting of
a particular person (all persons are particular, "singular"),
or it can be the seeing of a work of art, the hearing of some music, or
even the witnessing of a good game or match. What happens to stir our
reflections might even be a tragedy natural, human, or artistic.
But it can also be, as it is here, the reading of a newly published book,
one that was sent to us from out of nowhere, something we did not actually
buy. The event, I say, is the "reading," not the mere publication
or possession of the book itself. Strictly speaking, a book does not "exist,"
or better "re-exist," until someone actually reads it, actually
Now the reading of books, I know, is relatively common, especially if
you spend your days, as I do, in academia. It is part of the trade, even
of the "tricks of the trade," of the regular "duty"
of office, so to speak. If you read nothing, sooner or later you are fired,
or should be. But long ago, you realized that no one, including yourself,
can read everything. You read what you can, not all of which overwhelms
you. The fact is, however, that some things are better than others. Some
books, like those of Plato or Sophocles, we call "classics,"
and rightly so, because we find so much in them no matter how often we
Other books, we notice, put things together, explain what belongs where
and why; books, as I like to put it, that tell "the truth of things."
They are not necessarily what are called "classics," which,
as Leo Strauss said, often contradict each other. Philosophy, at its best,
is about the whole of things. Philosophy exists before, within, and beyond
books about philosophy. It is an openness to reality, to what is,
wherever it is found. It wants to know how and why things are at
all and why things are as they are. Nothing that addresses the
mind and our being can be left out of our considerations by the supposition
that it is not "philosophical." The very leaving out of anything
makes the enterprise un-philosophical.
The reading of books enables us to be more than ourselves, to participate
in things we never directly experienced or discovered by ourselves. However,
even in the case of the relatively few things we may have figured out
for ourselves, we are still blessed if we can know what others have thought
and done, especially if we are dealing with the most important and fundamental
of things issues we too often fail to broach. The book I am here
speaking of and have just read is that of Monsignor Robert Sokolowski.
His Christian Faith & Human Understanding, just published by
the Catholic University of America Press, is a masterpiece of good sense,
clarity, profundity, and accuracy of expression.
Sokolowski is a friend of mine. Thus, I write these remarks to call attention
to something particularly well done, particularly insightful. Aside from
those four or five books of his I have not read, I have previously read
various essays of his, his excellent The God of Faith and Reason,
his Eucharistic Presence, and his Introduction to Phenomenology.
These are heady books, as is this new volume. Sokolowski has a genius
for making what otherwise would be abstruse points to become intelligible
to ordinary people. He does not let philosophical language get in his
way of explaining the truth of an issue. Indeed, at times, we find something
almost "folksy" about his explanations. I do not, however, intend
here to write a "book review," but I do want to state how illuminating
the book is both to ordinary people and to scholars. Sokolowskis
clarity brings both into his argument.
Perhaps I could call what follows an "appreciation."
I think it worthwhile to make some extended comments on Christian Faith
& Human Understanding. At bottom, I want to recount something
of what is found in this welcome book. To explain it, I do not want to
be carried away to produce something three hundred pages long, as is this
concise book. But I do want to say that this is not merely a profound
book, but a very readable book. Any person to whom the book is implicitly
addressed in its very subject matter bishop, priest, seminarian,
medical doctor, psychoanalyst, politician, craftsman, engineer, lawyer,
soldier, businessman, housewife, public intellectual, college professor,
graduate student, yes, theologian and philosopher can understand
Every man, John Paul II said in Fides et Ratio (itself the subject
matter of the first essay in this book), is a philosopher. Everyone wants
to know the truth of things. Professional philosophers do not have a monopoly
on philosophy. Indeed, as St. Paul intimated, they are not infrequently
themselves rather foolish in their explanations of things. But first,
for anyone reading this book, his soul had best be prepared to be confronted
and challenged by truths he quite likely never suspected, the essential
truth that to be fully human one needs both philosophy and grace. Moreover,
their relationship is, as Aquinas said, non-contradictory and, as Sokolowski
shows again and again, is not in fact contradicted by anything that the
modern mind really knows.
