“Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth” (John Paul II, Fides et Ratio).
Catholic universities often speak of both reason and faith as important bases for their intellectual project. Each is understood to be a way to pursue and appropriate genuine knowledge. Given the unity of reality as a whole, the knowledge gained by each does not contradict or overthrow the knowledge gained by the other. Anyone looking for a clear formulation of the Catholic understanding of faith, reason, and how they interact can find many sources from the Catholic intellectual tradition that treat the question. Two important modern formulations are Dei Filius, an apostolic constitution promulgated by the first Vatican Council in 1870, and the encyclical Fides et Ratio written by Pope John Paul II in 1998. The purpose of this brief document is not to go over all that ground; its intent is rather to provide a context that can help explain why the relationship between reason and faith has been such a fraught question for the modern academy, and to note the main lines of the Catholic understanding.
1. Faith and reason in the modern mind
It has become almost axiomatic that we modern people consider faith and reason to engage two entirely different spheres of human experience. This way of thinking is often just as true for people of faith as for those who are not religious. The dichotomy is expressed in different ways. It is sometimes said that reason deals with what we know, while faith deals with what we feel; or that reason treats of matters that can be conclusively proven, while faith concerns conjecture and supposition; or that reason is objective, while faith is subjective; or that reason is scientific, where faith is personalistic; or that reason leads to genuine knowledge, and faith is mere opinion. In whatever way the relationship between the two is described, it is commonly held that the university is properly a place for reason, that is, for verifiable knowledge, and not for faith, that is, for private opinions or subjective feelings and attitudes. Churches may be fine places, but universities are not churches, and they address a completely different order of thought and endeavor.
If this view of things is taken as a starting point, the very idea of a Catholic university becomes problematic. From one vantage, the idea that Catholics might attend a university, or that they might even found and run one, presents no special difficulties, any more than that Catholics might open a department store or run a tech company. But according to the prevalent modern view of faith and reason given above, the specifically intellectual project of the university has nothing to do with the Catholic faith, and cannot, in the nature of things. To attempt to “impose” doctrines or dogmas that come from faith on the activity of the university would be to put the search for knowledge in a straightjacket. Campus ministries no doubt have their place, and the Church can be allowed to be present to provide for the religious needs and desires of those students who might wish it. But religious activity must remain distinct from the intellectual and educative project of the university lest that project be compromised. The business of the university is verifiable facts, not personal opinion, subjective emotion, nor, emphatically, what is classed as bigotry or prejudice.
2. Faith and reason in everyday life
The idea that faith and reason are entirely distinct processes, and that reason – understood in a particular way – is the only business of a university, may at first glance seem “reasonable”; but in fact it is not reasonable. It is based on a seriously reduced concept of reason and a flawed understanding of faith, and it results in an often crippling limitation on the project of investigating and understanding all that exists. Before discussing the relationship between reason and faith in God, it can help to see the way reason and faith interact constantly in the way we go at normal life.
A good deal of what we know comes to us, not by personal verification or experience, but by a kind of “faith” – that is, by placing our confidence in the authority or authorities from whom we have gained knowledge. Everything we know from books, from newspapers and journalism, or from what other people have told us is taken on this kind of faith. Some of that information we could have discovered for ourselves; but much of it is beyond the possibility of our personal verification. Further, almost all human action depends on some measure of faith. Every time we mail a letter, put money in a bank, eat at a restaurant, shop at a grocery store, or step into a plane, we are accepting as true what we cannot scientifically or logically prove: that these people are not swindlers; that this food is not poisoned; that the captain of this aircraft is not a hijacker; and so on. And we rely on this process of faith even though swindlers, hijackers, and poisonous foods do actually exist.
