Faith Needs Philosophy: A Primer on the Relationship between Reason and Revelation

The great philosophers that preceded the Judeo-Christian Revelation demonstrated many of the truths about God and the faith that are affirmed in Scripture, and are what St. Thomas calls the preambles of faith.

 

I recently had a brief conversation with a former colleague of mine who is Catholic, and who wanted to inquire about certain aspects of the faith that she was struggling with. She mentioned to me that, while she goes to Mass on Sundays and “has faith,” she nevertheless expressed a desire that there was more “proof,” or evidence, for the truths of the faith. This question regarding the “evidence” of faith is at the heart of Catholicism, where the great synthesis between reason and revelation is fully and fruitfully discovered. Even though my former colleague does not have a particular fondness for philosophy, she is a philosopher nonetheless, because, in fact, she does have a philosophy, whether it is implicit or explicit. Pope John Paul II taught that every person is a philosopher, for everyone seeks to know the ultimate meaning of life and ponders why there is a world or a human nature that is just “there” without our creating it, or being involved in its manifestation.

Religious talks are often disconcerting, due to the fact that religion is frequently understood to be “private, non-rational, and unverifiable,” whereas science is public, rational, and verifiable. The truths of religion are based on the supposition that they do not have any connection with objective reality. This idea unfortunately leads to an intellectual dualism, as well as a philosophical and moral perspective, which cannot intelligently and reasonably show that we are all apart of the same world, the same reality. Our tendency in these matters is to perceive of science and religion as two separate categories of human experience and cognition. This reductionistic conception of the relationship between science and religion sees science as the study of the empirical constitution of the universe, while religion is the search for ethical value and spiritual meaning.

Catholicism, unlike other religions (excluding Judaism) and certain philosophic traditions, proposes something quite different. The ultimate questions: Who am I? Where am I going? Does God exist? Why is there evil? Pre-suppose definitive answers. Aristotle remarks in the beginning of the Metaphysics that all humans desire to know, and what we desire to know is what it means to be fully human. If these questions didn’t have answers that we could know, then we would not ask them. If life had no definitive, intelligible purpose, then it would be completely absurd to seek an answer or meaning to it. The Austrian psychiatrist, Viktor Frankl, would always begin his therapy sessions with the same question that prompted Jean Paul Sartre’s philosophical inquiry: “what is preventing you from killing yourself?” A disturbing starting point, but it is only when we admit that there is a meaning and order to existence that we will come to know it, and hopefully, delight in it.

Catholicism teaches that we can know certain things of God through the natural light of reason (i.e., that God exists, that he is all-powerful, that God is the cause of all things, that he is one, that he is simple, etc.). The great philosophers that preceded the Judeo-Christian Revelation demonstrated many of the truths about God and the faith that are affirmed in Scripture, and are what St. Thomas calls the preambles of faith. However, the Church also teaches that there are truths about God and about ourselves that can only be known through God’s self-revelation, or rather, God telling us (i.e., that God is a Trinity, that Jesus Christ is fully God and fully man, that we are destined to enjoy eternal life with him). Someone cannot intellectually construe these truths, which are the articles of faith, since they exceed human reason’s capacity and limitedness. Without the light of faith, nobody could conceive of God being a Trinity of persons that are fully distinct and yet completely one. Without Revelation, we could not conceive Jesus Christ being fully God and fully man. It is for this reason that the Church has such a great interest in philosophy. Through philosophical inquiry, we can ponder the truths about faith and come to understand them more fully, even though we will not understand them completely until the life hereafter.

St. Thomas Aquinas taught that the truths man could know are not just the heritage of the philosophers, but of anyone that is born into the human race. Philosophic truths are often based upon what one already knows through his experience of the world around him. One need not be a professional philosopher to discover this. In fact, being a professional philosopher could be detrimental to this realization. The certitude of man’s confidence in knowing the world outside of his own mind, and the confidence that what we know about the external world is actually true, is the great patrimony of perennial philosophy. Ralph McInerny once commented that the scandal of the history of philosophy “was not that so many said false things so much as that they have all believed there were true things to say” (Characters in Search of Their Author, 41).

