Thursday, October 27, 2011


Pope Benedict has announced the intention of making a “Year of Faith” to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the opening of Vatican Council II. It is obvious why such a commemoration would be marked (50th anniversaries are pretty major), but why mention a notion like “faith”? More to the point, how does this reflect a linkage with a favorite theme of Benedict—faith and reason?

If we begin with the mediaeval definition of theology as Fides quaerens intellectum (faith seeking understanding), then perhaps we can make sense of this linkage. This would be especially true if we consider the insight of Bl John Henry (Cardinal) Newman, that the act of faith is essentially a choice to make an assent to a reality that is pointed to by what he called “converging probabilities.” But these probabilities can only be discovered by means of reason—that is, by thinking through the implications in a logical way. Not to panic: the principles of logic/reasoning themselves must also be accepted as axiomatic (that is, on faith)…

This sounds terribly esoteric, arcane, intellectual, abstract: and every other word I can think of that makes this topic seem “unrealistic/irrelevant” to 99% of believers! But I want to suggest that this is a wrong idea. I recently had a conversation with a high school girl (a junior) who is wondering about believing in God. As a result of what she is learning (and her school-mates are telling her) about science, she is asking: “Doesn’t the “Big Bang” deny the possibility of the existence of God?” I tried to assure her it was really quite the opposite: the wonders of science (like the heavens of Psalm 19) proclaim the glory of God. But how does one come to this insight, without examination of the possibilities laid before us by things like physics, calculus, analytic geometry, quantum mechanics, and so on? “Do you know why mathematics is the basis of life as we know it?” the little girl asks her Father in the TV ad. “Do tell me,” Dad replies, as they walk along the beach. Little girls (and young ladies in high school) want to know (this is beyond “enquiring minds,” as you can tell). Should knowledge and religious tenets be opposed to each other?

Still, the definition of theology I quoted above states that we must begin with the act of faith. Does this mean reason has no place until the (arbitrary?) act of faith is made? According to Newman, the answer is no. Our examination of the possibilities must lead us to the insight that making an act of faith is a reasonable thing to do: rational, even if not provable. So the intellect must be involved if an authentic act of faith is to be made. Newman referred to this as the principle of “converging probabilities” which justify the act of assent, even if they do not absolutely “prove” the fact-hood of the article to which the assent is given.

Perhaps this idea is all that much more important these days when there is a great deal of coercion (real or attempted) in religion, and when there is a great deal of unreflected embrace of particular expressions of one’s faith. The systematic persecution (often with the tacit approval of authorities) of minority Christians in countries like Egypt, Iraq or Pakistan—to name those most recently in the news—would be examples of the former. The “Christian” sect going around the country screaming hate slogans at the funerals of military personnel killed overseas is a sad example of the latter. Combining these two produces a totalitarian regime with the veneer of theocracy: probably the worst of all possible forms of government…

As a Christian, I should be bound by the words of I Peter 3:15—“Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for you hope, but do it with gentleness and reverence…” How can I express my faith in terms that are understandable to others (even if not finally persuasive to them)? How can I sort out the ways my reasons to believe are in fact finally persuasive to me? And how can I present my reasons (and reasoning) in ways that are persuasive to those of open minds? I think of Jesus Christ Superstar and its version of Pilate’s famous question:
But what is truth? Is truth unchanging law?
We both have truths; Are mine the same as yours?

All this means two things especially: open-mindedness to the wonders of our cosmos as signals of the presence and activity of a Creator; and honest facing of all the facts and arguments that suggest the opposite. Brilliant scientific men have been fervent believers in God, and other brilliant men have been determined atheists. It will not do simply to suggest that all believers are naïve and all non-believers realistic; nor, conversely, that all believers are open to the truth and all non-believers have ulterior agendas. And in any event, as Newman again insisted, the issue is far less what others choose to accept as sufficient evidences for the act of faith: what is crucial is how I use my best lights to lead me to make a “yes” or “no” to the question of belief.

Once I make an act of assent in a matter that is religious, it is required of me that I put the implications of this assent into practice in my life. Thus Newman, in coming to the conclusion that the Catholic Church was the one true church, not only became a Catholic but steadfastly refused to be a “cafeteria Catholic.” From his logic, the act of assent must be an “all or nothing” approach—otherwise, he judged, he would be setting himself up as arbiter of Scripture, Tradition, magisterial teaching—becoming the supreme authority in his own person.

Nevertheless, he refused to belittle the role of conscience in coming to terms with assent. Newman’s view of conscience here is critical—it is not a sense of “what I want” but rather an interior faculty to which I must listen and by which I must be guided, in determining where I find that truth to which I must give my assent. Newman did not “want” to become a Catholic; he saw it as his moral and religious obligation in conscience (and in fact he suffered for the choice in many ways). The phrase “freedom of conscience” is all too frequently abused and twisted to mean “I can do anything I want.” But the exercise of conscience is always and only a commitment to the truth as honesty comprehended—it is never an easy way to dodge an unpleasant responsibility.

Is all this too far-reaching an exercise in academic issues for most people to care about, much less get involved in? I hope not, because if we as human beings are not willing to examine our beliefs in the light of reason and then act upon the logical conclusions of those beliefs, what really are we? I am reminded of a pivotal speech of Thomas More in A Man For All Seasons (a speech, by the way, lifted from More’s own writings):
God made the angels to show him splendor—as he made animals for their innocence and plants for their simplicity. But Man he made to serve him wittily, in the tangle of his mind! If he suffers us to fall to such a case that there is no escaping, then we may stand to our tackle and clamor like champions…if we have the spittle for it. …But it’s God’s part, not our own, to bring ourselves to that extremity! Our natural business lies in escaping…

It is important to remember that in the exercise of reason in one’s faith-life and on the formation of one’s conscience one need not be a scholar. It is only important that one strive to understand to the best of his or her ability. At whatever level of my education and study, I must honestly ask (and answer) questions such as: “What do I believe?” “Why do I believe this?” “What are the implications for me personally of my belief, both in what I may do, and what may be done to me?” Am I willing and able to “count the cost” (Luke 14:28ff)? Unless I know the cost, I cannot determine if I am willing or able to afford it. And again, these must be personal answers—what does this all mean to and for me?

This is why there is probably no more important on-going activity offered by most parishes than religious education. In the younger years, this is dedicated to inculcation of basic premises and truths of the Faith. But as we grow older, facing choices like a personal YES to Jesus Christ (or not), and working out the implications of this YES, study is critical. An example: many people were sure (and are sure) that they have a legitimate disagreement with the Catholic Church’s teaching on artificial contraception. Yet how many have actually read any of the Church’s documents on this subject (beginning with Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae), or engaged in any sort of classes that would help explain it? Did we base our decision to reject this teaching on a sound-bite from television? Conversely, did we make a knee-jerk acceptance of the teaching because a prominent Catholic figure said to do so? In both cases we are abdicating our responsibility to think through, to understand, and to give the deepest, most authentic personal affirmation in conscience to the teaching.

So: is this entire essay an overblown appeal for adults to engage in religious education sessions? Maybe…

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