Masthead Image

Per Caritatem

Category » Faith and Reason

Dante’s Holistic Theological Poetry

By Cynthia R. Nielsen

October 25, 2009

Dante Beatrice Paradiso Canto 31For Dante the ultimate meaning of human history can be understood in terms of salvation history.  That is, Dante believes strongly in God’s providential guidance over human history; yet, within God’s providence there is a place for human freedom and deliberation.  God creates humans in his image, which entails the gift of freedom, and this freedom is to be used in the service of God. In the Divine Comedy, Dante tells of how he strayed from his own vocational calling (to be a Christian epic poet) and how, by God’s grace working through figures like Beatrice, he was able to fulfill his calling.

Dante understands the entire created order as sacramental in nature.   In other words, beauty, art, images, and the physical all have value in Dante’s worldview.  We see this in Dante’s relationship with Beatrice.  Beatrice was a particular, historical person, whom Dante at a young age came to admire and even love.  Apparently, Beatrice was a virtuous woman who was trying to lead Dante to higher things, the most important of which is the Christian God.  From some of his other writings (Convivio), Dante seems to have been “led astray” by false schools of philosophy or by using philosophy wrongly.  That is, Dante, instead of using philosophy as a handmaiden to revelation, exalted philosophy to the detriment of revelation.   As a result, Dante finds himself lost and in need of guidance.

In the Divine Comedy, Dante (the character) has to journey through hell and purgatory and after the purgation process, finally makes his way to paradise and ultimately experiences the beatific vision.  Vergil serves as Dante’s guide through hell and purgatory.  This seems to suggest that natural reason can only take one so far (even though one wonders how Vergil has knowledge of Purgatory).  This is not to devalue natural reason, as by the proper use of natural reason one can become virtuous.  Dante is thoroughly familiar with the Greek tradition of virtue as acquired by practice via the use of practical reason and which then becomes a habit that produces stable character.  Humans, in a way unlike any other animals, have reason and are able to deliberate and choose the good in various circumstances.   Dante readily acknowledges by his choice of Vergil as his guide and by the appearance of various unexpected characters in Purgatory (e.g., Cato—an expression not only of political freedom but also of moral freedom).

With his depiction of purgatory, Dante brings together the Greek tradition of virtue acquisition with the Christian tradition which stresses our need for the theological virtues of faith, hope and love.  The theological virtues do not destroy the natural virtues; rather, they crown and complete them.  Dante also affirms the goodness of creation, art and beauty by his positive portrayal of the use of images and the sensory in Purgatory (e.g., singing, liturgical acts etc.).  Vergil’s role, however, is limited and after Dante has gained mastery over himself, Vergil hands the torch to Beatrice.  Under Beatrice’s guidance, Dante is taught a number of theological truths and undergoes a painful time of confession.  One can interpret this confession as Dante’s admission that he had been seduced by Lady Philosophy and has now seen the errors of his ways.

Beatrice plays a special role as a universal-particular.  That is, Beatrice was a concrete, historical person—Dante, after all, tells us that she did in fact die and that he knew her as a young boy.  Yet, in the pageant scene, she appears in the vision as an image of the integrity of the Church (as she chases off the “heretics” presented as foxes etc.)  Though Beatrice is Dante’s guide and is his superior with regard to theological knowledge, she is clear that Dante is not to worship her.  When Dante at times stares too fixedly at her, she immediately exhorts him to turn his attention to Christ.  (This is in keeping with Dante’s need to fulfill his calling.  The fact that he turned away from Christ and made philosophy an idol is the reason for his wandering in the first place).

Dante’s final guide is St. Bernard, a mystic and a poet.  With the choice of St. Bernard, Dante gives a literary picture of the traditional Catholic teaching of grace completing nature and the compatibility of reason and revelation.  That is, revelation, though supra-rational, is not irrational.  The Incarnation, as Dante makes  clear at the end of the poem, ultimately cannot be fully articulated by finite, human language.  St. Bernard, as a mystic points us to the mystery of the Trinitarian God whose Love opens the way for union with him.  With the completion of his Divine Comedy, Dante has fulfilled his life’s calling and thus has participated in the ultimate meaning of human history—to glorify God.

Caritas in Veritate and Promoting Authentic Human Development

By Cynthia R. Nielsen

July 8, 2009

In chapter one, “The Message of Populorum Progressio,” of Pope Benedict XVI’s new encyclical, he brings Paul VI’s insights on charity and truth to bear on the present in a number of fascinating ways.  Paul VI wrote his encyclical, Populorum Progressio, in 1967 just after the completion of Vatican II.  The encyclical clearly identifies itself with spirit and concerns of Vatican II and the social justice teaching of the Catholic Church.  For example, the opening paragraphs of Populorum Progressio state,Pope Benedict XVI

The progressive development of peoples is an object of deep interest and concern to the Church. This is particularly true in the case of those peoples who are trying to escape the ravages of hunger, poverty, endemic disease and ignorance; of those who are seeking a larger share in the benefits of civilization and a more active improvement of their human qualities; of those who are consciously striving for fuller growth.[1]

With an even clearer awareness, since the Second Vatican Council, of the demands imposed by Christ’s Gospel in this area, the Church judges it her duty to help all men explore this serious problem in all its dimensions, and to impress upon them the need for concerted action at this critical juncture.”

