Faith and Reason

Worth Revisiting Wednesday! This post originally appeared on May 4, 2014.

The belief that faith and reason are complementary ways of coming to know the truth, rather than antagonistic rivals or competitors for one’s allegiance, has its foundation in the NT itself and, ultimately, in a person rather than a text.

Photo by Leland Francisco

Photo by Leland Francisco

When the earliest of Christian writers were searching for ways in which to articulate the meaning of what we might call the “Jesus Event,” i.e., the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, one of the first associations they made was between Jesus and the ‘wisdom’ [σοφία] or ‘reason’ [λόγος] of God. Drawing from the book of Wisdom, St. Paul refers to Christ as “the wisdom [σοφίαν] of God” (1 Cor 1:24). “All things were created through him and for him,” the Apostle states elsewhere, “He is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Col 1:16-17).

These latter remarks about Jesus, the identification of him with God’s divine wisdom, NT scholars agree pre-date St. Paul himself. They were, most likely, part of a hymn to Christ which the early Christian community used in their liturgical services. Thus, from the very beginning of Christianity, before the composition of the NT, Christians understood Jesus as the incarnation, the en-fleshment, of God’s divine wisdom; the wisdom by which God created, governs and sustains the natural world. The living embodiment of the ‘plan’ (ratio) according to which the cosmos was designed and functions.

A bit later in Christian history, around the year 90, this belief was given its classic expression in the prologue to St. John’s Gospel: “In the beginning was the Word [λόγος], and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came to be through him, and without him nothing came to be” (Jn 1:1-3).

The Greek term for ‘Word’ [λόγος] in this translation can have many meanings: word, speech, language, an account or narrative, or an explanation. It can also mean, most importantly, ‘reason’ or ‘thought.’ So if we exchange translations, we can read the same passage as: “In the beginning was Reason and Reason was with God, and Reason was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came to be through him, and without him nothing came to be.” With his obvious linguistic allusion to Genesis 1:1 [i.e., “In the beginning…”], the author of the prologue is affirming the divine nature of God’s reason and wisdom. A few verses later, of course, the author takes the further step of associating this Reason with the person of Jesus: “And the Word [Reason] became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (Jn 1:14).

For the Catholic, then, as true now as was for these early Christian authors, it is in God, and especially through the person of His Son Jesus Christ, that Wisdom, Reason and Truth have their being. As Jesus said: “I am the way the truth and the life” (Jn 14:6) and “for this I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth hears my voice” (Jn 18:37).

Understanding that the world was created according to divine reason, and that the seeds of reason are to be found in the entire created order, the Catholic tradition has long affirmed the human capacity, and supported the human effort, to discover truth in the natural world by the light of human reason. It is true that the early Christian theologian Tertullian famously asked the question: “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” (De praescr. haeret. 7). But on that matter, and quite a few others, Tertullian was departing from the established Christian thought of his time. The Catholic tradition, on the other hand, acknowledges that since truth cannot be opposed to itself, the truths of the faith cannot contradict those of science or reason (cf. Aquinas SCG 1.7). Faith and reason are not competitors, but the two complementary ways in which humankind might come to know the truth.

This point has been articulated throughout the Catholic intellectual tradition and, more recently, the Second Vatican Council stated that “methodical research, in all realms of knowledge, if it respects […] moral norms, will never be genuinely opposed to faith: the reality of the world and of faith have their origin in the same God” (GS § 36). Likewise, Pope St. John Paul II stated that faith and reason are two complimentary ways of coming to the truth because “the unity of truth is a fundamental premise of human reasoning, as the principle of non-contradiction makes clear” (FR § 34).

The mutual necessity of both faith and reason is nowhere more evident than in the discipline of theology. In examining the application of reason to matters of faith, St. Augustine once wrote: intellege ut credas, crede ut intellegas (‘to understand so that you might believe, to believe so that you might understand’) (s. 43.9). More than half a millennium later, the Benedictine archbishop of Canterbury, St. Anselm, meditating on St. Augustine’s thought, would famously define theology as fides quaerens intellectum  (‘faith seeking understanding’) (Cf. Pros. 1-2).

