Reflections on the Method of Saint John Paul II

Note: CCG tries to follow not only the teachings of Saint John Paul II, but also his method. This article provides insight into why this is so important to the evangelization of culture.

by Father Richard M. Hogan

Both Saint Augustine and Saint Thomas Aquinas lived and taught in a culture which might be described as objective, deductive, and principled.

See also Reality-Based Thinking

Taking the Risk of Faith, Finding the Fullness of Faith

The modern world is primarily subjective, inductive, and experiential

Objective means that something is real, i.e., it is true, regardless of whether or not I know it to be true. 

The subjective view of reality is clearly captured by the phrase, “That may be true for you, but not for me!”  In other words, what is true depends on what I believe or accept, or better phrased, on what I perceive.  The medieval world was objective. We are subjective.

The medieval world was also deductive which is corollary of its objective view of the world.  Knowledge was derived from principles by the process of deduction, often illustrated in syllogisms. 

Blessed John Paul II, St.Thomas Aquinas, St Agustine theological methods

We determine what is true by experiments, by our own experience and by counting heads—whatever the majority believes.  This method of reaching truth or knowledge is the inductive method and it is a different process than the deductive method.

The medieval world was based on widely accepted truths from which conclusions were drawn, i.e., on principles. The modern world derives knowledge from personal experiences.

Since most in our era think subjectively, inductively, and experientially, they are ill prepared to hear, or even less, understand the truths and practices of the faith taught in a structure and outline which is objective, deductive, and principled.  Even the vocabulary and language used in either the Thomistic or Augustinian synthesis is foreign to the modern ear.  If the Revelation of Christ is to be grasped and understood today, it needs to be presented to people in their own language and in their own modes of thought.  In a word, it needs to have a subjective, inductive, and experiential garb and it needs to use words which are part of the common coinage of modern culture. 

 George Weigel in his book, Witness to Hope, suggests that John Paul II’s Theology of the Body is a “theological time bomb set to go off, with dramatic consequences, sometime in the third millennium of the Church.”

Weigel’s remark is also true because every area of Revelation has an impact on other areas.  How one understands the mystery of Christ, both His Incarnation and Redemption, will impact one’s understanding of the Church, of grace, of the sacraments. How one understands the mystery of our Creation in the image and likeness of God, clearly impacts one’s concept of the second Person of the Trinity becoming man.  Revelation is a unified whole.  It is Christ.  Christ cannot be subdivided. A new approach in one area will impact all others.  So, of course, the fruit of John Paul II’s new approach in the area of sexuality, marriage, and family life---the results of the Theology of the Body—impacts every thesis in theology and “every thesis in theology. . . could be seen in a new light.”  Weigel’s remark is true because the method of the new synthesis can be learned from the Theology of the Body and because the fruits found in the Theology of the Body have implications for the other areas of theology.

As we have mentioned, John Paul II’s new synthesis is the result of the use of a philosophical movement called phenomenology. 

The new synthesis of John Paul II encompasses the entire diamond, the entire content of Christ’s Revelation.  The teachings of Christ can be outlined in seven general subject areas: God (as One and Triune), Creation, Incarnation, Church, Sacraments, Grace, and Commandments.  Under each of these is an immense amount of material which in turn is divided into sub-categories. For example, any complete discussion of the mystery of Creation necessarily includes the Creation of the angels, the Creation of human persons, the mystery of the fall and of original sin, the effects of sin, and even the Providence of God shown to the people of the Old Testament. John Paul II’s new approach embraces the entire content of Revelation, the entire diamond.

Phenomenology studies the human person by examining individual human experiences.  It therefore re-connects reality (the external world) with the human person because individual experiences are of reality.  This re-linking of the individual with the real world overcomes the dualism implicit in Descartes.  Descartes and much of subsequent philosophical reflection had separated the human person from the exterior, real world.

"This re-linking of reality with the individual human person provides an opening to the study of the human person as he or she is in himself or herself.  Phenomenology leads to an examination of the human person, i.e., it leads to questions pertaining to truths about human existence.  For Wojtyla, these truths are those revealed by God. Phenomenology therefore is a route, a path, which links human experience with Revelation.

Excepted from Chapter 1 of Fr. Richard Hogan's "An Introduction to John Paul II's Theology of the Body".

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