Fall 1985, Vol. 37, pp. 213-220.

Daniel A. Dombrowski:
      The Virtue of Boldness

The proclamation of the gospel in a secular world, growth in Christian discipleship, and the development of church teaching and life require cultivating the virtue of boldness.

Dr. Dombrowski teaches in the Department of Philosophy at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska.

CONFLICTIVE situations are very much a part of Christian life within the contemporary church, and it appears that such situations will be with us in the foreseeable future as well. Examples come easily to mind: the American bishops' speaking out on peace, war, and nuclear weapons in a way which opposes the policy and practice of the government; or their speaking out on the economy in a way which challenges accepted economic theory as well as the practices of our economic way of life; theologians' proposing new views, or seemingly new views, which depart from church teaching of the past regarding Christology or the Eucharist; or the pope's speaking out to affirm traditional doctrine on sexual ethics. The list could go on and on.

These bold stances and the controversies they engender bother most Christians in one way or another, especially if the bold stance in question happens to conflict with one's own views. It is often difficult to determine how we should regard conflict in religion and the resulting confusion. Some nostalgically long for a return to an age, if there ever was such an age, when there would be no need for boldness in the church, hence little or no controversy. Others, while they welcome boldness in religion, are unsure of why it should be welcomed, or at least they are unsure of how to rationally justify boldness. And while most Christians see some virtues in the bold stances mentioned above, few see boldness itself as a virtue.

My thesis in this article is that boldness is, or at least can be, a virtue, and that the conflictive situations caused by boldness should not be feared, for these situations resulting from the exercise of boldness are, or should be, part of Christians' learning process, clarification of values, and development of authentic Christian conduct. I claim that Christians have to learn to live with instructive, intellectual conflict (or better, dialectic). That is, a bold church, bold theologian, bold episcopal leadership, and bold Christian individuals are good things. I will rely on two bold defenders of the virtue of boldness.


Plato gave us the cardinal virtues -- wisdom, courage, temperance, and justice -- and St. Paul the theological ones -- faith, hope, and love. Various attempts have been made to add to these seven, but the virtue of boldness has largely gone unnoticed. Although courage -- or better, fortitude -- has often been treated before, boldness is different from courage in two ways. First, courage is the virtue which enables one to stand firm in the face of danger, to offer resistance to a foe. Although it can have both a positive aspect to approach or attack and a negative one to sustain, bear with, it should be noted that "Christianity has assigned greater value to the passive aspect,"(1) as in enduring hardships for one's faith, the greatest example of which is martyrdom. Boldness, however, as we will see, is more likely positive than negative. And second, while courage primarily gives one strength to do something whether an active or a passive doing -- boldness is much more concerned with how one talks or how one behaves. That is, it is much more concerned with method than courage, as we will also see. It must be admitted, however, that of the seven major virtues, courage is the closest to boldness.

In recent years boldness has received its just due in the thought of two quite different thinkers, Karl Popper and Karl Rahner. In this article I defend the positions of these two widely acclaimed men who, despite their fame in their respective disciplines, namely, philosophy and theology, have largely been ignored in their defenses of boldness.(2) I would also like to show how Popper and Rahner could benefit from a consideration of each other, which, as far as I know, has not occurred.

Popper is arguably the most important philosopher of science in this century. His complex theory of science basically suggests that the incredibly successful method of science is to frame conjectures and then invent ingenious and severe attempts to refute them (81). If a theory passes all attempts at refutation, it is not automatically considered true; but it is fair to consider it better than a theory which does not pass the same tests. But there is still an important element missing in this method of conjecture and refutation; conjectures (or theories or hypotheses) must be bold. The bolder the theory, the greater its content. If a theory passes all tests, it has a greater truth content and no greater falsity content than a competitor that has failed, even if the successful theory could in some future situation be proven false. In Popper's theory, often called the falsification theory of science, the primary goal is to eliminate error, and those conjectures which thus far have proven free of error are taken to be better approximations to the truth, even if they are not ultimately true theories themselves. They are, to use Poppers words, highly corroborated.

The opposite of boldness is "adhocness" (15). Ad hoc explanations, which cautiously try to be very precise, which explain only a very few phenomena, and which aim to be testable independently of any other explanations, can be had for the asking (16). Contrary to positivist dogma or naive empiricism, cautious explanation is not how science has progressed historically, nor is it how scientific hypotheses receive their rigor. It is only bold hypotheses Which open up new domains of observations and operations (355); hence it is only bold theories that can really be good, productive ones (16).

