A Reflective Analysis of Fides Et Ratio – 'Know Yourself'

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The ‘Introduction – Know Yourself’ of John Paul II’s Encyclical, Fides Et Ratio, introduces briefly the relationship between faith and reason, philosophy’s vocation, as well as the problem of contemporary philosophical endeavours that diminish

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  Mark R. Bellwood 1 A Reflective Analysis of  Fides Et Ratio    –    ‘Know Yourself’    The ‘Introduction –    Know Yourself’ of John Paul II ’s  Encyclical,  Fides Et Ratio, introduces  briefly the relationship between faith and reason, philosophy’s vocation, as wel l as the  problem of contemporary philosophical endeavours that diminish human’s ability to k  now the “gift of ultimate truth.” (#1) He begins with an elegant, almost reminiscently Platonic image of the human person ’s contemplation of truth. Faith and reason are both so urces of theological knowledge and are “like two wings on which the human spirit rises. ”  This illustration is a pertinent segue into what John Paul II considers to be “indispensable . ”  (#5) Philosophy emerges as among the “noblest of human tasks , ”  (#3) and while we possess a  primordial affinity to philosophize, from Israel to the ancient Greeks, (#1) the Pontiff does express reservations about the direction of “modern philosophical research . ”  (#5) This is of vital importance because philosophy helps shape “ thought and culture, ”  (#6) and these ideas trickle down into the masses. The Holy Father has concerns about the consequences, especially for “the younger generation . ”  (#6)   After reflecting on the epistemological consequences of modern philosophical inquiry, quoting Veritatis Splendor, John Paul II notes that central and ultimate truth claims of the Catholic faith are at risk of distortion or total denial. (#6) Perhaps the central point, that leads to such conclusions by the Pontiff, is that modern philosophical research has begun to focus less on ways in which the human person can know the ultimate truth, and more on the ways in which the human person’ s capacity to know truth in general is “limited and conditioned.” (#5 ) As such the Holy Father noted earlier, this has given rise to “agnosticism and relativism.” (#5 ) I believe that the shifting sands of such rampant scepticism has, not so much in our times, yielded to “an un differentiated pluralism, based upon the assumption that all positions are  Mark R. Bellwood 2 equally valid,”  (#5) but rather to an epistemology of scientism as championed by the likes of the New Atheists. Interestingly enough, there is nothing ‘new’ here . Scientism in some ways is just another form of logical positivism but without the verification principle. 1  Nevertheless, this has, for some people, cast serious doubt on our ability to ascertain, and have confidence in, truth; especially about anything other than scientific knowledge. Subsequently, theological matters, aesthetic judgements, and ethical reflection have become at best irrelevant, and at worst meaningless. 2   Modern philosophical research, and the idea that human reason is “limited and conditioned” has even descended, I would argue, ethical ‘ truth ’  into the lofty heights, or rather murky depths of relativism. The Pontiff notes, “on this understanding, everything is reduced to opinion.” (#5 ) In my own experience, this underlining thought has become all too common. Often those arguing “ that it is not our place to make ethical judgements about other cultures and their customs,”  are oblivious to the fact that they, at the same time, argue for a more “  progressive society. ”  More often than not, those unacquainted with ethical theory, without realising give lip service to relativism, and then affirming objective moral truth.While I am all for the latter, there simply is no such thing as ‘progress’ on relativism, only change. John Paul II makes the pressing point that, not only has the pessimism of human reason to answer the radical and ultimate questions about meaning, personal and social existence (#6) landed modern thought into agnosticism, relativism, and scepticism, but this also has, what I would add further, existential   consequences for the younger generation. I think this is the most 1. Ideas taken from Peter S Williams,  A Sceptic’s Guide to Atheism (London: Paternoster Press, 2009). 2. In Dawkins ’   own words, “there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but  blind, pitiless indifference . . . For Nature, heartless, witless Nature Will neither know or care. DNA neither knows nor cares. ” See Richard Dawkins,  River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life (New York: Basic Books, 1995), 133.  Mark R. Bellwood 3 important issue raised by the Pontiff in his concluding remarks. He relates that a number of  people “ stumble ”   through life at the “edge of the abyss” and ultimately have no direction (#6). The Holy Father maintains that in the face of such rapid and complex change ephemeral ideas about the nature of reality are affirmed, and consequently, finding the answer to the meaning of life is cast into serious doubt (#6). I think this is of paramount importance. Arguably, humans, in order to flourish and live consistently, need meaning. And not just subjective, fleeting meaning, something greater than ourselves. For if I too reflect philosophically on my own existence, I find myself with an inclination towards existential nihilism, of course I end such potential convictions with philosophical suicide, for I have to believe for the sake of my own sanity, that Jesus is “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6) .
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