Why should faith have primacy over reason?

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Sep 13, 2013

In my review of Fr. Martin Tripole’s excellent book, Church in Crisis (Church in Crisis: What is wrong? Why? Can we fix it? How?), I mentioned that I would return to his insight that we must reunite faith and reason. In fact, to escape the current crisis in the Church (and, to be sure, in Western civilization as a whole), we must stop viewing faith as subordinate to reason, and instead restore the primacy of faith over reason.

The most important single text on this subject is Pope John Paul II’s 1998 encyclical Fides et Ratio (Faith and Reason), though it is not necessary to parse the encyclical to gain a basic grasp of the problem. In the Catholic tradition which formed Western civilization, faith and reason have worked together in a powerful and dynamic relationship, but the very dynamism of this relationship presupposes the primacy of faith. I wish to explain why.

It is not as if faith is to be embraced without reason. Saint Peter counseled Christians from the beginning that they must be always ready with a reason for the hope that is in them (cf. 1 Pet 3:15). It would be not only unproductive but extremely foolish to embrace a “faith” that is irrational, that will not withstand a serious examination of the grounds of one’s belief. But the modern world goes very far wrong when it equates the irrational with the super-rational. The most important questions of life typically yield only partially or not at all to reason. Human reason is a limited tool.

Lessons from History

As a matter of historical record, the response of those who are too proud to submit themselves to any sort of god is to define as non-existent whatever is beyond reason. Thus the modern world has progressively fallen into the conviction that there is no non-material reality, which means that all religious conviction is really nothing but sentiment, which lacks any objective basis. But clearly a being which is purely material can never prove the non-existence of the spiritual, and in fact man’s sense that he is a combination of the spiritual and the material—that he has important aspirations beyond the material, and that his happiness is bound up with non-material questions of ultimate meaning—has, over time, led to a substantial body of rational argument in favor of the spiritual. I note in passing that such argument would be utterly impossible unless, in fact, man did have a spiritual dimension.

In contrast, the assumption that there is no such thing as the spiritual is completely gratuitous—a misguided choice to close the mind to the full scope of reality. This assumption also tends to close us off from the wide variety of ways in which the human person comes to conviction. We moderns tend to take one of two positions—or even both at the same time, in different compartments of our lives. On the one hand, we insist that nothing can be known except through reason; and on the other, we have so much experience with conflicting arguments that we despair of reason and assume (within whatever limits are fashionable at the time) that people ought to be free to think and do whatever they want. Thus do the purely rational invariably end up as slaves to their own pride and passions.

The most important study of how the human person acquires conviction—and the most important defense of that peculiarly human process against mere rationalism—is Blessed John Henry Newman’s Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent. Suffice it to say that experience, testimony, authority, reason, explanatory power, and a certain sense of fitness all (among other things) lead to our convictions, and a broad combination of considerations and reflections secure those convictions. As human persons, of course, we are fallible. We can make errors no matter how we proceed. But this method is natural to us, and is far more reliable than pure reason, which very frequently leads us astray—as a million ongoing arguments demonstrate daily. The point here is that the human person was designed to perceive things whole, not just under their scientific or even their rational aspects, and when we rule out anything but one form of reasoning based on material evidence, we truncate not only our response to reality but our very conception of reality itself.

Open to Reality

Newman judged that the most powerful argument for God was found in the conscience of each person, our innate sense that there is a difference between good and evil, and that we live under a judgment based on how we choose. This presupposes not only a law but a lawgiver and a judge. And if this Judge (who can only be God) really does care about how we act (as conscience tells us), then it is unreasonable to suppose that He would not communicate His will more clearly to us through some Revelation. The most basic task of human life, therefore, is to seek that Revelation, verify it, and draw from it the meaning of life.

Or, as Pope John Paul put it in Fides et Ratio:

It is unthinkable that a search so deeply rooted in human nature would be completely vain and useless. The capacity to search for truth and to pose questions itself implies the rudiments of a response. Human beings would not even begin to search for something of which they knew nothing or for something which they thought was wholly beyond them. Only the sense that they can arrive at an answer leads them to take the first step. This is what normally happens in scientific research. When scientists, following their intuition, set out in search of the logical and verifiable explanation of a phenomenon, they are confident from the first that they will find an answer, and they do not give up in the face of setbacks. They do not judge their original intuition useless simply because they have not reached their goal; rightly enough they will say that they have not yet found a satisfactory answer.
The same must be equally true of the search for truth when it comes to the ultimate questions. The thirst for truth is so rooted in the human heart that to be obliged to ignore it would cast our existence into jeopardy. Everyday life shows well enough how each one of us is preoccupied by the pressure of a few fundamental questions and how in the soul of each of us there is at least an outline of the answers. One reason why the truth of these answers convinces is that they are no different in substance from the answers to which many others have come. To be sure, not every truth to which we come has the same value. But the sum of the results achieved confirms that in principle the human being can arrive at the truth. [#29]

The human person who is open to a revelation and seeks to discern it will come to the conviction that he has found an authentic revelation through a variety of means. His decision to embrace it must be rationally defensible, even if he himself is not yet able to mount that defense, but he will not necessarily proceed by any strict method of rational analysis. At some point he will embrace it as certain based on the confluence of a wide variety of evidence, including (as I mentioned) personal experience, testimony, authority, reason, explanatory power, and a certain sense of fitness. It is at this point that he is said to put his faith in it. And my main point in this particular essay is that once a person has come to faith, it is faith that must have the primacy in the relationship between faith and reason.