Catholicism provides immense clarity in distinguishing between the orders of knowledge and belief. One hindrance towards a better understanding of these two terms is that they are most often used interchangeably, almost as if they were synonymous with each other. Knowledge and belief are vital to helping possess a better grasp of the truths of faith, and ultimately deepen our gratitude towards God and the Church. St. Thomas provides the most thorough and simple explication of the distinction between knowledge (science), belief, and opinion in the De Veritate, Q. 14, A. 1 and 2. What follows is a rather brief exposition of Aquinas’s position, so one should rather consult what he says as primary and understand that what I have written is merely a primer.

When I profess knowledge of something, I am proposing that the opposite or contradictory of this particular knowledge is to be rejected as false. For example, if I say that I know 2 + 2 = 4, then I am also saying at the same time that 2 + 2 does not equal 5 or anything else. Knowledge rules out all opposites and contradictions with certitude. Opinions, on the other hand, leave open the opposite position as possibly true. If you said, “In my opinion, Brian Jones is the best looking guy in the Woodlands, Texas,” you leave open the reality that I could be the ugliest, or that someone is still better looking than I. Opinion can become knowledge, but cannot be equated with it, nor can true knowledge ever become opinion.

Belief, for many people, means something opposite or contrary to knowledge, as if all belief is simply irrational, a sheer act of the will. This is frequently the case in Protestant conceptions of faith, whereby faith is not a light produced in the intellectual faculty, but reduced to sheer willing. However, belief is always rooted in knowledge and presupposed by it. Here, one could think of a husband and wife as they exchange vows on their wedding day. While professing, “I promise to be faithful to you in sickness and in health, good times and bad,” is it the case that the wife-to-be knows with certitude that this is true? No, she cannot. She has to trust and believe that I will be faithful to my promises. Furthermore, this wedding imagery clearly protects one from any notion of faith as being blind or a mere leap in the dark. If this were marriage number five for me, it would be contrary to common sense for my wife to say, “I know he means it, this time.” Past history and experience profess otherwise.

As an infused habit of the mind by which eternal life begins in us, faith is that which makes the intellect assent to things that are not apparent. The object of faith is that which is absent from man’s understanding, since his reason cannot lead him to see the things that pertain to faith. The doctrines of the Trinity, Incarnation, and the forgiveness of sins are such that they are proposed to man for belief. I am unable to understand these truths because they transcend the scope of natural reason. When my former students approach me and tell me that they want to be chemists or engineers, they often remind me that they finally have come to understand what I taught them. Although I frequently confused them because of my own inabilities, they recognized that they no longer believe what I told them: they know it themselves. This is why Aquinas concludes that it is impossible to have faith and knowledge about the same thing and at the same time.

These reflections have brought us back to the initial question proposed by my colleague: where is the evidence for the truths of the faith? Her inquiry is one that hopefully all of us pose, at some point or other, since it rests upon the integral connection between philosophy and theology, faith and reason. Much to the dismay of many contemporary philosophies and philosophers, Catholics need not put aside their antecedent intellectual convictions that are a result of their faith. Rather, we ought to rejoice and be confident in our ability to philosophandum in fide, that of philosophizing in the faith. Philosophy need not be a hindrance to the faith, but will be a key component to the New Evangelization, a point that Pope John Paul II stressed in Fides et Ratio.  It is the Church that is constantly reaffirming that the truths of the philosophical and theological order are distinct and of their own order, but nevertheless come from the same source. The healing of man and culture will ultimately come about through a restoration of the unity between faith and reason. When the Christian faith is authentic,

It does not diminish freedom and human reason; so, why should faith and reason fear one another if the best way for them to express themselves is by meeting and entering into dialogue? Faith presupposes reason and perfects it, and reason, enlightened by faith, finds the strength to rise to knowledge of God and spiritual realities. Human reason loses nothing by opening itself to the content of faith, which, indeed, requires its free and conscious adherence. (Pope Benedict XVI, Angelus Address on the Feast of St. Thomas Aquinas, January 28, 2007)

 

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avatar About Brian Jones

Brian Jones graduated from the Franciscan University with an M.A. in theology. He taught seventh grade science at Entrepreneurship Preparatory School in Cleveland, Ohio. He is currently a Ph.D. candidate in philosophy at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. He is married to Michelle, and they have one daughter, Therese Maria.