In attempting to sum up this intellectual inheritance, this particularly Catholic way of viewing, inter alia, the relationship between faith and reason, many writers have taken to calling this hermeneutic

the Catholic “both/and.” As opposed to looking at the world and seeing a multitude of choices which demand an “either/or” decision, the Catholic “both/and,” being sensitive to false dichotomies, sees the value – and in many instances the necessity – of each choice: nature and grace, action and contemplation, freewill and providence, invisible grace and material signs, and, of course, faith and reason. From the Catholic perspective, therefore, the relationship between faith and reason has never been an antagonistic one. Rather, the Catholic sees the proper use of one’s intellect as an activity which draws us nearer to God by seeking His Wisdom.

Anthony Coleman teaches theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online.

Everything to Gain

Related article on the SJC Theology Blog

“No one believes anything unless one first thought it believable . . . Everything that is believed is believed after being preceded by thought . . . Not everyone who thinks believes . . . but everyone who believes thinks, thinks in believing and believes in thinking.” — St. Augustine

Believing is a form of knowing where what is known is revealed by God, but then draws in all else that is known. Believing incorporates all human operations within itself. Believing involves seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, tasting, inquiring, imagining, understanding, conceiving, formulating, reflecting, marshalling and weighing evidence, judging, deliberating, evaluating, deciding, speaking, writing. This believing or Catholic faith attends to what God reveals, seeks to know what it means, reasons about wWIndowhat it implies, and is responsible for what must be done. Catholic faith co-inheres with reason, expresses itself through reason, reasons about itself, and reasons about all that is. Such an understanding of faith can help us overcome a culture of timidity. It can help us focus the study of theology at Saint Joseph’s College.

(1) Catholic faith co-inhering with reason defends the whole point of education by affirming the ability of human reason, and all of its operations, to discover and reach the truth. The reigning post-modern academic philosophies are critical of human ability to reach the truth. This hyper-criticism, methodical doubt turned back on itself, is hardly a solid ground for a community of learning. In John Paul II’s words,

The currents of thought which claim to be postmodern merit appropriate attention. According to some of them, the time of certainties is past, and the human being must learn to live in a horizon of total absence of meaning, where everything is provisional and ephemeral . . . and now at the end of this century one of our greatest threats is the temptation to despair.                                                   Fides et Ratio, #91

(2) Catholic faith co-inhering with reason is open to dialogue with all. Dialogue always involves a balance between conviction and a humble openness. Catholic faith respects the differing forms of faith that are found in the branches of Christianity, in the world religions, and among people of good will.

(3) Catholic faith co-inhering with reason provides a robust ground for academic freedom. Human dignity demands that human rights are respected, especially that freedom of conscience which is necessary for true Catholic faith.

(4) Catholic faith co-inhering with reason also provides a strong basis for a special, communal form of academic freedom, the academic freedom of the theology programs to have a unique Catholic identity of their own, and not to be a derived and weak clone of generic American colleges and universities in the midst of an endemic secularity. This communal academic freedom is why a religious community, our Sisters of Mercy, can sponsor a college “rooted in and professing fidelity to the teachings of Jesus Christ and the doctrines and heritage of the Roman Catholic Church.”

(5) Catholic faith co-inhering with reason is open to the entire range of reality. It stands in awe and wonder before the gifts of what is, the gifts of being. The faculty of Saint Joseph’s College’s undergraduate and graduate programs in theology founded on Catholic faith co-inhering with reason, can be confident in their ability to form a community of reflective intelligence, will understand the difference between a healthy diversity based on the riches of reality, discovered through a reason-informed faith, and a virulent diversity that lets everyone be anything because it has no criteria for telling difference between anything. The theology programs of Saint Joseph’s College have nothing to lose, and everything to gain, by being rooted in and professing fidelity to Catholic faith co-inhering in reason.

Daniel Sheridan is Professor of Theology at Saint Joseph’s College of Maine and former Director of the Online Theology Program