Benedict XVI as well highlights the important of the Second Vatican Council and the role it played in shaping both Paul VI’s document and the social teaching of his magisterial successors.  Then the Pope mentions two important truths from Paul VI’s encyclical that still speak to us today.

The first is that the whole Church, in all her being and acting – when she proclaims, when she celebrates, when she performs works of charity – is engaged in promoting integral human development. She has a public role over and above her charitable and educational activities: all the energy she brings to the advancement of humanity and of universal fraternity is manifested when she is able to operate in a climate of freedom. In not a few cases, that freedom is impeded by prohibitions and persecutions, or it is limited when the Church’s public presence is reduced to her charitable activities alone.

Having just spent some time reading Hegel’s Philosophy of Spirit and parts of his Phenomenology of Spirit, I found it the Pope’s point about the need “to operate in a climate of freedom” to be in great continuity with Hegel’s thought.  For example, in the section on “Objective Spirit” in Hegel’s Philosophy of Spirit, he explores the concrete institutional structures that promote human flourishing.  According to Hegel, political institutions-those which over time have developed various traditions and customs-are the conditions required for the possibility of human advancement and flourishing.  Though I in no way agree with Hegel’s narrative regarding the details of the master/slave dialectic, he does claim that this dialectic must be overcome through recognition of our mutual rationality and freedom-that is, the other must be recognized not as my tool but as an “I” who has the ability to step back from the causal matrix and act as a free being.

The first triad under Objective Spirit is the movement from abstract right (thesis), to morality (Moralität, antithesis), to social ethics (Sittlichkeit, the synthesis of the previous two).  Abstract right deals with law articulating various rights and duties of the citizens.  Morality focuses on the individual conscience and what s/he takes as morally binding on her/himself.  When we get to social ethics, however, we have moved beyond mere private conscience (though private conscience has not be eradicated) to a higher synthesis of private morality and social living in the customary life of a concrete state.  Here the triad moves from the immediacy of the family to civil society to the state.  The structures of a civil society are based on contract and private interests where the most basic unit in the atomistic individual.  Yet, Hegel also emphasizes that a civil society should allow for voluntary entry associations such as churches, fine art societies and the like.  The state, of course, represents the synthesis of this triad, and it is here that we find not only the government of the people but the lifeblood of the people as well.  Here the individual finds greater meaning within the larger whole, while, according to Hegel, still remaining an individual.  Interestingly, Hegel stresses that the state’s constitution is not to be externally imposed on a people, but rather must arise from within the state’s own history and tradition.  That is, it must express the state’s innermost being-its Spirit/Geist.  Consequently, for Hegel, religion plays a huge role in the development of the state, as religion is tied to the ultimate and deeply felt concerns of human beings.  This is not to suggest that a state’s constitution ought to quote bible verses in its legislation; rather, the idea is that the intelligible principles and moral insights of religion have an essential role to play in public life and to bar religion (in that sense) from public life is to remove one of the key voices in the harmony of state.  (Charles Taylor seems to articulate something along these lines).

Hegel also notes that the history of states has gone through many developments.  In some expressions, freedom was experienced by few; however, in the modern state, the possibility of freedom for all has been unleashed.  In no way am I suggesting that what Hegel says is identical in all its details with what Benedict XVI articulates in his encyclical.  However, there are some interesting overlaps here to be explored, and I am simply applying the Pope’s own words as articulated in the introduction:

Fidelity to man requires fidelity to the truth, which alone is the guarantee of freedom (cf. Jn 8:32) and of the possibility of integral human development. For this reason the Church searches for truth, proclaims it tirelessly and recognizes it wherever it is manifested. This mission of truth is something that the Church can never renounce. Her social doctrine is a particular dimension of this proclamation: it is a service to the truth which sets us free. Open to the truth, from whichever branch of knowledge it comes, the Church’s social doctrine receives it, assembles into a unity the fragments in which it is often found, and mediates it within the constantly changing life-patterns of the society of peoples and nations [Cf. Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, 76.]

In short, both Hegel and Benedict emphasize the importance of human freedom, the formative role of concrete institutions and tradition, and the need to appeal to common, shared truths available to all apart from revelation (which is not to say that Christians in the public square, for example, ought not to allow revelation to inform their views.  Indeed they should and must.  It’s the how that various Christians disagree over).

