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Faith, reason: Two wings on which human soul soars

  • Date:
  • Thursday, January 17, 2013

It is a doctrine of the faith that the existence of God can be known quite apart from the supernatural gift of faith.  

While this position was solemnly defined as the “Catholic position” at the First Vatican Council in 1870 within the Dogmatic Constitution “Dei Filius,” it is really simply an acknowledgment of the wisdom of the ancient philosophers, many of whom taught quite clearly that an “unmoved mover” or “uncaused cause” must exist based on the evidence, accessible without grace, that is all around us. Aristotle and Plato are but two examples of profound thinkers who did not have the benefit of revelation and yet believed firmly that God existed.  Now, to be sure, the data to be gleaned about God from natural science and philosophy is not the whole story about the true and living God.  

God is not simply creator, mover and sustainer. He is also our Savior, Father and, as remarkable as it is to say, our friend. But we can only come to know these latter things about God through the gift of faith — that response of the human heart to the revelation given to it out of God’s goodness and love.  

Deists believes in the “clock-maker” God: an artist who designs and winds up his creation like a watch, only to definitively step away once he has set his world in motion. Many of the founding fathers of our nation embraced this view of God.  

But the Christian knows that God has not only designed the world in which we live — as evidenced by the beauty and order of the world, the elegance of the human body and the magnitude and nobility of human aspirations — but also that this creator God remains active and alive in the world within which we live, as evidenced most compellingly by the saints, the martyrs and the great cloud of witnesses who have allowed themselves to become icons of the merciful and loving Eternal Father.  

Modern challenge     

It might be helpful here to acknowledge that we modern men and women oftentimes think about faith as being opposed to reason or, perhaps more commonly imagined these days, opposed to science. Science, it is said, brings certitude, stability and clarity. Faith, on the other hand, is but wishful thinking, an activity quite distinct from real knowledge.  

But is this really the case?  

Yes, science is a great thing, but can measurement and experiment exhaust the avenues of human knowledge? Certainly not. 

This is seen perhaps most compellingly in our knowledge of the human person. Does sociology reveal all there is to know about human beings? Can the studies of psychology allow one to glimpse the totality of the human condition and the depths of his or her experiences? What about friendship, and the particular kind of knowledge that comes through love? And yet friendship requires a kind of faith, a trust in the other and in the claims they make of their own affection and concern for us. So it is with God. We can only begin to know him, and than to love him, once we trust him.  As our faith in him grows, so too does our love.  

Soaring on two wings

Catholics believe firmly that faith and science — or more accurately, reason — are but two ways of coming to know about things. They are the wings upon which the human soul can soar, even unto knowledge about God. But the soul is only able to ascend to such dizzying heights when the God-given power of reason, and the astounding gift of faith, work together.  

Faith without reason will often become mere sentimentality and fideism, a fundamentalism that is prone to fail in the face of the questions posed by modernity. But reason without faith and the breathtaking horizon of revelation and salvation is cold, limited and can easily lend itself to brutality in the name of human progress and material prosperity.       

God, who can neither deceive nor be deceived, reveals himself most fully through Jesus Christ. This Jesus, who is true God and true man, is accessible to us, indeed, a contemporary to us, by means of the Church, particularly through the Sacred Liturgy, where He who is our creator and our friend reaches out to us and asks us to trust him: “Do not be afraid, I am with you. Come, follow me.”

Father Erickson is director of the archdiocesan Office of Worship.                             

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