We can agree on this: Everyone wants to know. Exalted things. Everyday things. Even trivial things. Whether it’s getting to the heart of the matter or coming up with the perfect word for the thought, there’s something delightful about knowing the truth and calling each thing by its right name.
The human person inquires into the meanings of things in all kinds of ways, and our everyday experience is rich with ordinary wisdom. The mind is naturally thrown open to reality. We are born into a web of truth and our lives make sense to the degree that they assume their proper place within it.
In this search, we sometimes proceed by rigorous methods as in philosophy, science, and other academic disciplines. Here, we focus on a particular object—like Kant’s categorical imperative or the Krebs cycle—according to a set method and under a particular aspect.
But, what if—the Christian tradition chimes in—there were something beyond mere material reality, too obscure for the human mind to illumine? And, what if the knowledge of this immaterial reality were of paramount importance in our pursuit of true wisdom? Here we have before us the whole question of faith.
Faith, whether in a natural or supernatural sense, is knowledge through testimony. With ordinary knowledge (yielded by philosophy and science), we “see” the conclusions and are convicted. With the knowledge communicated by faith, we do not/cannot see. Rather, we believe based on the statement of someone else whom we judge to be trustworthy. In an act of faith, we supply assent to a person and his testimony and thereby access a truth otherwise unavailable.
In many circles, faith is described as a form of intellectual naiveté or immaturity, as if it were a half-measure for weak minds unwilling to wander. Faith, some will argue, is simply too easy. Human thought, they contend, is meant to strive and grapple, but faith fears the strain of this creative tension—abolishing it in favor of easy answers and unambiguous affirmations. But, can such a caricature withstand scrutiny? In the Christian tradition, we argue that faith is eminently reasonable, and that reason is operative (and powerfully so) in the context of faith discourse.
Think about it: How much of our knowledge have we actually verified? How do you know about the chemical composition of water? Have you run the experiments? Have you observed it under a scanning electron microscope? How do you know that your parents are you parents? Have you had a DNA test? If so, do you know how to interpret the results?
We take many things on faith. But this doesn’t make us overly-credulous or gullible. How so? Well, because reason is not muzzled by faith. Rather, it is employed and perfected. The judgments formulated in faith discourse are themselves an exercise in reason: We judge the persons who bear the knowledge; we weigh their testimony; and we verify the information through confirming signs.
So, for instance, when someone tries to convince me that the world will end tomorrow, I think through the claim. First, I judge the person: Does this person seem trustworthy? Is he a religious fanatic or known to be mentally unstable? Then, I weigh the testimony: Have I heard this before and has it ever panned out? Are there good grounds for making the claim? Finally, I seek for confirming signs: Is there anything to suggest that this will happen? Have I seen any end-times prophecies fulfilled recently? Here, we see reason at work in the assent of belief. This natural faith supplies us an analogy for supernatural faith.
At the outset, we have to say that we do not believe merely because the content of faith accords with our sensibilities. Ultimately, the reason we believe is because God reveals, and He is supremely trustworthy. St. Thomas refers to God in this context as “First Truth Speaking.” We are made for a reality that surpasses the compass of our minds, and only God can testify to the existence and the nature of that reality by the gift of his grace.
But we must insist that in faith, reason is not undermined or enfeebled, but rather attains to its perfection. We, as human beings, were meant to fire on all cylinders—to train our minds and hearts upon what is universally true and universally good. And, in our experience of created reality, we have never encountered something sufficient to quiet this drive. In our dissatisfaction, we recognize that we are made thrown open to God, and we will not rest until we know him with his own knowledge and love him with his own love. This is the discourse to which faith gives access.
Within the practice of faith, reason is still at work unpacking the content of revelation and reasoning upon it. In our understanding of revelation, we can exercise reason to show how the doctrines of the faith are coherent and how the objections of its detractors are false. We can show how revealed doctrines illumine the human condition in a way that false ideologies do not. What is more, there are aspects of the faith that themselves can be proved by reason, and we show the coherence of faith and reason by working these proofs out. Finally, the Lord gives certain signs of credibility—the testimony of prophecy, the miracles of the Lord, the endurance of the Church and the consistency of her teachings—which show the faith to be tenable.
As with natural faith, we judge the person, namely that He is either liar, lunatic, or Lord; we weigh his testimony, namely that it commands assent and affords entry into a deeper and more authentic manner of life; and we seek confirming signs in the very living of our lives. For, if He speaks truly, then it makes all the difference, and to deny him would be a subversion not only of faith, but also of reason.
In the end, faith and reason are not in conflict. Rather, faith brings reason to perfection, freeing man from the limited compass of the natural and ushering him into the contemplation of the supernatural—feeding the mind with what is most true, good, and beautiful.