Returning to the text, Paul VI’s second important truth is that “authentic human development concerns the whole of the person in every single dimension” [Cf. Paul VI, Encyclical Letter Populorum Progressio, 14: loc. cit., 264.].  As Benedict explains,

“Without the perspective of eternal life, human progress in this world is denied breathing-space. Enclosed within history, it runs the risk of being reduced to the mere accumulation of wealth; humanity thus loses the courage to be at the service of higher goods, at the service of the great and disinterested initiatives called forth by universal charity. Man does not develop through his own powers, nor can development simply be handed to him.”

In what follows the Pope distinguishes his view from those who would claim that well-functioning human institutions in themselves are our salvation and hope. Rather, as the Pope states,

institutions by themselves are not enough, because integral human development is primarily a vocation, and therefore it involves a free assumption of responsibility in solidarity on the part of everyone. Moreover, such development requires a transcendent vision of the person, it needs God: without him, development is either denied, or entrusted exclusively to man, who falls into the trap of thinking he can bring about his own salvation, and ends up promoting a dehumanized form of development. Only through an encounter with God are we able to see in the other something more than just another creature [Cf. Benedict XVI, Encyclical Letter Deus Caritas Est (25 December 2005), 18: AAS 98 (2006), 232.], to recognize the divine image in the other, thus truly coming to discover him or her and to mature in a love that “becomes concern and care for the other.” [Ibid., 6: loc cit., 222.]

I haven’t finished reading the encyclical yet; however, what I’ve read thus far, I’ve  found edifying and a “breath of fresh air” in an age in which the human beings are increasingly instrumentalized and often treated as a mere resource having no dignity of their own.


[1] All citations from Caritas in Veritate are taken from the online version of the document as found here:

Climacus on Christianity as an Existence-Communication

By Cynthia R. Nielsen

June 23, 2009

In his work, Concluding Unscientific Postscript, Johannes Climacus discusses what he calls the dialectical aspects of Christianity or those aspects of Christian belief that one might call intellectual.   Climacus of course do not think that Christianity is merely a set of doctrines to which one must assent.  Rather, Christianity is a way of existence-as Climacus says, “Christianity is not a doctrine,” but is “an existence-communication” (VII, 328-29; pp. 379-380).[1] As C. Stephen Evans observes, this statement has been misunderstood often.  Climacus himself anticipated the potential misunderstanding and gives a lengthy footnote to clarify his meaning.  Here he explains,

Surely a philosophical theory that is to be comprehended and speculatively understood is one thing, and a doctrine that is to be actualized in existence is something else. If there is to be any question of understanding with regard to this latter doctrine, then this understanding must be:  to understand that it is to be existed in, to understand the difficulty of existing in it, what a prodigious existence-task [Existents-Opgave] this doctrine assigns to the learner (VII, 329; p. 379).

Because the Christianity of Climacus’ day had become overly speculative, he purposely distances himself from the word “doctrine,” as he fears that by employing the word, Christianity will continue to be categorized and understood as a philosophical theory instead of way of existence.  Thus, he comes up with a new term, “existence-communication.”  In no way is Climacus denying that Christianity has intellectual content; rather, he wants to make sure that this content is set forth in such a way that the uniqueness of Christianity as a transcendent (as opposed to an immanent) religion is upheld.  As Climacus explains,

If Christianity were a doctrine, it would eo ipso not constitute the opposite of speculative thought but would be an element within it.  Christianity pertains to existence, to existing, but existence and existing are the very opposite of speculation.  The Eleatic doctrine, for example, is not related to existing but to speculation; therefore it must be assigned its place within speculation.  Precisely because Christianity is not a doctrine, it holds true, as developed previously, that there is an enormous difference between knowing what Christianity is and being a Christian.  With regard to a doctrine, this distinction is unthinkable, because the doctrine is not related to existing.  I cannot help it that our age has reversed the relation and changed Christianity into a philosophical theory that is to be comprehended and being a Christian into something negligible.  Furthermore, to say that Christianity is empty of content because it is not a doctrine is only chicanery.  When a believer exists in faith, his existence has enormous content, but not in the sense of a yield in the paragraphs (VII, 329; p. 380).

The content of Christianity is dialectical; it is the “absolute paradox” and as such, it differentiates Christianity from immanent religions in which in principle all doctrines can be penetrated rationally, making revelation superfluous.  Climacus is firmly committed to what the orthodox Christian tradition calls the “mysteries of the faith”-the Incarnation, the Trinity and other doctrines which are both central to the Christian faith and can only be known through revelation.  In addition and related to the previous passage, Climacus believes that the content of Christianity has the potential to actually transform a person’s existence, giving him/her a new passion-”it is relating to the pathos-filled as an impetus for a new pathos” (VII, 488; p. 559).  Christian belief then is intimated related to action.  As Evans explains,

Climacus understands Christian belief as not merely accompanied by action but as essentially expressing itself in action.  Because of this he attempts to rethink the nature of that belief in such a way that it does not exclude belief as an intellectual act but does exclude even the possibility of belief being only an intellectual act.  This conception of Christian belief is itself demanded by “existential appropriation” that is Christianity and the content of Christianity, which is the absolute paradox, can be seen to correspond exactly to each other [VII, 532; pp. 610-611].  Both the content of Christianity and the appropriation of Christianity become “specifically different” from everything else (Kierkegaard’s Fragments and Postscript, p. 210).

