August 16, 2010

Catholic Theology 101: Phenomenology

At the beginning of the twentieth century a new school of thought, phenomenology, would reestablish the link severed by Cartesian philosophy between man and the world at large. Phenomenologists use the subjective experiences of persons to understand reality. Two in particular, Edmund Husserl and Max Scheler, would influence later thinkers responding to totalitarianism, Marxist ideology, genocide, materialism, war on an unprecedented scale, and more.

Broadly speaking, phenomenology (from the Greek phainómenon, "that which appears" and logos, “to study"), sees objects and events around us as understandable only through the person’s consciousness. By examining human consciousness (the collective experience of persons), an awareness of the world (objective reality), in which persons exist and act could emerge. The result is that things viewed subjectively can now be studied objectively.

Descartes tears man out of objective reality, making moral absolutes impossible. Karol Wojtyla (the future Pope John Paul II), restores man firmly at the center of reality, making moral absolutes essential. Like Augustine and Aquinas before him, Wojtyla confirms the fundamental harmony between faith and reason. Using phenomenology and Sacred Scripture, he affirms objective moral truth and the dignity of persons, who are shaped by and responsible for their actions.

The fruit of this synthesis, John Paul’s Theology of the Body, is a reflection on our nature and life as persons made in the image and likeness of God, conjugal love, the meaning of celibacy, and the beatitude to which every human being is called. This is the Holy Father’s catechesis for a culture where sex is an obsession, marriage and families are endangered, and the dignity of persons is denied. Teaching about human sexuality using language subjective, inductive, experimental minds can understand, the Theology of the Body is a light in darkness guiding us toward an authentic vision of the person as divine gift.

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