Catholic Culture Resources
Catholic Culture Resources

Rational Justification of the Act of Faith

by Bishop Andre-Mutien Leonard

Description

Reflections on the Holy Father's Encyclical Fides et ratio.

Larger Work

L'Osservatore Romano

Pages

6-7

Publisher & Date

Vatican, March 3, 1999

The impasses of rationalism and fideism

One of the main concerns of the Encyclical Fides et ratio is to show that theology, as an explication of the intellectus fidei, needs the rational resources of philosophy. This is true for dogmatic theology and moral theology as a whole, but even more so for fundamental theology, whose task is to give an account of faith (cf. n. 67, citing 1 Pt 3:15) and thereby to justify and explain the relationship between faith and philosophical thought. This concern to justify faith in relation to the demands of reason enables fundamental theology to avoid the two pitfalls of fideism and rationalism denounced several times by the Encyclical (cf. nn. 45, 52-53, 55). While rationalism seeks to contain the fact and content of Revelation within the bounds of reason, as if man were necessarily the measure of the truth of faith, fideism, in holding that the truths of faith do not depend on any rational presupposition, thinks that the fact itself of Revelation requires no justification from reason, which makes faith purely a question of personal conviction.

The tasks of fundamental theology

Against the claims of rationalism, one of the tasks of fundamental theology is to show that the stance of faith, far from being opposed to a proper human autonomy can, on certain conditions, be perfectly reasonable. And in view of the excesses of fideism, it is the mission of fundamental theology to show that faith implies rational preconditions and to indicate how these can be established. We will examine these two points in succession, relying on several paragraphs of the Encyclical.

I. The reasonableness of faith

Interpersonal communication

There are many ways we can know what is going on inside another person. The most basic consists in the other person's spontaneous physical reactions to an external stimulus. This form of communication is never misleading, but. it is very limited. The other person's voluntary gestures, his expressions, are indeed more revealing, even if at times some deceit may creep in; through them I catch a glimpse of the other person's inner world. However, the most effective and subtle form of communication is the spoken language, words properly so called. By its supple, infinitely malleable nature, human language makes it possible to exchange experiences and ideas which no other mode of expression could convey, but it also allows for the worst of lies, since my conversation partner cannot normally verify from the outside the connection I make between my inner thoughts and the words I speak outwardly. That is why, for human beings, the most revealing language, i.e., the word, always takes the form of a personal testimony, namely, an assertion which cannot be directly verified from the outside, and so calls for a certain attitude of trust or faith on the part of the listener. What can we say, then, when someone starts to confide to us absolutely personal secrets about his intimate life! Basically, we can only "believe" in his "testimony", in the "revelation" of himself that he offers us, which we are incapable of completely verifying from the outside. Therefore, any authentically human communication is ultimately transrational, that is, it escapes exhaustive external verification. I must "believe" in the other's "testimony" and, generally, I have to be content with that. What a poor knowledge of others and the world I would be reduced to, if I were limited just to the knowledge I could acquire by my own resources!

Nevertheless, the trust I place in the other person must not be blind and, if I have reason to believe that he might be deceiving himself or deceiving me, I must make the few limited verifications accessible to me from the outside, by cross-checking, for example, with other sources of information. Thus any interpersonal "revelation" calls for a transrational attitude of "faith" in a "testimony", but at the same time, to be worthy of our reason as well as of the other person's freedom, this "trust" must be enlightened, and, basing itself on "reasons to believe", it must also be rational.

Word of God, Revelation and faith

How could it be any different, analogously, on the level of religious faith? Some people seem surprised that an act of faith is required in a matter that so vitally concerns the destiny of man and of the world. Rightly so, because ultimately it is only the existentially insignificant (such as an elementary physical observation or a mathematical proposition) that is absolutely verifiable by reason. However, when we enter the highly important realm of existential communication between individuals, a certain trust in the other person's revealing word must come into play, if I want to have access to this type of information. What can we say, then, if it is God who is speaking! If the word which testifies to itself in history is not only that of a man, but is the Word of an absolute Person, infinitely more mysterious and unfathomable than a human person, why should we be surprised that we must "believe" in order to accept this incomparable "testimony" and to enrich our mind with this "revealed truth"? If religion has meaning, it can only be based on a transrational faith, since its transrational nature is precisely the sign, not of its poverty, but much more of its truth.

