Taking the Best Road

Today’s reading comes from EZ 18:21-28

Oscar Wilde once wrote that “every Saint has a past, and every sinner has a future”.  He means of course that no Saint was born freed of sin, bar the Virgin Mother, and no sinner is completely void of redemption while he remains breathing.  Ezekiel’s words in these verses tell us the same thing: repent and enjoy God’s lavish mercy and love, or sin and incur the justice of God as death and destruction.

There are two questions put forth here: can a sinner repent and what will happen to his sins, and can a just man sin and what happened to his just actions and former life lived out in justice?  Ezekiel’s answer is: if a man repents of his sins then he shall live, and if a just man sins and dies in sin then he must suffer God’s justice upon him.  Fascinatingly, Ezekiel anticipates the people’s objection: “But that’s not fair! Why should a man who lived in sin all his life be forgiven while a man who lived all his life in justice be punished for a moment of weakness?!”  To this, the Lord responds that a thing is not done that which is not finished (factum non dicitur quod non perseverat).

Our entire life-span on earth is but a journey.  While we still draw breaths we are still trotting about on this journey.  Thus, when a wayward traveler realizes that he is heading the wrong way and corrects it so that he may reach the Final Destination, he must be said as having left the mistakes behind him and he may yet reach that Final Destination given that he continues on the right path.  However, if a traveler who has been following the right path makes a wrong decision at a junction and follows the wrong path, we can in no way say that he’s going to reach the Final Destination following the erroneous path that he is on.  Further, we cannot say that the good decisions that he’s made with regards to the right paths in the past should deliver him to the Final Destination despite him being on a path that does not currently lead there.

And so because a thing is not done that which is not finished, we must always be attentive to take the best road towards the Lord.  His justice is tempered with mercy to forgive the repentant sinner, but it is insufferable for the impious.  And impiety is our own doing, not God’s.

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.

Truth and Humility

As a theologian and an instructor, I have to constantly remind myself that the search for truth requires the most profound humility.  If there is one thing that the Road to Emmaus has taught me is that just when we think we have grasped the totality of truth, it will disappear before our eyes.  This isn’t to say that truths are unknowable but it is to say that we would be fooling ourselves if we think that we have fully grasped it.  An article by Dr. Philip Sakimoto, an astronomist from Notre Dame, makes this case and it’s worth the full reading.  A paragraph that caught my attention:

I began to learn about the depths of Catholicism, depths that are often hidden from public perception.  I came to see that most Catholic doctrines are about truth in a very fundamental way: absolute truths not swayed by public opinion.  I wanted to learn more.  I joined a Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults class at a local parish.  It was there that I learned the real truth:  the barriers to seeing truth were hidden within me.

Does Truth Change Overtime?

First, something for a good chuckle

A Side Note

I have not commented on the recent abdication of pope emeritus Benedict XVI because I was too busy lamenting the loss.  It is in moments like the recent announcement and consequent retirement of Benedict XVI that brings to mind the paradoxes of Christianity.  I was at once saddened by his leaving and joyfully proud in his humility to accept that he is no longer fit to watch over the flock entrusted to him by his Father.

So to Papa Bene: You truly are a gift to us and you have done well for the Church.  May God continue to grant you the strength to live out the rest of your earthly days as a great advocate for all of us who are fighting the good fight to return to our God.

As a result of Benedict’s resignation, many people have voiced their “hope” for a “better” pope who will lead the Church in reforming its archaic ways to fit with modern times.  Here is what I have to say on this matter.

Truth and Opinion

When I begin my classes, I tell my students this: None of you are entitled to your opinions in this class; you are only entitled to well-reasoned arguments.  I am quick to also let them know that by opinion I don’t mean their preferences to food, clothing, TV shows, or whatever else that have to do with personal taste.  Instead, what I mean by opinion is their conclusion and insistence on one philosophical and theological position as opposed to another.

Why do I do this?  It is because we live in a world filled with opinions (or assertions) without most of us providing sufficient reasons to defend them.  We live in a world where relativism reigns; where “what is good for me is determined by me and what is good for you is determined by you, and neither one of us can be wrong.”  We live in a world that says “I personally find abortion to be wrong, but if you want to abort your child, then that’s your choice and who am I to say that you’re wrong?”  This sort of understanding of morality, to name one of the many areas where relativism is very popular, is obviously problematic; and it is because relativism itself is unsound.

Relativism is philosophically problematic for various reasons, two obvious reasons why it is problematic can be detected immediately after we hear “what’s good for me is good for me and what’s good for you is good for you, and I must tolerate your opinion.”  First, relativism presupposes tolerance as the common “virtue” of all people; that everyone must tolerate everyone else’s values because every is correct.  Yet, what if one value I hold is intolerance?  What if I am intolerant of tolerance?  That I think tolerance to be a vice of sort and that it weakens the morality.  Accordingly, am I no longer correct on my moral grounds, or are you incorrect on yours?  Second, unlike preferences for types of cakes, we cannot simply argue that everyone has a different opinion on morality and that it is OK.  If Joe likes strawberry cakes and Jim likes vanilla cakes, we should not deem either one as being wronger than the other.  But if Joe preferred slavery and Jim prefers equality for all human persons, we can definitely say that Jim is correct and Joe is indeed wrong.  But why is Joe wrong and Jim right if matters of morality are subject to personal preference?  Why praise the US for its economic and political system and condemn Castro for his?

It seems to be the case that when it comes to matters of morality, beauty, justice, mathematics and other “transcendental” things, that there are truths and falsities.  When it comes to these things, we are no longer entitled to our opinions of what they are, but we must attempt to discover what they actually are and speak from such discoveries.  Contradictions, not paradoxes, are generally pretty good indications that something we hold true is actually false, e.g., relativism.

The Truth of God

While truths are beyond opinions, we also know that there are certain truths that the human reason simply cannot grasp unless it was revealed to it.  For a wonderful treatise on this, I suggest John Paul II’s Fides et Ratio.  This does not mean that we deny human reason of its autonomy or competence.  It does mean, however, that there are things that human reason would fail to understand had faith not informed it.  Blessed John Paul II beautifully illustrates this, “Faith and reason are like two wings on 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.

Accordingly, 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).  These truths, discovered by human reason guided by the Holy Spirit, have become part of the Apostolic tradition and dogmatically and doctrinally taught to the faithful.  Conclusively, these truths are not changeable with the times.  To say that they are is akin to saying that the value of 1 added to 1 may be changed from 2 to 3 over time and both results would be true.