Drawing of the Aurora Borealis i nteh sky over a solitary figure


A Fateful Separation of Philosophy And Theology

The two disciplines, split by modernity, need to re-engage.

“Aurora Borrealis” frontispiece to Fridtjof Nansen’s In Northern Mists: Arctic Exploration in Early Times, 1911. CC-PD

By Louis Dupré

Paul Tillich was one of the few theologians who fully understood how profoundly modern science and philosophy had come to be at variance with theology. He also grasped that this condition could not be remedied until philosophy would again be open to questions raised by theology and until philosophy would become an essential part of theology. In the first part of his three-volume Systematic Theology, Tillich describes how theology ought to go about its business: “It makes an analysis of the human situation out of which the existential questions arise, and it demonstrates that the symbols used in the Christian message are the answers to those questions. . . . The analysis of the human situation employs materials made available by man’s creative self-interpretation in all realms of culture. Philosophy con-tributes, but so do poetry, drama, the novel, therapeutic psychology, and sociology. [This analysis] remains a philosophical analysis.”

Tillich avoids confusing the two disciplines. Philosophy remains autonomous in its own domain, but it should not exclude any source of meaning from its critical investigation, least of all questions raised by theology. The philosopher ought to analyze them critically and accept or reject them in accordance with the standards and methods of his own discipline. To the German thinker, it was obvious that the two disciplines had to be closely related.

What, then, had caused them to be separated and often hostile to one another? What were the consequences? How can the relation be restored without violating the conditions of modern philosophy? Those are the questions I want to explore here. The separation appeared definitive when Kant eliminated not only theology but also metaphysics from the compass of philosophy. But the process had started much earlier and as long as the principles adopted at the earlier time remain in force, a reunion cannot, I think, be achieved.

Neither ancient nor Scholastic thought knew any opposition between philosophy and theology. For Plato and the Neoplatonists, the erotic drive of thought originates in an attraction evoked by a superhuman source. Even Aristotle, the alleged positivist, describes in De Anima the active principle of the intellect as divine. In order to think, he argues, the mind needs the impulse of a principle that never ceases thinking. This can only be divine. Indeed, the soul itself, once freed from the passivity of the body, will become Godlike. In the 10th book of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle describes contemplation, the goal of philosophy, as a properly divine activity. Beyond the internal dialogue that the mind entertains with itself, it aims at an intuitive state, which reasoning merely prepares. Again, he insists that such a state sur-passes human capacity: “[The person attains it only] insofar as something divine is present in him.”

This harmonious relation continued to exist in the Christian tradition, despite some initial resistance to philosophical authority, such as we hear in Tertullian’s credo quia absurdum. Significantly Aquinas called his synthesis of revelation with Aristotelian, Neoplatonic, and Arabian philosophy Summa Theologiae. He distinguished “natural” virtues from supernatural ones and even recognized a natural end to the person, which he described in Aristotelian and Stoic terms. But “natural” virtue is incomplete and the person’s “natural” end remains subordinate to a more comprehensive, supernatural one. Yet this distinction between the natural and the supernatural is purely functional. Taken by itself, the “natural” is an abstraction. The great Franciscan teachers Bonaventure and Scotus integrated the two orders of discourse even more intimately.

The supreme state of consciousness for classical philosophers, as well as for Christian thinkers of the High Middle Ages, implied some communication with a reality that surpasses the human mind. The very possibility of communicating with God arouses a “natural” desire for God. Yet the alleged object of this desire, the religious idea of God, originates neither in philosophy nor in any other natural mode of cognition, but in a divine revelation. Philosophy merely encounters this idea, which precedes philosophical reflection.

In contrast to this harmonious relation between philosophy and theology, modern thought finds it exceedingly difficult to conceive of a natural desire for a revealed and hence supernatural Absolute. Both philosophical and theological reasons prevent it from doing so. Modern philosophy tolerates no interference from nonphilosophical sources. The resistance is equally strong in modern theology, which has separated nature from a supernatural realm. What was the cause of this separation? If the notion of a natural desire of God nevertheless occurs in such modern philosophers as Nicolas Malebranche or the Cambridge Platonists, it could do so only because these authors wisely ignored the re-trictions of modern philosophy as well as those of a theology influenced by nominalism.