The book does not skirt the most profound of issues such as the Trinity,
the Incarnation, what is philosophy? what is natural law? what is a person?
what are the virtues? what is a soul? what is science? Indeed, for the
attentive reader, Sokolowskis habitual method of explaining things
is itself extremely educative. The reader is taught as he reads in that
very sense that Aquinas advised, that of showing what the order of the
subject matter is, how it fits into the whole, how we know and speak of
it. Sokolowski always gives brief, pithy examples of his point, again
in the best Aristotelian tradition. The mind first and most easily sees
general principles in particular instances. As Aquinas said, speaking
of beginners in theology, they get tired and bored when things are not
presented after the manner of natural knowing, when they cannot see what
is going on in their own minds through the mind of the teacher or writer.
None of this obscurity is found in Sokolowski.
Sokolowski writes so that the ordinary reader can follow him, but he never
avoids the most fundamental of issues. This book is also, as I have indicated,
directed to the scholar in his own domain. Nor does Sokolowski ever fail
to confront the major points of opposition to what he presents. He knows
the difference between mind and brain, together with their relationship
to each other. His rejection of an error is always itself an understanding
of what it means in its own terms and why it is to be rejected, again
in intelligible terms. He holds, without denying that some are more intelligent
than others, that every human mind can know (and can know much of) what
is most important to know about reality about itself. It can
know the truth in its basic presentation. Indeed, Sokolowski defines the
human person most simply as an "agent of truth." But what is
argued, if it is to be seen and understood, has to be presented carefully
Sokolowski, who did his higher studies in Louvain, is a philosopher both
in the tradition of Aquinas and of modern phenomenology through the work
of Edmund Husserl. He is very careful about words and how they are used
in all disciplines from theology to psychoanalysis. But behind this attention
to language, he is concerned to see how we know and identify things, including
our speech about God, where it comes from, how it is used, what it means,
why it means what it means. The book is divided into four parts. The first
deals with faith and reason, the second with the Eucharist and the Trinity,
the third with the human person, and the fourth with what he calls "faith
and practical reasoning," wherein he goes into the nature and art
of medicine, the professions, seminary training, and universities. His
penetrating discussion of political things Sokolowski is a careful
reader of Aristotles Politics is found in the third
section. Even a brief understanding of the variety of these topics will
suggest the old principle that to know something, we have to know about
This book at first sight is a collection of sundry essays and lectures
previously published in various journals or as chapters in books. The
essays represent the quintessence of the work that Sokolowski has pondered
over the years as he has taught in the excellent School of Philosophy
at the Catholic University of America, where he remains a professor. And
he is a professor no student in the Washington area, with even an inkling
of the intellectual curiosity, wants to miss. What strikes the reader
early on in reading this book is, however, that certain basic themes from
revelation recur again and again, yet in ever new contexts. Sokolowski
notes this recurrence and thinks it might be useful, which it is. Indeed,
it is what gives a remarkable unity to this book.
Basically, what Sokolowski does is to show, in each of his considerations,
how the content of revelation that we have received and had articulated
in tradition creation, redemption, resurrection does inform,
develop, and, yes, "heal" reason when we reflect on what these
truths might mean. These considerations are not merely pious insights
but ones rooted in the very fabric of his immediate subject matter, which
is first presented in its own philosophic depths. While the basic intellectual
structure of revelation has its own inner coherence and articulated relationship
with its own matter, it is itself directed to reason, a reason that must
already be alive to itself to realize the implications of what is addressed
Revelation thus in large part depends, for our grasping of its significance,
on whether we also have gone to the trouble of articulating what we can
know by reason. This is why we read the philosophers, to know what they
claim to know. This implies that we know what reason and philosophy are
about in their own orders. It also intimates that we know what "bad"
or incoherent philosophy is and can account for its own deviation from
the truth. Our relation to revelation does not depend solely on our relation
to philosophy. But both human life and revelation have a direct stake
in a philosophy that is true, granted that in knowing the truth we must
ipso facto know what is not true.
