On Faith and Reason

To me, the most persuasive approach in regards to faith and reason begins with the fact that ancient humanity could perceive God through the created order (Rom 1:20). There is a natural reason, which Vatican 1 refers to, which comes to man through the ordinary aspects of life. This natural reason manifests itself as a cumulative collection of experiences and observations, as Newman observes. Without direct communication from God that his covenant people benefited from, God was perceived to these ancient peoples by his eternal power and divine nature in the creation around them. This method of discovery still exists today and is the most basic, foundational way in which we can begin to reason about God: the creation that surrounds us is evidence of his existence.

It’s no surprise to me that in all of our pursuit of the rational ordering of the world and the entire creation, and with our ever-increasing understanding of it, humans still cannot reasonably comprehend, explain, or order how the world came into being, much less even that it did so without a creator. If the pursuit of truth, as Polkinghorne says, seeks to attain the best explanation of complex phenomena to afford the basis for a rational commitment, there seems to be an undeserved amount of animus for the Christian explanation of the world.

Polkinghorne notes the apparent lack of consideration in the world that has been given to Christian belief as potentially reasonable, which he says is derived from the simple “knowing” that there can be no truth in faith since it defies everyday secular expectation. Pope Francis also references a more contemporary example of a similar observation in the modern obsession with technological truth. One of the costs of our tremendous progress in science and technology is the expectation that truth takes the form of knowable certainty, and is evidenced by the collective agreement on said truth. This ultimately puts theology at odds with culture, since theology studies and seeks a universal truth that comes from beyond man.

However, if we can naturally recognize our world as the work of a creator God from the natural evidence around us and lack of more reasonable explanation, we can reasonably know that He is more powerful than his creation and is the author of all things. Having created all things including humanity and its faculties, including reason and logic, it follows that faith cannot be in opposition to reason as both are from God.

In the course of rectifying this natural reason with the rational evidence we can find in the world around us, we do encounter tension where these two forces seem to be opposed. Humanity has proven itself quite susceptible to misunderstandings, both in issues of faith and reason. Vatican 1’s opinion is that perceived tensions between faith and reason are the result of these misunderstandings of human nature, whether the error is in the interpretation of the church’s dogma or man’s discovered truths.

By structuring the interaction when faith and reason find tension as a place where both can be examined, we give theologians proper latitude in navigating the mysteries we seek to understand but cannot prove, and can ultimately help to clarify church teaching or correct bad rationality. To that end, we should welcome reasonable inquiry and exploration of faith while still recognizing the limits that prevent faith from being probed and tested in the same ways as empirically driven subjects.

If theologians are to treat biblical text as faithful, we work from the knowledge that man was intentionally made, considered to be very good, and so we can deduce that his ability to reason is from God. The natural order of creation is our first and most primitive evidence of the reasonableness of faith. Pursuing faith through rational inquiry stands to benefit the faithful and also those who are seeking a deeper understanding worth a rational commitment.

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