Once we note that we can hardly go through a day without many acts of faith of this kind, we might also note that the faith we are employing is not usually “blind,” and if possible it should not be. Our faith in these matters is informed by reason. If someone asked us why we thought China existed even though we had never been there and could not scientifically prove it, we would say that we have very good grounds for our belief, so much so that a person who denied China’s existence because he had never personally visited it and has not empirically proven its existence would be thought highly irrational. This points to something fundamental about the nature of the relationship between faith and reason. Faith is intrinsically tied to reason, and represents a reasonable response to certain aspects of thought and action. Reason itself demands that we regularly exercise well-grounded faith. Thus faith is not the opposite of reason, or the lack of it. When we exercise faith, whether in a bank, a restaurant, an airline, a teacher, or the word of a trusted friend, we are exercising a type of reason; we are making a judgment on the basis of good “reasons,” as we usually put it. By the same token, when we refuse to put our money in an e-mail scheme from Nigeria, or we avoid a particular restaurant because it has been closed numerous times for food poisoning, or we disbelieve a person who has consistently been found deceitful, we are withholding our faith with good reason. Much of what it means to be a reasonable person, to act according to reason, is to make sound judgments about what and whom we can trust.
Beyond this day-to-day necessity of exercising reasoned faith, we might also note that there are many aspects of reality that are of great importance to us, but that do not allow for strict scientific demonstration after the model of the natural sciences. To take one such example out of many: there is much to know and learn concerning how to make our way in life relationally with other people. We often speak of people who are good with others, who have a quick understanding, who have wisdom for negotiating friendships, marriage and family, and work relationships. This is an important area of knowledge, and demands the use of a certain kind of reason; but not the kind of reason needed to investigate or navigate the natural world. The person who approached trying to fix his car engine with the same type of rationality as trying to address a family matter with his wife would be thought silly (especially by his wife). Both areas involve thinking and knowledge; both demand reasoning processes; but it is knowledge and reasoning of different kinds.
3. The modern reduction of reason and its consequences
The remarkable success of applied technology based on the natural sciences has been gained through the application of a particular type of reason, one that involves mathematical logic and experimental verification based on the constant laws of physics. This development is a valid and impressive expression of the reasoning human mind, but it is not the only province of the rational search for understanding. There are many different ways of exercising reason. Aristotle long ago articulated one of the cardinal principles of clear thinking: that one studies a thing according to the nature of the thing being studied. If we want to understand a type of rock, we might use a rock hammer or submit it to a chemical process. If we want to understand a butterfly we had better come up with a different mode of investigation, or we will learn little except that butterflies are destroyed by hammers and killed by chemicals. More significantly: if we want to bring the study of humans to a good issue, we will need a reasoning process that takes into account the nature of the human in all its dimensions.
This seems an elementary proposition, but it is surprisingly easy to forget or ignore. Dazzled by the results of natural science, many have decided that the mode of reasoning suited to the study of the natural world is the only legitimate rational method for any kind of study, the only one that brings about genuine knowledge. It is therefore concluded that this mode of investigation should be applied to all dimensions of reality. Whatever cannot be determined by this reasoning method is then not considered knowledge at all. But this is a serious intellectual error. The study of the natural world deals with those aspects of reality that can be seen or measured are that are subject to universal laws of material causation. In matters of that kind, if something occurs once it will inevitably occur again when the same material causes are present. The practice of laboratory experimentation and the so-called scientific method are based on this first principle. To apply this mode of reasoning to humans is to assume, usually without reflection, that humans have the same nature as inert matter and energy, and are subject to the same kinds of causal necessities that will allow the predictive certainty upon which applied technology rests. This would mean, among other things, that humans have no free will, that they possess no soul, and that they have no spiritual dimension that may impinge upon consciousness and behavior. It is important to see that such sweeping assumptions are not, and cannot be, the fruit of any natural-scientific investigation; they are assumed to be true at the outset. When this happens, the practice of reason is reduced to one mode of rational inquiry, relegating whole potential areas of study to the dustbin of “non-knowledge.” The consequence is a skewed understanding.
An unfortunate result of this reductive process in the academy has been the attempt to squeeze all its disciplines and all its methods of study into this reduced notion of reason. The “human sciences” that involve the study of human life individually or corporately, such as psychology, sociology, anthropology, economics, and political science, along with history, need to justify their conclusions by attempting to be “scientific” in the same sense as physics or chemistry if they are to gain the prestige and authority that comes from being thought sources of genuine knowledge. And the humanities, including philosophy, history, literature, and art, to say nothing of theology, are often tacitly relegated to the arena of opinion or taste rather than knowledge, leaving them seriously disadvantaged in the academic struggle for survival.
