From Many Human Truths To The One Divine Truth
Bishop Peter Henrid, SJ                                                     Reflections Index
The philosopher Pope's Encyclical on philosophy is a document on truth—a basic and recurring theme of papal teaching, so much so that it even figured in the title of an earlier Encyclical: Veritatis splendor. This new papal document, developed over many years, can' thus be considered a kind of "discourse on method", if not indeed a testament which continues and grounds the previous teachings, revealing one of John Paul II's primary concerns. For this reason, the document is thematically divided into two parts: a first, fundamental part (Chapters I-III) which deals with man's relationship to truth, and a second, longer part (Chapters IV-VII) of specific applications to problems of the relationship between theology and philosophy.

In treating fundamental theological considerations, the first part of the Encyclical does not begin with a philosophical discussion but with the mystery of the Father revealed in Christ, a mystery which—as attested by the two Vatican Councils—is in some way intelligible even to human reason. The possibility of reason having access to the mystery of God is confirmed in Chapter II by a scriptural argument based particularly on the Wisdom books and the Letter to the Romans, but it also emphasizes the abyss between the "wisdom of the Cross" and any purely human discourse.

From a faith perspective this prepares the ground on which a philosophical discussion about man's relationship to truth—not least divine truth—can and must be developed. Chapter III, entitled "Intellego ut Credam", develops this discussion and thus forms the philosophical core of the Encyclical. The argument is presented in two stages. First, the Pope makes use of Paul's discourse at the Areopagus (Acts 17:22-27) and the opening sentence of Aristotle's Metaphysics "All human beings desire to know" (Met. I, 1) to focus on people's longing for truth, really, for an ultimate, foundational truth to give meaning to their life. From here he goes on to a second stage, in which he examines what truths are accessible to man. To avoid this plural sense of truth, which has its problems, the second stage is entitled: "The different faces of human truth".

1. From radical question to ultimate truth

Actually, the discussions in the chapter's two stages are intertwined and not totally separate, because it is the same search for truth that leads to the discovery of what truths man can attain. Therefore, our commentary should begin with the question that opens n. 26: "The truth comes initially to the human being as a question: Does life have a meaning? Where is it going?". It should be noted that the basic question is framed existentially, in direct relation to human life. To justify this anthropological approach to the basic question, the "philosophers of the absurd" are mentioned, as well as "the Book of Job", "the daily experience of suffering" and in particular "the first absolutely certain truth of our life" (apart from life itself), that is, the certainty that we must die which enables this initial philosophizing to be connected with the death of Socrates.

Closer to our time, the form of the question almost inevitably recalls the beginning of L’Action, by the Catholic philosopher Maurice Blondel: "Yes or no, does human life make sense, and does man have a destiny?".1 We should also note that the other, ontological form of the initial, or radical, question as posed by Leibniz, Schelling and Heidegger: "Why is there something rather nothing?" is only cited later in the Encyclical in n. 76, when "Christian philosophy" is being discussed—because, in fact, this form of the radical question was posed (and could only have been posed) in a creationist, Judaeo-Christian context.

Now, the initial question, posed in its anthropological form, leads to two philosophically important consequences. First of all, the question is so radical and universal, embracing all human existence (that is, all my existence), that it can , not be satisfied with partial, provisional or "regional" answers, but demands a total, ultimate, definitive, non-hypothetical but absolute answer. "People seek an absolute which might give to all their searching a meaning and an answer—something ultimate, which might serve as the ground of all things. In other words, they seek a final explanation, a supreme value, which refers to nothing beyond it self and which puts an end to all questioning, Hypotheses may fascinate, but they do not satisfy. Whether we admit it or not, there comes for everyone the moment when personal existence must be anchored to a truth recognized as final, a truth which confers a certitude no longer open to doubt" (n. 27).

This is the philosophically most delicate point of the argument, because it is also the most crucial. Common, existential, emotional evidence would, of course, agree with these statements. Without an ultimate certitude, the Encyclical argues, human existence, "would be threatened constantly by fear and anxiety" (n. 28) phenomena far too common among our contemporaries. But does this Befindlichkeit (state of mind) have demonstrative force in philosophy too? The question is raised with all the more urgency that it is precisely here that "the natural limitation of reason and the inconstancy of the heart often obscure and distort a person's search" (n. 28) not only the "personal" search, but also that of philosophers. This is because, as the Supreme Pontiff pointedly notes: "Truth can also drown in a welter of other concerns. People can even run from the truth as soon as they glimpse it because they are afraid of its demands" (ibid.). Philosophers have the task, then—repeatedly stressed in the various passages of the Encyclical—of establishing rationally and irrefutably that man cannot in the end be satisfied with any truth other than what is final, ultimate, absolute and therefore foundational -the truth of being. To put it more existentially, it is a question of expressing in philosophical terms the Augustinian "restless heart" which finds its rest only in God, Pascal's "man infinitely surpasses man", or the (Neo-) Thomistic "natural desire to see God".