[1] All citations are from the Hong translation.

Part IV: Alyosha and Zarathustra on Com-passion and a Genuine Embodied Life

By Cynthia R. Nielsen

December 11, 2008

In addition to a positive view of mystery (see part III), both authors offer strong critiques against reductionistic rationalism and scient-ism.   In a section entitled, “The Leech,” Zarathustra introduces us to a man, who identifies himself as “the conscientious in spirit,” and who appears to be a philosopher-scientist of the materialist variety.  He tells Zarathustra that it is “better to be a fool on one’s own than a sage according to the opinion of others.”[1] This philosopher-scientist seeks an Archimedean point upon which to stand.  That is, he wants a solid “ground and foundation” that doesn’t rely on mere authority and misguided tradition, and this requires him to “pursue the leech to its ultimate grounds.”[2] Here it is worth mentioning that Hegel, even more rigorously than Descartes, attempted to construct a philosophical position-more specifically, a presupposition-less logic (cf. Philosophy of Logic-in which one must put all previous philosophical and religious suppositions to the test, questioning even the very principles of logic (e.g., principle of non-contradiction).  The conscientious man, in a way similar to Descartes and Hegel, pursues the “leech,” which is a metaphor for various philosophical, religious and scientific systems whose claims, like the leech, demand or have the potential to demand our life blood.

Interestingly, the conscientious man goes on to say, “in the conscience of science there is nothing great and nothing small.”[3] One wonders why this committed philosopher-scientist would utter such words.  Perhaps the reason is, as Nietzsche says in Human All Too Human (#251, “Signs of a Higher and Lower Culture”), because science is unable to motivate us or move us in the way that religion can.  In the same section from Human All Too Human, Nietzsche speaks of the “two-chambers of the brain,” bringing to our attention the “downside” of living in predominantly scientific, materialistic (philosophically speaking) age.  Scientists, for example, have cast so many doubts on the claims of religion and metaphysics, yet what Nietzsche himself seems to suggest is that which makes us human is tied to religious and even traditional metaphysical claims (e.g., claims about the soul and God).  Consequently, we must develop a “two-chambered brain,” one chamber that allows us to embrace and experience religion, and another that can come to terms with the truths of science and philosophy of the materialist strain.   In other words, as Nietzsche sees things, religion gives us passion and drives us forward.  Science, in contrast, is unable to provide this kind of drive, as its role it to regulate the passions and discern truth from error.   So “truth” in this context, or to use the conscientious man’s term, “honesty,” viz., that which is “hard, strict, narrow, cruel, and inexorable,”[4] lies in science, not in religion and (traditional) metaphysics. Nonetheless, even though he himself has given up on ancient religion (e.g. Judaism, Christianity) and metaphysics, Nietzsche is willing to admit that if all we have is this scientific “truth” and strict, cruel honesty, then something essential to human beings has been lost.  As he says throughout Human All Too Human, the kind of truth science gives is a “humble truth.” Consequently, it cannot satisfy our deepest longings.  As a result, we require a dual-chambered brain in which at least one side, the religion and metaphysics side, gives us what we need to carry on.  With these things in mind, we may interpret the conscientious man’s statement, “where my honesty ceases, I am blind, and I also want to be blind.  But where I want to know, I also want to be honest-that is, hard, strict, narrow, cruel, and inexorable,” as another variation on Nietzsche’s theme of our divided psyche.[5]

Dostoevsky, as well, offers his own critique of rationalism and related forms of reductionism.  Though accused by many scholars of advocating a (so-called) Kierkegaardian irrationalism and extreme voluntarism, as Rowan Williams has convincingly argued, such a conclusion (among other things) fails to take into account (1) what Mikhail Bakhtin coined as the “polyphonic” mode of Dostoevsky’s text-a mode creating both dissonant and consonant extended harmonies-and (2) the way in which Dostoevsky allows Alyosha’s faith to grow and mature, thus exhibiting a picture that reflects more authentically the complexity and struggle involved in living a life of faith in this world.[6] Many critics point to an early statement (Feb. 1854) found in a letter written by Dostoevsky to Natalya Fonvizina, a woman who had gifted him with a copy of the New Testament that he had read avidly while in prison.  The content of the letter is frequently cited as evidence that Dostoevsky’s religious faith is based on irrationalism and exhibits something closely resembling Nietzsche’s will to power (extreme voluntarism).[7] Dostoevsky’s admittedly difficult statement reads as follows:  “if someone were to prove to me that Christ was outside [вне] the truth, and it was really the case that the truth lay outside Christ, then I should choose to stay with Christ rather than the truth.”[8] Williams, having examined and analyzed several of Dosteovsky’s texts and characters-from the Underground Man (Notes from the Underground), to Shatov and Stavrogin (Devils), to Alyosha and Ivan (Brothers Karamazov), offers a plausible (and to this author convincing) way to approach and interpret Dostoevsky’s statement that resonates with Dostoevsky’s own complex understanding of faith as that which “moves and adapts, matures and reshapes itself.” On Williams’s read, even if Dostoevsky’s 1854 confession expresses his own doubts and struggles about how exactly to harmonize faith and reason, belief in the supernatural and the often anti-supernaturalistic bias of science, his confession comes to mean something like the following:

