Pope John Paul II chose to conclude his 1998 encyclical, Fides et Ratio, by comparing the discipline of philosophy to the Blessed Virgin Mary. He says that “between the vocation of the Blessed Virgin and the vocation of true philosophy there is a deep harmony.” At first glance this seems like a stretch. Why, in a document addressing the relationship between faith and reason, would he conclude with the Blessed Virgin Mary? Is this just a pious invocation?
In fact, John Paul’s comparison is not only well founded, but deeply fitting. He grounds it on two fundamental similarities, the first of which has to do with the notion of offering:
Just as the Virgin was called to offer herself entirely as human being and as woman that God’s Word might take flesh and come among us, so too philosophy is called to offer its rational and critical resources that theology, as the understanding of faith, may be fruitful and creative.
Mary offered herself up completely by embracing her divine maternity. In a similar way, philosophy is called to make a complete offering of all that it is. As the systematic investigation of truth by the use of human reason, it surrenders itself to theology, a discipline greater than itself. Using the language of the Annunciation, John Paul draws out the traditional analogy between Mary as the “handmaid of the Lord” and philosophy as the “handmaid of theology.” To reach its true goal, philosophy must make its own “fiat.”
Secondly, just as Mary is exalted as the result of her surrender, so too philosophy is elevated:
Just as in giving her assent to Gabriel’s word, Mary lost nothing of her true humanity and freedom, so too when philosophy heeds the summons of the Gospel’s truth its autonomy is in no way impaired. Indeed, it is then that philosophy sees all its enquiries rise to their highest expression.
Mary’s surrender to God did not diminish her in any way; rather, it allowed God to ennoble her. In an analogous way, the truth of the faith does not constrain or inhibit rational inquiry, but elevates it. This is an important point since there are many who think that faith threatens the project of philosophy, or of scientific inquiry in general. In reality, however, faith does not hinder the pursuit of philosophy any more than God hindered the life of Mary. Far from “tainting” human knowledge, “faith delivers reason from errors and protects it and furnishes it with knowledge of many kinds,” as the First Vatican Council affirmed.
To speak about the discipline of philosophy as such is to speak about individual persons engaged in a search for answers to the perennial questions of life. This search extends to all human beings insofar as they ask questions such as “Why do I exist?” and “What makes me happy?” As a model in our philosophical search, John Paul presents us with Mary, someone we may not have expected. To imitate her is to surrender our minds to God—and to do so with the confidence that they will be raised up.
Image: Henry Ossawa Tanner, The Annunciation