Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Philosophy in Seminary Formation: Why and How

Monsignor Robert Sokolowski, an expert in phenomenology, gives some suggestions on the philosophical formation of the seminary in an Homiletic and Pastoral Review article of May 2004: "Philosophy in the Seminary Curriculum." Here are the main points.

"In the past three or four decades Thomism has been replaced in Church institutions by an eclectic and historical study of philosophy, but such an approach never comes to a conclusion and does not form the mind in the way a Christian philosophy should. A return to a Thomistic approach would be very desirable."

There should be a minimum of ten courses (30 credit hours) in philosophy divided as follows:

History of Philosophy (9 credits)

Metaphysics, Philosophy of God (6 credits)

Philosophy of Nature and Science (3 credits)

The Human Person (3 credits)

Ethics and Political Philosophy (6 credits)

Logic, Theory of Knowledge (3 credits)

Regarding the history of philosophy course

"This course is essential because it provides what I would like to call the 'spine' of Western thinking. It would lay out the standard sequence of historical periods: ancient, patristic, medieval, modern, and contemporary. To know this sequence is very important for the study of theology, and it is better to treat it in philosophy than in theology, because so much of it is purely philosophical. This historical sequence would help the student locate various authors and it would also help him locate himself and his own culture. Furthermore, if the student were to be taught things like the various forms of causation or the various forms of human conduct, it would be important for him to know when these concepts were expressed and how they were reinterpreted over time. This course would involve some reading of classical texts. It might also be desirable to have still another course, beyond those I have listed above, one that would be devoted to classical texts in Christian philosophy, in which the student might read in a deeper way some of the major works of Christian writers."

Textbooks should also be developed for each of the courses to make it easier for both student and professor to systematically cover the essentials and have it all outlined and set out in one place.

Two important modern authors for those topics are Yves R. Simon and Robert Spaemann.

Why philosophy is necessary for theology

"The Word of God does not only bring a new revelation of the life of God and his covenant with man; it also confirms and heals our reason, that which specifically makes us human and makes us persons. Philosophy is the most intense exercise of human reason; it is the activity in which reason comes to the fullest possession of itself. Part of the mission of the Church, as Fides et Ratio tells us, is to restore faith in reason.

"One of the major challenges in restoring faith in reason is the fact that in our modern world reason has been taken to be primarily scientific rationality, and so the Church must show that scientific rationality is not the most fundamental kind, even though it is a legitimate and noble exercise of intelligence. In fact, to take scientific reason--in the natural, social, and psychological sciences--as the most basic kind of reason ultimately leads to irrationality. As such scientific thinking tries to handle the specifically human things, like human freedom and knowledge, political life, moral action, and so on, it becomes obvious that it cannot do so, and since people would have assumed that the only true form of reason is found in the rationality of science, they conclude that they must abandon reason in approaching such things, and they turn to irrational ways of thinking such as extreme existentialism and deconstruction. Existentialism and deconstruction are the rebound from scientism.

"...Even the catechesis of the Church herself needs a philosophical element if it is to avoid being reduced to sentimentality, which is a popular version of deconstruction... 'For a generation the catechesis of children has been troubled and uncertain. It no longer aims at putting into their heads stable dogmatic formulas, learned by heart, but tries to breathe into them a state of soul that is vague, affectionate, and kindly towards everyone.' The intellectual element of catechesis is lost when this occurs, and people's faith becomes thoughtless. This lack of thoughtful faith makes Christians vulnerable to indifference, to the loss of what they think the faith to be, and liable to conversion to other beliefs.

"Clearly, the aim of a seminary philosophy program is not to make seminarians into philosophers, academic experts, in the full sense, but it is to try to make them philosophical, to have a sense of how questions can be pursued, to have a number of strategic distinctions and definitions clearly in mind, to be able to respond with philosophical understanding to questions people raise. Many issues that people bring to priests are simply human problems and not exclusively theological or religious ones, and in most cases even if they are more specifically theological they also have a human or philosophical component. The aim of a seminary philosophy program is to equip the seminarian and then the priest with a certain vocabulary and certain intellectual habits. He should become better able to use such words as responsibility, meaning, the human person, human nature, moral obligation, virtue and vice, and the like, and to use these words thoughtfully. He should be able to bring out with some clarity important natural things, things that are accessible to reason.

"Philosophy helps us articulate the way things are and the way they appear to us. It can be of great  value even for homiletics. A very good way of presenting the Christian things is to contrast them with natural things; to develop some human good, some human truth that people know from their own experience, and then to show how the Christian truth both confirms this good and goes beyond it...[e.g. friendship and the theological virtue of charity].

"Christian faith thus elevates, heals, and perfects reason, but it also appeals to reason, because faith presents a message and a truth that is to be understood, not just a law that is to be obeyed.

Thomism and phenomenology

"We can better understand the purpose of a philosophy curriculum if we spell out a bit further the kinds of things that we would expect a seminarian or priest to know, the kind of intellectual habits that he should acquire in regard to philosophy. Before doing so, however, I wish to give a name to the kind of philosophy that I think should be taught in the seminary. I would like to call it streamlined Thomism. I think that seminarians should learn the essentials of Thomism, but they should not be expected to become medieval philosophers. Some may wish to become expert in medieval thought, but most of them, in their general education, would be better served by the fruits of Thomism, not by the whole orchard. In learning such a streamlined Thomism, seminarians would be introduced to the great tradition in philosophy, because in Thomas's writings we find not only his own thought but many of the essentials of the thought of Aristotle and the Platonic tradition. Thomas gives the student access to the great classical tradition of philosophy. A seminary program should distill for the students the central teachings of Aquinas, formulated in a classical vocabulary but also adapted and supplemented in view of our contemporary needs and understandings. I think there should be a new revival of Thomism in the educational effort of the Church...

