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Fr. Tom Hopko on Philosophy, Reason, and Faith

[These remarks were transcribed from an audio recording of a Q & A period following a talk by Fr. Tom Hopko, Dean Emeritus of St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Seminary in NY, at a conference for Eastern Catholics and Eastern Orthodox, at the Sheptytsky Institute in Ottawa, Ontario, July 2008]


Moderator of panel, to Fr. Tom Hopko: You were quite dismissive of Veritatis and Fides et Ratio. Do you feel that philosophy should have a very, very marginal place in theologizing? If so, I would suggest that one of the problems we have, when trying to get people to read the Fathers as well as the scriptures, is the amount of philosophy in writers like Gregory the Theologian and Maximos the Confessor. If this is what the patristic revival is supposed to get us reading, after of course we’ve dealt with the scriptures on a daily basis, then we’ve got a problem. I just wanted to throw that out because I’m inclined to be much more favorably disposed to certain kinds of philosophizing within a theological tradition. It’s appropriate to point out that Splendor Veritatis and Ratio et Fidem, whatever you think of the encyclicals as such, they’re coming out of that tradition where philosophy is considered to be an appropriate, worthy handmaid.


Hopko: That’s a huge topic. I don’t think there is such thing as philosophy or theology. There are people—who think, who act, who interact. Frankly, I do not believe that the Eastern fathers chose Platonism and built a theology upon it; they were just people in their culture, speaking and acting and defending the Gospel.

I think part of the problem that we have today is, if we’re going to say that Philosophia is the ancilla theologia (handmaid of theology), which seems to be defended at least in Ratio et Fide, then you have a hard time saying why can’t you use Marxism as your philosophical foundation, why can’t you use Heidegger. When you choose Aristotle, you immediately have a problem with all of the Church Fathers. Gregory the Theologian said the philosophers are constantly in labor and never give birth. And he also said that we speak, “according to the fishermen and not according to Aristotle.”

The Fathers were cultured people of their time. If you’re a cultured person in a society, speaking to cultured people, you’re going to speak a certain way. But that doesn’t mean that they selected a philosophy, taught it for three years, and then built a theology on top of it; it doesn’t mean, as even—I think it’s one of those, Ratio et Fides, I believe—says, they were also restructuring and refining the words that they were speaking.

For example, Nicaea said that if anyone confesses that the Logos is another hypostasis (essence) or ousia (being) of God the Father, let him be anathema. If that’s the case, all the Cappadocians are anathema. And so is all subsequent ecumenical theology, because they did make a distinction of hypostasis and ousia after Nicaea. So the words were more fluid.

The other thing that bothers me, forgive my response, is bringing in the Magisterium all of a sudden. Well, it’s not a joke—it’s not a secret, I should say, and it is even something of a joke—but the Eastern Orthodox, as you know, have no Magisterium. That’s one of the big differences, because to us the Magisterium is just another theological position, despite holding a certain authority in the Roman Catholic Church. So the cop-out every time seems to be referring to the Magisterium.

That’s a huge problem for a guy like me. Because we just fight it out. That’s why in my talk this morning I mentioned the Fathers who fought with each other over theological ideas. There was no appeal to a Magisterium; they just fought it out.

The other thing I didn’t like was the use of the term “autonomy.” There is no “reason alone” that you can appeal to, that you can build a theological system on, from the basis of scriptural texts.

When I was a young guy at a Jesuit college, the Jesuits used to say that you could be an atheist, but if you’ve got the right data, the right reasoning, and the right philosophy, you can do Christian theology and yet not even be a believer. That’s impossible for a guy like me.

At the same time, what is autonomy but the nous? The ratio, human reason, is fallen too! There is no “reason alone.” People are filled with hang-ups and passions and prejudices, even when they’re philosophers—as you may have noticed.

So I think the problem is if you choose a philosophia and then it somehow gets blessed by the Magisterium, and then you have to follow it, and then you teach the students who come—I just can’t handle that. I don’t know what to do with it. A guy like Maximos or Gregory, sure they were using Platonic concepts, and essence and energy are pure Aristotle. But you don’t have to be an Aristotelian to understand these ideas.

