"Greek Wisdom" in Service to Faith

At this week’s Wednesday Audience, Pope Benedict took the opportunity to talk about a “mysterious figure” in the history of Catholic thought, Pseudo-Dionysius. The real man-behind-the-name is a hotly contested topic in intellectual circles, but the pope sided with the opinion that Pseudo-Dionysius was in fact “a theologian of the sixth century, whose name is not really known, and who wrote under the name of Dionysius the Areopagite,” an early disciple of St. Paul. Pseudo-Dionysius, in addition to being the most often referenced thinker in St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae (a hefty feat in and of itself), is also author to some of the most fundamental works in early Catholic philosophic and theological thought: The Divine Names is probably his most notable work, and details the application of Neo-Platonic ‘emanation’ within the realm of early Trinitarian theology.

It is precisely in this Hellenic conception of God for Pseudo-Dionysius that Pope Benedict XVI finds such great value. “If the author of these books,” he said, “chose five centuries afterward the pseudonym of Dionysius the Areopagite, it says that his intention was to put the wisdom of the Greeks into the service of the Gospel, and to aid in the encounter between Greek culture and understanding and the Christian message.” This certainly outlines Benedict’s entire theological approach—putting secular reason and science at the service of the Gospel—and serves as a basis for the development of such unification in the Church throughout the years. Undoubtedly, the confluence of the two schools of thought, both Greek and Christian, was not always seen as tenable. Tertullian, the prominent Latin writer of the second century after Christ, is credited with the ever-famous question, “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” That is to say, “What does reason have to do with faith?”

Fortunately for us, an articulate synthesis of the answer to such a question can be found almost two thousand years later in the work of our current Holy Father, and also in the work of his predecessor, Pope John Paul II. The late pope’s encyclical letter, Fides et Ratio, discusses this very topic in great detail and provides the core for most contemporary discussion of it within the Church. Pope Benedict’s synthesis on Wednesday of what it means to hold together the two tenets of theological faith and human reason was equally beautiful, yet a bit more constricted to the realm of Platonic philosophy and its relation to Jesus Christ. The Holy Father put the whole project in terms of “negative theology,” a classic means of keeping the tension between the absolutely sure and the absolutely unsure. “The face of God is our incapacity to really express who he is,” said the pope. “It is, so to say…a ‘negative theology.’ We can more easily say what God is not than express what he truly is. Only by way of these images [which we attain through our interaction with the world] can we gauge his true face; yet on the other hand his face is very concrete: he is Jesus Christ.”

Keeping the productive tension between faith and reason is precisely the task at hand for budding Catholic intellectuals. If we hope to provide a credible witness to our faith—one that is not simply ‘fideist’ (i.e. non-rational) nor completely intellectualist—we must always strive to maintain the interdependence of both faith and reason with one another. In the Letter of St. Peter, the author writes that the Christian should “always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope.” (1 Pt 3:15) How this is! And how well is it manifested in the teaching and ministry of Pope Benedict XVI? Surely, we have as our earthly Vicar of Christ a great teacher and student of the Catholic Tradition, and it would do us well to pay attention to his insights and to stress in our own lives the truths he so beautifully articulates.