However, faith in a religious revelation must be both enlightened and reasonable, just as I must have reasons to trust another person and sometimes consider it preferable to verify what he says, if possible. Of course, if God exists and if he "speaks" to us in history, he could neither deceive himself nor deceive us, otherwise he would not really be God. But God does not "speak" to me directly and his existence is not immediately evident. Complex signs show me that he exists, and there are sometimes very well developed human testimonies (the Church, the Magisterium, Tradition, Scripture, etc.) which claim that he speaks to us in history. To be worthy of the human intellect, all this requires verification whenever possible. Certainly, I cannot verify interiorly the Word of God who opens himself freely to me, but I must have reasons to think that God has communicated the impenetrable mystery of his most intimate life to me in a particular event (the choice of Israel, the life of Jesus, etc.).

It is here that fundamental theology begins its second task. But, before pointing out several of its elements, I would like to show how what I have just said about its first task is presented concisely but eloquently in nn. 28-35 of Fides et ratio.

The reasonableness of faith and 'Fides et ratio"

Despite the darkness, in other words, the inconsistencies and evasions, John Paul II explains, man is always a seeker of truth. Now, a search so deeply rooted could not be vain, because in its depths nature does nothing in vain (Aristotle). It is as though truth were saying to whoever seeks it tirelessly: "You would not be looking for me had you not already found me" (Pascal). In the drive that motivates it, the quest for truth receives the guarantee of its possible outcome, or better, of its success. This is what Blondel developed so well in his logic of action.

Whether it is a question of the truths of immediate experience or of scientific truth, of religious or philosophical doctrines, of carefully developed philosophical thought or of an existentially lived idea, the search for truth is always accompanied by an act of faith. In fact, as a social being, man is incapable of verifying and ascertaining everything by himself; at every level he must put enlightened trust in the testimony of others and in his cultural tradition. A seeker of truth, man is, by that very reason, the one who lives by belief.

Obviously, there will be inevitable tension here. Knowledge through belief, without personal evidence of the truth, seems an imperfect knowledge. But in other respects, what human wealth is found in the grace of knowing, not through self-sufficient evidence or proof, but in the gratitude of an interpersonal relationship marked by trust! Especially when it is a question of the essential truths of life which concern the person's inner depths. This is how, by resisting all our temptations to rational self-sufficiency, the martyrs bear witness to the truth, inspiring in us an absolute trust in the living word of their suffering and death.

Therefore, the human quest for truth not only seeks the attainment of partial truths, immediately useful truths, it also strives for an absolute truth whose accessibility is guaranteed by the intrinsic capacities of thought. Since it is vital for human existence, this ultimate truth will be reached not only by pure reason, but also by enlightened trust in the testimony of others. Ancient philosophers, starting with Plato and Aristotle, had already perceived that reason itself is not self-sufficient and needs the trusting dialogue of friendship, if it is to succeed in its search. Here — and this is crucial — Christian faith offers man the unexpected opportunity to see the success of this twofold search for an absolute truth and for a person whom he can fully trust in order to discover it. Jesus comes to us as man's true friend who can broaden his reason and, in the mutual trust of revelation and faith, open the way for his mind and heart to approach the mystery. Through interpersonal communion with Christ, man is offered a true and coherent knowledge of the Triune God.

In the second chapter, after having shown that faith expands the human intellect and makes it fruitful (credo ut intellegam), the Encyclical then establishes that the intellect can only succeed in its quest through an act of trust or faith (intellego ut credam). Reason's whole quest is thus enclosed in the stimulating brackets of faith. In this context, we can see that, despite the distinction of orders, the truth revealed in Jesus Christ and the truth reached rationally through philosophy can only be one and the same, since they share the same original Source. The ultimate unity of truth, moreover, is a fundamental postulate of human reason. We could even say that the unity of natural and revealed truth is in some way personified in Christ, in so far as he is, among us and in history, the humanly visible presence of the Eternal Word in whom all things were created.

After this rapid summary of the teaching of Fides et ratio on the reasonableness of the act of faith in general, we can say a word about the second task of fundamental theology, which is to explore the rational presuppositions which concretely justify faith in Christian Revelation. For if rationalism is wrong to suspect the act of faith a priori of sinning against the autonomy of reason, to accept the idea and event of divine Revelation in Christ without sufficient reasons would be to fall into fideism. Thus real faith has rational presuppositions often referred to in tradition as the praeambula fidei: the "preambles of faith".