Sokolowski is careful to distinguish and identify the exact meaning of
the content of Christian revelation. In an earlier essay in the March,
1998 issue of Review of Metaphysics (an essay that does not appear
in this volume), he described the philosophic method as one of "making
distinctions," of the attentive and careful effort to state accurately
what one observes and knows, to see that this thing is not that
thing, but also to see how and whether this thing is related to that thing
and if so, how. Initially, this is a deeply contemplative act that just
wants to know, something that appears before any question of "doing"
comes into the picture.
In this process, Sokolowski is willing to speak of the differences and
similarities between knowing by using language and knowing by using pictures
or gestures. He recognizes that man is the animal endowed with mind and
speech, but an animal that also knows by his whole being. Sokolowski spends
some time in distinguishing between human speech and the sounds of animals,
in a world that often thinks it cannot tell the difference. But he spends
more time in addressing the question of divine speech, the Word and words
what exactly it is that we know that is addressed to our minds
and to our being in revelation.
The theme or thesis that comes back in almost every essay in some form
or another is that of the basic understanding we have from revelation
about God, man, and the world. Sokolowski points out that for classical
philosophy, a most worthy, if limited, philosophy in its own right (and
something we still need to know thoroughly and learn from), the world
contains the gods or principles as the highest and most important part
of its structure. God or the First Mover in this world has no personal
relation to the lesser parts of the world, which, along with the divinity,
evidently always were. The best we ourselves, who have souls, can expect
is perhaps an immortality of the soul. We are not pure spirits and, I
think, do not want to be. At our highest level, we are devoted to the
contemplation of this First Mover, who moves us by love and desire of
itself, and by its relation to the cosmos as an order. Perfection, in
the classical philosophic view, is to know this order that we did not
make. Our action in the world is to put what order we can in our own lives
and cities according to the level of being we possess, in imitation of
the order we find in the world.
In revelation, both Old and New Testament, however, the world is not the
result of chance, nor is it eternally in being. It does not cause itself
or its own order. Basically, the world and all in it need not exist. God
does not "need" the world even if He is its source and cause.
Why? The reason is internal to himself. He does not require the world
because He is already complete in His own inner life, which is itself
a social or Trinitarian life. What we can know of this Trinitarian life
through revelation constitutes the highest of our intellectual exercises.
We not only seek to know it but to know it "face to face," to
use Old and New Testament words. It is for this that we come to be in
the first place, but not of our own making.
God is not lonely, something about which Aristotle worried. God would
be God even if He did not create the world. God does not change by creating
what is not Himself. If the world exists, as it does, it therefore must
do so not because it had to exist. Sokolowski deals with those theories
evolutionism and determinism in their manifold varieties
that claim the world is necessary or simply accidental and that it explains
itself. What this book accomplishes is to enlighten every aspect of reality
once it is described and juxtaposed against the background of the Christian
understanding of God as creator and redeemer. Literally nothing we know
by natural reason alone is seen in the same light, once we understand
its structure or understood meaning in the light of these truths. They
explain why the world exists and how it reaches its end through the relation
of God to the human persons within the world. Not only do we have a personal
uniqueness and destiny before God we are created, each of us specifically
to be what we are but we are to participate in the inner life of
God. We are to be, in Christ, friends of God and of one another. The highest
of the Aristotelian virtues friendship is included in and
transformed by what we know of God in revelation. The greatest of the
revelations as far as we are concerned is simply that we can, contrary
to Aristotles logical wonderment on the topic, be friends of God,
at His behest.
Central to Sokolowskis discourse is the question of the redemption
and the Eucharist. Sokolowskis discussion of what the Eucharist
is becomes particularly important when we see how it relates to everything
else, including creation. He explains how a priest should understand the
basic canon of the Mass as he says its very words. He explains the central
Catholic teaching on what happens in the Mass, including trans-substantiation,
its relation to the Last Supper, to the Crucifixion, and to the resurrection.