Comments

  1. avatar Greg Stone says:

    Thoughtful analysis. One aspect of the discussion that seemed absent, however, is the idea that one can know in a mystical manner. In other words, while there are limits to naturalistic knowledge, to knowledge arising from the senses, as spiritual beings, as souls endowed with the image of God, our ability to know extents beyond the limits of naturalism. Therefore, mystical knowledge and its component revelation bring knowledge and faith into unity. This additional aspect of knowledge, that moves faith farther down field than naturalistic science likes to admit, must be taken into account in any in-depth discussion of faith and reason. A philosophy that omits the mystical aspect of our faith life fails to be a philosophy compatible with our Catholic faith.

  2. avatar Brian Jones says:

    Hi Greg,

    Thanks for the kind words. You are exactly right on this notion of needing an understanding of mystical knowledge. A treatment of such an essential topic, especially in light of the relationship between faith and reason, would need to be much more exhaustive, or perhaps, given a treatment all on its own. I would highly recommend Jacques Maritain’s Degrees of Knowledge, which is rightly considered to be his best work. While the mystical element would surely fit in well with my overall thesis, it is not part of the limited aim of my essay. More fundamentally, I am concerned with the rapid decline of a genuine philosophical reason since the end of Vatican II, but which has been an essential hallmark of the Catholic intellectual tradition. Our Catholic universities, schools, and institutes of formation have given too little emphasis on this integral connection between philosophy and theology, a unity which is really at the heart of Catholicism. I would definitely recommend Ed Feser’s recent lecture at Thomas Aquinas College, “What We Owe the New Atheists”: http://www.thomasaquinas.edu/news/lecture-dr-edward-feser-what-we-owe-new-atheists

    Nevertheless, I wholeheartedly agree with your last sentence: “A philosophy that omits the mystical aspect of our faith life fails to be a philosophy compatible with our Catholic faith.” According to all the Popes since the 14th century, Aquinas has not only been considered the philosopher exemplar, but theologian as well. Aquinas’ mysticism has been well documented, and is beautifully revealed in his mystical vision at the end of his life, where our Lord asked St. Thomas what he desired for having written so well of him: “Nothing other than Thee, Lord.” Or, we could consider the following account of St. Thomas’ reputation as a man of profound contemplation and prayer: “Every time that he wished to study, to undertake a dispute, to teach, to write or dictate, he first withdrew into secret prayer and prayed pouring out tears, in order to obtain understanding of the divine mysteries” ( Jean-Pierre Torrell, Saint Thomas Aquinas: The Person and His Work, Trans. Robert Royal, p. 284).

    Hopefully, one can see that for Thomas, philosophy is not in opposition to mysticism. And the Church is quite aware of this. I would venture to say that a genuine revival of the philosophy and theology of St. Thomas will surely coalesce with a renewal of mysticism, sanctity, a deeper focus on the Gifts of the Holy Spirit, Evangelization, etc. This is not to say that all these spiritual fruits will come about only with a return to St. Thomas, but it is a darn good starting point.

    Thanks again for the good points you brought up Greg!

  3. avatar Martin B. Drew says:

    Thank you Mr. Jones for this thoughtful paper of metaphysics, faith , reason, freedom of mankind, Aristotle, and St. Thomas Aquinas. St Pope John Paul II would like it since in academic Philosophy he stated I Man, in his paper on the power of the human person . For many years in the seminary in Poland of Lublin the seminarians are given a repetition of their classes in the college department in their last two years as candidates for the priesthood and deacons. This is to strengthen their classes in Moral theology situations, Sacraments and Canon Law. so that their priestly ministry can be strong with One should not fear the study of metaphysics and Philosophy. Jacque Maritain wrote a volume on Concepts among other volumes I have studied. St. Thomas Aquinas used Aristotle’s Metaphysics to assist him in teaching and forming his Suma Contra Gentiles and Summa at the U of Padua and the U of Paris. It is fortunate that I have obtained the licentiate from UD in Theology and Scripture. Kudos to you for your paper.

  4. avatar Dion F Kendrick says:

    We should also state to our “rational” secularist foes that God is a rational God; not disinterested or capricious. The proof is in His creative relationships that physics reveals through His language of mathematics which our rational minds (made in His image and likeness) discerned.

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