Sunday, March 8, 2009

Examining Catholicism: Faith and Reason

When examining the Catholic Church, the first question one should ask himself is: how do faith and reason relate to each other. Unfortunately, as a result of theology influenced by modern philosophy, many Christians (and secular humanists) today see the two as very much opposed. The humanist would say that reason is above faith while a Christian might say that faith is above reason. This, however, is a case of modern thought being juxtaposed into a matter that was rarely questioned by members of the Church prior to the 1500s.

True enough, historic Christianity looked at faith as the means to see the truths that are beyond the capacity for human reason to fully understand, but the Church always taught that faith and reason never contradict each other. Reason is like pondering about the moon while standing on the surface of the Earth and faith is like the rocket that can take us to the moon itself for deeper study. What’s more, once one has reached the moon via the rocket (faith) he can examine the moon using the tools he had on Earth (reason).

The moon, in this analogy, is like God and our relationship to Him. Once we have a means to know Him and to know more about Him, we can begin to use reason to better clarify our understanding and to see the order and structure of the truths He has revealed to us through faith.

But let’s back up for a moment. The most important concept to understand right away is: reason can be first used to point us towards God and a relationship with God but faith is needed to take the next step. As one Catholic covert and philosopher put it: reason is the car that gets us to the ocean (God); faith is the act of jumping off the pier for the Great Swim.

Before we continue, you should ask yourself: does this description of the relationship between faith and reason sound right to me? Is this the view I’ve been raised with? Does this sound acceptable?

If you answered ‘no’ to two or more of these questions, I offer some examples of Biblical and historical uses where faith and reason were understood this way. First the Biblical: St. Paul said to the Romans: “For what can be known about God is plain to [the gentiles], because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made” (Romans 1:19-20, emphasis mine).

When in Greece, St. Paul used a similar line of argumentation to open the gentiles’ minds to the one true God when he said that God “made from one the whole human race to dwell on the entire surface of the earth, and he fixed the ordered seasons the boundaries of their regions, so that people might seek God, even perhaps grope for him and find him…” (Acts 17:26-27, emphasis mine)

In one last Biblical example, again with St. Paul, we read that “In past generations [God] allowed all gentiles to go their own ways; yet, in bestowing his goodness, he did not leave himself without witness, for he gave you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, and filled you with nourishment and gladness for your hearts” (Acts 14:16-17, emphasis mine).

Finally, a quote from a great convert and saint –Augustine, who said: “Question the beauty of the earth, question the beauty of the sea, question the beauty of the air… question the beauty of the sky… question all these realities. All respond: ‘See, we are beautiful.’ Their beauty is a profession [witness]. These beauties are subject to change. Who made them if not the Beautiful One who is not subject to change?” (Sermons of Augustine, emphasis mine).

In all these cases, the argument has been to use reason in order that one might be open to faith. In no way has reason been used to usurp faith nor has it been assumed that reason is worthless – for if reason were worthless it would not have been used in the first place. Or the Catechism of the Catholic Church concisely describes faith and reason: “[reason] can predispose one to faith and help one to see that faith is not opposed to reason” (CCC 35).

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