There is only one Mass, which is at the center of reality, something that
is here clarified so that we can see both the human and transcendent dimensions
of what is happening. This Mass is the central act of the Church. Indeed,
the Church exists so that the Mass can still be present among us, the
same Mass. It is Gods response to the human search for an adequate
way to be "pious," to respond to the Godhead in adequate terms,
something natural religions and philosophies could never figure out by
themselves. Sokolowski is quite attentive to the relation of a decline
in belief and practice, especially in the contemporary Church, to failure
to understand what the Mass is and to say and participate in it after
the manner of what it is. Indeed, this is the central thesis of this book.
Again, to explain how this Mass is possible, something that we do wonder
about, it is necessary to return again to creation, its original purpose,
which is to invite free and intelligent beings to choose God after the
manner in which God is revealed to us, that is, in the birth, life, death,
and resurrection of Christ. Thus, Sokolowski deals with the question of
precisely who and what Christ is what is the meaning
of the two natures in one divine person. Christ reveals man to himself,
so that he might know and choose to be fully what he is. This choice of
his being fully himself is now within the context of Incarnation and Redemption.
Sokolowski has a rather brilliant section on the history of the Incarnation
in Church history. He argues that the central and recurring heresy in
the Church over the centuries is that of denying, not the possibility
of God, but in denying the possibility of Incarnation and subsequent redemption
through Christ. The affirmation of Christ as God causes much more hatred
than the denial of Gods existence. Most of the early heresies from
Arianism to iconoclasm were astonishing efforts to avoid the significance
of what the Incarnation means: literally that one of the Persons in the
Trinity became man, true God and true man, and this for our redemption,
for our return to the original purpose of creation in the first place.
It is in this sense also that Sokolowski deals with the meaning of the
human person, against the background of creation and redemption. Not only
is a person a rational substance, but he is an absolute unique and singular
being in every instance of its appearance, human, angelic, or divine.
Sokolowskis use of logic and precise thought in defining the meaning
of person is one of the great presentations in this book. This centrality
of the person will found the discussions he develops on politics and natural
law. He grounds in the person not only the life of politics in the virtuous
and free development of human beings in various political regimes, but
indicates why politics, as Aristotle had intimated, "does not make
man to be man." Politics already assumes or understands man to be
what he is, a certain kind of being, neither angel, god, nor beast, who,
reflectively, can know what he is, but know also that he did not make
himself to be what he is. And this rightly causes him to wonder why he
is at all.
As a philosopher, Sokolowski is very attentive to the importance of the
life of thought as a theoretical enterprise. Indeed, on reading this book,
one might very well say that the very front line of defense of all human
dignity is in the hands and minds of those who think things through. The
vocation of the philosopher is, in this sense, often a humble one, however
much it is also open to pride. Christianity has long understood, as Josef
Pieper has remarked, that the political life needs the contemplative
life. Christianity must have within it those who are humble enough both
to think and to think with the aid of what is known from revelation. Unless
this thought is first carried out, the world of action will go on subject
to other ideologies and systems that come up with ever more varied and
dangerous alternatives to what man is. Conversely, revelation has within
itself not merely thought but action, including, as Benedict
XVI states in his recent encyclical, that which originates in charity,
something not wholly accounted for by human reason, but something whose
effects it can recognize and politically account for.
Hence we must know what human action is (a topic about which John Paul
II wrote so well as a young man) and how it relates to thought. Aristotle
is of course a good guide here, as is Aquinas. But the centrality of the
person also indicates that being human includes mind and body, hence concern
for well-being of human beings. Indeed, revelation both tells us to believe
that Christ is Lord and to give a cup of water, both. And the rendering
of things to Caesar tells us that the polity is indeed necessary and natural
to us. That the human person has a transcendent destiny is itself what
limits politics, but also contributes to its dignity. A correct and complete
understanding of what a human person is depends, in part, on an understanding
of what the divine persons are.