“Truth,” as the ensemble of sustainable propositions about the world, does not compel adherence to any one policy of living rather than another; if faith’s claims about Christ do not stand within that ensemble of propositions, that is not a problem.  It means that they cannot be confused with any worldly power that might assume the right to dictate a policy for living or impose a reconciliation upon unwilling humanity.[9]

Williams goes on to stress that Dostoevsky’s position need not be interpreted as advocating that the claims of faith are contradictory or “arbitrarily willed” and hence, irrational.  Rather,

they represent something that can make possible new motions of moral awareness precisely because they are not generated by the will.  But these new motions generated by the recognition of the claims of faith are a response that moves “with the grain” of things, at least to the extent that it does not lead to literal and spiritual self-destruction.  At this level, response to Christ connects with a “truth” that is more comprehensive than any given ensemble of facts.  The truth of faith is thus something that cannot be reduced to an observable matter of fact:  it is discernable when a certain response is made which creates the possibility of “reconciliation,” and is fleshed out by way of the specific engagements of loving attention.[10]

Even if one became convinced of this interpretation, as Williams points out, it still leaves us with the nagging question of how exactly the claims of faith connect with the “ensemble of facts” of this world?  In other words, do Christ’s claim (the claims of faith) merely have the power to transform a person’s individual, moral “inner space” while leaving the world at large-whether the claims of science, the “facts” of history or the moral chaos and injustice so prevalent in the world-untouched?  Questions like these take us immediately to the famous “Grand Inquisitor,” section of Brothers Karamazov, to which we now turn.


[1] Thus Spoke Zarathustra, p. 362.

[2] Thus Spoke Zarathustra, p. 362.

[3] Thus Spoke Zarathustra, p. 362.

[4] Thus Spoke Zarathustra, p. 363.

[5] Thus Spoke Zarathustra, p. 363.

[6] As Williams explains, “What he [Dostoevsky] does in Karamazov is not to demonstrate that it is possible to imagine a life so integrated and transparent that the credibility of faith becomes unassailable; it is simply to show that faith moves and adapts, matures and reshapes itself, not by adjusting its doctrinal content (the error of theological liberalism, with which Dostoevsky had no patience) but by the relentless stripping away from faith of egotistical or triumphalistic expectations.  The credibility of faith is in its freedom to let itself be judged and to grow.  In the nature of the case, there will be no unanswerable demonstrations and no final unimprovable biographical form apart from Christ, who can only be and is only represented in fiction through the oblique reflection of his face in those who are moving toward him” (Dostoevsky:  Language, Faith, and Fiction, p. 10).

[7] Williams, Dostoevsky, p. 15.

[8] From Dostoevsky’s 1854 letter to Natalya Fonvizina (full text in Pol’noe sobranie sochinenii, 30 vols. [Leningrad:  Nauka, 1972-1990] 28.2:  176), as found in Williams, Dostoevsky:  Language, Faith and Fiction, p. 15.

[9] Williams, Dostoevsky, pp. 25-6.

[10] Williams, Dostoevsky, p. 26.

Conversations With Augustine: Commentary on Dagle’s Essay

By Cynthia R. Nielsen

August 16, 2008

Commentary on Dagle’s Essay, “Augustine and Plantinga: The Civitas Dei, the Civitas Mundi and the task of Ecclesial Philosophy”

By James Gibson, Western Michigan University

Mike Dagle describes the influence of Augustine’s motif on Plantinga’s conception of Christian philosophy (Dagle’s essay).  The motif is one of two cities fundamentally at odds: “they are fundamentally different things (or places) with different values, concepts, and ideas… within the current context they have different philosophies.”  The denizens of the Civitas Dei seek to perceive themselves and all things in relation to God.  On Plantinga’s view (c.f. WCB), characteristic Christian doctrines may be known in a basic way, which is to say that they are not necessarily grounded on the basis of further reasons or beliefs but reasonably held because of the work of the Holy Spirit.  Compare other perceptual beliefs, e.g. that a tree is before me, held not on the basis of inference from other beliefs, but epistemically grounded by the fact that a tree is directly perceived.  If Christian doctrines are grounded in this (basic) way, the Christian is within her epistemic rights to employ everything in her epistemic arsenal to answer philosophical questions, especially (or exclusively?) when directed for the good of the church.  The Christian philosopher has unique resources, i.e., those Christian doctrines known in a basic way, as well as the tools philosophy brings, to aid the church in developing a view of how God relates to all things.

