Why reason is required for faith
Today it feels like the majority of people looks at those of us addicted to the daily Mass as foolish, maybe nuts. Especially during these days when the news is filled with ‘believers’ whose expressed sole purpose is death and destruction. And I understand…kind of. There was a time when I too, viewed Christians as ignorant, the bible as fantasy and religion hypocrisy. I viewed animals as more worthy of saving than people. I was obsessed by the injustices and horrors wrought by people on one another and the planet. Hence the arguments of those who think the planet would be improved if humans no longer inhabited it are not unfamiliar. It was simple: people of faith were irrational.
But even in my most radically antireligious phases, there was a hunger–yearning that couldn’t be expressed, just denied. Of course the denial has consequences: none of them good. Only in the last few years have I been able to look with compassion on my younger self, making it possible to feel not just tolerance but love for those stuck in denial of God.
True because I remember the many years when I was addicted to certainty: I didn’t say it that way of course. But I was open only to affirmation that what I think and believe, even insist, is the truth.
This piece, why reason is required for faith, was prompted by:
- The conversion of a ‘famous atheist’
- The discovery of the delightful Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe,
- Returning to Pope John Paul ll’s magnificent Fides et Ratio
recently published her declaration, “Why I am now a Christian.” It’s an obvious reference to Bertrand Russell’s Why I Am Not A Christian and familiar since Russell’s essay attracted me too as an brand new eighteen-year-old atheist.
In a sense, her conversion isn’t at all surprising. In light of this woman’s intellectual gifts and the courageous, life-threatening, stands she has taken during her life, her dedication to truth is inspirational. With the publication of her autobiography, Infidel, death threats from radical Islam forced Hirsi-Ali to leave Holland and seek asylum in the United States. But fear did not stop her from working tirelessly to persuade the west that radical Muslim groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, ISIS and Hamas are committed to the destruction of western civilization. And that ignoring or mitigating the threat was perilous to our survival.
In an arresting interview with Dave Rubin, The West is Running Out of Time, Ayann Hirsi Ali states that the worldwide marches supporting Hamas, filled with people agitating for genocide for the Jews repeat what occurred in Europe prior to the holocaust in Nazi Germany. “We are,” Hirsi Ali exclaims, in a the midst of a “brutal clash of civilizations….but western pundits and leaders dismiss my two-decade warnings as I’ve been ‘hijacked by the right,’ ‘I’ve been scarred my my experience…”
“What is truly astonishing is ‘progressives’ on the left are cluelessly enabling the terrorists.” As she says this, demonstrators carrying signs proclaiming, “Queers for Hamas” flash on the screen.
I like her phrase, “cluelessly enabling terrorism” but believe it inadequate. Antisemitism isn’t new among intellectuals nor is it surprising. By their very existence, the Jewish people call up a god who spoke to Abraham, Moses and a Bible that predicted the state of Israel. Pundits securely enthroned on their secular humanistic tautology get itchy at the notion of the chosen people. It offends their sense of equality. Antisemitism is a spiritual evil, as is much of what the deranged, absurdly called ‘progressive,’ agenda.
Stop us from talking nonsense
The scholar’s Herbert McCabe’s exhortation about God could be read hundreds of times: ….”is no God who is a being, an item in the universe, a rival person; there is just the unknown beyond and behind the whole universe itself, the mystery at the heart of my being myself. In Christ, says St. Thomas, we are united to God as to an unknown.” And still remain mysterious.
The Dominican priest studied the writings of Saint Thomas Aquinas. He who was asked by Christ, “Thomas, you have written well of me, what would you have as a reward?” And was heard to reply, “Only you Lord, only you.”
Hence McCabe had no tolerance for those the theories of post-modern theologians which reduce the Bible to allegory or even fantasy. In fact, he wrote that theology is “not concerned with trying to say what God is but in trying to stop us talking nonsense.” Unknown here in the states, the Irish priest and scholar’s interest was in battling the ‘nonsense’ of modern theologists and scholars. His book, Faith and Reason is considered a classic. The first chapter, Is Belief Wishful Thinking? begins by suggesting that it’s the unbeliever who is engaging in wishful thinking. In an intriguing reverse of the claim by atheists. “I am quite sure that religious disbelief is wishful thinking in this sense: I think that many people cease to believe because they find it too uncomfortable to believe that certain doctrines are true.”
Matthew Nelson writes, “McCabe insists rightly that faith involves at least holding that a certain proposition is true; this is a necessary—but not sufficient—component of faith. Put another way, there is no such thing as believing something without believing it to be true. Saying “I believe that . . .” is synonymous with saying “I believe it is true that . . .The most rational among us reject neither faith nor reason, allowing each to assume its proper place in the life of the intellect. While faith without reasons make truth inapplicable, contends McCabe, faith entirely dependent on reasons makes faith inapplicable. So faith must be something in between. Here—as so often in Catholic theology—we see manifest an apparently “either/or” scenario that is really, in the final analysis, a “both/and.”
All of which leads me to
Pope John Paul ll’s splendid 1998 Encyclical letter, Fides et Ratio. The sixty-eight page ‘letter’ is quintessentially Saint Pope John Paul ll in that each paragraph, sometimes each sentence warrants thought. Sometimes extensive meditation. I read it shortly after my conversion to Catholicism. But find on reread, it’s even more magnificent. I wonder if there’s another man more suited to speak and write about the impossibility of uncoupling faith from reason or reason from faith. We know enough about the early life of Karol Wojtyla to sense his profound understanding of communism and fascism: of atheism and of its implicit danger to humanity.
For Pope John Paul, like Father McCabe, it’s Saint Thomas who explicates the contingent relationship of faith and reason.
In an age when Christian thinkers were rediscovering the treasures of ancient philosophy, and more particularly of Aristotle, Thomas had the great merit of giving pride of place to the harmony which exists between faith and reason. Both the light of reason and the light of faith come from God, he argued; hence there can be no contradiction between them.44
More radically, Thomas recognized that nature, philosophy’s proper concern, could contribute to the understanding of divine Revelation. Faith therefore has no fear of reason, but seeks it out and has trust in it. Just as grace builds on nature and brings it to fulfilment,45 so faith builds upon and perfects reason. Illumined by faith, reason is set free from the fragility and limitations deriving from the disobedience of sin and finds the strength required to rise to the knowledge of the Triune God. Although he made much of the supernatural character of faith, the Angelic Doctor did not overlook the importance of its reasonableness; indeed he was able to plumb the depths and explain the meaning of this reasonableness. Faith is in a sense an “exercise of thought”; and human reason is neither annulled nor debased in assenting to the contents of faith, which are in any case attained by way of free and informed choice.46Faith and Reason