Yet the human faculty of reasoning has many different modes, depending, in the manner first laid out by Aristotle, on the aspect of reality one is studying. This was the founding rationale for various schools and departments in the university. There is mathematical reasoning, experimental reasoning, philosophical reasoning, moral reasoning, historical reasoning, reasoning about social and political matters, and reasoning about human relationships. And there is also theological reasoning: reasoning about God that involves a rational practice of faith. Each mode of reasoning is attempting to arrive at the truth of real things; but the manner in which that truth can be gained, the relative certainty of it, and the limits of our capacity to understand it, differ depending on the aspect of reality under study. Knowing these different modes, knowing what is reasonable and what is not in various areas of inquiry, understanding the possibilities and limits of various modes of reasoning, is an important ongoing task of the university, and a key quality for a truly educated mind. That quality has traditionally been called wisdom.
4. Reason and Faith in God
Augustine and Aquinas, two of the most subtle thinkers of Christian history and both champions of reason, often made comments such as: “If you understood God, it would not be God you have understood” (Augustine, Sermon 56). This is a rational statement. Philosophers of many traditions have arrived through philosophical reasoning at the conviction that there is a being beyond all others who is the creator of all that is, and the source of existence itself. If such an infinite and unlimited being exists, it is a necessary corollary that humans, possessed of finite intelligence and experience, will not be able fully to understand that being. The one who says he fully understands God is being irrational. Therefore a certain mystery concerning God’s being and his operations in the world is a necessary quality of reasonable thinking about God.
Because the human mind is limited in its apprehension of God, our reasoning powers can take us only so far. Almost all the great philosophies of the world have arrived at the existence of God in some form or other. But that knowledge has necessarily been shadowy and indistinct. Christians claim that the God whom the philosophers have reasoned about entered human history and has shown himself to us and informed us of certain matters that we could not have discovered on our own. This revealed knowledge of God and the world therefore needs to be received by faith; that is, it goes beyond what we can simply verify, and requires an act of trust in the one giving the revelation. It is not irrational to hold that God knows a great deal about himself and the world he has created and sustains. The possibility that he has revealed some of that knowledge to humans is also not unreasonable. But just as we need to have good grounds for exercising faith in matters of daily life, so we need reasonable grounds to exercise faith in God. One of the tasks of theological study is the sifting and sorting of the grounds for the Christian act of faith. It would be simply unintelligent to believe something about God if we had no grounds at all for the belief. That would be either mere wishful thinking or would fall under what Catholics have called the error of “fideism”: the denial of the reasonable bases of the faith. Since Christianity is a revealed religion, we employ reason to examine the plausibility of the revelation that has been given. If once we have come to think that we have good grounds for the genuineness of that revelation, then the rational thing to do is put our faith in it, in a way analogous to the way we believe what a friend has told us once we have good grounds for that person’s intelligence and truthfulness, or the way we receive an eyewitness account of an event or a conversation at which we were not present as trustworthy because we have good reasons to think the eyewitness is telling the truth.
5. The unity of knowledge
At the heart of the Catholic understanding of faith and reason as twin modes of apprehending truth is the claim that there is an essential unity to the whole of reality since it has been created and is sustained by an intelligent Being. When the university claims to be a place that teaches “universal knowledge,” it has thus set its sights on the whole of what is, on the unified cosmos that we inhabit. That unified whole is varied and complex, but it is beyond our ability to take in at one glance, so the university abstracts certain portions of it in order to investigate them more thoroughly one by one. But it does so always keeping the unity of the cosmos in view. This means that when the university claims to teach universal knowledge, it goes far beyond saying that it is a place where all kinds of information and varied skills can be picked up, as if it were an intellectual Wal-Mart or an academic state fair. It means that the university carries a vision of the unity of reality at its heart, and it investigates each aspect of reality as if it were only one facet of a complex and splendid gem.
