Faith and Reason, Like Milk and Cookies, Are Better Together

The old comedy series “Get Smart” featured a gizmo called the cone of silence. It was a glass silo that descended upon a group who wanted to have a private conversation. It never worked very well. The information silos in which technology wishes to keep all of us imprisoned would be laughable too, if the consequences weren’t so terrible. When we allow ourselves to become trapped in a cone of silence, an echo chamber where all our opinions are reinforced and our intellect is never challenged, we become ideological tribes rather than Catholic communities.

This is not the place to analyze how human nature and technology, fake news and manipulated media have reinforced such cones of complacency that make those of us with a few wrinkles long for the days of Walter Cronkite, when we all got the same news supported by common facts. Rather, this is a space to simply suggest we recall our own Catholic heritage that insists that our faith is served by reason. And we can sin against our reason just as we can sin against our sexuality.

Faith and Reason

The secular organization called “The Foundation for Critical Thinking” lists eight valuable habits of the intellectual life. Curiously, the organization called the Holy Catholic Church also considers these same eight habits valuable in the pursuit of holiness. Such similarity between the secular and the sacred is possible because the intellectual and spiritual life support rather than oppose each other. As St. Athanasius teaches, “If the movement of the universe were irrational, and . . . random . . . one would be justified in disbelieving. . . . But if the world is founded on reason, wisdom and science . . . then it must owe its origin and order to none other than . . . God.”

The same God Who brought order out of chaos gave us reason to bring order out of the chaos of our concupiscence. Therefore, the intellectual and spiritual, like science and religion, should support each other. Reason serves faith and faith sanctifies reason. However, we often act as if the intellectual and spiritual did not necessarily and mutually reinforce each other. Thus, we do well to repent from the eight ways we do not use our intellect in the pursuit of holiness.

First, Humility

Humility acknowledges the limits of human understanding. A humble man knows that, due to our fallen nature, we all tend toward egocentrism, self-deception, bias, and prejudice. A proud man, however, presumes that his experience is universal, and therefore, the norm used to judge all other human experience.

Yet Scripture inspires humility. Recall St. Paul’s opposition to those who insisted that Gentiles accept the Mosaic Law? His opponents proudly insisted that their culture should be the norm for all other cultures. But no culture, language or race is holier than any other. How do we humbly acknowledge the biases and cultural blind spots we all have? Are we open to new insights from other cultures both past and present? Do we even associate with those who are of a different race, culture, or language in our work, neighborhood, or parish?

Second, Courage

Courage faces facts and perspectives that challenge us not only intellectually, but emotionally. A courageous man accepts that challenge; a coward, however, just goes along to get along. To whichever group he belongs, whether a company or a church, the coward’s desire to conform makes him cave in order feel accepted.

Yet Scripture inspires courage. Remember how unlike courageous St. Paul, St. Peter caved to those compatriots who wanted to impose their traditions on new Christians? It is cowardly to cave rather than confront decisions and actions we know are sinful just to feel accepted. How do we conform to rumor-mongering or complaining rather than champion facts and perspectives that might challenge such rumors and complaints? Have we the courage to confront gossip or inappropriate comments and jokes?

Third, Empathy

Empathy listens so well to the views and reasoning of others that we can accurately re-present them even when they differ from our own premises, assumptions, and ideas. An empathetic man disagrees without being disagreeable. A narcissist, however, is so self-absorbed he is threatened by any views contrary to his own.

Yet Scripture inspires empathy. Recall the walk to Emmaus? The disciples were wrong about everything, but because Jesus reacted with empathy, they invited Him into a relationship that finally revealed Him to them. Contempt rather than compassion for our opponents is unlikely to reveal God to them. Can we understand the opinion of a different political party with which we disagree, or appreciate the humanity of political opponents rather than demonize them?

Fourth, Autonomy

In in this context autonomy means mastery of our thought processes. We are entitled to our thoughts and feelings, but we are more than our thoughts and feelings. An autonomous man feels free to question, and analyze his thoughts and feelings. An immature man, however, so depends upon the way things have always been done that he cannot promote the expansion of new knowledge nor better applications and articulations of knowledge received.

