Christian Themes

(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Questions concerning the relationship between philosophy and Christian belief are perennial, and MacIntyre’s attempt to revive the Aristotelian and Thomistic tradition of virtue-based ethics is an important contribution to discussions that have become mired in the debates between Enlightenment thought and the followers of Nietzsche. In the final essay of the book, however, MacIntyre addresses an issue of particular interest to the Christian philosopher.

In the 1998 encyclical Fides et ratio (on the relationship between faith and reason), Pope John Paul II presupposes that truth is a good and is the good of the human intellect. This presupposition, in turn, requires a rejection of certain philosophical theses such as relativism. At the same time, he states that philosophy must remain autonomous and that if it did not proceed according to its own principles and methods, it would be of little use. MacIntyre argues that this conjunction of attitudes has led to a caricature of the encyclical as promoting free inquiry only as long as that free inquiry comes to the conclusions already predetermined by Christian faith.

Building on the Thomistic tradition, MacIntyre emphasizes that the Christian understanding of rational inquiry is closely connected to the Christian understanding of human nature. It is not enough to recognize that truth is the final end of rational inquiry, but it is also important to acknowledge the significance of the nature of human beings as creatures who engage in rational inquiry, as creatures who are truth seekers. Philosophy, MacIntyre explains, seeks rational answers to questions posed by human beings. This seeking, moreover, is an essential part of the nature of all humans. As a result, it is precisely because of the encyclical’s commitment to truth as the good of the human intellect that it acknowledges the independence of philosophy. It is only through philosophy’s independence that reason is capable of making the unforced assent to truth that is essential to rational inquiry. Divine revelation, while it does provide answers and it does help illuminate false reasoning, does not end rational inquiry. Instead, it provides additional resources and goals for inquiry.