As Dagle notes, the Augustinian view blurs the distinction between philosophy and theology.  How so?  If philosophy is supposed to be the domain of reason alone, then by using premises, which employ content typically consigned to the realm of faith, it looks as if one is doing theology and not philosophy.  Perhaps this is appropriate, however, if all philosophical musing is religious in nature.

I must admit that the Augustinian picture of merging philosophy and theology is appealing.  Still, I have some questions about what Augustinian philosophy amounts to, particularly with respect to the role of the Christian philosopher and the Civitas Dei.  One way of understanding the City of God is by the telos of its philosophical inquiry.  Recall, the job of the Christian philosopher is to bring her skills to relate all things to God.  So should the Christian philosopher, on the picture presented, focus exclusively on these sorts of issues?  I can put this more forcefully: is the Christian philosopher making a moral mistake by engaging in philosophical questions like, “are there sets?” or “did Kripke misunderstand Wittgenstein?” when the answer to these questions are not obviously relevant to the church?  Aren’t there more pressing issues?[1]

Suppose it is morally permissible for the Christian philosopher to ask such questions.  If so, what is the distance between these two cities?  Perhaps there’s a third alternative to the Augustinian and Thomist approaches, whereby the Christian philosopher is more of a traveler between the two cities than a permanent resident of only one of them.  In this respect, I am regarding philosophy in the Civitas Mundi as one with distinct (or a smaller set of) concepts and ideas, excluding the Christian doctrines that permeate the premises of philosophical argument as found in the Civitas Dei.  How might the Christian philosopher travel to the Civitas Mundi?  Suppose the Christian philosopher might be among colleagues of the Quinean sort that advocate a principle like, every claim is revisable including this claim.  The Christian philosopher may object to the principle with an argument, the premises of which have nothing to do with the distinctly Christian doctrines.  After having presented such an argument, it might be argued that a Christian perspective has independent resources to think such a principle is false (if in fact the Christian perspective does suggest this).  So the Christian philosopher travels by using what is accepted by members of both cities in order to persuade the citizens of the Civitas Mundi. It would also be significant for the Christian to find grounds outside of Christian doctrine to think such a principle is false.

Is the Christian philosopher in this instance merely articulating the Christian faith?  Well, only if we understand the faith so broadly as to include any true propositions whatsoever.  It is more appropriate, I take it, to describe her role as coming to see new explanatory relations within the created order which derive from a smaller set of facts than those that include the dogmas of the Christian faith.  These explanatory relations may have indirect relevance to the faith, perhaps even yet unrealized relevance.  It might even be that the Christian philosopher realized grounds from her faith which should lead her to reject the Quinean principle, and this would then lead to the search for dialectically useful grounds for the citizens of the Civitas Mundi. Still, the new grounds are informative for her.

But isn’t this just the Thomist view of engaging in philosophy by reason alone?  Perhaps, if we think of the premises as lacking content that references revelation.  However, on the Augustinian view, the Christian philosopher should use everything in her epistemic arsenal.  So why shouldn’t she include “natural” facts as part of that arsenal?  It seems as if the Thomist and Augustinian pictures collapse when philosophical argument is done in this way.  Does the Thomist believe one can never use premises with faith-content for arguments and then call that “philosophy”?  I do not know.  But like many other philosophers, I’m not sure what philosophy is in the first place aside from thinking very hard about a topic, especially on “philosophically” paradigmatic topics.  It would be very uninteresting if one objected that a view is not distinctly philosophical simply by stipulation of the meaning of the word – a word without a clearly shared meaning.  In any event, I’m unclear on where the dispute between the Thomist and Augustinian lies.


[1] A recent look at this issue is raised in Paul Moser (2005), Jesus and philosophy: on the questions we ask, Faith and Philosophy 22 (3), 261-283.

Conversations with Augustine: Essay #6, Augustine and Plantinga

By Cynthia R. Nielsen

August 15, 2008

Augustine and Plantinga: The Civitas Dei, the Civitas Mundi and the task of Ecclesial Philosophy

By Mike Dagle, St. John’s Episcopal Church, Detroit


“…two cities have been formed by two loves: the earthly by the love of self, even to the contempt of God; the heavenly by the love of God, even to the contempt of self. The former, in a word, glories in itself, the latter in the Lord. For the one seeks glory from men; but the greatest glory of the other is God, the witness of conscience. The one lifts up its head in its own glory; the other says to its God, “You are my glory, and the lifter up of mine head (Psalm 3:3)” Augustine City of God, Book 14, 28

I take it that here Augustine aims to offer the rivalry of the Civitas Dei and the Civitas Mundi as a depiction of history generally; of the contest or contrast between those who would seek the things of God and those who seek something all together different.  Accordingly, Augustine presents here a stark contrast between the two cities.  The image is that they are fundamentally different things (or places) with different values, concepts, and ideas; or to place the idea within the current context they have different philosophies.  If this is true then for Augustine, citizens of the Civitas Dei have a different philosophical program and agenda than the citizens of the Civitas Mundi.  Following the motif the former glories in God, the latter in itself.

