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Philosophy and the New Evangelization By Matthew Levering, Ph.D. For persons to have true faith, says the Epistle to the Hebrews, they must come to recognize that they are “strangers and exiles on the earth” who “desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one” (Heb 11:13, 16). The same Epistle speaks of death at crucial points. Notably, it presents the divine Son as the one who became human so “that through death he might destroy him who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage” (Heb 2:14-15). The Epistle envisions those who lack faith as being “subject to lifelong bondage” because of their fear of death, whereas those who have faith recognize that their earthly lives are not the end but rather they are created to enjoy a “heavenly” country beyond the grave. What does a life “subject to lifelong bondage” look like? In my view, the Wisdom of Solomon (composed not too long before the Epistle to the Hebrews) conveys the characteristic elements of such “bondage” nicely. The Wisdom of Solomon presents those who fear death and live solely for this world as saying to themselves: “Short and sorrowful is our life, and there is no remedy when a man comes to his end…. Because we were born by mere chance, and hereafter we shall be as though we had never been; because the breath in our nostrils is smoke, and reason is a spark kindled by the beating of our hearts” (Wis 2:1-2). If death is rightly conceived of as an annihilation, as these erroneous thinkers hold, then no wonder people are in “bondage” due to “fear of death.” The logical result of conceiving of dying as an entrance into annihilation is twofold: seeking the maximum amount of worldly comforts, and trying to ignore and put off death. Wisdom of Solomon depicts its nihilists as urging each other to “enjoy the good things that exist” and “crown ourselves with rosebuds before they wither” (Wis 2:6, 8), while at the same time they have no compulsion against harming innocents who threaten their ability to grasp good things for themselves. They plan to “lie in wait for the righteous man, because he is inconvenient to us and opposes our actions,” and they adopt a creed of unchecked power: “let our might be our law of right, for what is weak proves itself to be useless” (Wis 2:11-12). This description of nihilism as rooted in a conception of death as annihilation suggests that one way of thinking about philosophy’s role in evangelization may well be to give priority to the philosophy of death. It may seem immediately apparent, however, that philosophy can have nothing to say about death, since only divine revelation could enable us to know about whether there is anything for us after we die. Yet, for the Wisdom of Solomon, philosophy can know a crucial thing about what death can do to us: namely, that whatever death does, it cannot annihilate us because we possess a spiritual soul. Wisdom of Solomon teaches that “God created man for incorruption, and made him in the image of his own eternity” (Wis 2:23). Since human souls are not material, death cannot annihilate us. As Wisdom of Solomon says, “the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God,” and it is only “[i]n the eyes of the foolish” that righteous humans seem to have been destroyed by death (Wis 3:1-2). Insofar as philosophy can reason to the immortality of the soul and to the existence of God—and Wisdom 13:5 insists that in fact “from the greatness and beauty of created things comes a corresponding perception of their Creator”— philosophy can serve as a preparation for the evangelization that enables us to know (as Wisdom of Solomon says about Noah’s ark, but as we can apply to Christ) that “blessed is the wood by which righteousness comes” (Wis 14:7).


Chicago Studies Spring 2017  

Volume 56:1

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