Faces of Wisdom

by George Weigel
The divorce of reason from revelation led to the crisis of the postmodern mind.

Editor’s note: The following address was given at the Collegium Novum of the Jagiellonian University in Cracow, Poland, on November 7.

During the Liturgy of the Word in the Byzantine Rite, the deacon admonishes the congregation with the chants, “Wisdom! Let us be attentive . . . ” and “Wisdom! Let us stand aright . . . ” The first chant reminds us that wisdom, one of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, is essential if we are to discern the full truth of things in the world created by the Trinitarian God. The second chant suggests that wisdom, drawing our attention to the full truth of things, empowers us to lead upright lives — lives in accord with the moral laws that, as John Paul II said at Sinai on February 26, 2000, were “written on the human heart as the universal moral law” before they were “written in stone.”

The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines wisdom as “a spiritual gift that enables one to know the purpose and plan of God.” Wisdom, in other words, sheds light on what can seem opaque and dark, random and meaningless. Every period of history needs wise men and women; perhaps this postmodern age has particular need of wise counselors, for throughout Western high culture in our day there is a disturbing tendency to deny that human beings can grasp the truth of anything with any measure of certainty. There is nothing new in this, of course; Pontius Pilate imagined that his question, “Truth? What is truth?” (John 18:38), put an end to the conversation. But so do many of our contemporaries.

At her 2007 inauguration as the 28th president of Harvard University, Dr. Drew Gilpin Faust noted that the Latin word Veritas on Harvard’s coat of arms “was originally intended to invoke the absolutes of divine revelation, the unassailable verities of Puritan religion.” But “we understand it quite differently now,” she continued. For, according to Dr. Faust, in the 21st century there is only the aspiration to truth; truth is not a “possession,” and there are certainly no “unassailable verities.” Those engaged in higher learning and higher education in the 21st century, Dr. Faust concluded, “must commit ourselves to the uncomfortable position of doubt.” And by “doubt,” we may assume that Dr. Faust did not mean a healthy spirit of inquiry, but rather a stance of systematic skepticism toward the human capacity to know anything as, finally, true, save for some judgments of an a priori character (such as that one plus one will always equal two in the base-ten system). It is only from this stance of systematic skepticism, Dr. Faust and others would argue, that 21st-century men and women can live (as she put it in her inaugural address) with “the humility of always believing that there is more to know, more to teach, more to understand.”

It was appropriate that Dr. Faust took as her example of a lost, irrecoverable, and not-to-be-lamented past what she termed the “absolutes of divine revelation.” For in the long view of the history of ideas, Western high culture’s Enlightenment skepticism about the possibility of speaking and thinking intelligibly about “divine revelation” was one of the turning points that eventually led us to today’s crisis of the postmodern mind, in which there may be, at best, “your truth” and “my truth,” but there is nothing recognizable as the truth: truth, plain and simple. This radical epistemological skepticism informs two other characteristics of postmodern high culture: metaphysical nihilism and moral relativism. And that unhappy cocktail — nihilism plus skepticism plus relativism — is not simply a debilitating intoxicant for intellectuals; it is making it very difficult to sustain the institutions of democracy.

For as John Paul II presciently taught in the 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus, there are real dangers encoded in the suggestion that “agnosticism and skeptical relativism are the philosophy and the basic attitude that correspond to democratic forms of political life.” Why? Because “if there is no ultimate truth to guide and direct political activity, then ideas and convictions can be easily manipulated for reason of power.” Thus, John Paul concluded, the history of the 20th century had shown how “a democracy without values easily turns into open or thinly disguised totalitarianism.” Benedict XVI cited the same hard, but also essential, historical lesson in his warnings against the encroachments of a “dictatorship of relativism,” in which coercive state power is used to impose a relativistic morality (itself grounded in metaphysical nihilism and epistemological skepticism) on all of society. The validity of those warnings has been borne out time and again in recent years in the debate over the life issues and the nature of marriage.

At the beginning of the continental Enlightenment, Voltaire urged his countrymen, “Écrasez l’infâme!” (“Crush the infamous!”), by which he meant the power of royalty and an established Church, drawing their authority from “divine right,” to control societies in which ordinary people lived in servitude and poverty. Only when the illusion of divine revelation had been dispelled, Voltaire believed, would the Ancien Régime fall and the power of reason be unleashed — and from the free exercise of reason would come the power “to begin the world anew,” as Thomas Paine, a later Enlightenment thinker and activist, famously put it. It was, in some respects, a noble aspiration, but the final result of this cultural revolution was not the utopia imagined by Voltaire and Paine; it was the birth of the greatest tyrannies in human history — the tyrannies that lived out what John Paul II’s friend Fr. Henri de Lubac, SJ, called “the drama of atheistic humanism.” Or, as Father de Lubac put it in his book by that title, “It is not true, as is sometimes said, that man cannot organize the world without God. What is true is that, without God, he can only organize it against man.”