John Henry Newman sometimes referred to this diversity in unity as the “circle of knowledge.” He insisted that it was important for the whole circle of knowledge to be present, lest in the absence of important areas of inquiry, other disciplines or modes of inquiry would become intellectually “expansionistic” – perhaps without knowing it – and attempt to address matters they were not equipped to handle, with a resulting distortion of understanding. A common proverb makes a similar point: to one who has only learned how to use a hammer, everything looks like a nail.
An example and an analogy of the importance of maintaining the whole circle of knowledge can be seen in the medical disciplines. Medicine deals with the care of humans, beings who are whole and entire unities. Many subspecialties have been developed to understand and treat specific aspects of human physical or psychical well-being; but they will have a good effect only if they keep the unity of the individual person in view. We can abstract the endocrine system, or the circulatory or respiratory systems. We can do specialized research in oncology or psychiatry. But necessary as this is, it has an unreal aspect to it. No one has ever met a circulatory system existing on its own. Competent medical practitioners therefore work to keep an overall understanding of the human in view as they pursue their specializations, to ensure that their treatment of one aspect of their patient’s anatomy does not harm others, or destroy the organism as a whole. A knowledge of the whole person, and especially an understanding of how different aspects of the human organism are related to one another, is essential for competent medical practice.
The same situation applies to the study of the cosmos. The entirety of all that exists represents a highly complex unity in which the various parts are related to each other in essential ways. We have learned how to abstract certain aspects of the whole in order to study them according to a specialized methodology and thus understand them better. But unless this process of abstraction and specialization, a necessarily artificial activity, is carried on with a sound knowledge of the whole and the way its various parts are related, we will unwittingly develop a skewed view, not only of the whole of reality, but even of our own area of study. Those who know only their own discipline cannot know even their own discipline fully and well. This epistemological assumption has been at the very heart of the founding and growth of universities, and the ultimate point behind gathering the various faculties together in one location where the unity of knowledge can be incarnated by the very shape of the university’s life, and the intellectual temptation of reducing everything to the scope of one’s own discipline can be more easily kept at bay.
So we come to the importance of theology specifically as an academic discipline for the integrity of the university’s intellectual project. When ultimate questions of transcendent meaning that deal with the existence of God and the nature of the good are cut out of the circle of knowledge and excluded from the university’s curricular structure, the vision of reality carried by the university becomes distorted. Once this occurs, universities often abandon even the attempt to maintain a grasp of the cosmos as a whole, and the various disciplines, because they have no common ground on which they can dialogue, become isolated and fragmented little worlds without an organic relationship to each other.
6. The task of adjusting reason and faith
“While reason and revelation are consistent in fact, they often are inconsistent in appearance” (John Henry Newman, “A Form of Infidelity of the Day” in University Subjects, 2;4).
This comment of Newman’s points to one of the university’s particular intellectual tasks. If reason and faith together provide the possibility of a unified vision of the world, and if they are consistent in fact, why should they sometimes appear to be at odds? Newman found the difficulty arising not so much from the exercise of our rational faculty as from the use of our imaginations. When a mind has been consistently occupied in the arena of natural reason, dealing with what can be seen, touched, and encountered in constant and obvious ways, and then turns to the arena of faith with its grasp of invisible realities through a different mode of knowing, it confronts an imaginative hurdle. The potent immediacy of what is seen and measured can distract the mind from deeper and more subtle realities and make what is not seen and measured appear as fragile or unreal.
As an example, the idea is often expressed that modern scientific advance has rendered the existence of God increasingly implausible. To the extent that this is the case, it has not come about by the use of reason or by an inherent contradiction between science and faith in God. There are no rational grounds for thinking that greater knowledge of the proximate material causes of natural phenomena can have anything to say about the possible existence of an infinite intelligent mind entirely outside of all material phenomena and necessary for the existence of matter itself. Philosophical arguments for the existence of God have not been refuted or overturned. If faith is weakened, it is because the imagination has been dazzled and distracted by the potencies of applied science and has become expansionistic, usurping the place of other modes of knowing. This has come about not because of the findings of reason or the claims of faith, but in spite of them.
