In the late 18th century Thomas Paine argued in The Age of Reason that reason and revelation are in opposition and reason is superior. Those who agree with him have often been even more disparaging of religious faith. Nietzsche wrote, “Faith means not wanting to know what is true.” Mark Twain claimed, “A man is accepted into a church for what he believes and he is turned out for what he knows.” And Ernest Hemingway, with characteristic brevity, declared, “All thinking men are atheists.”
That atheists denigrate faith is no more surprising than that Christians extol it. What is surprising is that many Christians share the atheists’ view that faith and reason are in opposition. Such people may concede that reason is useful in secular situations, but they deny it has a meaningful place in religious thought or discussion. They believe, as an anonymous wag once suggested, “Philosophy is questions that may never be answered. Religion is answers that may never be questioned.”
Why do many Christians consider faith more trustworthy than reason? The most obvious answer is that the Bible seems to encourage that view. In the Old and New Testaments combined, there are 458 references to faith and only 69 to reason. Moreover, the references to faith unequivocally affirm its power. We learn in Matthew 13:58 that Jesus “did not do many miracles” in his hometown “because of their lack of faith.” Jesus Himself declares, “your faith has healed you” (Mark 10:52) and “your faith has saved you” (Luke 7:50). And Paul asserts that “without faith it is impossible to please God” (Hebrews 11:6).
In dramatic contrast, most biblical references to reason use the word in the much weaker sense of simply having an explanation. For example, “The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him” (1 John 3:1) and “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have” (1 Peter 3:15).
Other words related to reason, including mind, thinking, judging, and deciding, are also generally used in a weaker sense. An exception is “Why don’t you judge for yourselves what is right?” (Luke: 12:57) But that is overshadowed by the more familiar admonition, expressed in a different context, “Do not judge, and you will not be judged” (Luke 6:37).
The Bible’s emphasis on faith may be the main explanation for Christians being more comfortable with it than with reason, but it is not the only one. Another is that for more than a century, schools and colleges have operated under the fallacious notion that reason, and thinking in general, cannot be learned. That is why generations of teachers at all levels of education have focused on telling students what to think rather than teaching them how to think. As a result, generations of graduates have been more comfortable believing what they have been told than pursuing truth on their own.
As if that were not enough motivation to be suspicious of reason, Humanistic Psychology has persuaded many people, including many Christians, that reason is less natural and less reliable than emotion. (Those psychologists conveniently overlook the fact that emotion can be capricious, distort perception, and cause impulsive behavior. Moreover, emotion offers no basis for making moral choices other than the relativistic slogan, “Whatever feels good is good.”)
These influences have combined to convince many Christians to regard reason as a threat to faith. This view is quietly held by many laypeople and clerics alike and openly expressed by members of the hierarchy, particularly on those occasions when someone else’s reasoning disputes their personal viewpoint. My point here is not that power corrupts, though history amply demonstrates that theorem, but that power increases sensitivity to criticism, especially in matters of belief.
A More Accurate View of Reason
The traditional Catholic view of reason is much more balanced than the dismissive view discussed above. Credit for that balance goes to many accomplished thinkers over the centuries, most notably St. Thomas Aquinas. He not only restored Greek philosophy, especially the work of Aristotle, but also elevated the intellect to prominence and thus inspired the scientific revolution and the Renaissance. Unfortunately, the legacy of Aquinas and others has been largely forgotten since atheism asserted its jurisdiction over reason and Christians were generally ineffectual in challenging the idea.
What response can we draw, directly or by implication, from the Catholic intellectual tradition to answer those who denigrate reason?
1. Far from being mutually exclusive, faith and reason are mutually dependent. Even the most avowed atheist must have faith in the efficacy of reason; otherwise, he would be unable to generate the motivation and confidence necessary to defend his unbelief (which, ironically, it itself a form of faith). By the same token, no religious believer can truly understand, let alone defend, her religion without addressing difficult issues, asking probing questions, and seeking meaningful answers—in other words, without applying reason.