John Paul II understood this intellectual history as well as any figure of our time. He knew that, untethered to revelation and the biblical idea of man as the imago Dei, reason would be self-cannibalizing: Reason would destroy itself or, to put it more precisely, reason would deconstruct itself to the point where it would celebrate systematic skepticism and doubt. Unlike Harvard’s president, John Paul II knew that faith in the God of the Bible and acceptance of the biblical vision of man as the imago Dei build up within us what Dr. Drew Faust rightly commended as “the humility of always believing that there is more to know, more to teach, more to understand.” Radical skepticism does not build that humility within us; rather, it builds what the French political philosopher Pierre Manent called the “self-adoration” and “fateful hubris” that led to the mass slaughters and enslavements of the 20th century.

Refusing to be cowed by those intellectuals who continued to insist, with Voltaire, that reason and revelation had nothing to do with each other, that rational inquiry and faith in the God of the Bible could not coexist, and that the God of the Bible had to be buried so that humanity could be mature and free, John Paul II, in the 1998 encyclical Fides et Ratio, repositioned the Catholic Church as the world’s premier institutional defender of the potential and prerogatives of reason.

In that encyclical, John Paul challenged philosophy’s “false modesty,” a self-limiting skepticism that had precluded philosophy from asking the great questions: Why is there something rather than nothing? What is good and what is evil? What is happiness and what is delusion? What awaits me after this life? This false modesty had not only reduced philosophy to a kind of mathematics; it had opened the path to a culture too often dominated by an instrumental or utilitarian view of human beings, to a false faith in technology as the sovereign cure for all human ills, and to the triumph in politics of Nietzsche’s will-to-power. It was time, John Paul suggested, for humanity to recover its faith in reason and for philosophy to recover that sense of awe and wonder that directs it to transcendent truth. Human beings can know what is true, what is good, and what is beautiful, John Paul II taught, even if we can never know the true, the good, and the beautiful completely.

In a powerful image at the very beginning of the encyclical, John Paul employed an evocative image to sum up the case he was about to make: “Faith and reason,” he wrote, “are like two wings, on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth.” Trying to fly on one wing had led to human catastrophe throughout the 20th century. It was time to fly with two wings again.

In rereading the Book of Wisdom recently, I was struck by how its ninth chapter, presented as a prayer of King Solomon, provides a poetic framework for grasping key themes of the Catholic Church’s 21st-century defense of reason, which is largely John Paul II’s defense of reason. Permit me, then, to quote from Wisdom, while providing a contemporary commentary on the implications of the biblical text, drawn from the teaching of Fides et Ratio:

God of my fathers, Lord of mercy,
you who have made all things by your word
and in your wisdom have established man
to rule the creatures produced by you,
to govern the world in holiness and justice,
and to render judgment in integrity of heart . . .  [Wisdom 9:1--3]

The intelligibility and coherence of creation are the result of creation “through” the Word, the Logos of God, who imprints on creation the divine intelligibility — the self-knowledge of the Trinitarian godhead — thus making creation itself intelligible by the mind of that creature, man, who bears the imprint of the Logos in his reason. Thus man does not simply apply his own rational organizing categories to creation; by the use of his reason, man discovers the rationality and the truths that God has encoded in the creation “in the beginning” (Genesis 1:1), through the Word who was with God “in the beginning” (John 1:1) and by whom all things came into being and are sustained.

Give me Wisdom, the attendant at your throne,
and reject me not from among your children;
for I am your servant, the son of your handmaid,
a man weak and short-lived
and lacking in comprehension of judgment and of laws. [Wisdom 9: 4--5]

Revelation helps reason, for reason without revelation — Athens without Jerusalem — cannot maintain a firm conviction of its own capacity to grasp things truly. That is the lesson of the decline of Enlightenment rationalism into postmodern epistemological skepticism, a decline mediated through the positivism of Auguste Comte (empirical science is humanity’s only reliable tutor), the subjectivism of Ludwig Feuerbach (“God” is the mythical projection of human aspirations), the materialism of Karl Marx (the spiritual world is an illusion), and the radical voluntarism of Friedrich Nietzsche (exercising the will-to-power is the index of human greatness). By the same token, reason purifies religious experience and prevents its degradation into superstition. As John Paul put it in Fides et Ratio, citing St. Augustine, “Believing is nothing other than to think with assent. . . . Believers are also thinkers: in believing, they think, and in thinking, they believe. . . . If faith does not think it is nothing.”

Indeed, though one be perfect among the sons of men,
if Wisdom, who comes from you, be not with him,
he shall be held in no esteem. [Wisdom 9:6]

Reason by itself falters, stumbles, and eventually falls. And the results are not to be found only within the walls of the academy; the results are to be found throughout society, in that “anthropological crisis” — that diminishment of faith in man and his innate dignity and value — that John Paul put at the center of the crisis of late modernity.

