Why Be Catholic? 10: Reason
At first glance, a title which makes “Reason” a point in favor of Catholicism may look odd to modern eyes. We’re accustomed, after all, to thinking of reason as a faculty which we must use independently of faith to solve human problems, something that faith obscures. It has been the entire project of modern history for the past several hundred years to “free” reason from faith, and to kill faith. So perhaps my title does seem curious.
But I might also note that the post-modern critique of the modern experiment has chillingly demonstrated that reason divorced from faith implodes into uselessness. Even though post-modernism offers no solution, it explains why all around us we now see not only the familiar flight from faith, but a flight from reason as well, a flight generally toward pure desire. Whatever floats your boat. The world is meaningless anyway. Different strokes for different folks. Maybe it’s time to take another look.
The Catholic Church is essentially alone in proclaiming that it is not understanding that leads to Faith but Faith that leads to understanding. It is extremely difficult—in fact, it is impossible—for anyone to start from scratch using pure reason and expect to get very far in interpreting reality. Instead, we must accept a great deal as given, and all that we accept as given becomes the framework within which we pursue further knowledge and understanding in particular areas. If the framework is fundamentally unsound, future conclusions are very nearly doomed to be wrong.
In addition, when we reason, we need to be protected from ourselves. As humans we are prone to letting all manner of distraction and weakness interfere with the diligence, the objectivity and even the perspicacity with which we ought to employ our reason. We are all, compared with the task at hand, not only relatively dull-witted but also mentally lazy and deeply prejudiced. Frequently we do little more than seek to justify what we already think is true or—what is very much worse—what we want to be true. Witness the many otherwise intelligent atheist scientists, like Richard Dawkins, who so very much want to be justified in thinking there is no God that they spin out books containing arguments any schoolboy could refute, while heaping scorn on equally-accomplished colleagues who express Faith. How are we to protect ourselves from the sloth, self-interest and impure motives which attack our own reason at every turn?
Then there is the natural law. What nature teaches us about the fundamental reality of things—especially the fundamental moral reality—is deeply imprinted on every man, but it is very difficult to discern and articulate in detail. Innumerable controversies arise in trying to work it out. Again, as we become progressively blinded in this effort by inordinate attachments of various kinds, we are prone to start calling black white and white black, until even such basic things as the evil of murder may no longer be clearly perceived. We may look for certainty, but will it lead to comfort or truth?
To all of these problems, Catholicism has answers, the answers of Revelation, authority and grace, and the answer that grace perfects nature rather than supplanting it. Revelation provides the soundest of frameworks for human inquiry, the Petrine authority guarantees the integrity of that framework, and this Revelation and authority also point to and reinforce the precepts of the natural law, which has the same Author. Therefore, Faith opens up a vast panorama of understanding about the great “why” questions: Why do things exist? Why we are here? Why is one thing good and another bad? Why must we struggle so hard to get things right? With these answers comes a much-enriched understanding of the deepest nature of things, an understanding that enables us to begin to make sense out of not only our surroundings but our history, our culture, our lives. Truly ought we to seek faith that we may understand.
Moreover, this understanding opens us to grace, to that share in the life of God which clears our intellects, purifies our motives, and strengthens our resolve to reason well. Grace becomes the first line of defense against all that would lead us to abuse reason by proclaiming the false true. But Catholicism offers also one thing more, which most other Christian groups fail to offer, and that comes through its doctrine of grace perfecting nature. Thus reason is not to be shunned, as it is shunned in most of the Protestant tradition, as a tainted work of reprobate nature sunk in depravity. Rather, reason like all of human nature is seen as fundamentally good, but weakened by the Fall and now to be purified and exalted by grace so that it too may offer fitting service to God.
Truly are our minds darkened in the absence of faith. As Chesterton pointed out in The Everlasting Man, just as the marvellous experiment in reason which was the Greco-Roman world had exhausted itself, just as the great wave of human intellectual achievement was about to curl and crash, just at that moment God the Father deemed it to be “the fullness of time” into which He would send His Son. Thus it is no surprise that the triumph of Greek philosophy meshed so well with the even greater triumph of Jewish reliance upon the one God, at exactly the time that Christianity was born. Pope Benedict XVI made this point in his famous address at the University of Regensberg, in which he challenged both the West, which has now turned its back on its heritage, and the Muslim world, which was immersed from the first in voluntarism, to find the right place for reason:
The encounter between the Biblical message and Greek thought did not happen by chance. The vision of Saint Paul, who saw the roads to Asia barred and in a dream saw a Macedonian man plead with him: "Come over to Macedonia and help us!" (cf. Acts 16:6-10) - this vision can be interpreted as a "distillation" of the intrinsic necessity of a rapprochement between Biblical faith and Greek inquiry. In point of fact, this rapprochement had been going on for some time…. Thus, despite the bitter conflict with those Hellenistic rulers who sought to accommodate it forcibly to the customs and idolatrous cult of the Greeks, biblical faith, in the Hellenistic period, encountered the best of Greek thought at a deep level, resulting in a mutual enrichment evident especially in the later wisdom literature…. A profound encounter of faith and reason is taking place here, an encounter between genuine enlightenment and religion. From the very heart of Christian faith and, at the same time, the heart of Greek thought now joined to faith...: Not to act "with logos" is contrary to God's nature.
Logos, the Word of God, the mind of God, Wisdom: Logos is the goal and the engine of engraced reason, just as it is also the key to that ultimate correspondence of the mind with reality which we call truth.
There is something very special in the Catholic regard for reason, and in the Church’s ability to bring reason to the highest possible achievement in her faithful children and saints. It is precisely the Catholic perception of the nature, needs and uses of reason which is capable of producing an Augustine and an Aquinas, a Copernicus and a Pasteur. It may seem odd at first sight but, without any possible doubt, another motive for being Catholic is love and respect for reason.
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