Insofar as bold theories have a greater content (that is, they try to explain more and explain it better), they are riskier than ad hoc theories; hence there is a greater chance that they will be falsified when presented in a public forum (53). If we fail to falsify any cautious theory, it remains as an option to consider, but that is all. However, if we fail to falsify a bold theory after ingenious, precise, and severe attempts to do so, then the theory is not only an open possibility, but a strong conjecture with a greater degree of verisimilitude than a mere theory. We think of Newton, Darwin, Einstein, and others who were not masters of understatement.

None of this means that boldness is to be equated with overstatement. Rather, Popper is calling our attention to that spectrum of theorizing between understatement and overstatement, beyond which borders we ought not to tred. He suggests that boldness lies just on the edge of overstatement without falling over the edge. Adhocness lies closer to the understatement end of the spectrum, and when confused with the virtue of humility or intellectual honesty, which are indeed virtues in some instances, it constitutes an impediment to intellectual progress. In effect, Popper is suggesting that the quickest way to make intellectual progress is to speak boldly, for then the quest for falsification quickens. Boldness by itself, without ingenious and severe attempts at falsification, is not a virtue, but a type of dilettantism. The virtue of boldness only arises within the confines of a precise and critical method, and against the background of previous theories that have been falsified (16). Even bold guesses, when combined with severe enough tests, avoid the chance-like, arbitrary, and insignificant character of adhocness (365).


Karl Rahner, although writing in a theological context, would seem to agree with Popper. He sees parresia, or boldness, as essential for the Christian seeking perfection, and we should remember that Jesus offers the command, "Be perfect!" (Matt. 5:48). For Rahner, every Christian has a mission, and boldness is the virtue needed for such an apostolate, especially because the "mission territory" one must now deal with is one's native land (260), where people are already somewhat familiar with Christian spirituality. There is no need to go anywhere to be bold (266).

Because of pervasive indifference to religion, or because of bland depictions of Christianity which make little or no demands on us, Rahner sees as the only effective countermeasure a speaking out of season (akairos -- 2 Tim. 4:2). By boldly refusing to be ashamed of one's religious beliefs, one can be provocative and inappropriate, not because these approaches are worthwhile in themselves, as Popper analogously noted regarding science, but because such tactics are calculated to arouse a healthy tension that will get us to the truth all the sooner (261). Or better, it will allow us to eliminate errors in religious thinking all the sooner. For Rahner, moreover, it is not always unfortunate that boldness will sometimes cause others to exhibit hate or enmity. That result at least forces us to be clear about what the really important issues in life are, which is normally no easy task.

The virtue of boldness -- for example, proclaiming the immorality of nuclear weapons in a parish near a military base -- is a gift, according to Rahner, often accepted reluctantly. "Candor" is too weak a translation for the sort of confession of faith found in parresia (261-61). Not only the complacency of bourgeois culture but also the complexity of our world encourage some to refrain from boldness. One can always imagine some objection, however trivial, to any position. It is quite easy to be branded as too histrionic in a pluralistic society, where the safest rhetorical strategy is to appeal to the lowest common denominator among various different individuals (264-65). A good way to psychologically distinguish boldness as a virtue from dilettantism or dogmatism is to examine one's motives: if one speaks boldly without the desire to keep silent, there is a likelihood that one is really a "propaganda monger." To put it another way, boldness is often a painful virtue to develop. Popper, who is no propaganda monger, might agree.(3)

The world is still hostile to the bold truths and actions of Jesus; it is unwilling to hear. One who possesses the virtue of boldness often enough appears as an intruder, one who disrupts the confines of everydayness and idle chatter. Nonetheless, this virtue is exercised most intensely for Rahner in speech as opposed to writing, where one's embodiment stands before others in a sort of vulnerable, religious nakedness (262-63). There is no believing without hearing, St. Paul tells us (Rom. 10:17). Placing the horizons of Christian ideals immediately before us no doubt causes embarrassment, but one of the features of boldness that makes it a virtue is its ability to take those ideals which are conveniently always on the horizon of Christianity -- peace, justice, love, faith -- and give them instantiation in this world now. Bold Christians must realize, however, that the world will think too many demands are being made on it if these ideals are brought off the horizon toward us.

Expertise in boldness can be learned. just as push-ups make our arms stronger, exercises in boldness give us the strength to speak when we feel dumb (264). Against a background of prayerful silence, we cannot only learn to be bold, but also to speak in such a way as to offer a contrast to the mere noise of "Godless loquacity" (266). What one learns in the dark one can utter in the light; what one hears whispered one can proclaim from the rooftops (Matt. 10:27; Luke 12:3; Acts 4:29) or, better, in classrooms, in the press, or during lunch break (267).