Nominalist theologies, on the ground of a one-sided idea of divine omnipotence, denied any similarity between Creator and creatures. God can do all he pleases: condemn the saint and save the sinner. Creation depends on the inscrutable decision of God, which surpasses the limited human understanding. Obviously, nature thereby loses the intrinsic, predictable rationality, which it had possessed in ancient as well as in Christian thought. All becomes the result of a blind divine decree.

Undeniably, the nominalist revolution brought many benefits to the development of science. It liberated scientific investigation from restrictive conditions, which a priori determined how things in nature must be in order to comply with the perfection of their Creator. All too readily medieval philosophy had predicted the course of nature on the basis of presumed divine attributes. We remember the difficulties Galileo Galilei experienced in convincing the Aristotelians of the value of his experiments. Henceforth philosophers could no longer rely on how the nature of a physical process ought to be, according to God’s eternal Being. They were forced to find out by empirical investigation.

Before tallying this empirical attitude up as a triumph of reason over superstition, we ought to consider what Harvard’s famous Alfred N. Whitehead wrote, in Science and the Modern World: “It is a great mistake to conceive this historical revolt as an appeal to reason. On the contrary, it was through and through an anti-intellectualist movement. It was the return to the contemplation of brute fact; and it was based on a recoil from the inflexible rationality of thought.” Further on, Whitehead insists that modern science is still essentially an antirationalistic repudiation of philosophy.

At the beginning of the modern period some vigorous attempt was made to restore the unity lost in the separation between a natural and a supernatural order, in which both the Reformation and early Italian Humanism played a significant part. Unfortunately they failed. Reformed theology, aware of man’s total involvement in the drama of sin and redemption, rejected the dual order of late medieval theology. The fall had affected human nature as well as its supernatural sanctification. Yet, soon the kind of nominalist thinking of which Protestant theologians had fled the philosophical con-sequences infiltrated their own thought. The very seriousness with which they stressed the impact of sin—the corruptio totalis—led to a concept of fallen nature, which grace itself would not be able to transform intrinsically. God’s “imputed” righteousness, though expressing a change in the divine attitude, left nature right where it found it. Thus, a separation not unlike the earlier one between nature and a supernatural order here emerged at a later stage.

Indeed, the Anglican divine William Law attributed much of the secularism of the eighteenth century to the extrinsic character of a forensic theory of justification. In a few memorable pages of The Spirit of Love he outright rejects the notion of an “imputed” righteousness as well as the distinction between a natural and a supernatural order. Divine righteousness intrinsically transforms human nature. Law intended to return to the fundamental purpose of the Reformation, namely, to restore the unity of nature and grace lost by the late medieval distinction between two separate levels of existence. He correctly perceived that if righteous-ness was no more than an imputed “quality,” this prepared a split between an independent natural religion and the supernatural revealed religion of faith. What he had predicted happened, not only in the reformed community, but also in the Catholic one, which had so firmly rejected Luther’s “imputed justification,” but had become all the more entrenched in the separation between a natural from a supernatural order.

Paradoxically, the attempt of the early Humanist movement to restore the earlier synthesis of nature and grace ended up reinforcing the separation. Early Italian Humanists postulated an uninterrupted continuity between creation and redemption, between the noble philosophy of such pre-Christian writers as Plato and Plotinus, some Stoics, and Cicero. For Marsilino Ficino and Pico della Mirandola, if Christian revelation is true, it had to be fully compatible with the great teachings of Antiquity. This Christian naturalism, however, degenerated during the Renaissance into a pure nonreligious naturalism.

