"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. Man’s 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." [1]

"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 reason’s 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." [2]


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 understands it.

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 read them.

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. Sokolowski’s 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 it.

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, Sokolowski’s 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 and systematically.

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 Aristotle’s 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 everything.


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 to it.

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 Aristotle’s logical wonderment on the topic, be friends of God, at His behest.

Central to Sokolowski’s discourse is the question of the redemption and the Eucharist. Sokolowski’s 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 God’s 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 God’s 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. Sokolowski’s 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. Sokolowski’s 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 bishop’s 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.

Sokolowski’s 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.

Sokolowski’s 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. Sokolowski’s 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.

Sokolowski’s 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 Simon’s great work on authority in this context. But the point is illustrated in the whole of Sokolowski’s 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 Kreeft’s The Philosophy of Tolkien, and Ralph McInerny’s 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.


[1] 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.

[2] Ibid., 24.

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Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown University.

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 website.

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