Now with you is Wisdom, who knows your works
and was present when you made the world;
who understands what is pleasing in your eyes
and what is conformable with your commands. [Wisdom 9:9]

Wisdom leads to beatitude — happiness — which is the goal of the moral life. Wisdom reminds us that freedom is not a matter of doing whatever we like, which is a very inhuman (and inhumane) form of freedom. Wisdom helps us understand that freedom is always tied to truth and ordered to goodness, so that the truly free man freely chooses what is good and does so as a matter of moral habit. Thus wisdom increases intelligence, helping reason to grasp the deeper moral truths that can seem beyond reason’s grasp: the truths of the Beatitudes, as expressed in Matthew 5.3–11.

Send her forth from your holy heavens
and from your glorious throne dispatch her
that she may be with me and work with me,
that I may know what is your pleasure. [Wisdom 9:10]

Wisdom is a spiritual gift that develops in us, a gift that is nourished and nurtured by both reason and revelation. Faith in the God of the Bible enhances faith in the capacities of reason to reach the truth, even as reason purifies faith from any taint of superstition or irrationality.

For she knows and understands all things,
and will guide me discreetly in my affairs
and safeguard me by her glory. [Wisdom 9:11]

Both reason and revelation guide us to an understanding of the moral law that is written into nature and into us and that provides (as John Paul II put it at the United Nations in 1995) a “grammar” by which the world can turn discord into an orderly conversation about the common good. Thus public life in its social, political, cultural, and economic dimensions is enhanced by reference to both reason and revelation, the two wings on which the human spirit ascends to the truth.

As we approach the mid-point of the second decade of the first century of the third millennium, what John Paul II described as the Church’s “diakonia of the truth,” the evangelical service of truth, will be lived out according to the rule laid down in the 1990 encyclical Redemptoris Missio: “The Church proposes; she imposes nothing.” And what shall the Church propose to the postmodern world, as humanity wrestles with the questions of truth and meaning?

The Church will remind humanity that the quest for truth and meaning is built into the human heart, and that the answers given to the questions of truth and meaning decide “the direction which people seek to give to their lives.”

The Church will remind humanity that wonder, not technique, is the beginning of knowledge and wisdom in their most ample dimensions.  

The Church will call men and women out of what the late Polish philosopher Wojciech Chudy called the “trap of reflection,” recognizing with John Paul that “reason, in its one-sided concern to investigate human subjectivity, seems to have forgotten that men and women are always called to direct their steps towards a truth that transcends them.” The Church will also recognize, and remind humanity, that, as John Paul put it, detached from transcendent truth, “individuals are at the mercy of caprice, and their state as persons ends up being judged by pragmatic criteria based essentially upon experimental data, in the mistaken belief that technology must dominate all.”

The Church will recover, and make part of its evangelical mission, the ancient maxim, Credo ut intelligam — I believe so that I may know. Faith respects reason’s autonomy, but faith also reminds reason that reason cannot “bracket” revelation, drive theology and its reflection on revelation to the margins of academic life, or declare revelation irrelevant to the human quest for meaning and understanding.

The Church will recover, and make part of its evangelical mission, the related ancient maxim, Intelligo ut credam — I know so that I may believe — reminding the world that true knowledge and wisdom lead to that gift of self, which is fundamental to living nobly. Thus, with John Paul II, the Church will propose that “Human perfection . . . consists not simply in acquiring an abstract knowledge of the truth, but in a dynamic relationship of faithful self-giving with others. It is in this faithful self-giving that a person finds a fullness of certainty and security.”

In its diakonia of the truth, the Church of the 21st century will propose Christ the Lord as the answer to the anthropological crisis of late modernity and postmodernity, recognizing with the Second Vatican Council and John Paul II that it is “only in the mystery of the Incarnate Word” that the “mystery of man” is fully illuminated: “Christ the Lord . . . the new Adam, in the very revelation of the mystery of the Father and of his love, fully reveals man to himself and brings to light his most high calling.” The Church will make this proposal in fidelity to the Great Commission of Matthew 28:18–20, from which the Church takes its identity as a communion of disciples in mission, and will seek to meet the challenge of a world grown cynical in the “disenchantment” described by Max Weber — a disenchantment that has led to a crisis of meaning which can only be addressed by a recovery of the sapiential spirit in learning and teaching and a recovery of the metaphysical sensibility that was, until the continental Enlightenment, a central part of Western civilization.

And in all of this the Church will, with St. Bonaventure, invite humanity to recognize the humanly debilitating and intellectually disabling character of “reading without repentance, knowledge without devotion, research without the impulse of wonder, prudence without the ability to surrender to joy, action divorced from religion, learning sundered from love, intelligence without humility, study unsustained by divine grace, thought without the wisdom inspired by God.”           

— George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. He is the author of more than 20 books, including, most recently, Evangelical Catholicism: Deep Reform in the 21st-Century Church (Basic Books) and Roman Pilgrimage: The Station Churches (published last month by Basic Books).

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