In theology, the separation of nature from the supernatural world of grace set up a natural theology next to an increasingly isolated supernatural theology. Those who embraced it in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries returned to the Roman sources, in which Christians, ever since Augustine, had found an arsenal of weapons against polytheism and atheism. But they had not done so for the purpose of establishing a natural theology that could dispense with revelation altogether, as the modern natural theology ended up doing. The new deism became a rival religion. Its principles included the existence of a Creator, source of cosmic motion, who rewards good and punishes evil, and whose providence guides history toward a progress of morality and culture. Nothing beyond that appeared necessary or even possible.

Although it claimed to be a product of reason alone, this deism was in fact the result of a filtering process that had strained off all historical and dogmatic data from Christian theology and retained only that minimum which, by eighteenth-century standards, reason demands. It appeared to be more an attenuated version of Christianity than a religion of pure reason. Its idea of God contained enough remnants of its religious origin to be recognizable as the ghost of the Christian God. It was in fact a rationalist abstraction of an unacknowledged Christian idea.


Thus, what had begun as a separation between nature and the supernatural was gradually developing into an opposition between a supernaturalist theology on one side and a deist philosophy on the other. Deist philosophy slowly paved the way to atheism. Still, the strong resistance of such famous deists as Voltaire to that conclusion raises the question whether modern thought was hiding an idea, which in the view of most deists seemed to support natural religion, yet in fact led directly to its destruction. I have no doubt that such was the case and that it consisted in equating God’s creative act with a form of mechanical causality.

The modern notion of causality, developed in the wake of the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century, substantially differed from the much more comprehensive ancient and medieval concept. Whereas for Plato, Aristotle, and the Neoplatonists, efficient causality involved in the act of “making” something was by no means the only or even the primary form of causality; in modern philosophy efficient causality became the only source of power. As such, it came to occupy a central place in the natural theology of creation. In fact the entire success of philosophical or natural theology depended on it. Why this happened is a com-plex story, the answer of which may be found in the writings of Descartes, Spinoza, and Newton. Mechanistic physics needed no other source of powers. Now, Christians have always interpreted creation in a causal way, but never as the exclusive result of an efficient cause. Unlike Adam, who God has just released from his hand in the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, creatures had always been esteemed to be permanently linked to their Creator. Indeed, as all mystical writers, as well as Nicholas of Cusa, that most powerful thinker of the fifteenth century, had so strenuously asserted, they participated in their Creator’s own Being.

In the view of deist natural theologians, creation consisted of two acts of efficient divine causality: one of bringing a universe into being, and a second of setting it in motion. After it had started moving, it controlled itself: no further divine intervention was needed or allowed. Even the start of motion ceased to be the crucial problem it once had been, after Newton’s principle of inertia had abrogated the traditional assumption that rest had a natural priority over motion. If we also abandon, then, the un-proved principle that the cosmos must have a beginning, even the need for an efficient cause of motion beyond the universe vanishes altogether. Such was the conclusion of Diderot and of all later French materialists.

But there remained the question of extracting an orderly cosmos from nothingness. Why should we assume that there ever was “nothing,” Diderot asks. Does Genesis not declare that in the beginning “darkness covered the abyss,” hence that there was “chaos”? Motion might have been inherent in this chaos without having been preceded by rest. Furthermore, matter might be conceived as possessing powers that exceeded ones needed to maintain mechanical motion. Why, then, over the long period of time, could this chaos not have arranged itself into an orderly cosmos and even have produced life? Was this scenario less probable, Diderot wondered, than that of a God creating a chaos from which a universe worthy of God’s wisdom and power was never to emerge? The reduction of causality to efficiency and creation to efficient causality led to even greater problems in the moral area. Morality had remained deism’s chief defense against naturalist assaults. Indeed, deists had virtually identified the content of religion with the sanction of moral rules. But the conflict between freedom and necessity, which had already been severe during the sixteenth- and the early-seventeenth-century disputes on divine predestination, intensified as the implications of an idea of creation conceived exclusively in terms of efficient causality became fully evident. Freedom as self-constituting spontaneity is indeed incompatible with dependence on a causal agency outside itself.