Consider, for example, the issue of whether faith alone leads to salvation or whether deeds (“works”) are also a factor. Some try to escape the issue by saying, “I trust what the Bible says,” but that rings hollow because the Bible often contains different messages. Paul says, “For we maintain that a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law” (Romans 3:28). But James says, “You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone” (James 2:24). And John adds, “Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books” (Revelation 20:12-14). Note: John does not say what they had proclaimed or felt, but “what they had done.”
Various efforts have been made to resolve the issue of these apparently conflicting passages, but for our purposes, it is enough to note that all of the efforts require reason. And that is the case with thousands of other questions one could and should ask about the Bible. Here is a few more: as noted above, Paul said that we are justified by faith. But he also said that the greatest among faith, hope, and love is not faith but love (1 Corinthians 13:13). Does this mean love plays a major role in justification? If so, what kind of love—the passive, feeling kind or the dynamic kind that takes the form of actions? If the latter, what does that imply about whether faith alone justifies?
Such difficult questions and the reasoning they evoke provide the basis for courses in religious studies in college and seminaries. Incidentally, the Bible itself, as we know it, owes its existence to the reasoning of the Church Fathers concerning which books should be part of the canon and which should not.
2. Reason is a gift from God. This statement is not nearly as familiar to Catholics and other Christians as “Faith is a gift from God.” But it is equally true and deserving of equal acceptance. Part of the awe surrounding the gift of faith derives from the fact that it is shrouded in the mystery of why God bestows it on some but not others. But is the gift of reason that God gives to every single human being any less awe-inspiring because it is more universal or less mysterious? Wouldn’t gratefully treasuring the gift of reason and putting it to good use be more appropriate responses than regarding it with suspicion?
3. Our inherent imperfection, the legacy of Original Sin, affects both our faith and our reason. To be imperfect is to be capable of error. That this shortcoming exists in reason is well known, mainly because over the centuries logicians have identified more than a hundred specific kinds of fallacies and devised ways to avoid them. Errors in faith are no less common, but they have seldom, if ever, been subjected to the same formal analysis. That fact, plus the tendency to regard faith as beyond analysis, makes the idea of errors of faith unfamiliar to many people.
But a moment’s reflection will reveal that such errors exist. The false idols condemned in the Bible are objects of false faith as well as false worship. Other examples of false faith are pagan beliefs that strange incantations, rituals, and offerings, including human sacrifice, can obtain blessings from the gods. An example of false faith closer to our own time is James Jones’ People’s Temple cult that inspired one of the largest mass suicides in history.
Of course, there is nothing easier than finding errors in other people’s religious faith. Persuading them of our finding, however, is much more difficult, because they believe that their faith is true. Finding errors in our own faith is just as difficult for precisely the same reason—because we hold our belief to be unquestionable.
These lessons from the traditional Catholic view make clear that faith and reason should exist harmoniously. But how exactly can we maintain that harmony when reason at times challenges faith and faith tends to react defensively?
Be unafraid to ask questions about matters of faith. The purpose of asking such questions is not to be rebellious or to flirt with skepticism—it is to deepen your understanding of the truth. In Matthew 7:7 Jesus urges his disciples, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.” This passage is often thought of as referring to material things, but it also, and I believe more importantly, refers to understanding. Surely the person who devotes time to probing the meaning of the Apostles’ or Nicene creed is respecting his faith more than the person who merely recites it at Mass.
Maintain a proper humility when you raise questions and seek answers. In other words, acknowledge that human understanding has its limits. Some truths, like that regarding the triune nature of God, are shrouded in mystery and can be grasped only by analogy. Acknowledge, too, that even when something is knowable, some flaw in our reasoning may cause us to misunderstand it. The best way to maintain humility and minimize the chance for error is to search widely, consult the searchings of others, and identify all possible conclusions before forming your own conclusion.
Before expressing or acting on any conclusion that you have formed about matters of faith, consider it prayerfully. That is, ask for assurance that your conclusion corresponds to the truth and not merely to what you want to believe.
There have been many eloquent arguments in Catholic intellectual tradition for valuing reason in matters of faith, but the line my mind keeps returning to is not technically an argument, nor does it refer specifically to faith. It is a simple, inelegant truism my father was fond of repeating for my edification: “God intended your head to be used as something more than a hat rack.”
Copyright © 2013 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved