Personality, Conversion, and Being: On John Paul II’s “Fides et Ratio”

By James Matthew Wilson for FRONT PORCH REPUBLIC
Brueghel The Fall of Icarus

Devon, PA. I was pleasantly surprised by one response to my recent two-part essay on Pope Benedict XVI’s Caritas in Veritate.  The commentator seemed disturbed by the priority of personality and grace that this new encyclical reminds us are the foundations of Christianity.  Of what, it is worth asking, does this priority consist?

Christians have faith in God not chiefly as a first cause or unmoved mover, nor primarily as the ground of being in whom we move and who “moves” in us; while it is valid to name God as Goodness Itself, Beauty Itself, Truth Itself, and Being Itself, the Christian above all knows Him as Personality or Personhood Itself.  He is a personal God not simply because he has a knowledge of individuals; that is, we call Him personal not merely as a means of contra-distinguishing Him from the mechanical Deist god of general rather than particular laws.  But rather, because what He reveals about himself above all is His reality as the archetype, as it were, of Personality; as Three Persons in One Nature, the Trinity speaks to us of the intimacy of love, the philia between persons, as the fundamental principle of things.  Love in this sense precedes being, and a person is one who loves another with a precision, complexity, and totality the full description of which it is beyond my ambitions here to provide.  Our self-knowledge as persons is preceded by and modeled on the Persons of the Trinity; it is in this participation in the Divine Persons that our human dignity resides.  While modern discourse often uses the terms “personal” and “subjective” to relegate something to the private sphere, to neutralize its authority or attenuate its reality, the Christian senses that it is precisely insofar as we are persons that we approximate to divinity.  What is most personal is not most “private” but most real and most important.  My “subjective” ideas possess a dignity, authority, and reality that makes the mere “objective” seem lifeless in comparison.

As such, God as the Person who gives of Himself without reducing Himself, and so makes things to be that had not been; Who loves what had not previously been there to be loved (and Who makes the “there” there–place–as itself lovable): He sets all things in being not of necessity but by grace, by the utter gratuity of caritas.  This mystery of grace and creation, which Benedict XVI has elsewhere and powerfully described in terms of freedom, love, and reason, precedes everything–everything, that is, save God as Trinity, as a Perfect Community of Persons in One Nature.  In the Trinity, grace and personality are perfectly one.  As St. Thomas Aquinas underscored, this entails that God, as Personality Itself, is outside any species or genus: He is not a person like us, though we are persons insofar as we bear a likeness to Him.  As such, there is no ground besides, outside of, or Before God on which to base our discussion of Him.  There is no secular terrain on which the Christian God features like a mountain and another god or gods like rivers and forests, all of whom can be summed up, compared and contrasted, as so many individuals in a ginned up science of divine geography called Theology.  Personhood and grace precede all things, because by grace things come to be, and by God as Person things are eternally known, loved, and given form.

But the commentator rightly objected that there must be some ground upon which we persons — Christians and non-Christians — can meet, upon which we can reason.  How else could one who does not believe in the Personal Loving God come to believe in Him?  And the most common — as in, oft repeated and experienced — story of the last two thousand years has been precisely this coming-to-believe in Christ.  Indeed, more broadly, the coming-to-possess-belief that we call conversion is one of the most common, mundane, universal events in human history, and yet the grounds of it are so shrouded in mystery that many persons (above all, in my experience, American college undergraduates) find it incredible and proceed to deny its existence.  “What one is raised with is what one believes,” they say.  “The ideas of your (oppressive, western, or patriarchal) culture are incommensurable with any other, and there is no means of bridging the chasm of un-intelligibility,” say those professionally trained perennial undergraduates called cultural anthropologists.  Again, conversion, the changing of mind and heart, is so mundane that we witness and experience it almost every day; but it is also so mysterious that it defies our attempts to assign criteria to it and entices many of us to explain it away as weak moral reasoning (as did David Hume) or as in fact impossible (as does the typical absolute historicist and relativist of our age’s intellectual culture).  So, on what terrain can we accept the invitation of the Prophet, when he says, “Come, let us reason together”?

The commentator (in a few brief sentences that I may have misconstrued) seemed to suggest that something must stand outside of and prior to God — even if that prior-to-God masquerades as God Himself.  Thus, modern comparative religions make so bold as to say, “We are all — Hindu, Christian, Musselman, and Wiccan (!) — praying to the same God,” or, “We all love one God, but he has many faces.”  While one occasionally finds this sentiment in other cultures, its usual formulation derives from Enlightenment Christianity, whose “project” was to retain the all-knowing, all-creating God of Christian Revelation but to reduce the essential terms of our knowledge of Him to those ostensibly more abstract, general, and necessary ones derivable from Aristotelian metaphysics.  Alexander Pope’s An Essay on Man is a classic example of the confusion that results from this endeavor, outlining as it does a syncretist theology that is neither Christian nor Classical, though amenable to both as a hash of ingenious rhetoric.  Our history shows us that a century or more can go by in which a culture believes this before it awakens to realize — perhaps on a rainy Saturday on which one’s beloved has been buried — that it no longer believes in God.  When one splits God into principle and personality, allowing God as law to precede God as love for instance, one actually conceives a new relativist polytheism with a more rationalistic and well-oiled vocabulary but with an even more superstitious and dessicated founding principle than had ancient pagan polytheism.  “God” remains the term of the highest Being than which nothing greater can be conceived, but “God” becomes also a nice cultural flourish, like excellent local cuisine, to be left in the dining room when there are strange and uninvited guests at the door.  This sort of irenic spirit, well-wishing though it may be, achieves nothing and leads to that most typical of modern phenomena: the superfices of relativism that conceals a dishonest dogmatism; it substitutes good will for honest engagement, drops serious and meaningful terms for the ambiguous rhetoric of politesse.  Worst of all, it betrays the “subjectivity” of God, His highest reality as Personality, as He Who Loves us, who reveals Himself, and hides Himself, in favor of a creaky Victorian conception of “objectivity” that soothes our anxiety about disagreement but convinces our intellect only so long as we refuse to think very hard.