"I would also like to suggest that this streamlined Thomism could profit very much from insights that have been achieved by phenomenology. This use of phenomenology could help Thomism come to terms with modern thinking, with modernity. It would help Thomism address contemporary problems in a classical way and it would, I think, make Thomism more interesting and keep it from appearing historically 'dated.' The encyclical Fides et Ratio seems to take phenomenology to be rather like phenomenalism; this may be the meaning of the passage that reads, 'We face a great challenge at the end of this millennium to move from phenomenom to foundation...We cannot stop short at experience...' (§83) I do not think that phenomenology has to be interpreted in this phenomenalist manner, even though many writers and scholars who work in that tradition may take it that way. But we need not be limited by the ideas of, say, Sartre or Merleau-Ponty, for example; why can we not interpret phenomenology in our own way, and take advantage of the manner in which it allows us to treat the modern problem of appearance?

"One way of interpreting the phenomenological method is the following: it consists in making strategic, elementary distinctions. When we make such distinctions, we work with phenomena, with the way things appear, but we certainly do not just rest with superficial phenomena. If we distinguish between, say, anger and hated, and work out the essential character of that distinction, or if we work out the difference between pictures and words, or that between essentials and accidentals, we are not working with 'just' the phenomena. We are getting to the foundation of things, we are getting to an elementary understanding and are not remaining just with experience. We are elevating experience into philosophical understanding. If we work things out this way, the whole absurd modern problem of idealism versus realism just drops away as a serious issue. We do not and indeed cannon 'prove' that there is an external world or that there is such a thing as truth; to get tangled up in problems like this is to get lost in a whole host of ridiculous, artificial puzzles from which we will never free ourselves. Instead, we should simply make a lot of clarifications and distinctions in regard to basic issues, and the truth of such insights will evidence itself. I think phenomenology can help us do so in a simple, direct, and understandable way, and I also think that analytic philosophy is not nearly as helpful. The philosophical work of Gilbert Ryle and J. L. Austin held much promise, but I think that most other analytic philosophers have never gotten out of the Cartesian box; they are of much less assistance in the project of a streamlined Thomism. Phenomenology, if it can avoid jargon, can formulate philosophical problems in the way that people spontaneously experience them, but in my opinion analytic philosophy is far less able to do so."

Examples of what a philosophy curriculum should help seminarians to know
  • a sense of causality and the various kinds thereof: efficient, material, formal, final and instrumental
  • the difference between essential and accidental things and that whenever we name an object, whenever we speak about something, some of the essentials of that thing are being put into play, that if we speak at all we cannot avoid what is often disparaged as 'essentialism'
  • the concept of the nature of things, to show that things have natures, that they are not merely shapeless, meaningless entities that we can make use of as we see fit for our own purposes
  • the ends that things have, their internal final causes, their teleologies, and distinguish such ends from the purposes we have when we make use of things (a clear grasp of nature, ends and purposes is crucial for discussions, for example, about the family and human sexuality)
  • regarding human action and the human person the meaning of human responsibility and choice as different from non-responsible conduct, the exculpatory role of compulsion and ignorance; differences between virtue and self-control, vice and weakness, intellectual and moral virtues; the way the theoretical life is lived in regard to knowledge and art, the meanings of justice and friendship, the sense of personal identity over time, the role of memory and anticipation; the way actions shape a character and shape the person himself; the meaning of the principle of double effect
  • the philosophical definition of the various human appetites, inclinations, and emotions, such as love and hate, pleasure and pain, anger, indignation, cruelty, kindness, gratitude, resentment, envy, admiration, contempt, and the like; to bring a rational appreciation to our human emotive life
  • some political philosophy showing what political society is as opposed to the family and other prepolitical associations, the nature of citizenship, the various kinds of political communities, and the shifts and changes that occur in political life, to be capable of evaluating public policies and help people to be good citizens and to preserver their freedom, avoiding credulity and oversimplification
  • regarding human cognition, help the student appreciate what words are, how words are used to make judgments, how judgments are blended into arguments; discuss the most common fallacies, and distinguish rhetoric from dialectics; show the difference between perception and understanding, and also how we take responsibility for the things that we speak, how the human person, the agent of truth, expresses the nature of things when he communicates with others; the role of other people in helping us know the truth, the role of tradition; the way an ancient text can still speak to us now, with undiminished force and clarity,...the hermeneutic problem of a text, the question of how there can be an identity of meaning in a text over a long period of time and in very different contexts [e.g. Sacred Scripture]
  • the difference between science and common sense, and science and philosophy, showing what science can tell us as well as what it cannot speak about, and why; and show that while science gives us truth, there are also other things that are true as well, and other ways of coming to the truth
  • that it is not the task of philosophy to somehow prove that there is such a thing as truth; rather, it is its task to bring out the various ways of achieving truth, and precisely in making these distinctions philosophy will have established the possibility of truth; in the discussion of truth also a discussion of various forms of error, ignorance, and concealment
  • the distinction between thinking and speaking rhetorically and thinking and speaking philosophically, [viz. between arguing emotionally for one's own point of view and trying to persuade the audience to one's opinion versus presenting the truth of things, speaking analytically, thoughtfully and thus philosophically, the latter being salvific in its own way: giving us hope that there is something like the truth of things that can rescue us in a complicated and confusing situation, encouraging us to look for true friends and advisors, and not just allies in struggle, making us more willing to look for guidance from the Church and from tradition]
"A well ordered program in philosophy can help the Catholic clergy to be beacons of light in a foggy world, agents of reason and not just bullhorns of sentimentality...a matter of primary importance...for the Church,...for society as well."

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...