Faith Undergirds All Reason

Editors' Note: This article is part of the Patheos Public Square on Faith and Reason. Read other perspectives here.

Faith and reason are not the same thing, but they are certainly not antonyms. Faith is not simply a blind leap into the abyss of irrationality and neither is reason some sort of self-grounded scientific empiricism. The Catholic tradition maintains that reason and faith are mutually dependent, and whenever this coupling is separated problems emerge. It is at this point that many writers would attempt to define faith and reason but I think we may find greater clarity by sketching their outer contours.

Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger once noted that reason has a wax nose. That is, reason can be swayed; reason does not stand alone but is formed by the foundation on which it rests. A great example of this is René Descartes (1596-1650). Descartes decided that he did not want to hold to anything that he could not know with absolute certainty, and so began the philosophical musings that led to his famous dictum, "I think therefore I am."

With absolute certainty, Descartes concluded that he is a thinking thing, but he was unable to know with complete certainty whether anything else exists (e.g., the world, other people, his own body, the salty pommes frites sitting on his plate, and so forth). Why? Descartes realised that he could not logically prove that he is not simply a brain floating in a vat which is manipulated by an evil demon to see images that falsely appear as the external world. (The movie The Matrix is based on this notion.) Although this may sound somewhat absurd, it is perfectly logical. The only way out of the logical dilemma is, so to speak, a leap of faith. Descartes concluded that God is good and would not deceive him; the external world is real because God is trustworthy. Based upon an assumption that knowing must begin from a position of doubt and the methodology of self-verification, the wax nose was led to a logical yet absurd position. Even for the rationalist Descartes, the wax nose needed to be formed by faith.

Descartes's dependence on faith is not unique. Arguably, all knowing is based upon first principles that cannot be absolutely proved. As C.S. Lewis pithily stated, "to 'see through' all things is the same as not to see." For Thomas Aquinas the fundamental 'thing', the first cause, that all thought must be based on is God. For a secular materialist, everything begins with the big bang (cause unknown).

Interestingly, both the Christian and the secular materialist depend upon a shared principle: human reason correlates with the world. To put it differently, both the Christian and the materialist have faith that human reason reflects reality. It is at this point that I think the Christian narrative is more consistent, and thus more reasonable than the materialist's.

The first principle, so to speak, of the materialist narrative is that before time there was an accidental physical event that somehow brought the universe and physical life into existence. With this in mind, it is difficult to imagine how reason evolved, to understand what it is (it is not physical, e.g., it concerns the mind not the brain), and to provide a solid argument for why we can trust that it accurately reflects reality.

Like the materialist's, the Christian narrative begins from a position of faith, a first principle, i.e., God is. Similar to the materialist perspective, this is partially based on logical argumentation such as Thomas's five ways (even here one must have faith in reason), but ultimately on faith. Faith is grounded in revelation, the Incarnation — God's self-disclosure to humankind in Jesus Christ. The Incarnation grounds reason and freedom in the Logos (Christ is the Logos). In other words, God is revealed as word, meaning, and reason (Logos), and not only does he undergird all reality, he, by bringing humankind into relationship with the Trinity via the Incarnation, enables humankind to participate in Reason, Meaning, and Word himself. Thus, we can argue that our thought can reflect reality by participating in God's 'thought'. Through the mystery of the infinite becoming finite Christians have solid ground for the correlation between reason and the world. Not only does Christian faith ground the reliability of reason, it also grounds meaning, love, hope, and justice, concepts that are next to impossible to defend as realities in a materialist framework.

As we have seen, reason without faith literally leads nowhere. It is to see nothing at all, or at most it is solipsistic (only the self can be seen as in Descartes's predicament). The wax nose of reason must be guided. Secondly, faith in God is like a first principle, and since all reasoning needs first principles it is not unreasonable to have such faith. Finally, Christian faith is not based on a random assertion — Richard Dawkins' flying spaghetti monster — or on pure human imagination — classical mythology — but on the historical life and teachings of Jesus Christ. As the Logos in the flesh, Jesus both confirms and transforms human reason. This is not to say that the historical personage of Jesus of Nazareth negates faith. Rather, to borrow from Ratzinger, it highlights that faith is not that which we have "excogitated ourselves but which has been revealed to us."

Is faith irrational? On the contrary, faith is the first step in all rational discourse. Christian faith extends this by finding a secure footing in God who, as Logos, is the ground of reason. In the words of Saint Pope John Paul II, "Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth."