29 January 2020

Can a Catholic Have Faith without Reason?

An excellent discussion of the relationship between Faith and reason.

From One Peter Five

By Dan Banks

Today, many of us would be skeptical of an arranged marriage. This is because people instinctively know they cannot love a person they do not know, and without loving such a person, they are doubtful of the idea of entering into a lifelong relationship with him. This is true for our faith as well.

Saint Thomas Aquinas said that “love follows knowledge.” He argued that the heart cannot love what the intellect does not know, and so it is with God and our faith. We must have at least a basic understanding of who He is, and why He is good in order for us to understand why one should love Him. Aquinas used reason to show that the existence of God is self-evident, an exercise repeated by many apologists, including C.S. Lewis in his work Mere Christianity.

Despite the ability of our reason to demonstrate the existence of God, faith is still necessary. If complete knowledge of God, His existence, goodness, power, and majesty, were completely obvious to humanity, our worship of Him would simply be a rational act requiring no faith at all, and all would feel compelled to join. Human intellect is not perfect, therefore perfect understanding of God is beyond us; to continue to quote Aquinas (all further quotes are from him), “our manner of knowing is so weak that no philosopher could perfectly investigate the nature of even one little fly.” Therefore, while our faith is rational, reason is not the sole motivator of our faith, and “love takes up where knowledge leaves off.” Acceptance of a mystery of the faith, such as the Trinity, requires an assent of the will, born of love of God.

It is not merely the head, but also the heart that draws man to God. Born of the knowledge of God is our love of Him, and it is our love for God that leads us to seek Him out and place our trust in Him. Without love and charity to accept what cannot be fully known or reasoned, our faith can never grow, and we cannot accept the fullness of revelation. God desires our faith in Him, but “faith has no merit where human reason supplies proof.”

Likewise, a faith that is not based in reason is also half-formed. A person who has faith but lacks foundation in the knowledge and reason needed to inform that faith is one whose faith may wither. In the parable of the sower, they are the seeds that fall on rocky ground. They quickly spring up but wither in the sun. People like this often cannot explain why they believe what they believe. Their faith is based in emotive sentimentality or blind acceptance of what another told them. Because of this, it is weak and unlikely to stand up to challenges.

In many ways, the current crisis in the Church represents the lack of balance between love and reason. Many Catholics today are poorly formed and fail to accept basic doctrinal positions. Today, about 37% of Catholics who attend Mass at least once a week do not believe in the Real Presence. Because so many have not been properly catechized, they lack the knowledge and understanding needed to accept the teaching. If they do not believe the Church’s teachings on this and other things (an overwhelming majority of Catholics also reject the Church’s teachings on contraceptives), one must conclude that their continued attendance at Mass is based on a sentimental, emotional attachment, rather than a rational belief, followed by an assent of the will to faith.

Because it is reason that firms our faith in God and the supernatural, an understanding of why we believe in the unseen is required for our faith to have an emphasis on the spiritual. Without that foundation in knowledge, and strong catechesis, we risk the practice of faith becoming centered on temporal things. This is manifest in the focus we are currently seeing in temporal issues like environmentalism and immigration. Seeking to relieve temporal suffering is a noble thing, but not when it is pursued to the exclusion of the spiritual. Charity is a synonym for love, but without reason, the Faith becomes about charity, and there are plenty of secular charities and non-governmental organizations that focus on the temporal, but only one Catholic Church that can see to the spiritual.

Faith and reason are both important aspects of our Catholic life, and they reinforce each other. Reason brings us to faith, and faith allows us to believe things that are beyond our reason. Without reason to ground our faith, our faith becomes weak and unarmored against challenge. Without an understanding of the spiritual, faith becomes an exercise in sentimentality instead of a proper reaction to the fact of God’s existence. We must continually strive to gain a greater understanding of the Faith and engage in continual study. Understanding of our faith forms part of the good soil that allows us to be as the seeds that produced grain, growing and increasing thirty, sixty, and a hundredfold.

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