The contemporary analytic philosopher Alvin Plantinga follows and further develops[1] Augustine’s thought and applies the two cities motif to the contemporary intellectual and philosophical scene.[2] More broadly Plantinga utilizes Augustine’s urban metaphor to develop the relationship between Christian belief and philosophy, or the age-old question of faith and reason.  Plantinga doesn’t claim that he offers the correct interpretation of Augustine’s thought on these complex relationships; he instead offers the more pedestrian claim that his approach is “broadly Augustinian”.[3] I aim to present here a brief introduction to Plantinga’s Augustinian thought on faith and reason and the nature and task of Christian (or as I’ll call it Ecclesial) philosophy.  Following Plantinga I don’t claim to present a systematic take on Augustine’s ideas (it is simply beyond my competence to do so) but instead attempt to highlight the Augustinian nature of Plantinga’s thought.

Plantinga’s Augustinian approach to faith and reason centers on a few (though often unmentioned) convictions that are broadly characteristic of the Reformed/Calvinist/Augustinian tradition[4]: (1) the integrality of faith and reason in creation, (2) the cognitive consequences of the fall into sin, (3) cognitive repair from the bondage of sin in redemption and (4) that all philosophical theorizing is fundamentally religious in nature.[5]

Reformed Epistemology[6]

(1) presents the conviction that from creation faith and reason, or the head and the heart, have not been independent and distinct modes of cognition, but integrated parts of human knowing and loving.  In creation knowing, loving and trusting God were not separable acts of cognition but instead one act of obedience and devotion.[7] Characteristic of their purpose and design the first created beings perceived “themselves and all things in relation to God”[8] thus we might call reason sans the fall a God-soaked reason.  Prior to the fall God was the first epistemic foundation of all human thought, not the end in a chain of reasoning.  (2) follows this reflection on creation through the fall.  If the head and heart were as integrated as has been suggested then we would expect that the fall had drastic consequences for both.  Here Augustine’s famous and reflective phrase “…you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you”[9] offers inspiration and instruction.  Our hearts have fallen and our affections are restless and disordered.  We love the wrong things.  We take up residence in the Civitas Mundi, glorying in ourselves and in created things.  In the same way our formerly God-soaked reason is disordered.  Our ability to perceive the world around us and ourselves in relation to God, which on this view is the height of rationally, is skewed.[10] (3) brings us to happy news of redemption.  According to Plantinga part of the benefits of regeneration is “cognitive renewal”.[11] Regeneration, by the work of the Holy Spirit, begins the process of reordering our affections, our loves and hates, and our cognitive faculties.  Plantinga argues in his magnum opus Warranted Christian Belief that characteristic Christian doctrines such as trinity, incarnation, sin, atonement, resurrection and eternal life can be rationally accepted in the basic way.  That is they can be rationally believed and known without the use of proposition evidence and instead serve as epistemic foundations themselves.  Just as in creation all things were known in relation to God in regeneration all things are known in relation to God’s redemptive work in the world.  For Plantinga this epistemic reordering and renewal is primarily the work of the Holy Spirit.

Plantinga follows Abraham Kuyper, who is following Augustine, in emphasizing that mental life is firmly within the domain of Christ and as such is as affected by regeneration as anything else.  Kuyper’s influential quip portrays the sort of cognitive loyalty to Christ that is characteristic of Plantinga and Augustine.: “Oh, no single piece of our mental world is to be hermetically sealed off from the rest, and there is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’”[12].

Christian (or Ecclesial) Philosophy

If, as Plantinga maintains, characteristic Christian doctrines can be believed and known in the basic way (or we might say by faith) and serve as epistemic foundations in themselves how does this notion relate to the task of philosophy?  Philosophy is said to be the domain of reason alone.  If we use what we know by way of faith as a premise in an argument we may proceed reasonably but what we are doing is in fact theology not philosophy.  This perspective on the relationship of theology and philosophy is often associated with Aquinas and is developed magnificently in Pope John Paul II’s encyclical Fides et Ratio.  The Thomist agrees that reason may be fallen in some way but maintains that considerable ground towards revelation can be achieved on the basis of reason alone.  Plantinga’s Augustinian approach instead maintains that all philosophy is really the articulation of fundamentally religious perspectives (4).  For us to know the world in a philosophically correct way our hearts must be cured as well as our minds.  Non-Christian philosophy then “is less a deliverance of reason than the articulation of a rival faith”[13]; or put in Augustine’s motif it’s the philosophy of the Civitas Mundi.  Some non-Christian philosophy may have similarities with Christian belief but nevertheless it proceeds from premises that are wholly different than that of Christian thought; which ought to proceed (at least in many cases) in the light of God’s self revelation and a renewed cognitive outlook.

