As the world’s Cardinals gather in Rome today to begin the process of naming the next successor to Peter, I can’t help but continue to think of Pope John Paul II. I am convinced that the work he completed during his 26-year pontificate will influence faith-seeking people for decades -– perhaps centuries -– to come. Many people are already calling him “John Paul the Great” and I think it is likely that at some point, that title will be formalized.
One of the main reasons he should be considered great is because of his philosophical approach to revelation. The first theologian to be pope in centuries, John Paul II set the stage for the entire Christian world to look at truth through a new lens. He introduced the use of phenomenology as a way for people to understand their relationship with God.
Since the time of Christ, there have been two great philosophers who have guided Christian thought about its understanding of revelation. The first was Augustine, who died in the year 430. He gave the world a framework for Christian thought based on the Greek philosopher Plato. That approach served the Christian world until the 13th century, when Thomas Aquinas gave us a philosophical approach based on another Greek philosopher, Aristotle. It was an objective, deductive and principled approach to understanding morality.
Seven hundred years after Aquinas, the culture, for the most part, does not think in objective, deductive and principled ways. Having been influenced by 17th century philosopher Rene Descartes and 18th century philosopher Immanuel Kant, people today are much more likely to think in terms that are subjective, inductive and experiential. So the Church desperately needed a new way to approach moral theology. Karol Wojtyla recognized this early in his life, and saw the value of using phenomenology for understanding morality.
His idea is that because we are created as images of God, we should be able to learn something about God by studying the image -- in other words, people -- just like you can learn about something by studying its image in a mirror. Our actions, as long as they are not sinful, Wojtyla notes, can teach us something about God, because they reflect God. This provides an experiential methodology for studying morality that is consistent with the way most people in the Western world think and speak.
This philosophy is most evident in Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, which he articulated in a serious of lectures delivered between 1979 and 1984. It is a teaching that deals with marriage and sexuality in a way that no Church teaching has ever addressed those subjects.
In the past, the teaching generally said that God created men and women for lifelong monogamy and people are therefore obligated to live as such. That remains a true description of marriage in the faith, but John Paul II presented that truth in a phenomenological way that is new. He said that we all know what it is like to be used, and none of us like it. We humans -- created in the image of God -- have dignity. We are hurt when our dignity is ignored and we are reduced to being an object.
Because none of us likes to be used, it is obvious that we should never use another human being, particularly our spouse. If we don’t respect our spouse -- using them for our own pleasure or discarding them like a toaster that no longer works -- then we reduce that person to being an object. All people yearn to give and experience true love; as people learn to do that by reflecting on their own experience of what it means to be used, I think more people will embrace God’s plan for marriage and sexuality.
Over the next several years, other writers and philosophers will study and extrapolate from the work of John Paul II. I have no doubt that John Paul II’s approach will make the faith much more understandable and accessible. This is why the title “the Great” can rightly be applied to his name.
tMichaelB is the web site for Tom Bengtson, who writes about business, religion, family and politics.
Monday, April 18, 2005
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