There can also occur misjudgments, whether concerning faith or reason, that seem to put the two in opposition, but do not really do so. A misreading of the Sacred Scriptures has led some to think that the Bible denies facts about the natural world for which there is compelling scientific evidence. According to one famous eighteenth-century interpretation, the Bible conclusively revealed that the world was created in 4004 B.C. Such a conclusion could hardly square with the findings of geology, biology, anthropology, and physics concerning the age of the earth and the universe. On the other hand, some devotees of evolutionary theories have insisted that their scientific endeavors have proven that there is no Creator and no guiding hand in the development of the natural world. In the first instance the problem is a mistaken interpretation of Scripture. In the second, it is the making of a philosophical claim outside the realm of what evidence could prove which no responsibly conducted science could ever justify on its own terms.
The Catholic university is the particular institution where these apparent contrieties can be aired, sorted out, and clarified. Should either faith or reason overstep its bounds, it can be corrected, adjusted, and deepened. The united presence and pursuit of both faith and reason purifies the practice of each. By this means the university makes consistent gains on its central vision, a unified understanding of the cosmos in all its complex relations, and it passes on that inestimable treasure to those for whom the university mainly exists: its students.
7. The “philosophical habit of mind”
The “philosophical habit of mind” was the phrase Newman used to describe the special quality a Catholic university hoped to embody in its faculty and pass on to its students. He was not referring to the specific study of philosophy as a discipline, but rather the ability to see the broad picture, to maintain a wide vision of truth in the midst of detailed study. He considered this possession to be the main point of a university education and the real definition of an educated person. Whatever the skills and specializations that might be underway, an important goal of university study was to provide all of its students with a well-trained and “enlarged” mind, one with the capacity to understand the whole of things, and so be able to think clearly and fruitfully about serious questions; in a word, to gain the capacity for wisdom. Here is how Newman described the well-formed intellect:
Excerpts from the Tradition regarding the question of Faith and Reason
From Idea of a University by J. H. Newman (Discourse 1; section 4):
From Dei Filius (1869):
The Catholic Church, with one consent, has ever held and does hold that there is a two-fold order of knowledge, distinct both in principle and also in object; in principle, because our knowledge, in the one, is by natural reason, and, in the other, is by Divine faith; in object, because, besides those things to which natural reason can attain, there are proposed, for our belief, mysteries hidden in God, which, unless Divinely revealed, cannot be known.
The same Holy Mother Church holds and teaches that God, the beginning and end of all things, may be certainly known by the natural light of human reason, by means of created things; “for the invisible things of Him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made” (Romans 1:20).
And reason, indeed, enlightened by faith -- when it seeks earnestly, piously, and somberly -- attains by a gift from God some understanding of mysteries, even a very fruitful one; partly from the analogy of those things which it naturally knows, partly from the relations which the mysteries bear to one another and to the last end of man. But reason never becomes capable of apprehending mysteries as it does those truths which constitute its proper object. For the Divine mysteries by their own nature so far transcend the created intelligence that, even when delivered by revelation and received by faith, they remain covered with the veil of faith itself, and shrouded in a certain degree of darkness, so long as we are pilgrims in this mortal life, not yet with God; “For we walk by means of faith, and not by sight.” (2 Cor. 5:7).
But although faith is above reason, there can never be any real discrepancy between faith and reason, since the same God who reveals mysteries and infuses faith has bestowed the light of reason on the human mind. And God cannot deny Himself, nor can truth ever contradict truth. The false appearance of such a contradiction is mainly due, either to the dogmas of faith not having been understood and expounded according to the mind of the Church, or to the inventions of opinion having been mistaken for the verdicts of reason.
And not only can faith and reason never be opposed to one another, but they are of mutual aid one to the other. For right reason demonstrates the foundations of faith, and enlightened by its light, cultivates the science of Divine things; while faith frees and guards reason from errors, and furnishes it with manifold knowledge. Therefore, so far is the Church from opposing the cultivation of human arts and sciences, that it in many ways helps and promotes them. For the Church neither ignores nor despises the benefits of human life which result from the arts and sciences, but confesses that, as they came from God, the Lord of all science, so, if they be used rightly, they lead to God by the help of His grace. Nor does the Church forbid that each of these sciences, in its sphere, should make use of its own principles and its own methods. But, while recognizing this just liberty, it stands watchfully on guard, lest sciences, setting themselves against Divine teaching or transgressing their own limits, should invade and disturb the domain of faith.
