In the previous post about faith and reason entitled “Is Faith Reasonable?” we looked into what faith and natural reason really are. I said that natural reason is about man finding out truths about ourselves and our surroundings using our intellect. I said that faith is belief in a truth which we have not found out through our own inquiry but have learned from God’s word. I said that faith compels belief because God’s testimony is trustworthy and therefore faith is reasonable. Concluding that post I said that it raises two questions: First, how do we know there is a God as described (trustworthy) and second how do we know that God has revealed a specific truth? In this post we will answer those two questions and draw some final conclusions about the interaction of faith and reason.
In answer to these two questions, we look to reason first as we always do to discover any truth. Reason is the foundation for knowledge. Throughout history people have believed in God or gods of some sort. This is because the existence of God can be reasoned to. This does not necessarily mean God’s existence is a scientific truth, but it is a truth that we can know on our own without the aid of supernatural revelation. People believe in God because God is the rational answer to normal questions such as “why is there something rather than nothing?” or “why is their right and wrong?” or “why is their order in the world?” Of course God’s existence or his relevant attributes (omniscience, truthfulness) can be reasoned to in a more philosophical manner but for now what I have said suffices to answer the question. As for determining if something is revealed by God, we look first to a claim that a truth has been revealed. Examples of these would include the Koran, God’s revelations to Moses on Mt. Sinai or the revelation that Christ is the Son of God. We would look to each instance and look for supporting reasons to determine if something has in fact been revealed by God or if it has not been.
Usually, believers in a religion point to a specific body of revealed truths. For Catholics it works like this: We believe that God has revealed Himself gradually over time to the Jewish people. This revelation culminated in the revelation of God in the person of Jesus Christ. God’s revelation of truths to man is known as the “Deposit of Faith.” The Church claims to be the guardian of the Deposit of Faith and claims to have the authority to teach infallibly on it because of Christ’s promise “He who hears you hears me.” So Catholics look to the Church for truths of faith and when the Church teaches something is a truth of the faith (for example the perpetual virginity of Mary or the resurrection of the bodies at the end of time) Catholics believe it. The reason believing in what the Church teaches is a matter of faith is that Catholics don’t view the Church as a relatively wise or relatively more spiritual institution that happens to have good insights on the matter. Catholics hold that the Church is the guardian of the deposit of faith and has infallible authority to teach on it. In other words, when the Church says something has been revealed by God, we believe that it has been revealed by God. This authority, we say, comes from God in the person of Jesus Christ.
Why do Catholics believe Jesus had any authority? Well here is where we look once again to what we can know through reason alone. Here we look to what the historical man Jesus of Nazareth said and did. In Fr. Anthony Alexander’s book “Proof of of the Truth of the Catholic Faith” he devotes the entire second section of the book (about 10 chapters) to investigating the Gospels from a historical perspective. Fr. Alexander looks at what Jesus claimed and how he demonstrated this. Ultimately for various reasons Catholics must come to the conclusion that Jesus did claim to be God indeed was who He claimed to be. Jesus either claimed to be God or he didn’t. If he did in fact claim to be God (a historical question) then we must determine the veracity of this statement. Jesus’ claim is either true or it isn’t. If it is true, are their reasons to indicate that He is God? This too is a question of history. We look to evidence for Jesus fulfilling Old Testament prophecies, or performing miracles, or changing the lives of His followers. Of course the most important support for Christ’s testimony was His resurrection and His follower’s response to it. Catholics might also look to present day signs to support and strengthen their faith for example miracles at Lourdes or the mysterious shroud of Turin. These are not the primary foundations for belief in Christ or His Church but they are certainly pointers. Through inductive reasoning, we as humans can come to the reasonable conclusion that God has revealed Himself through Jesus Christ and that Christ has in fact founded a Church to teach what He taught. We could go on and on about why we believe this but now let’s summarize the process of reasoning:
Step 1: We believe in God (we can reason to God’s existence based on the created world)
Step 2: We believe in certain attributes of God that are relevant (we do this by expanding on step 1)
Step 3: We look at the person of Jesus of Nazareth and determine that he claimed to be God and attempted to back up those claims (We look to history to determine this. Again this step should be something that does not involve supernatural faith or any feelings. It is simply a look into the life of the person in question, namely, Jesus of Nazareth)
Step 4: We determine that those claims are in fact reasonable and therefore, Christ is as God authoritative.
Step 5: We believe that Christ founded a Church to teach what he taught.
Step 6: When the Church teaches something as revealed by God, we believe it because from step 5 we hold that Jesus founded the Church and Jesus is God (step 4) and as God is authoritative (step 2).