II. The rational preambles of faith

Importance of a rational justification of the act of faith

While surpassing the natural capacities of the human mind, faith is not and cannot be a "leap into the void", an irrational impulse. The act of faith transcends the limits of our reason, but at the same time it must be rational, that is, worthy of reason, if it is to be genuinely human. Otherwise faith would no longer be a salutary opening and surpassing of our limited reason, but would be wrongly confused with the denial of reason as such; it would no longer mean the broadening of reason, but its suppression.

This is why, given that "by faith, man freely commits his entire self to God, making the 'full submission of his intellect and will to God who reveals', and willingly assenting to the Revelation given by him",[1] God has wished to provide the historical revelation of his truth with "outward evidence" and "unmistakable signs", which are so "adapted to the understanding of all" that "the homage of our faith may be in conformity with reason".[2] In brief, "even if faith is superior to reason",[3] the act of faith involves man's freedom and requires the responsible and conscious use of all his capacities of adherence: "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength" (Mk 12:30).

The rational presuppositions of faith

If we extend this problem beyond the "signs of Revelation", we recognize that, independently of faith, reason can recognize a substantial number of basic truths about man, about the world and about God through his capacity for reflection as much as through his search for ultimate explanations. These truths as a whole constitute a condition of possibility for faith itself. How can we believe that God reveals himself to us in history, unless we have already recognized that he exists, that he is an intelligent and free being who can reveal himself, that man is capable of deciphering his Word, etc.? These, then, are the "preambles of faith". It is these truths, in themselves accessible to natural reason, which are logically presupposed by faith, since they are conditions of possibility for recognizing the very fact of Revelation and for accepting its content. It is in this sense that "right reason demonstrates the foundations of faith".[4] Among these rational affirmations, which are also presuppositions of faith, we must especially mention the existence of a personal God who can reveal himself,[5] the recognition of the fact itself of Revelation and the development of the motives of credibility which testify to its divine origin in the eyes of reason,[6] the ability of the human intellect to know the truth and express it, whether it is truth in general or the truth of Revelation in particular, and, lastly, on the moral level, the capacity for discovering the great principles of the natural law inscribed by the Creator in the human heart.[7] Among these preambles of faith, some are purely and simply metaphysical and can even be developed without any contact with Revelation: this is the case with the general knowledge of God's existence based on the created world or the intellect's ability to know what is true. This does not mean that it is easy to establish them rationally. Others, while being intrinsically rational, could only have been developed from contact with Revelation and are a result of the apologetics of the Christian faith; this is the case with the demonstration of the fact of Revelation in Christ, or the capacity of the human intellect to accept and express revealed truth. But, regardless of these distinctions, it should be noted that "on these various questions, reason precedes faith and must lead us to it".[8]

The preambles of faith in 'Fides et ratio'

John Paul II touches on the question of the preambles of faith when he discusses the mission of fundamental theology in n. 67 of Fides et ratio. These reflections can be summarized as follows.

Specifically charged with giving an account of faith, fundamental theology has the more particular task of explaining the relationship between faith and philosophical thought, since there are naturally and hence philosophically knowable truths, the knowledge of which constitutes a presupposition for accepting divine Revelation. This is the case, for example, with the natural knowledge of God, the criteria for identifying Revelation and showing its credibility, the capacity of human language to express what transcends experience, etc. The philosophical treatment of all these questions is a necessary propaedeutic path to dogmatic theology, and up to a certain point, to faith itself. Although faith is not based on reason, it cannot do without it, and theology, a fortiori, could not effectively fulfil its mission without using the resources of philosophical reason.

All the Magisterium's earlier teaching on this question is condensed in this paragraph. Above all we can discern in it a realistic and lucid trust in reason, which balances Catholic doctrine in its dialogue with philosophy. We have been able to show this on one point, that of man on his way towards faith and of the connection between natural belief and the acceptance of Revelation. However, it can be perceived in every chapter of this Encyclical. This is what, among its other merits, will make it valuable both for the theologian and the philosopher.

Endnotes

1 Cf. Vatican II's Constitution Dei Verbum, n. 5, citing the Constitution Dei Filius of Vatican I (DS 3008).

2 Cf. Constitution Dei Filius (DS 3009).

3 DS 3017.

4 DS 3019.

5 DS 3004 and Pius XII, Encyclical Humani generis (DS 3875, 3890).

6 Cf. Pius IX, Encyclical Qui pluribus (DS 2779) and Human! generis (DS 3876).

7 Cf. DS 3875-3876 and Vatican II's Constitution Gaudium et spes, nn. 16 and 89.

8 A proposition which Bautain, one of the principal representatives of fideism, was required to sign in 1840 (DS 2755).

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