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Can Faith and Reason Work Together?

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Nov 20, 2007

A recent Zenit news story was entitled “Faith and Reason Can Be Friends”. It was perhaps an unfortunate title, reminiscent more of Sesame Street than of the Catholic tradition, but it was based on a papal talk and raises a valid question. What is the relationship between faith and reason for Catholics?

Tertullian raised this issue early on with his famous question, “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” Should Christians attempt to appropriate secular thought and culture, or should they eschew it altogether? Should we purify the best of human reason as a means of leading to and reinforcing faith, or should we occupy ourselves with Revelation alone? I am currently reading Avery Cardinal Dulles’ history of apologetics, available from Ignatius Press. Over the course of centuries it is fascinating to observe the different emphases the great defenders of the Faith have given the roles of reason and faith in appreciating the truth of the Gospel.

For some, the inner logic of Revelation is so obvious that it can be largely demonstrated through natural reason. Faith is above all a confirmation and a shortcut. These apologists argue that if we gain sufficient understanding, we will believe, and systematic rational argument is the key to their work. But for others, the essential force of faith comes from a subjective commitment to an interior experience so luminous that it demands a response. These would say that we understand primarily because we believe, and they place a great emphasis on the sublimity of the Gospel and the personal fulfillment it offers. We also find every imaginable position between these two poles.

But Catholicism does not share the Protestant emphasis on the total depravity of man and the consequent worthlessness of all his works. For Catholics, faith and reason may sometimes be in tension, but it is ultimately a harmonious and fruitful tension. In this context, it is not surprising that the news story in question finds Pope Benedict inviting university students to offer “a convinced witness to the ‘possible friendship’ between knowledge and faith,” and to avoid the temptations which lead away from this friendship. The Pope explains:

This involves incessant efforts to unite maturity in faith with growth through study and the acquisition of academic knowledge. Study also represents a providential opportunity to progress along the road of faith, because well-cultivated intelligence opens man’s heart to listening to the voice of God, highlighting the importance of discernment and humility.

But, Benedict cautions, in our time “there exists a race, sometimes a desperate race, toward appearance and possession at all costs, at the expense, unfortunately, of being.” For this reason, the Church never tires of exhorting people “to remain watchful and not to fear choosing ‘alternative’ paths which only Christ can indicate.” In the Catholic view, so well articulated by Benedict XVI, faith does not obliterate reason. Rather, it recognizes reason as good, relies on it for deeper understanding, and guides it to still greater heights.

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