Nietzsche’s atheism originated in the conflict between God conceived as the absolute source of value on one side and freedom, which must establish its own values, on the other. At the same time he realized that without an absolute foundation freedom becomes caught in an unlimited competition of relative and potentially self-destructive choices. For that reason he regarded the death of God as the symbolic event of the age: “The greatest recent event—‘that God is dead,’ that the belief in the Christian God has ceased to be believable—is even now beginning to cast its first shadows over Europe.” Modern atheism rejects any form of dependence on a transcendent cause, because it understands such dependence as necessarily being the effect of efficient causality. Yet the ancient, medieval, and even Leibnizian form of causality includes other modes of dependence. A participatory relation to a transcendent source would render freedom dependent in its existence without being predetermined in its operation.

What I have described here is the result of a fatal split that occurred at the very beginning of the modern age, originally a split of intelligibility of the relation between God and creation, later a separation between nature and the supernatural, finally a full opposition between philosophy and theology. The gap cannot be filled by attempting to bring the facts narrated in the Bible in accordance with the discoveries of modern science. Instead, we ought to attack the principles that caused the split. I shall add some concluding suggestions about what can be done and what cannot be done in the area of modern philosophy.


Contemporary philosophy has changed from  the philosophy that ruled the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Yet the effects of the ban against theology remain for the most part in place. The major philosophies of our time are either indifferent or hostile to any collaboration, let alone integration, with theology. Is that attitude still justified by the nature of modern philosophy? Of course, to one who accepts Kant’s conclusion in the Critique of Pure Reason that no position unsupported by some kind of physical evidence can be admitted to be incontestably true, no compromise is possible. But in his moral philosophy Kant himself went well beyond that restriction intended to save the objective reliability of the sciences from Hume’s skepticism.

Since then, other developments have taken place in modern philosophy with respect to the limits of human knowledge. I am thinking of two in particular. First, there is the rise of phenom-enology in the twentieth century and its development into the hermeneutic philosophies of Heidegger, Gadamer, and Ricoeur. From the phenomenological point of view, the Kantian rules about the limits of knowledge prevented a comprehensive investigation of meaning. Philosophy ought to recognize all forms of meaning, including those of religion as articulated by theology.

To the religious believer, the content of faith constitutes the most fundamental source of meaning. This does not mean that any religious belief, any alleged fact of revelation, no matter how much in conflict with scientific evidence, may be considered a valid source of meaning to phenomenological philosophy. Nonsense does not change its nature by being produced in a religious context. The educated believer, then, cannot dispense with a critical examination of his or her religious faith. But if faith survives this critique, it cannot but be a primary component in the total interpretation of his existence. As for the nonbeliever, he is not qualified to rule out a source of meaning before he has in some way acquainted himself with it. It seems to me, and here again I join Tillich, that at least one aspect of religion is confirmed by any contemporary philosophy that has not a priori closed its doors to an investigation of meaning in the broadest sense—I mean the primary fact that there is a transcendent dimension to human existence. On this point Jaspers, Heidegger, Ricoeur, and Whitehead agreed. The acceptance of this fact may not force the philosopher to agree with any particular theological system in existence. It does not even include a proof of God’s existence. The term transcendence simply refers to what surpasses the limits of experience. As such, it inevitably raises the question of what lies beyond the limit. The person may respond to that question by embracing a theist view of transcendence, or he may refuse to respond where no sufficient evidence for any system is available. But he cannot deny that the question itself opens a dimension of human existence which modern philosophy has too long ignored.

