A similar crisis has shaken the philosophical estate within the church. Before 1970 philosophy enjoyed an enviable prominence in the curriculum of Catholic colleges. This Neo-Scholastic philosophy was certainly structured around the perennial questions—Does God exist? What is virtue?—but it was an odd, manual Thomism in which students never actually read Aquinas. A smug catechetical certitude seemed to lurk behind the paint-by-numbers proofs and the gleeful one-paragraph refutations of modern “adversaries.”
That world has disappeared; its chastened replacement in the Catholic academy bears the stamp of marginality: minimal curricular presence, hyper-specialization, incoherence among the squabbling philosophical factions.
This cultural recession of philosophy has encouraged some Catholics to abandon philosophy as a central component of the church’s discourse. The issue has become especially neuralgic in the dispute over the formation of clergy. But the project of a nonphilosophical Catholicism is fraught with peril.
In some ways, the greatest blessing God bestowed on me in my Christian formation was to dodge education at one of these institutions, which enabled me to take in Aquinas and the like on the side. Not only did it avoid the problems there, but inculcation in philosophically structured Christianity has helped me to avoid some of the sillier–and more dangerous–trends in Charismatic and Pentecostal thought.
Catholic theology in particular is pretty much toast outside of a philosophical framework. And that throws away one of the major advantages that Catholicism has. That’s a pity, the rest of us need the discipline.
The blunt truth is that Evangelical theology is an oxymoron precisely because it rejects any philosophical framework. The Bible, however, was written in the flow of human history and experience, where we live, and was intended to address that experience directly. Sooner or later, however, the question of “why?” will come up, and without a philosophical framework that question is unanswerable.
Today Pentecostal and Charismatic theology is at a crossroads because it inherited Evangelical theology’s basic thought structure without its limiting assumptions. The result is that some in the academy (and elsewhere) are about to take the leap outside of Christianity without knowing it, and we all know where that ends.
There are problems with philosophy too; I tackled that issue some time back here. Some of the problems we have now could be avoided by jettisoning much of modern philosophy altogether. But throwing out the baby with the bath water isn’t the answer, for Catholics or anyone else.