Yet Scripture inspires autonomy or self-mastery. Remember Gamaliel’s advice to the Sanhedrin when they wanted to punish the apostles? He alone had the autonomy to advise waiting upon what seemed unorthodox: If it is purely human, it will fail. Can we master our thoughts and feelings so that, like Gamaliel, we don’t follow the mob mentality even when orthodoxy seems to be questioned? For example, how do we react when others question liturgical beliefs dear to us? Would not reason rather than rage be more helpful? As Bishop Sheen reminds us, our goal is not to win arguments, but souls.

Fifth, Integrity

Integrity is acting upon what we know to be true once we’ve tested those beliefs with the same accuracy with which we hold our opponents accountable. A man of integrity admits his inconsistencies in order to avoid hypocrisy. A hypocrite, however, does not hold himself accountable because he says one thing but does the opposite.

Yet Scripture inspires integrity. Recall the integrity of Nicodemus who held the Sanhedrin accountable to their own law when they judged Jesus: “Since when does our law condemn a man without first hearing him?” Nicodemus’ integrity, his insistence on carefully holding himself accountable to the same law as he applied it to others, is what allowed him to avoid the hypocrisy of many other Pharisees.

We all value logic and evidence: but how do we remind each other that we are accountable to the same logic and evidence with which we hold our opponents accountable? Do we admit our inconsistencies and learn from our mistakes, or play fast and loose with facts and logic in order to save face or win an argument?

Sixth, Perseverance

Perseverance pursues both faith and reason even when the process is time-consuming, ambiguous, confusing, and difficult or opposed by others. That is how a persevering man learns patience with others when they also find it difficult to come to the truth. A man of intellectual slothfulness, however, cannot lead anyone to a deeper appreciation of the faith.

Scripture inspires perseverance through Job, who wrestled with ambiguity, confusion, difficulty and opposition from others over the great question of why bad things happen to good people. Jonah, however, was impatient when good things happened to the bad people of Nineveh. When someone gets the promotion or raise we don’t think they deserve, are we, like Jonah, reluctant to think things through and instead wallow in irritation?

Seventh, Confidence

Confidence is the belief that reason rather than assumptions and ideologies serve the common good. Confident monks maintained libraries throughout the dark ages and medievals founded universities because they believed that humans can think clearly and logically despite the concupiscence which clouds our reason. Fundamentalists, however, distrust human reason.

Yet Scripture inspires such confidence through the example of the prophet Nathan. Consider the confidence required to confront your king who has already shown himself capable of murder! Recall how Nathan led David to repent not by criticism, but through questions and stories that led David to reason through to his own conclusions. Do we dominate conversations at table or online as if we are infallibly smarter and better informed than our peers? Would not a deeper discussion and stronger consensus emerge if we demonstrated confidence that where two or three are gathered in Jesus’ name, His wisdom will prevail?

Finally, Fairmindedness

Fairmindedness treats all people and their views justly despite our own feelings and vested interests or the feelings and interests of the clique to which we belong. Fairmindedness is the impartial adherence to intellectual standards without regard to our advantage or that of our group. An unjust man, however, deliberately misleads by taking things out of context or assuming the ill will of opponents.

Yet Scripture witnesses to the consequences of those who were not fair-minded: Remember when a group followed their feelings and vested interests to quote Christ out of context and accuse Him of conspiracies against government and religion? How are we manipulated by social media that does not fairly represent all sides? How do we avoid a technological bubble that promotes such a slanted agenda? Do we consume media that puts the least charitable interpretation on the motives of others? Are our Facebook and other posts thoughtful and fair to our opponents?

Conclusion

When we recognize our intellectual pride, cowardice, narcissism, immaturity, hypocrisy, slothfulness, distrust, and injustice, we can pray with St. Ignatius of Antioch not to “perish in our stupidity.” Or as my grandmother used to say: Use your head for more than lice or the devil will use it for misery and vice!

Fr. Kenneth G. Davis, OFM Conv. About Fr. Kenneth G. Davis, OFM Conv.

Conventual Franciscan Father Kenneth G. Davis is the visiting professor of spirituality at Saint Joseph Seminary College in Louisiana, who publishes frequently about various aspects of priestly spirituality and ministry.

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