But the very drama of revelation includes this understanding of God who
need not create, but who does so out of love and generosity. The world,
Aquinas said, is created in mercy, not in justice, even though there can
and should be justice in the world. But God does not "owe" us
our creation. As Sokolowski shows, this makes us greater, not less. But
we can only see this if we see ourselves against the background of revelation
which explains to us, in terms we can come to understand even philosophically,
why we need not be, yet are.
The last section of this book deals the what is known as practical intellect,
with doing and making. Again in each of these chapters, Sokolowski shows
how the professions of law, medicine, business, military, education, both
university and seminary, relate to intelligence. Previously, Sokolowski
had a very direct chapter on, basically, what is a bishop and how to be
one. No bishop can afford to neglect this chapter, I think. Sokolowskis
discussion of the difference between an intelligent bishop and a theology
or philosophy professor is very insightful. And as in the case of an Augustine
and a Ratzinger, it is useful at times also to have bishops who are themselves
also philosophers. Catholicism is a religion of the mind, but this relation
comes from the content of revelation itself. Even though both Plato and
Aristotle seem to have wondered about it, it is not something concocted
by some thinker except under the stimulus of what is handed down in both
Testaments. The bishop, like the pope, himself a bishop, is to teach,
sanctify, and rule. All three belong together. But the bishops main
responsibility is to know and hand down what he has received. This principle
applies also to the theologian. Whatever great insights bishops and theologians
may have, their purpose in being is not to drum up something never heard
before, except that was never heard before through revelation.
Sokolowski in fact thinks one of the main problems that confronts the
handing down what is taught in the Church is the speed and thoroughness
with which the Mass was changed after Vatican II. He is very careful to
state this problem in accurate terms. He does not think that efforts to
improve the Mass and its understanding were not legitimate, but he does
think that the effect of such radical changes influenced every area of
Catholic life and thought. They have left a heritage of confusion that
needs to be corrected, something to which Benedict XVI seems carefully
to be addressing himself. The heart of this issue again is what the Mass
is and its proper understanding and correct celebration.
Sokolowskis studies on the relation between dogma and social practice
are very insightful. He sees clearly that a downgrading of the centrality
of Mass as a sacrifice results in an upgrading of the Mass as mainly an
expression of a community. The priest begins to see himself as a kind
of actor. What goes on is not the Cross but only brotherhood almost for
its own sake. This section makes sobering reading.
Sokolowskis discussion of the art of medicine and the other professions
is also quite insightful. Following remarks of Francis Slade, whom he
often cites, Sokolowski is careful to point out the difference between
an end and a purpose. An end is something already within something and
indicates what it is and what it is at its perfection. A purpose is a
human choice. The end of medicine and of the medical profession, something
on which all else depends, is the healing of a particular human being
who is sick. The doctor does not invent the human being, or even the healing.
What he does is to intervene for the healing. The professional standing
of the doctor as someone to whom we can trust ourselves depends on his
understanding of the end of his profession. If we think that he thinks
it is all right to kill or impair us, we will not go to him. But the doctor
can still have purposes that may or may not be in direct conformity with
the end of the profession. He may want to be rich or famous. This not
in itself necessarily something that will mean that the doctor is not
also practicing what medicine is.
These same principles apply to other professions. Sokolowskis discussion
of professions of law and engineering, as opposed to craftsmen in the
field, is most useful. And in all of his discussions he always reflects
on how the Christian understanding of man in his supernatural status improves
our understanding of the professions. His discussion of psychoanalysis
is much needed what is it, what does it conceive itself to
be. His basic principle remains that there can be no good profession without
a proper understanding of what human persons are, of what the world ultimately
is. This involves him with an ongoing discussion of those sciences that
more and more prescind from this understanding and think that science
in its formulae is what decides what a human being or the world is.