If I said to my mother—I always use my mother as an example. I talked about my mother so much at the seminary that they called her the Tomotokos. But if I said to my mom, “What is that?,” she’d say “That’s a tree.” I’d ask what kind of tree it is—I don’t know, a palm tree. “But why do you call it a tree?” “Well I don’t know it looks like a tree, it acts like a tree.” “But it’s different from that tree, right?” “Oh yes, it’s different.” I’d say, “Mom, you just talked about hypostasis, essence, and energies. You know it’s a tree because it acts like a tree, but a hypostasis because it is that one and not that one.” That’s it. They were just using the tools at hand.

Returning to autonomy, there just isn’t any “reason alone” that you can appeal to. Because, according to our Eastern theology, the mind is fallen too. We’re not Calvinists, with some idea of radical depravity. We know the image of God can’t be totally obliterated. But it is fallen, it is screwed up, and unless it is illumined and saved by the Lord, it cannot function properly. And if you’re not following a holy praxis, your mind’s not going to work right. So, who are you appealing to, when you’re appealing to their mind? Who is that person, with a non-fallen mind?

In the scientific realm, it’s no problem. A friend of mine who worked at MIT told me that the guy who worked in the next booth always listened to pornographic radio while he worked. Well, all he was doing was studying fruit flies, so that didn’t matter much. But he couldn’t be a theology teacher; he couldn’t have a mind that was working right, in the realm of God, if he’s listening to pornography, because his mind is defective.

Now, St Paul in his letter to the Romans says that there is always that heteros nomos, that other law, working in our members, so there is no autonomy at all to human beings. If we are under the law of the Holy Spirit and life, then we’re free, and we are able to be self-determinate, we have exousia and we can act. But if not, we’re not just human, we’re actually in the hands of evil powers. The other heteros nomos is the nomos tis harmartia kai thanatou, the law of sin and death. So there’s always this other law working in our members. Our Eastern Christian tradition would say that there is no “reason alone” or philosophy which you can first adopt, and then build theology upon it, to be sanctioned by the church and blessed by the Magisterium, and then guided by when it happens to be wrong. You can’t have it both ways.

This would be the big thing, because I think that, well, we Orthodox would say that there is no Magisterium at all. There is the community of the faithful, there is the Holy Spirit, there is the preaching of the gospel, we work it out. We even think that the Magisterium can be wrong. Then you have a big problem; when is the Magisterium speaking, and when is the Magisterium not speaking? 

A guy like me would say, if you’ve got that power from God, why are you messing around with an ordinary Magisterium? Just make the decrees. The ordination of women, for instance. If you’ve got it, use it.

So it becomes very confusing. That’s why I say, when a guy like me reads that I have big problems. That was my point.

Of course there are all kinds of good stuff in those documents. There are all kinds of scriptural teachings and quotes and truth. That’s actually part of the problem for me, because I can’t understand how he can say this and also say that. I don’t see how it hangs together. But the big problem of “reason alone,” with theology as a donum superadditum, an added gift, where you can appeal to—I don’t know, a Muslim, because he’s got a mind—I just don’t think that’s the Christian faith. I don’t think that that is how Christians look at humanity. I just don’t. Anyway, better stop on that one.

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Reader Comments (1)

Fr Tom leaves me wondering what are the 'this's and 'that's to which he must have been referring when he mentioned his difficulty with the papal documents.

Also, one wonders about his throwaway comment regarding the ordination of women; does he mean for us to understand that every tradition (mainline denominational body) which has understood that the LORD God calls women to every level of Christian service in the Church is right in their understanding? Or is he casting aspersion on those who have understood that God calls women to every level of Christian service in the Church? Does he foresee a time when there will be Eastern Catholic and Eastern Orthodox women priests and bishops?
July 31, 2013 | Unregistered Commentertaizegoose
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