Faith and Reason
Updated: Mar 31, 2020
Are faith and reason sworn enemies, loving brothers, or both? Read more to discover how adjusting our understanding of faith and reason can help us find the answers we crave.
When people hear a discussion about faith and reason or religion and science, they expect a debate. We may assume that the discoveries of science will contradict religious beliefs. I believe this assumption rests on misunderstandings. I think the same God who created the world we are exploring with science also reveals himself to people of every age. How can two ways of understanding that have the same source contradict each other?
The First Vatican Council puts it like this:
"Though faith is above reason, there can never be any real discrepancy between faith and reason. Since the same God who reveals mysteries and infuses faith has bestowed the light of reason on the human mind "Dei Filius 4
God is the source of reason. God created everything that is not God. God also reveals himself to his creation. What we know through faith and discover with reason come from the same place. Thus, if we think there is a contradiction between the two, we could be misunderstanding God's revelation, or be mistaken about what we experience in nature. (1)
Often, the perceived hostility between faith and reason comes from a misunderstanding of one or both ideas. Two of the most common mistakes are reducing faith and reason to the caricatures of Fideism and Scientism.
The sole reliance on faith to understand the world even when the conclusions contradict the findings of science.
The reduction of reason to scientific inquiry. The belief that the scientific method is the only objective way to find truth.
Reason is the human capacity to know reality. Reason is a human faculty that enables the understanding of the causes of things, the categories of things, and create unique ideas based on experience. Reason gives the human person the capacity for wisdom.
Science is always provisional. This does not mean that it is not a reliable way of knowing the world, but dogmatic or apodictic certainty is contrary to the scientific method.
"Scientific knowledge is, by its nature, provisional. This is due to the fact that as time goes on, with the invention of better instruments, more data and better data hone our understanding further. Social, cultural, economic, and political context are relevant to our understanding of how science works." Priyamvada Natarajan Physicist & Astronomer
The provisionality of science should not give us a bias against it. The scientific method is a reliable way of discovering the truths of the natural world. Still, scientific knowledge should not close the mind to facts that are beyond the capacity of the scientific method. There is an experience of reality through the liberal arts, literature, human relationships, and spirituality that the scientific method cannot fully capture.
Faith is a natural way for humans to relate to the world around them. Faith is synonymous with acting "as if" something will happen. Every time you sit in a chair, drive up to an intersection, or meet someone for the first time, you are acting with faith. You are behaving as if the chair won't break, as if the other drivers will follow the signal, or as if the other person will not harm you. Faith is our capacity to flourish in the world despite our limited ability to know everything.
There is more to belief in God than natural faith. God inspires and enables us to have supernatural faith. This kind of faith is trust in the truth of God's self-revelation in the Scripture of Church Traditions. It also affirms our individual and communal experiences of God.
Faith is a Theological Virtue. (2) It is theological because God initiates the gift of faith and provides a real experience of himself through the grace of belief. Faith gives actual knowledge of God. Without grace, supernatural faith is beyond our capacity. It is a virtue because, without our response to God's initiative, we will not believe. God does not force us to believe. It is also a virtue because "having faith" is synonymous with "acting faithfully." Faith is expressed in action and can become a stable disposition.
Supernatural faith is not a blind leap, and it is not unreasonable. It is reasonable to believe because it perfects the natural faith we can have from real evidence. The evidence of a document, the New Testament Gospels, which are some of the most reliable ancient writings based on historical-critical scholarship. (3) The evidence of testimony that billions of seemingly trustworthy people from the past and present demonstrate the truth of God's self-revelation in their words and actions. Finally, the evidence of experience, that, if you talk to God as if he is real, you may experience a response.
I believe that applying the best insights from faith and reason is one key to thriving in this life and not just getting by. There have been periods of my life when I felt like I was maxing out on living my faith, but I still felt stuck. Applying the best approaches that I could find from various scientific disciplines has helped me get closer to being the person I feel called to be. Whenever I thought God was not answering my prayers, I realize that he was lovingly guiding me in ways I did not expect. God does not always work miracles in my life, but he strengthens me to do what is necessary to heal. Frederick Douglas summed it up in this quote about praying to be free from slavery.
"I prayed for twenty years but received no answer until I prayed with my legs." Frederick Douglas
Sokolowski, The God of Faith and Reason. CUA Press - REVIEW FORTHCOMING
1. "[...] since Holy Scripture can be explained in a multiplicity of senses, one should adhere to a particular explanation, only in such measure as to be ready to abandon it, if it be proved with certainty to be false; lest Holy Scripture be exposed to the ridicule of unbelievers, and obstacles be placed to their believing." Aquinas, ST I.68.1
2. "1841 There are three theological virtues: faith, hope, and charity. They inform all the moral virtues and give life to them. 1842 By faith, we believe in God and believe all that he has revealed to us and that Holy Church proposes for our belief." CCC, 1841-1842