I have offered some examples of Christian boldness, but I have not concentrated on them in this article because I have assumed that all reflective Christians already know of at least some areas where they ought to speak more boldly. I have focused on stating exactly why boldness is a virtue, what some of the pitfalls of this virtue are once it is obtained, and what some of the obstacles are that prevent us from becoming bold Christians. With these concentrations in mind, two more points are in order.


First, Popper and other agnostics like him(4) could learn from Rahner that the virtue of boldness is not the exclusive possession of scientists. That is, what is called boldness in science is often unfairly denigrated as dogmatism in religion. Progress does occur in religious thought, albeit slowly; for example, the nineteen-hundred-year history of Christian thought regarding slavery, culminating in its recent abolition; or recent thought regarding the place of women in God's creation. Certainly there is also a possibility of (and room for) progress in the action of Christians. As Popper has ably shown, boldness is an important ingredient in any progress; but he unfortunately fails to conclude that religious progress is possible. Despite the fact that religion does not possess the rigid criteria of falsifiability that science possesses, even Popper would admit that a rational theory in religion could be amenable to, and improved by, strict criteria of criticizability.(5) That is, religious thinkers and doers can, if they try, improve their tools through the often neglected use of well-intentioned, yet bold, dialectic. Popper is very instructive here. Philosophical and theological theories are not isolated assertions about the world, "flung at us with an implied 'take it or leave it' . . . beyond discussion." Rather, any rational theory is an attempt to solve, or at least respond to, a certain problem. The relation between a theory and the problem it responds to sets the stage for critical discussion: Does the theory solve the problem, or at least directly respond to it? Does it shift the problem into a hopelessly contradictory area, or does it shift the problem into a more fruitful region of discourse? Does it contradict other theories needed to solve other problems?

Secondly, Rahner and other Christian thinkers could learn from Popper that boldness entails risks, and not only the risks connected with being ridiculed, which Rahner notices. In addition, boldness entails the risk that one will sometimes have to admit that one is wrong. By always stating the obvious, the sure, and the conventional, one can avoid this risk; but as a consequence, there is little hope that religious thought or action will thereby improve. One is reminded of the fact that it was not admitted by the official church until the 1980s that it may have made some mistakes in the Galileo affair. If the hope for improvement in our semi- religious culture can become a reality (which Rahner desires), it can only be through what he calls the gift of boldness. Since boldness is a gift, we do not have to pay to get it; but we may have to pay for its upkeep after use. The price: willingly admitting that we have been bold for the sake of a progressive method and that we have made mistakes (which are delightfully obvious when made boldly). To distinguish boldness from dogmatism, moreover, we must have something like falsifiability or criticizability integral to our boldly critical method. If boldness (parresia) is to be a Christian virtue, those who possess it will have to imitate somewhat the method of Popper's scientists, even if such a method is in the service of ends which are sometimes at odds with those of scientists. If St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas could learn so much from pagans like Plato and Aristotle about the cardinal virtues, then Rahner and other bold Christians could learn a little about the virtue of boldness from the agnostic Popper.

What is surprising is that we have had to wait until Rahner to see boldness, as opposed to courage, defended as a Christian virtue. In a way, Christianity is the perennial counterculture because a life led in imitation of Jesus is bound to upset or challenge, explicitly or implicitly, the status quo. Great Christians -- St. Francis of Assisi, Thomas Merton, Albert Schweitzer -- are often bold, albeit humble, Christians who make us feel uncomfortable; but they are also the ones who lead us to greater religious heights. By seeing clearly that boldness is a virtue, and understanding why it is a virtue, we can begin to think and act in ways which will allow the gift of boldness to develop in us. Even if bold Christians conflict with each other on a thorny issue, something is gained: we can more honestly and intelligently take the center ground, brightly illuminated and clarified by bold theories and acts on either side.

  1. See T. C. Kane, "Fortitude," in New Catholic Encyclopedia. Also see Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae, II-II, ques. 123-25; and Peter Geach, The Virtues (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977).
  2. Karl R. Popper, Objective Knowledge (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979); Karl Rahner, Theological Investigations, vol. 7 (New York: Herder and Herder, 1971), "Parresia (Boldness)." All numbers in parentheses in the text of this article refer to page numbers in these two works. Adolph Grunbaum treats the issue of boldness in Popper only tangentially in his article "Is the Method of Bold Conjectures and Attempted Refutations justifiably the Method of Science?" British Journal of the Philosophy of Science 27 (1976): 105-36. Rahner's treatment of boldness has barely been treated even tangentially by scholars.
  3. See Karl Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies, 2 vols. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1966).
  4. See, e.g., Karl Popper's autobiography, Unended Quest (LaSalle, Ill.: Open Court, 1976), p. 18 and passim.
  5. See Karl Popper, Conjectures and Refutations (New York: Basic Books, 1965), pp. 198-99.