Yet, philosophy can and must do more. It may treat the content of faith as a hypothesis and then investigate whether this hypothesis contributes to a deeper understanding of human existence. Religious mysteries furnish conceptual paradigms. Philosophy does not try to “prove” or disprove them. Philosophical discourse possesses a different kind of intelligibility than the discourse of religion. But at least the Daseinsanalyse conveyed by religion and theology forces metaphysics to take religious belief seriously. Once the question of meaning is raised to an existential level, the epistemic difference that distinguishes modern philosophy from theology ceases to be a prohibitive separation. Hermeneutic philosophy is open to any source of existential meaning. To the believer, faith is the most fundamental source of meaning, and he or she must adopt it within the metaphysical quest of meaning. Since this source is not avail-able to the nonbeliever, it stands in need of a particularly critical examination. But the nonbeliever is not qualified a priori to rule out a source of meaning, which he does not know from within. On the other side, the believing philosopher cannot blame the non-believer for having eliminated this source after having critically examined it and found it wanting. He himself, however, cannot but consider a primary source of existential meaning.

Yet another innovation in contemporary philosophy has re-opened the road to belief. During the first half of the twentieth century, a few French and Belgian philosophers steered Thomist philosophy in a new direction. Pierre Rousselot, a French Jesuit killed in the First World War, argued that an intellectual dynamism moves the cognitive act beyond its immediate objects to-ward a transcendent goal. It therefore implicitly co-affirms such a goal, even though its nature lies beyond our cognitive capacity. In a celebrated dissertation entitled L’action, Maurice Blondel had in 1893 argued that all human acting receives its impulse from a fundamental desire that surpasses the immediate object of choice. The motive of my acting, then, moves well beyond the actual and even the possible achievements of the act. Can this self-transcending aspiration ever be fulfilled? With respect to this question, philosophy must at least remain open to a transcendent response, if one were ever to reveal itself.

Joseph Maréchal completed the work of these predecessors in a masterly five-volume reinterpretation of Western epistemology and, indeed, of Thomist metaphysics in its entirety. With Kant, whose influence continues to dominate his work, he excludes the possibility of an intellectual intuition. Yet, he shows that a number of Western philosophers have recognized an implicit intuition of the absolute in the self-surpassing drive of all thinking. The intuition remains implicit because it conveys no metaphysical “knowledge” of God. Still, the active presence of transcendence within the act exceeds Kant’s reductionist analysis of religion.

Transcendental Thomism has from the beginning provoked much controversy. Can a medieval system ever be integrated with Kantian philosophy? Even if Maréchal presents a valid reinterpretation of metaphysics, as I believe he does, the distance between actual faith and intellectual dynamism remains consider-able, even greater than in the hermeneutic philosophy we have just discussed. In comparing the two, however, we must not forget that precisely the theory of intellectual dynamism creates a necessary condition for hermeneutic philosophy to be existentially meaningful. Without an ontological desire in thinking and acting, the very possibility of existential meaning derived from a transcendent source must be questioned. Gabriel Marcel has shown the riches of meaning to be drawn from the theory of transcendental desire.


So far I have discussed how transcendental philosophy and hermeneutic thought may have opened a new way toward integrating transcendent meaning with a philosophy of Being. But does religious faith need metaphysics? We know that one of the important theologians of the last century, Karl Barth, vehemently denies this. According to his Church Dogmatics, any attempt to mediate biblical revelation through metaphysics corrupts the divine message. Like a meteor fallen from heaven, Christ touches this world at one tangential point. His revelation needs no philosophical support, nor does it fit our categories of thinking. The Christian message cannot even be ranked under the general concept of religion. Against this position, I hold, with most theologians, that a faith conceived in human ideas, expressed in human words, requires some praeparatio fidei to be received, cultivated, and practiced. As Romano Guardini describes the process, we must first see something and then risk the plunge: Etwas sehen und es dann wagen. Metaphysics leads us to that insight in the human condition where alone the need for transcendent meaning can be felt.

