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On Faith, Reason and Proper Method

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Jul 06, 2012

Here is Bishop William Poynter’s (1762-1827) fine explanation of how different approaches to truth complement each other, in particular the proper uses of both faith and reason. This delightful extract comes from Fr. Saward’s anthology of The Spiritual Tradition of Catholic England:


Nothing can be more unreasonable than to seek the certain knowledge of truths and facts by means which are not naturally and specifically adapted to the object of inquiry; or to deny the truth of any doctrine, or the existence of any fact, because it cannot be demonstrated, or established by arguments or testimonies, which have no analogy or connection with them. Would it be reasonable, to deny the metaphysical doctrines of the spirituality or immortality of the soul, because they cannot be proved by the testimony of the senses? Or to deny that the battle of Hastings was ever fought, or that there ever existed such a person as William the Conqueror, because these historical facts cannot be demonstrated like a mathematical problem, by lines and angles? Or to deny the existence of colour because it cannot be perceived by the [ear; or of sound because it cannot be perceived by the] eye? To attempt to prove such objects by such means, would be to pervert the order of nature, and to subvert the grounds of certitude ....

Is then the light of reason to be extinguished by revelation? Is the total exercise of natural reason to be prohibited in the search of religious truths? No, certainly not. The truths which are the objects of reason and of revelation are distinct, and are grounded on distinct motives of assent. Reason and revelation have their separate provinces, in which they may respectively exercise their rights.

Revelation leaves reason free to range over the vast field of nature and to pursue the study of natural and moral truth by the principles of natural science. Revelation brings a new light to the human mind, by infusing a sublime knowledge of supernatural truths and by giving additional testimony, perfection, and sanction to the truths and precepts of the moral law of nature. But revelation opposes no obstacle to discoveries and improvements in the natural sciences. Indeed, have not civilization and literature been introduced into many countries by those who introduced the belief of the doctrines of revelation? Has not reason been improved, to the highest degree, in minds enlightened with the knowledge of revealed truths? Were an Origen, a St Chrysostom, a St Augustine, a St Jerome, in former ages; or a Bossuet, a Fenelon, a Pascal, a Descartes, in later times, impeded in the improvement of their natural talents, or in the acquisition of natural sciences, by their belief of the doctrines of revelation? Have not the ministers and professors of revealed religion been the greatest encouragers and promoters of the arts and sciences in all ages? Revelation, as well as good sense, commends the use and condemns the misuse of the powers of reason.

In the search of religious and revealed truths, reason is by no means prohibited the use and exercise of her powers, provided she employ them about those objects, which lie within her proper jurisdiction, and she do not wander out of her own province. But if reason attempt to demonstrate the truth or falsehood of the doctrines and mysteries of revelation, by discussing the intrinsic nature of the objects of these doctrines and mysteries, or by philosophical arguments drawn from self-evident principles of natural science, with which they have no connection, reason does go out of her province. She acts unreasonably, by attempting to demonstrate that by intrinsic evidence, which is not the object of it; any more than colour is the object of the ear, or sound of the eye, or the existence of an historical fact is the object of a mathematical demonstration.


Note: The bracketed words in the first paragraph were inadvertently dropped in the Saward anthology; their insertion here restores the proper sense. For more on this topic from Blessed John Henry Newman, who lived a generation after Bishop Poynter, see my commentary The Hammer and the Nail.

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  • Posted by: Justin8110 - Jul. 07, 2012 8:41 PM ET USA

    I guess I agree with the late Russian philosopher Ivan Kireyevsky that a large reason behind the West's massive apostasy has been because it has deified reason and forgotten faith. Faith ought to come first. I think there is a reason why our Lord said that we must become as little children to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. I've seen many lose the faith by thinking too much rather than just believing.

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