The Encyclical's argument follows the line of that "natural desire", asserting: "It is unthinkable that a search so deeply rooted in human nature would be completely vain and useless" (n. 29). But by replacing the Thomistic "natural desire" with the more open term of "search", the text avoids having to enter into debates about the object of this "desire"—an object which is nevertheless clear from the theological context in which the philosophical discussion takes place. Moreover, the Thomistic argument that "a natural desire cannot be in vain" immediately follows another one from the Augustinian-Pascal tradition: "The capacity to search for truth and to pose questions itself implies the rudiments of a response. Human beings would not even begin to search for something of which they knew nothing or for something which they thought was wholly beyond them" (ibid.). The underlying reasoning is transcendental, ("Under what conditions is it possible to ask a question about ultimate meaning?"), the usual reasoning of those who take the question as the starting point of metaphysics rather than wonder (mentioned in n. 4). However, the Pope is quick to make the argument less abstractly formal by referring to two experiences: first, the experience of scientific research, which depends on the confidence of being able to obtain results, and then everyday experience, in which everyone is convinced of having "at least an outline of the answers" to a "few fundamental questions", answers which he knows he shares with many others (n. 29).

2. The different types of truth

As a result of this whole discussion, not only must we admit that man can attain some truths with his reason, but also that there is a certain patrimony of truth, more or less common, or at least widely shared by the whole human race. After a brief, initial list of these truths, which include not only philosophical systems and schools of thought, but also "personal convictions and experiences", "traditions of family and culture" and "journeys in search of life's meaning under the guidance of a master" (n. 27), the Encyclical now undertakes a more systematic inventory of them—an inventory which recalls in a way Spinoza's three degrees of knowledge.2 The first mode includes truths "most of [which] depend upon immediate evidence or are confirmed by experimentation". "This is the mode of truth proper to everyday life and to scientific research" (n. 30). A second, more elevated mode is "philosophical truth, attained by means of the speculative powers of the human intellect" (ibid.). Although these first two modes of truth are in some way paralleled by Spinoza's "vague experience" and "deductive reasoning", for the third and highest degree of truth the Encyclical is completely opposed to rationalist philosophy.

Both for Spinoza and for the Encyclical, the highest degree is religious truth. For Spinoza, however, this truth is attained in a rational, philosophically achievable insight into how all reality emanates from God, while the Supreme Pontiff is concerned with the "answers which the different religious traditions offer to the ultimate questions" (n. 30). These, it is true, "are to some degree grounded in philosophy", but only "grounded" and "to some degree" (ibid.). In other words, while philosophy searches for an answer to the question of life's meaning, it cannot on its own give a satisfactory answer. It serves rather as an intermediary between, on the one hand, the question of meaning and the truths of everyday and scientific experience, and on the other, the answers that religions give. What is proposed here, without being explicitly stressed, is an original conception of philosophy, one that diverges from both the Graeco-Latin and modern conceptions—by reversing, among other things, the final triad of the Hegelian system: religion, art and philosophy.3

The list of the three modes of truth, however, leads to a further question: What is the "link between, on the one hand, the truths of philosophy and religion, and on the other, the truth revealed in Jesus Christ" (n. 30)? To answer this question, the Encyclical opens a long parenthesis to develop a true and proper philosophy of belief.

3. A philosophy of belief

A philosophy of belief, obviously, not in Locke's or Hume's sense, for whom belief is merely a deficient form of knowledge. On the contrary, the Holy Father shows how indispensable the attitude of belief is for human life and how rich it is both humanly and philosophically. He begins with the philosophically incontestable fact that human beings are social. "They are born into a family and in a family they grow, eventually entering society through their activity" (n. 31). Now, this social existence implies the importance of linguistic and cultural traditions, and with them the undisputed acceptance of many truths which at first are simply believed. If the gradual transformation of what is believed into something considered and verified is a sign of maturity, it is still true that "there are in the life of a human being many more truths which are simply believed than truths which are acquired by way of personal verification" (ibid.). In addition to religious truths, which are the primary concern here, we have the example of "scientific findings" and "the flow of information which comes day after day from all parts of the world". For this reason, the Encyclical does not hesitate to define the human being as "the one who lives by belief".

Truths that are believed are not only quantitatively the most numerous of the truths by which the human being lives. Their knowledge is also qualitatively the most humanly complete, because this knowledge combines truth and love. Or better, we should note a paradox: "On the one hand, the knowledge acquired through belief can seem an imperfect form of knowledge, to be perfected gradually through personal accumulation of evidence; on the other hand, belief is often humanly richer than mere evidence, because it involves an interpersonal relationship and brings into play not only a person's capacity to know but also the deeper capacity to entrust oneself to others ..." (n. 32). When I believe—and here we are speaking of merely human, not religious belief—I receive the truth as presented to me by another person, whom I trust and to whom I entrust myself. This "relationship of faithful self-giving with others" (ibid.) can be rather vague and abstract, as in the case of information we receive or of scientific findings, or it can touch a person's very depths, as the relationship of a child with its parents or between spouses who promise each other everlasting fidelity. Even vague, everyday trusting always remains the expression of that radical, fundamental trust (Urvertrauen) without which no human life would be possible and which is acquired precisely in the most intimate relationships.