Sokolowskis discussion of what is the role of philosophy in a seminary
education is the last chapter in the book. It is a gem of clarity, not
merely in its concreteness, but in its scope of what a well-educated priest
(and Catholic and human being) ought to know. Not all Catholic clergy
need to be geniuses, but they need intellect and common sense. I am always
amused at the iconoclasm that I sometimes find in Sokolowski. For instance,
it has been a standing joke in seminary and university education for many
years that textbooks are an impediment to learning, that scholastic texts
are dry and unhelpful. Not at all, Sokolowski replies. They are very useful.
No doubt, they need to be done right this book itself, I suspect,
is the best book on the reform of seminary intellectual life I have seen
but they are definitely useful to go through a wide range of necessary
and fascinating subjects. He even gives a suggested number of courses
and subjects that need to be covered.
In his discussion of Catholic universities, Sokolowski pays considerable
attention to theology departments as key to the whole enterprise. Universities
Catholic ones included have become subject to the "disciplines"
and their professionalism. These all presuppose a kind of rationalist
ideology about what truth is and how to establish acceptable positions
that can be taught within them. Any relation to Church or authority is
looked upon as a threat to this kind of ideology. What needs to be seen
is how the mind works when its very essence is to begin, not with what
the mind is supposedly capable of learning "by its own powers,"
but what it can learn accepting authority. He rightly refers to Yves Simons
great work on authority in this context. But the point is illustrated
in the whole of Sokolowskis works. Seen against the background of
revelation clearly and accurately understood, any discipline is better
in its own order. It not only must use the mind to know things it never
thought of, but must see that its own mind is affected by the Fall and
its own disorders, things that are not merely intellectual but moral attention.
Obviously, then, I like this book. I am in the habit of recommending books.
My column in Crisis (April, 2004) was entitled "Three Books."
In it, I suggested three books that, I think, go a long way to explain
everything, that give that universal "scope" that is peculiarly
Catholic. They are Joseph
Pieper An Anthology, Peter Kreefts The
Philosophy of Tolkien, and Ralph McInernys The Very Rich
Hours of Jacques Maritain. Let me add this fourth book, Christian
Faith & Human Understanding, as a book that will put everything
together and give a new light to everything that we know.
In the beginning, I cited a passage from Sokolowski that remarked on how
odd it is, "mystifying indeed," that man would take such efforts
to deny what he is. If you want to know what modern man is most often
denying, nothing will help you more than this book on faith and understanding.
Sokolowski, referring to the German philosopher, Robert Spaemann, also
cited Socrates and Christ as if they both belonged to the same overall
discourse. He intimates that the understanding of both Socrates, the philosopher,
and Christ, the Word made flesh, is necessary for the wonder of our intellectual
lives, for our knowing the fullness of what is. To be a theologian
means to be able to describe the content of revelation as handed down
in precise and accurate terms. John Paul II said in Fides et Ratio
that one needs also to be something of a philosopher. And to be a philosopher
means to be open to what is, including to the something called
revelation as referring to realities we must confront if we are to neglect
nothing in being. No one in academic life embodies these two aspects of
what a thinker is better than Robert Sokolowski.
 Robert Sokolowski, Christian Faith & Human Understanding: Studies
on the Eucharist, the Trinity, and the Human Person (Washington: The
Catholic University of America Press, 2006), 161.
 Ibid., 24.
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Philosopher of Virtue
| Josef Pieper (1904-1997)
James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown
He is the author of numerous books on social issues, spirituality, culture,
and literature including Another
Sort of Learning, Idylls
and Rambles, On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs: Teaching, Writing,
Playing, Believing, Lecturing, Philosophizing, Singing, Dancing,
and A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning.
For a full listing of Fr. Schall's essays IgnatiusInsight.com articles,
please visit his author page.
Read more of his essays on his
the Insight Scoop Blog and read the latest posts and comments by
IgnatiusInsight.com staff and readers about current events, controversies,
and news in the Church!