There is another and a truer way of acknowledging that which is held in common with other persons without foolishly desecrating those most peculiar and personal aspects of Christianity that are essential to its Creed.

If God as singular principle of Personality precedes all things, which are His creation, then that entails that God is also Reason Itself, and so there is no “secular” terrain left for reason that could precede Him as source of the very intelligibility of things.  We do not reason outside of God, because our logic is grounded on, participates in, His Logos. Such is the means or nature of our thinking.  But, what do we contingent intellectual animals actually think?  That is, what is the substance or unit of our thought?  The answer of St. Thomas Aquinas was “Being,” and so far as I can discern that is the only possible answer to give — if there is to be any answer at all.  And so, even as the Christian acknowledges fundamentally that Personhood is reality, and that God as Divine Persons precedes all things and, in His community of love, freedom, and reason, brings all things into being, the Christian also recognizes that beings are what God makes: Being is the coin of reality and the currency of our thought.  It is the ground on which we stand, mediating between my reason and yours, and between my natural reason and the participation in God’s Personality that fulfills itself in the supernatural virtues of faith, hope, and love.  As such, even if we did not accept St. Thomas’ conception of God as Being Itself, we would still require the metaphysics that the concepts of Being Itself and beings express.

In order to explore this question in more detail, I recently published a short essay, See, I Am Doing Something New”: John Paul II’s Summons to Secular Being in First Principles.  If John Paul II’s intellectual legacy lies chiefly in exploring, as a phenomenologist, the centrality of personhood, of personal encounter, of “being-in-relation,” to everything we are and everything we know; and if Benedict’s encyclicals have thus far sought to render more vivid the erotic nature of Christian life, born in desire for the Good, and satisfied only in the union-by-participation in the divine life of God, the encyclical Fides et Ratio (1998) appears at once exceptional and essential to their shared legacy.  It reminds us that we need metaphysics, we need Being, as the analogous term in which we encounter reality, know it, and speak of it.  The phenomenology of the person, and the account of our life’s form and movement given in Christian Platonism, both require Being if they are to be heard.  This remains true even if — above all, if — the operations of human reason are not self-grounding but are, rather, ultimately dependent on receiving as gift what is not their own.  Grace precedes reason, and so there is no “secular reason.”  Thus, all the more do we require a terrain of “secular being” if we are not to continue our fundamental retreat into those private, incommensurable, and complacent cultures that modern relativism preaches as the “unit” of human “society.”  John Paul II calls for a restoration of philosophy as central to theology, and above all for a philosophy grounded in the idea of wisdom (philosophy as the search for answers to the fundamental questions all persons, as persons, ask about themselves and the meaning of their lives) and elaborated with truly metaphysical dimensions.  As was the practice in the great age of the neo-Thomists, philosophy and theology alike must speak in terms of “Being” once more.  The essay concludes with a brief elaboration on this point:

In the years since the encyclical’s [Fides et Ratio’s] publication, the rise of the Radical Orthodoxy theologians—some of whom are Roman Catholic, but most of whom are Anglo-Catholic—suggests that John Paul II’s commission did not fall on deaf ears. John Milbank, their best-known representative, has called into question what he calls “secular reason,” the consensus view of reason in a “scientistic” liberal society. By this term, he intends the notion of reason as self-grounded in its own powers—a conception we often express in terms of rational “disinterestedness” and “objectivity,” and which we implement by insisting that it is only rational to affirm as true that which is based in verifiable empirical observation and thorough quantitative analysis. Like John Paul II, Milbank argues that human reason is conditioned by a faith prior to it and finds its completion in truths that transcend it. We misrepresent our own everyday reasoning if we think it is grounded in the empirically self-evident. We foil the aspirations of our reason if we close it off to truths given from a source beyond its control.

Radical Orthodoxy also recovers for theology the metaphysical dimension John Paul II called on philosophy to provide. But its metaphysics is chiefly that of Christian Platonism. Does this fully answer the call? It is hard to say, but I would suggest that if the demolishing of secular reason was long overdue, it does not necessarily entail the loss of what we might call “secular being.” John Paul II clearly believed as much. While he affirmed that reason is preceded and completed by faith—or rather, while he affirmed that the journey of faith “uses” philosophical reasoning instrumentally—he did not suggest that faith closes off the truth of the Christian from speaking to and hearing the nonbeliever. It is in philosophy, above all in metaphysics, that we discover the “only ground for understanding and dialogue with those who do not share our faith” (§104). Being is in this sense “secular.” We encounter it, and think in its terms, regardless of whether we perceive that our reason is grounded beyond itself and beyond being. If the surpassing of “secular reason” is not to prove yet another postmodern withering of reason, then it shall probably have to acknowledge the secularity of being—that being is the term all human intellects drink and is the primary act of the real. Only a philosophy that can meet this metaphysical challenge will answer John Paul II’s summons and help us to overcome the centuries of destruction, doubt, and diminished horizons that many persons still have the naiveté to call “progress.”

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