The Holy Father does not mention these examples, which are rather obvious, but focuses on what is particularly important to him: the witness of martyrdom. How can we not think of the philosopher martyr canonized on 11 October? In martyrdom the witnesses testify with their whole life to their loyalty to the truth and for this very reason they also become highly believable. Moreover: "From the moment they speak to us of what we perceive deep down as the truth we have sought for so long, the martyrs provide evidence of a love that has no need of lengthy arguments in order to convince" (ibid.). In other words, whoever bears witness in a highly believable way to the meaning of life, provides evidence of the right answer to whoever sees or hears him. This, in brief, is a whole philosophy of human communication which deserves further development.

With these premises, which are particularly shared by the modern philosophies of dialogue, we have already half answered our question. Far from being discredited as imperfect forms of truth, traditional philosophical-religious truths deserve esteem precisely as beliefs attested to by persons worthy of trust. But what is their relationship with the truth revealed in Christ? This question belongs to the more fundamental problem of the unity of truth.

4. The unity of truth

Today this problem is perhaps more urgent than in other times. The lightning growth of our knowledge, even about other religions and cultures, makes it less and less obvious that there could be only one truth. The Supreme Pontiff had noted this in the very first pages of the Encyclical: "Recent times have seen the rise to prominence of various doctrines which tend to devalue even the truths which had been judged certain. A legitimate pluralism of positions has yielded to an undifferentiated pluralism, based upon the assumption that all positions are equally valid, which is one of today's most widespread symptoms of the lack of confidence in truth" (n. 5).

The problem is presented at two levels in the Encyclical. It was unavoidable at first to speak of truths in the plural, even to distinguish various modes of truth. But "the unity of truth is a fundamental premise of human reasoning, as the principle of non-contradiction makes clear" (n. 34), because, "if something is true, then it must be true for all people and at all times" (n. 27). The deeper question, and this is the precise theme of the Encyclical, is how can "the two modes of knowledge" (n. 34), i.e., of faith and reason, which the First Vatican Council distinguished (n. 9), coexist without contradicting, but rather supporting each other.

An initial step towards a solution, a step which could be called existential, is found in the philosophical analysis of belief. There we saw that man is characterized by a twofold longing: the longing for truth and the longing to entrust himself to another person. At the purely human level the complete fulfilment of the two longings tends to be mutually exclusive, but in the person of Jesus Christ we meet a highly trustworthy person who at the same time is the Truth in person. Faith in Christ, then, presents that goal of knowledge for which all human beings secretly long, usually without realizing it. Indeed, "moving beyond the stage of simply believing", that faith "immerses human beings in the order of grace, which enables them to share in the mystery of Christ, which in turn offers them a true and coherent knowledge of the Triune God" (n. 33).

However, this goal of the human search for truth, the focal point to which all knowledge implicitly tends, belongs to the domain of faith and not of reason. Does this mean that one of the two modes of knowledge must be absorbed by the other? Not at all. The second step of the solution, theological (or ontological, if you will), re-establishes the two modes in both their autonomy and their perfect harmony, based on the fact "that the God of creation is also the God of salvation history. It is the one and the same God who establishes and guarantees the intelligibility and reasonableness of the natural order of things upon which scientists confidently depend, and who reveals himself as the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ" (n. 34). And the Pope gives an ad hominem confirmation of that argument by quoting in a footnote a similar text from Galileo Galilei.

Thus the unity of truth is guaranteed, in the last analysis, by the unity of God, the Creator and Saviour. This enables us to answer the question of the plurality of truths mentioned at the beginning—an answer which the Encyclical does not give, at least in this place. St Thomas Aquinas expressed it in a traditional metaphor. He says, just as a shattered mirror reflects many images, yet it is always the same face which is reflected, so the one divine Truth is reflected in the many human truths. If, beyond his many truths man is always searching for the ultimate, fundamental truth, he is searching for the divine Truth, whether he knows it or not.


1. L’Action, Paris 1893, p. VII; Action, trans. by Oliva Blanchette (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, p. 3).

2. Ethica, Pars II, Prop. XL, Scholion II.

3. However, like its initial question, it recalls L’Action by Maurice Blondel, who concludes his investigation into the meaning of life with "one word, only one which goes beyond the domain of human science and the competence of philosophy, the only word able, in the face of Christianity, to express that part of certitude, the best part, which cannot be communicated because it arises only from the intimacy of totally personal action, one word which would itself be an action, it must be said: 'it is’" (L’Action, Paris 1893, p. 492; English trans., p. 446).

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
10 March 1999, page 6

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