THE  POPES

PONTIFEX MAXIMUS
Aristote d’Aquin Platon





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Pope John Paul II declared in a memorandum that « faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth.[1] » Lev Shestov had quite a different stance on the subject. Indeed, considering the ancient narrative of Genesis, the Russian philosopher said, « For reason is the fiery sword by means of which the Angel placed by God at the gates of Paradise drives men away.[2] » He was referring to the heavenly beings evoked in the biblical text, « and he placed at the east of the garden of Eden Cherubims, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life. » (gen 324)

Who are we to believe ? The theology of the prestigious Supreme Pontiff who reigned in Vatican for nearly thirty years, or a barely known philosopher who went into exile to Paris where he died ? For the first, Reason elevates man ; for the other, Reason deprives man of the greatest good. The Pope takes off with Reason in order to meet divine truth whereas Shestov sees in Reason an unbendable enemy constantly threatening him. How then, from the same biblical text, could such an abyss form between these two men ? And do we see mankind equally dividing itself up between these two sides ? Niet ! All men have long agreed with the popes’ views - or rather : it is Rome that, long ago, agreed with the intelligent and the reasonable !

In the same encyclical, John Paul II gets into deeper water as he eventually adds, « philosophical thought is often the only ground for understanding and dialogue with those who do not share our faith ». Let it be reminded that the Roman Bishop bears a title inherited from Latin Antiquity, a title that was used to designate the highest priest of pagan Rome : the Pontifex Maximus, that is to say, the Great Bridge Builder. John Paul II, in the tradition of his multiple predecessors, is building in this instance a philosophical bridge in order to unite the Church with the rest of reasonable mankind. This way, Christian men may see in Reason one of the spirit’s wings that allows men to rise and fly from progress to progress. After that, it belongs to each one of us to decide what suits them best as a second wing : Science, will go the Atheist ; Theology, popes will say, pretending it to be the « Science of Faith ». This is how the fire of Reason has burned Faith and then turned it into a divine science. The popes took the spirit’s liberty and transformed it into a fiery and vindictive sword ; they tore up its wings. They do not fly, they walk on earth, burning everything that does not obey their reason - like that Failed-man, the sinner.

Shestov, however, had undertaken the task « not to reconcile science and philosophy but to sunder them ». He added, « the deeper and more bitter the enmity between philosophy and science, the more humanity will win by it [3] ». As for himself, he smashed the bridge built by the popes. He remained over there, exiled from the other side of the abyss, joining with the small remnant of the men for whom that knowledge possessed by the Angel with the fiery sword is but magic for the intelligent. What sort of philosophy free from the logical workings of Reason Shestov did elaborate this side of the chasm ? The one, he declared, that « proposes not to accept but to overcome the self-evidences and which introduces into our thought a new dimension - faith. »

And so the popes threw up faith to Reason, that fascinates them, and turning it into a Science of God, they built up cathedrals of rules and doctrines to which one only needs to bow down and to obey in order to reach the divine. But one doesn’t buy Faith with the lights of Reason and its wise moral. Not only does Faith disobey Reason, but furthermore, it wants to subject it to Freedom because it knows how Reason goes crazy when in a ruling position. Faith in God feeds on a liberty that no logic can catch hold of. Therefore, whoever builds a bridge in order to tie the two together is actually like one who would perform a transplant of the feathers of divine Freedom next to the leaden wing of reasonable truths, right on the same body. In so doing, they are preparing the world to collapse into the bottomless pit that precisely separates God from our Sciences of the truth.

The kingdom of God, where faith leads to, is a place where truths no longer accuse the soul with their fiery swords. In that place, their power’s angelic fire has lost the authority that their self-evident truths still wield down here. In the divine reality, truths live and die in accordance with the will of the sons of men. Over there, their contradictions do not trouble neither beings nor nature. This is why, in the present world, a man of faith will be tense with all of his strength in the resistance against the popes of wisdom. For he refuses, lest he associate with them, to burn the budding wings his God forms him in order to meet Him one day. It happened during those painful wanderings that Shestov came upon the following consolation  - he remembered « the battle against self-evident truths » that Christ also waged when He was tempted in the wilderness :

« When Athens proclaims urbi et orbi, for the city and for the world : If you wish to subject everything to yourself, subject yourself to reason, [4] Jerusalem hears through these words : All these things will I give thee if thou wilt fall down and worship me ; and answers : Get thee hence, Satan ! For it is written : Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God and Him only shalt thou serve. »[5]


Ivsan Otets


[1]  John Paul II, Fides et Ratio · Encyclical, 14 September 1998.
[2]  Lev Shestov, Potestas Clavium : « On the Roots of Things. »
[3]  Lev Shestov, In Job’s Balances : « On the Philosophy of History. »
[4]  Seneca, Letters to Lucilius, letter 37-4 (Latin in original : Si vis tibi omnia subjicere, te subjice rationi).
[5]  Lev Shestov, Athens and Jerusalem : « On the Philosophy of the Middles Ages. »