Faith and Reason

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What sets man apart from the animals is his intellectual faculty (his reason). Reason is defined as man’s ability to know and understand through judgment. Judgment is our aid to making distinctions between things. Making these distinctions helps us define things; we know what a thing is by defining it. For example, I know that a tree is not a rock because rocks don’t grow, are not made up of woods and leaves, and they do not bear fruit. Likewise, I know that a tree is not a monkey, since monkeys have arms and legs, have vocal cords, and often times climb trees. By distinguishing trees from other things, I can say what trees are not. By comparing trees with other things like it (other trees), I can say what a tree is according to a universal consensus. Thus, I can make my definition. As humans, we make distinctions naturally because humans are intellectual beings.

Man has, therefore, been able to distinguish himself from the rest of the world and has come to know he has a unique role in it; what this uniqueness is has been the question of history. History testifies to man’s inquisitiveness as he has asked the same common questions through times and cultures: Who am I? What is my purpose here? What, if anything, happens after death? For “All men by nature desire to know” (Aristotle,Metaphysics, Book 1, Part 1). Philosophy (or science), by way of reason, has attempted with much success at the answers to these questions (i.e. that God exists, that we are moral beings, that we and the rest of nature have a purpose [teleology], that we are social beings, etc.); yet science does not have all the answers, for science draws her knowledge from nature, and the world as we see it does not contain the fullness of reality.

There are mysteries, both natural and supernatural (“supernatural” meaning “above nature;” super is Latin forabove). An example of a natural mystery is the nature of a light; scientists still do not know whether light is a wave or a particle since it acts as one at one moment, and the other at another moment. Light is either a wave or a particle, it cannot be both, we simply do not know which one yet; but we do know that light exists and has a function. A supernatural mystery are the mysteries of faith. For example, the Incarnation; God became man.How he became man is far beyond our understanding, yet we know he did by our faith. Each of these two mediums of knowledge (faith and science) have an authority that we believe to give us answers: reason being the authority of science, and God the authority of faith.

In Catholicism, religion and science never clashed; in fact, they go hand in hand. For example: some of the greatest philosophers were monks (St. Thomas Aquinas stands out among the many); the Church created the University as we know it today in the High Middle Ages (with structured courses, exams, degrees, etc.); even the Big Bang theory was invented by a Catholic priest (Father Georges Lemaitre) in 1927. Historian Lowrie Daly said about the Church in the Middle Ages that it was “the only institution in Europe that showed consistent interest in the preservation and cultivation of knowledge.”

In today’s world, there is a false dichotomy between religion and science, and this is the fault of philosophy, not religion (not Catholicism, at least). Over centuries, philosophy stopped believing that we can know anything about the outside world, but trapped reason within itself (i.e. I can only know my own ideas – I cannot be sure about anything outside of me). This is because philosophers began to doubt everything (see Rene Descartes) except what they knew in their own minds to be true (if nothing else, this destroys science, since science is the study of nature). With this, reason was raised to be the ultimate authority on knowledge, but since every individual has his own intellect, reason depended on the individual and not on nature (hence the saying, “that’s your truth, mine is a different truth”). Religion became nothing more than a set of mere beliefs, something completely separated from reason, not something that is in fact reasonable the way it was before the collapse of science.

However, the opposite is true; reason helps faith because it helps us understand its mysteries; reason ministers to faith. At the same time, faith supports reason because it elevates it to truths about God that reason alone could not attain by studying nature (i.e. that God is three Persons in one Nature). To take the previously mentioned Big Bang theory as an example: prior to this theory, the scientific world believed the universe was eternal; that it never had a beginning, but has always been. Our faith says otherwise (the Book of Genesis starts, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth…”). In this way, faith aided science and helped it discover a truth it had denied before. The theory was at first highly criticized by scientists as religious propaganda, but Albert Einstein (Father Lemaitre’s good friend) praised it, and it is now accepted by cosmologists everywhere.

This is all to say that science is not an opponent of faith, but a friend. What science proves to be true can in no way oppose our Catholic faith since our faith depends on the true God who is Truth itself and has revealed his truth to us, the God who, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church says, “can neither deceive nor be deceived” (CCC 144).

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One Response to “Faith and Reason”

  1. Ian Climacus Says:

    Very interesting and thought-provoking post: thank you. An interesting perspective on man’s unique role in the world which I will ponder some more.

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