Faith And Reason At A Catholic Academic Institution

This is an excerpt from a talk I delivered a couple of years ago to the faculty at the Catholic High School where I currently teach.

Ladies and gentlemen, skinny and stout,
I’ll tell you a tale I know nothing about;
The Admission is free, so pay at the door,
Now pull up a chair and sit on the floor.

One fine day in the middle of the night,
Two dead boys got up to fight;
Back to back they faced each other,
Drew their swords and shot each other.

A blind man came to watch fair play,
A mute man came to shout “Horray!”
A deaf policeman heard the noise and
Came and killed those two dead boys.

He lived on the corner in the middle of the block,
In a two-story house on a vacant lot;
A man with no legs came walking by,
and kicked the lawman in his thigh.

He crashed through a wall without making a sound,
into a dry creek bed and suddenly drowned;
The long black hearse came to cart him away,
But he ran for his life and is still gone today.

I watched from the corner of the big round table,
The only eyewitness to facts of my fable;
But if you doubt my lies are true,
Just ask the blind man, he saw it too.

Presently, there is a lot of talk that faith is opposed to reason, relegated to the realm of private opinion or feelings; in fact, some will even claim that faith seems to destroy reason insofar as it requires the suspension of a sort of logical thinking process.  As far as this opinion is concerned, a person who is both reasonable and faithful is like the poem I just read: comical, contradictory, and absurd!

On the other hand, there are those who are very suspicious of reason.  In fact, some seem to think that reason can do nothing for the truth seeker; instead, it is only faith that can find truth, and it can do it without the help of reason.  For these truth seekers, reason cannot possibly know what is, but only what is not.

Blaise Pascal once said that there are two great errors:  To admit all things except reason, and to admit only reason.  The Catholic position is not one of either or; rather, it is one of both and.  That therefore, for the Catholic, it is both grace and nature which is combined for the graced nature; not reason or faith, but reason illumined by faith; neither is the law and the Gospel separate but that the Gospel inspires the law.

In his 1998 encyclical Fides et Ratio (Faith and reason), the Blessed John Paul II called attention to the importance of understanding the relationship between faith and reason in humanity’s quest for the Truth of God.  From the onset, the late pontiff illustrates faith and reason as “the two wings upon which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth.”  In this relationship, reason helps prepare the mind for faith by showing that the content of Christian faith is wholly compatible with good, clear thinking; and then, once one embraces the gift of faith, reason serves faith yet again by allowing faith to ask good questions, and develop good answers, about anything and everything in life – from the existence of God to the problem of evil to the belief in the resurrection of the body.  As the late Avery Cardinal Dulles puts it, “just as faith seeks understanding, so, conversely, understanding seeks faith.”

John Paul II stresses the importance of reason when he quotes from Sacred Scripture, from Sirach 14:20-27.  The Scriptural quote praises one who pursues wisdom just as a hunter pursues his prey; that he shall do all he can to reach her.  Such an image enlivens the importance and value of reason.  However, one must be careful not to over-value reason at the cost and demise of faith, for it is only with faith that reason would find the truth it seeks.  Faith, when it intervenes with reason, does not diminish it at all; rather, it fulfills what reason lacks so the truth seeker can have a better gaze upon the Living God.  Not only are both faith and reason necessary to one another, but they exist in harmony since the lack of one would mean the incompleteness of the other.  Faith needs reason to be able to understand its object of knowledge and reason knows that it could not do without what faith has gives it.  As such, faith does not hide from reason out of fear; rather, it seeks and places its trust upon it.  Accordingly, reason’s autonomy is not abolished by faith’s intervention, but only so that the truth seeker knows that it is the God of Israel, the Ever Living God, that acts.