Given this perspective on the nature of philosophy, Plantinga maintains it is perfectly acceptable for a Christian philosopher to deploy what they know by way of faith right along with what they know by way of reason when doing philosophy.[14] Indeed it can really be no other way.  This may blur the lines between philosophy and theology but this is only to be expected given the Augustinian convictions of (1-4).  The Christian philosopher is using the tools of philosophy to articulate the Christian faith.  This is fundamentally no different then the naturalist philosopher assuming naturalism and thus giving an account of humor, love, money or any other facet of human existence.  This naturalist program in fact makes up for much of contemporary philosophy.

The task of the Christian philosopher then becomes an Ecclesial one.  The Church is faced with many intellectual challenges from the world.  Philosophers are often in a unique position to deploy their skills in service to the Church[15].  I call this approach Ecclesial Philosophy to emphasize that the philosopher’s work is designed (or should be) to serve the larger Body.  The Christian philosopher must understand that the Church often needs answers to questions that are characteristically asked by philosophers.  The Church often needs to know what the Christian perspective on questions concerning personal identify, political philosophy, the status of non human nature, how we come to know and believe things and a thousand other topics need the skills that the Christian philosopher brings.[16] It only makes sense that the Christian philosopher deploys everything they know to answer these questions; whether known by faith or reason.[17] Otherwise the answer is incomplete by default.  Plantinga’s Augustinianism offers a way forward for the positive interaction of rigorous philosophical reflection and heartfelt devotion and service to the Civitas Dei.

There is much more that can be said but space does not permit.  A deeper treatment might include a fuller account of Plantinga’s epistemology and model of Warranted Christian Belief or a closer study of Plantinga’s faithfulness to Augustine’s thought.  In particular Augustine’s use of the looting of Egypt by Israel in the Exodus as a parable of the relationship of Christian faith and pagan philosophy offers a much richer way to understand the interactions of the Civitas Mundi and the Civitas Dei than Plantinga seems to allow for.  But that will have to wait for another time.


[1] See Plantinga, Alvin. Augustinian Christian Philosophy. The Monist, v. 75, no. 3 July. (1992): 291-320.

[2] Ibid. Plantinga identifies two “burrows” within the Civitas Mundi; perennial naturalism and creative antirealism.

[3] Ibid.

[4] It is worth noting that some Reformed theologians such as John Frame and Paul Helm have questioned Plantinga’s faithfulness to the Reformed tradition.

[5] See Cooper, John. Fides et Ratio, Reformed Epistemology, and the possibility of Christian Philosophy.  To my knowledge currently unavailable.

[6] The religious epistemological work of Alvin Plantinga, Nicholas Wolterstorff, and William Alston has characteristically been referred to as Reformed Epistemology though all agree that it is not necessarily dependent on Reformed theology.  I interact here only with Plantinga’s work.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Augustine. Confessions. Trans. Henry Chadwick. New York: Oxford UP. 1998.

[10] Just how far reason has fallen is a well-worn topic of interest that brings out fundamental theological disagreements between Catholic and Protestants.  Along that vein it is at least helpful to point out that John Paul II in his encyclical Fides et ratio acknowledges that reason is “wounded and weakened by sin.” though he is firmly within the Thomistic understanding of faith and reason.

[11] See especially Chpt 8, pg 280-282. Plantinga, Alvin. Warranted Christian Belief. New York: Oxford UP. 2000.

[12] Kuyper, Abraham. “Sphere Sovereignty”. Abraham Kuyper, A Centennial Reader. Ed. Bratt, James D. Grand Rapids: Eardmans. 1998.

[13] Plantinga, Alvin. Philosophers respond to Pope John Paul II’s encyclical letter, Fides et Ratio. Books and Culture. July/Aug.  (1999)

[14] It follows that Plantinga accepts a largely perspectival approach to philosophy though in no way does he descend into relativism.  This topic deserves more attention then can be given here.

[15] See Plantinga, Alvin. “Advice to Christian Philosophers”. The Analytic Theist: An Alvin Plantinga Reader. Ed. Sennett, James F. Grand Rapids: Eardmans. 1998

[16] In no way do I assume the Christian philosopher alone can answer these questions.  Scripture is the primary data and as such pastors, theologians, and the Church are often best suited to offer helpful reflection.  Following Plantinga I simply maintain that the Christian philosopher has a role to play here as well.

[17] It’s worth noting that Plantinga does offer middle ground for the Thomist who still maintains that what I propose here is not philosophy proper.  Plantinga proposes conditionals as a way to proceed.  “If the Christian faith is true then…” would use a faith premise only conditionally.  This type of argument proceeds solely by way of reason and is all together common in philosophical reflection.  See Philosophers respond to Pope John Paul II’s encyclical letter, Fides et Ratio.