Step 7: Signs throughout history point to and confirm that the Church is of God (signs include miracles and others as well)
Looking at the above you can see how every step before step 6 involves what would be defined as “reason.” It is determining facts about reality that involve looking at evidence and determining if certain statements are true or false. These steps involve history, philosophy, and even at times (like in step 7) science. Step 6, which is believing in specific doctrines of Catholicism, is where faith comes in. Be careful when going through these steps not to skip any. I am NOT claiming something like this: “Faith is belief on the testimony of God. Jesus is God and He claimed X, therefore X is true.” or “Faith is belief in God’s word, Scripture is God’s word, therefore, since Scripture teaches X, X is true.” The problem in those approaches is that they miss the appropriate steps in demonstrating that Scripture or Jesus are reliable or that God even exists. The seven step approach above however does not beg any questions. Now this should be sufficient to clear up certain errors and understand the underlying truth behind those errors with regards to faith and reason.
The first error is that somehow faith is like reason just one more provable, deductive process. People who want to have faith but also recognize the authority of reason often portray faith in this light. They use reason and often unintentionally belittle faith. This is corrected by remembering that faith is different from reason alone and it perfects reason. What we know by faith includes many things which we simply cannot know through reason alone. For example, that God exists as a Trinity or that God became incarnate in the person of Jesus Christ. If God had never told us this by teaching us these things (Christ taught both) and giving sufficient reason to back up Christ’s claims (e.g. His miracles), we would have no way of knowing that they are true. Further, these are truths which we cannot prove or see with our own eyes. It involves accepting something as true which we have to wait to experience first hand. St. Paul says faith is the “substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen.” Also, faith is not a matter of deductive proof. Nowhere do we deductively prove that God has revealed something. It is about inductively reasoning that God has revealed something. Here there is a difference that matters. Christ’s revelation should compel belief, however it does not force it upon us. People seeking truth and of good-will will accept Christ if they are sufficiently presented Christianity. However, these same people have the freedom to reject Christ and not make the leap of faith. They do not have to deny logical proofs; they simply have to willfully neglect assenting to these truths. Ultimately faith is an act of the will and even intelligent people are free to choose to disbelieve. This act may not be intelligible; however, it is not the same as denying a proof. So to conclude: Faith transcends reason in content and is a different approach to discovering the truth. (See important Vatican I declarations HERE #3 “On Faith” 2, 5, and 6)
The other error claims that faith is unreasonable. We tackled how it is not itself unreasonable in the body of the post. Now, I’d just say this: Catholics do not believe things on faith for any of the following reasons: It feels good, we just want to believe so bad, it seems so right deep down, I hope it’s true and I’m just blindly accepting it. These are all false reasons to believe. Catholics believe in certain truths because we believe they are revealed by God. We believe they are revealed by God because they are taught by Christ and His Church-reliable sources. We know these to be reliable based on evidence. Here an important truth is uncovered: Reason and certain specific truths of reason (e.g. God’s existence) are important preambles to the faith. Atheists sometimes see faith as though it stifles reasons, sometimes Catholics see faith as though it must take precedence over reason in such a manner that it covers and crushes reason. Both of these views are false and stem from the same incorrect assumption that faith somehow sets aside reason. Quite the opposite, faith builds on reason. Sometimes it is even true that God reveals something that we can know through reason. Examples of this include that He exists, the moral code of the 10 commandments (we can know these through reason but God reveals them again to Moses in a codified form) or that Christ was crucified. Even more, reason is the language of faith and faith can be shown to be reasonable. What I mean is that although I cannot prove a doctrine of the faith, I can show that it is reasonable and defensible. For instance I cannot prove that the person of Jesus Christ is God and man. However, I can defend the possibility of one person having two distinct but united natures using philosophy. This is a large part of what St. Thomas attempted to do. (See important Vatican I declarations HERE #3 “On Faith” 1, 3 and 4)
Overall faith is about believing based on God’s word. Natural reason is about learning truths about the natural world using the intellect that God gave us to pursue truth. This reason should lead us to the truth about God’s revelation. From there, despite our own lack of understanding or lack of seeing or proving, we should be able to make the “leap of faith” and intellectually assent to the supernatural truths that God wishes us to believe for our salvation. Understanding the relationship between faith and reason is a necessary step in any intellectual discussion about religion especially religion and science. Stay tuned for an upcoming post on religion and science.
St. Thomas Aquinas…angelic doctor…pray for us in our understanding on faith and reason!
“The Divine Wisdom, that knows all things most fully, has deigned to reveal these her secrets to men, and in proof of them has displayed works beyond the competence of all natural powers, in the wonderful cure of diseases, in the raising of the dead, and what is more wonderful still, in such inspiration of human minds as that simple and ignorant persons, filled with the gift of the Holy Ghost, have gained in an instant the height of wisdom and eloquence.* By force of the aforesaid proof, without violence of arms, without promise of pleasures, and, most wonderful thing of all, in the midst of the violence of persecutors, a countless multitude, not only of the uneducated but of the wisest men, flocked to the Christian faith, wherein doctrines are preached that transcend all human understanding, pleasures of sense are restrained, and a contempt is taught of all worldly possessions.” (St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles Chapter 6…St. Thomas, Pray for us!)