Faith, therefore, while distinct from reason, is not opposed to it—faith not only builds upon reason, but purifies and perfects it.  Accordingly, faith’s relationship with reason is not simply accidental or arbitrarily argued by those who affirm it; rather, this relationship arises from an inner unity and connectedness between the two.  In other words, faith and reason are two sides of the same coin, and each needs the other, and is incomplete when the other is not present.  This is especially evident, as John Paul II argues, inasmuch as faith not only relies on reason, but also humbles reason.  God’s revelation, found in the Bible and the Church’s Tradition, clarifies truths that sinful human reason has great difficulty coming to (like the truth that all human beings possess equal, God-given dignity); or God’s revelation makes known truths we could never have known (like the truth of God’s nature as Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit).  Conversely, reason helps faith to both better comprehend and express its tenets.

These words sound great in theory, but can it be carried out in practice?  How do we, as a Catholic institution, and in our various disciplines reflect this proper understanding of the relationship between faith and reason?  Is it only within the scientific community, properly speaking, that the word “reason” is here applied to or is it to other disciplines as well?  In other words, how can I teach Mathematics, Literature, History, Art and so forth with this understanding of the relationship between faith and reason?

I don’t have the answers to these questions, but I can give you a few ideas that I’ve thought about when reflecting on them.

First, we have to understand that reason generally is understood as referring to the principles for a methodological inquiry, whether intellectual, moral, aesthetic, or religious.  Thus, every academic discipline is a work of reason simply because every academic discipline has its own method which seeks a certain kind of truth.  For instance, the scientific discipline seeks the truths of reality in its various sub-disciplines by various methods (like carbon dating for archaeology, or DNA sampling in forensic science), while the discipline of the arts also seek truth with its own methods in its own various sub-disciplines (like historical research for art history, or critical reflection for a philosophy of beauty).

Given that reason is not simply restricted to the sciences, but also applies to all other disciplines, it is crucial to realize therefore that all academic disciplines, insofar as they seek truth, work in concert with faith, and not against it.  What this simply means is that faith in a Catholic school is not only not opposed to other academic disciplines, but influences the way we reason, the way we see the world; and even gives us a window into the God that designed the very subject of every discipline!  It is like what C.S. Lewis once wrote:  “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”  Lewis’ assertion echoes another saying by 11th Century Archbishop of Canterbury, St. Anselm: “Nor do I seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe that I may understand. For this, too, I believe, that, unless I first believe, I shall not understand.”  In other words, we, as Christian instructors, work with a very fundamental first principle:  God exists, and has created physical and moral laws that govern the universe and human life.  Theology’s job is to seek greater understanding of the intent of the Designer who created all things, while all other disciplines quest for a greater understanding of the design, so as to live in harmony with God’s will.

Often, though, it is our inclination to be like Rene Descartes; to first doubt everything in order to try to discover the truth.  Especially as instructors, we try to teach our students that they need to find knowledge through the process of critical evaluation.  I know that all of us here who teach believe that there is much in our discipline which is more than opinion, that we would say is an established truth in our field; even though we would always add that all knowledge can always deepen and grow.  Scientists would not admit that geocentrism is still a viable option for enplaning planetary motion – we present to our students established truths as, well, true.  In a Catholic school, we also believe, as Catholics, that there are established truths of our faith that Catholics do not say are open for debate.  They are absolutely open for rational inquiry, discussion and exploration, which is what apologetics is all about, but as established truths they are not open to doubt and denial from a faith perspective.  Students are free to doubt them, but as representatives of the Catholic worldview, teachers present established truths of faith as truth.

The joint operations of faith and reason, however, are not “self-directed” or “self-assembling.”  Only by means of an intentional, personal, and corporate communication of the results of their mutual inquiries will their respective truth claims ultimately cohere, rather than clash.  In other words, any Christian instructor must work with a sense of wonder of the goodness of creation, a theme Dr. Neal touched earlier on in the year, so that the pupils recognize the coherence and intelligibility within creation.  For instance, mathematics’ quest for intelligibility within the created order is made complete by its prior recognition of an orderly design to the universe.  As Stephen Hawkins once said, “if there is a God, his language is math.

We inhabit this place because we, the purveyors of knowledge, have found wisdom, and hopefully still hunger and thirst for more.  We want the information we acquire to be transformed into wisdom, to be in the service of the truth of our school’s Catholic faith.


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