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"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.
"Mystifying Indeed": On Being Fully Human | Part 1 | Part
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