Pope John Paul II wrote in his encyclical Fides et Ratio, “A philosophy which responds to the challenge of theology’s demands and evolves in harmony with faith is part of that “evangelization of culture” which Paul VI proposed as one of the fundamental goals of evangelization.” (Fides et Ratio103). This not only shows the importance of the harmony of theology and philosophy but also the necessity of philosophy in evangelization. And I would add that in order to be effective in shifting the culture, the study of philosophy and a philosophical approach to the problems of the culture is necessary.
The philosophical pope continued, “Philosophical thought is often the only ground for understanding and dialogue with those who do not share our faith.” (Fides et Ratio 104, emphasis mine). If our starting point is the belief in Christ, then it is difficult to begin with the non-believer. In our modern world, where Sacred Scripture is already denied, we may find ourselves trying to bring the Good News to those around us without any common ground. To begin a dialogue, the two parties need a common starting point. Without this commonality, you cannot have a conversation. This is why we need to have some understanding (and therefore some education) in philosophy. This education should be two-fold.
First, we need to understand where people in our modern culture are coming from. We need to understand all of those “isms” which have become commonplace. In her wisdom, the Church put many of these into the category of “Modernism” and condemned them together because they all ended up denying the reality of supernatural revelation. For the purposes of evangelization, it is important to understand our interlocutor’s approach to life. What is his worldview? How does he view life and the afterlife? Often modern men and women are influenced by rationalism, emotivism, utilitarianism, relativism, and even nihilism. The starting point for your conversation is to understand their outlook on life.
Second, our education in philosophy should prepare us to lead the person out of philosophical error by equipping us with the true first principles of wisdom. Philosophy serves theology. This is why priests receive a philosophical foundation before studying theology. As an undergraduate studying theology and catechetics, a particularly trusted professor relayed to his theology class that we should all be studying more philosophy. The next semester I began my 8:00 am metaphysics class and 1:00 pm epistemology class. The more philosophy I learned, the better I was able to understand theology. The great philosophers are asking the same big questions as modern man, but the answers the ancients provide are very different from modern errors.
By reading and learning from the great philosophers, we can engage the world on a fundamental level. We can show the inconsistencies and inherent flaws in every pseudo-philosophy that stands in the way to faith.(2 Corinthians 10:4) . You hear often today that the evangelist must “meet the person where they are at.” However, many times, people do not really define this in any detail nor show where exactly you should lead them. Philosophy can help in this way. You can meet them where they are in their philosophical outlook on life and lead them to a Catholic anthropology and worldview. “Meeting them where they are at” does not mean agreeing with them or endorsing what they believe. It simply means that you proceed in dialogue from a common starting point.
In addition, the evangelist must be armed to defend and explain the tenets of the faith with philosophical rigor. For example, there is a current erroneous idea that there is no such thing as human nature. Gender, race, sexual orientation, etc. are all personal choices. However, the people who hold these views also hold that we are all equal in the egalitarian sense (ie. there is no difference between the sexes therefore we are all equal). They may simply say, “we are all human” or something similar , but in the next breath, they will deny that we all have a common human nature. The evangelist must be able to point to this inconsistency and insist on an answer before moving forward. What is “it” that makes us all “human” if it is not “human nature?” If it is only biological makeup, then what about the soul? On the other hand, if it is only the faculties of the soul that unites us, then what about body? Either way leads to a dualistic approach to the human person and ethically leads to relativism. Once these inconsistencies are shown, the Catholic and the philosopher begin to lay out a Christian anthropology and a Catholic morality which consistently points to God, the Father and Creator and to the only consistent sexual ethic. We must be able to follow the words of St. Paul, “Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope, but do it with gentleness and reverence, keeping your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who defame your good conduct in Christ may themselves be put to shame.” (1 Peter 3:15-16). The study of philosophy will serve our evangelical endeavors in this way.