Tuesday, June 01, 2004

De Philosophia

Today we celebrated the feast of St. Justin Martyr, patron saint of philosophers and one of my favourites. Born in Palestine c.100, his thirst for the truth led him through the philosophical schools of the time (Stoicism, Platonism, etc.) before finally converting to Christianity at about the age of thirty. He taught the faith in Asia Minor and in Rome, and his background enabled him to achieve a synthesis of faith and reason. He may therefore be described as the first theologian as we currently understand the word, not setting aside his philosophical knowledge, but instead using it to understand and defend the reasonableness and truth of the Christian faith. He composed two Apologias in which he sought to defend Christianity from the charges made by pagans and an imaginary 'Dialogue with the Jew Trypho'. It is thanks to St. Justin that we have the earliest description of the Sunday Eucharist, including virtually all the elements familiar to us from Mass today, including the collection!
St. Justin paid the ultimate price for his faith and the
Office of Readings for today describes his martyrdom.

The saints were seized and brought before the prefect of Rome, whose name was Rusticus. As they stood before the judgement seat, Rusticus the prefect said to Justin: “Above all, have faith in the gods and obey the emperors”. Justin said: “We cannot be accused or condemned for obeying the commands of our Saviour, Jesus Christ”.
Rusticus said: “What system of teaching do you profess?” Justin said: “I have tried to learn about every system, but I have accepted the true doctrines of the Christians, though these are not approved by those who are held fast by error”.
The prefect Rusticus said: “Are those doctrines approved by you, wretch that you are?” Justin said: “Yes, for I follow them with their correct teaching”.
The prefect Rusticus said: “What sort of teaching is that?” Justin said: “Worship the God of the Christians. We hold him to be from the beginning the one creator and maker of the whole creation, of things seen and things unseen. We worship also the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God. He was foretold by the prophets as the future herald of salvation for the human race and the teacher of distinguished disciples. For myself, since I am a human being, I consider that what I say is insignificant in comparison with his infinite godhead. I acknowledge the existence of a prophetic power, for the one I have just spoken of as the Son of God was the subject of prophecy. I know that the prophets were inspired from above when they spoke of his coming among men”.
Rusticus said: “You are a Christian, then?” Justin said: “Yes, I am a Christian”.
The prefect said to Justin: “You are called a learned man and think that you know what is true teaching. Listen: if you were scourged and beheaded, are you convinced that you would go up to heaven?” Justin said: “I hope that I shall God’s house if I suffer that way. For I know that God’s favour is stored up until the end of the whole world for all who have lived good lives”.
The prefect Rusticus said: “Do you have an idea that you will go up to heaven to receive some suitable rewards?” Justin said: “It is not an idea that I have; it is something I know well and hold to be most certain”.
The prefect Rusticus said: “Now let us come to the point at issue, which is necessary and urgent. Gather round then and with one accord offer sacrifice to the gods”. Justin said: “No one who is right thinking stoops from true worship to false worship”.
The prefect Rusticus said: “If you do not do as you are commanded you will be tortured without mercy”. Justin said: “We hope to suffer torment for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ, and so be saved. For this will bring us salvation and confidence as we stand before the more terrible and universal judgement-seat of our Lord and Saviour”.
In the same way the other martyrs also said: “Do what you will. We are Christians; we do not offer sacrifice to idols”.
The prefect Rusticus pronounced sentence, saying: “Let those who have refused to sacrifice to the gods and to obey the command of the emperor be scourged and led away to suffer capital punishment according to the ruling of the laws”. Glorifying God, the holy martyrs went out to the accustomed place. They were beheaded, and so fulfilled their witness of martyrdom in confessing their faith in their Saviour.

St. Justin's approach regarding the relationships between faith and reason, theology and philosophy, has been pretty much that of mainstream Catholic theology since his time, Tertullian and his 'What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?' quip notwithstanding. It accords well with our Catholic understanding of the nature of the fall that we can humbly aim at a synthesis between faith and reason. Without reducing God to our level, we can argue for the reasonableness of the Christian faith. Personally, I would see it as being a case of our reason being able to apprehend the mysteries of God, whilst understanding that they are not to be comprehended. Philosophy allows us to develop a vocabulary and grammar to make our theological thinking rigorous and it also makes us more keenly aware of the problems and questions that God's revelation in Jesus Christ provides the ultimate answer to! Interestingly, there is also an opposite (if less significant) movement. Theology can inspire philosophical thought. The great medieval theologians were philosophers by default, whilst more recently Leibniz (though not a Catholic) was inspired by the doctrine of Transubstantiation to refine his metaphysical system. Not very approvingly, Nietzsche once wrote: 'Among Germans I am immediately understood when I say that philosophy has been corrupted by theologians’ blood. The Protestant parson is the grandfather of German philosophy'. One might also think of Kierkegaard and St. Edith Stein.

On a slightly related note, some of you might be interested by the following Imaginary Dialogue between St.Thérèse of Lisieux and Friedrich Nietzsche by a Rome based Jesuit Fr. Michael Paul Gallagher, an expert in the field of unbelief. (No, that's not an invitation for wisecracks about Jesuits and unbelief!)

Also worth a look is this piece (Microsoft Word Document) by distinguished Catholic philosopher and Thomist Prof Eleonore Stump of St. Louis University who recently gave a series of talks here in Rome.

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