Reasons for the Primacy of Faith

This does not mean that reason cannot be used to purify faith, to clarify our understanding of the Revelation on which faith is based, to strip away our personal inconsistencies in embracing it, to draw related conclusions from it, to challenge and solidify its grounds or even to demonstrate that the grounds are inadequate. Not for nothing is Catholic theology described as “faith seeking understanding”. But it does mean that only when faith has the primacy is human perception (including human reason) opened effectively to all of reality.

I say “effectively” because there are so many aspects of reality which reason cannot penetrate without assistance. Reason can, of course, conclude that God necessarily exists, that the human person is a created being, and that we must have souls—even immortal souls. But reason can know next to nothing about God and His purposes, and only a little about our own ends and our own happiness. In contrast, the very purpose of the Revelation we so rightly expect must be to shed light on precisely these things. Thus only faith can effectively leap over the barriers to truth which have been more or less deliberately erected in the so-called modern age. For only the fool says in his heart that there is no God (Ps 14:1; Ps 53:1).

Moreover, faith can do more by its primacy than simply open us to all of reality. It can also correct the inevitable tendency of reason to degenerate into relativism. This is one thing that we moderns should be able to appreciate more than those in many other ages. Simply by emphasizing reason to the exclusion of all else, we have found that arguments never cease, that nothing can ever be settled, that progress on questions of human worth and human meaning and human morality grinds to a halt, and that in the end we can affirm nothing except through the exercise of power. But faith, which is accepted on the authority of God revealing, is the most certain of all forms of knowledge. When it has primacy in its relationship with reason, it can correct the wrong turns that reason sometimes takes, and unify human study around fixed principles which keep our quest for knowledge on track.

In contrast, when reason is given primacy in the continual interaction between faith and reason, all of the self-evident dangers of modernity emerge: the tendency to make man rather than God the measure of all things; the refusal to accept the reality of anything human reason cannot penetrate; the splintering of the ultimate unity of all branches of study; the tendency to settle for information instead of meaning; the erosion of common principles; the frustration of constant disagreement; the resulting descent into chronic doubt, relativism and despair; and even the paradoxical rise of superstition, ideology and fanaticism.

Other Factors

It is telling that Fr. Tripole proposes as the second point of his solution to the crisis of the Church that we must restore the unity of the Church in Christ. He quite properly begins by explaining that the source of the Church’s unity is found in the Eucharist: The real body of Christ forms the mystical body of Christ. But he also understands that the primacy of Faith must be at work here as well. The success of the mission of the Church depends almost completely on its unity. Disunity splinters and undermines not only the clarity of the message and the mission effort itself but even the credibility of those who properly and fully represent the Church. After all, if even Catholics cannot agree among themselves (or, in a wider sphere, even Christians), why should anyone pay attention to the truth claims implicit in the primacy of faith?

In addition to grace and love, the unity of the Church demands intellectual fidelity—intellectual faithfulness. No religion can foster a deep intellectual unity without both a clear Revelation and an authority principle to interpret that Revelation. The Church has that principle in the successors of Peter, who are the chief servants of unity. When Catholics fall prey to the primacy of reason, they judge the content of Revelation and the Magisterium itself according to their own lights. When they accept the primacy of faith, they take advantage of Revelation and the Magisterium to guide their reason in matters which reason cannot fathom on its own. Restoring the primacy of faith, therefore, is the first and most important intellectual step toward the unity of the Church and the effectiveness of Christian mission.

Once we are in the realm of Christian faith, of course, we are not speaking simply of an intellectual commitment. Faith is a supernatural gift which is given to the person as a theological virtue in the soul. We believe with Divine power, and we must recall here that man has not only more but higher ways to know than through reason alone.

However, to step back from more lofty considerations, what we are discussing primarily in this essay is faith in God according to a Revelation which can actually withstand serious human scrutiny, including rational scrutiny. There is no question of falling into a facile credulity, unworthy of the dignity of a being who possesses not only will but intellect. Faith and reason go hand-in-hand in both the human mind and the human soul. But for man to be open to all of reality, for man to be fully himself, faith in Christ, experienced through the unity and the mission of His Church, must have the primacy.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: bnewman - Sep. 15, 2013 11:40 AM ET USA

    Excellent and timely article,Jeff. “Thus the modern world has progressively fallen into the conviction that there is no non-material reality, which means that all religious conviction is really nothing but sentiment, which lacks any objective basis.” Quite right. We might also add that it could be argued that on the same basis the capacity of a human being to reason also lacks an objective basis. Thus science itself must also be an illusion, as Nietzsche finally argues, leading to nihilism.