From Fides et Ratio (1998):
Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth; and God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth—in a word, to know himself—so that, by knowing and loving God, men and women may also come to the fullness of truth about themselves (cf. Ex 33:18; Ps 27:8-9; 63:2-3; Jn 14:8; 1 Jn 3:2) (1).
The fundamental harmony between the knowledge of faith and the knowledge of philosophy is once again confirmed. Faith asks that its object be understood with the help of reason; and at the summit of its searching reason acknowledges that it cannot do without what faith presents (42).
From the late Medieval period onwards, however, the legitimate distinction between the two forms of learning became more and more a fateful separation. As a result of the exaggerated rationalism of certain thinkers, positions grew more radical and there emerged eventually a philosophy which was separate from and absolutely independent of the contents of faith. Another of the many consequences of this separation was an ever deeper mistrust with regard to reason itself. In a spirit both skeptical and agnostic, some began to voice a general mistrust, which led some to focus more on faith and others to deny its rationality altogether. In short, what for Patristic and Medieval thought was in both theory and practice a profound unity, producing knowledge capable of reaching the highest forms of speculation, was destroyed by systems which espoused the cause of rational knowledge sundered from faith and meant to take the place of faith (45).
In the field of scientific research, a positivistic mentality took hold which not only abandoned the Christian vision of the world, but more especially rejected every appeal to a metaphysical or moral vision. It follows that certain scientists, lacking any ethical point of reference, are in danger of putting at the centre of their concerns something other than the human person and the entirety of the person's life. Further still, some of these, sensing the opportunities of technological progress, seem to succumb not only to a market-based logic, but also to the temptation of a quasi-divine power over nature and even over the human being.
As a result of the crisis of rationalism, what has appeared finally is nihilism. As a philosophy of nothingness, it has a certain attraction for people of our time. Its adherents claim that the search is an end in itself, without any hope or possibility of ever attaining the goal of truth. In the nihilist interpretation, life is no more than an occasion for sensations and experiences in which the ephemeral has pride of place. Nihilism is at the root of the widespread mentality which claims that a definitive commitment should no longer be made, because everything is fleeting and provisional (46).
Another threat to be reckoned with is scientism. This is the philosophical notion which refuses to admit the validity of forms of knowledge other than those of the positive sciences; and it relegates religious, theological, ethical and aesthetic knowledge to the realm of mere fantasy. In the past, the same idea emerged in positivism and neo-positivism, which considered metaphysical statements to be meaningless. Critical epistemology has discredited such a claim, but now we see it revived in the new guise of scientism, which dismisses values as mere products of the emotions and rejects the notion of being in order to clear the way for pure and simple facticity. Science would thus be poised to dominate all aspects of human life through technological progress. The undeniable triumphs of scientific research and contemporary technology have helped to propagate a scientistic outlook, which now seems boundless, given its inroads into different cultures and the radical changes it has brought (88).
There are also signs of a resurgence of fideism, which fails to recognize the importance of rational knowledge and philosophical discourse for the understanding of faith, indeed for the very possibility of belief in God.
I turn in the end to the woman whom the prayer of the Church invokes as Seat of Wisdom, and whose life itself is a true parable illuminating the reflection contained in these pages. For between the vocation of the Blessed Virgin and the vocation of true philosophy there is a deep harmony… Just as in giving her assent to Gabriel's word, Mary lost nothing of her true humanity and freedom, so too when philosophy heeds the summons of the Gospel's truth its autonomy is in no way impaired. Indeed, it is then that philosophy sees all its enquiries rise to their highest expression. This was a truth which the holy monks of Christian antiquity understood well when they called Mary “the table at which faith sits in thought.” In her they saw a lucid image of true philosophy and they were convinced of the need to philosophari in Maria” (108).
From Benedict XVI, “Regensburg Address,” (2006):
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