Yet, metaphysics may be more than a praeparatio fidei. It may be-come assumed by faith as an integral part of it. In concluding the volume on modern metaphysics of his monumental The Glory of the Lord, Hans Urs von Balthasar wrote: “A Christian has to conduct philosophical enquiry on account of his faith. Believing in the ab-solute love of God for the world, he is obliged to understand Being in its ontological difference as pointing to love, and to live in accordance with this indication. . . . The mystery that anything exists at all becomes for him yet more profound and in the most comprehensive sense more worthy of enquiry than it does for any other kind of philosopher.” For the believer, Being possesses no intrinsic necessity, as it did in ancient thought, when the cosmos and the gods possessed an equal necessity. The believer experiences Being as a gift.

This means more than that God created all things. To claim that because God created all things God created Being evades the fundamental metaphysical question: Why is there something rather than nothing? Also, it raises the further question: And what about God? Is God not Being? Heidegger repeated Leibniz’s question in his Introduction to Metaphysics. He continued to struggle with it for years and finally, in Letter on Humanism, repeated what all philosophers since Kant had claimed, namely, that philosophy is incapable of adequately dealing with the idea of God.

In my view, there is only one way to reconcile the Scholastic position that God is Being—esse substantiale subsistens, as St. Thomas defines divine Being—with the notion of creation, namely, in positing that all created things exist in God, as all beings are in Being. Heidegger himself tentatively suggested a somewhat related analogy in a 1960 meeting with theologians: philosophy is related to Being as theology is related to God. Creation, then, would consist in an unfolding of divine Being, as Nicholas of Cusa had argued in the fifteenth century. God thereby becomes the very Being of all beings, distinct from them by nothing but their finitude.

This panentheistic position differs from the pantheistic one that God is the sum total of all beings. First, because God in Christian theology is discussed as substantial Being, which means that God, while including all beings within the divine Being, transcends them. This presupposes that the relation between Being and all beings be conceived as a dynamic unfolding of Being, a process that monotheist theology calls creation. Precisely this dynamic aspect of creation distinguishes Cusanus’s metaphysics from Spinoza’s static one, in which God is the substance of all things. Scholastic metaphysics, inspired by Neoplatonism, was particularly well equipped for expressing the self-communication of Being represented by the mystery of creation. The adage bonum est divisum sui supported the mysterious description of the First Epistle of John, that God is Love, which I would translate as good-ness that communicates itself.

If God is Love, we understand that all God’s manifestations, all created beings are gratuitous, not intrinsically necessary, yet freely dispensed as a gift. This still does not exhaust the mean-ing of the Christian belief that Being itself is a gift. How can the Giver also be gift? What the Creator gives is nothing but himself: God is the very Being of all beings. To this metaphysical truth, indispensable to faith for understanding its own mystery, the-ology has added yet another one, which deepens metaphysics’ own insight. In the mystery of the blessed Trinity, inscrutable to philosophy yet completing its self-understanding, the relation of fides quaerens intellectum—faith seeking understanding—reverses itself into the equally Augustinian intellectus quaerens fidem.

Balthasar, then, has rightly called the Christian the guardian of that metaphysical wonderment in which philosophy originates. The religious believer deepens his faith through meta-physics while at the same time keeping the metaphysical flame alive. During two and one half millennia of Western philosophy, the wonderment before the religious mystery has stimulated metaphysical thought, from Parmenides to Plato and Plotinus; from Augustine to Aquinas and Scotus; from Nicholas of Cusa to Leibniz and Hegel.

The forgetfulness of Being denounced by Heidegger is, not co-incidentally, accompanied by a forgetfulness of God. Metaphysics has risen from mythology and religion. Without a religious sense of wonder, the philosopher is rarely inclined to raise the question of Being in its totality, against the horizon of nothingness. In the essay “On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings,” William James identified the lack of perceptiveness for the significance of things as one of the principal shortcomings of our time. We have lost our ability for being surprised by their being there. Today it is among poets, rather than philosophers, that we most commonly find the sense of wonder from which metaphysics springs.

Louis Dupré was from 1973 until 1998 the T. Lawrason Riggs Professor in the Philosophy of Religion at Yale University, and is now Professor Emeritus in Religious Studies at Yale. This essay was presented this spring as the 2007 Paul Tillich Lecture at Harvard University.

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