The Role of Argumentation in Faith
We, as Christians, have many questions which reason cant answer, but can only be understood in the light of faith. These questions are: Who am I? Does life have any meaning? What is there after death? Why is there evil in the world? These questions begin with our reason, but they cannot be answered without faith. We search for the answers to these questions. Reason seeks to discover explanations, which might allow us to come to a certain understanding of the mysteries of our being, suffering, and salvation in the context of faith. John Paul II writes, "Faith has no fear of reason, but seeks it out and has trust in it. Just as grace builds on nature and brings it to fulfillment, so faith builds upon and perfects reason. Illumined by faith, reason is set free from the fragility and limitations deriving from the disobedience of sin and finds the strength required to rise to the knowledge of the Triune God."
In the modern world, many people deny the truths of faith because they cannot see it or experience it as something that can be measured. This positivistic attitude has led many people to reject the truths of faith and to put their trust in their own reason as something that cannot err. This attitude is an extreme position of reason and it has given rise to many forms of agnosticism and relativism. Yet, John Paul II points out "that a legitimate plurality of positions has yielded to an undifferentiated pluralism, based upon the assumption that all positions are equally valid, which is one of todays most widespread symptoms of the lack of confidence in truth." The only people that can be trusted are the ones wearing the lab coats who develop new medicines and technology. Modern man prefers to the premise that man can do all things, it is only a matter of time before we can know everything about the universe, rather than work from the premise "I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.(Phil 4:13)", This attitude also tends to neglect the moral implications of actions. The scientist seeks for truth to the physical universe outside of himself without moral guidance. He does not set limits on the consequences of his actions, therefore, all things become permissible. Yet, faith truths and scientific truths are not incompatible, because they come from the same source, namely God.
The other extreme is to reject reason altogether and only trust those propositions, which have been given to us through Revelation. This position is held by Fideists and Fundamentalists. They reject the notion of the development of doctrine through reason and therefore distrust its use when it comes to matters of faith. This viewpoint does not lend itself to dialog or evangelization, which is the Gospel mission of all Christians. In order for us to witness to our faith and evangelize others, we need to encounter Christ through faith and then reflect upon this faith through reason.
The inner act of faith can be a struggle for many Christians especially when it comes to reconciling their faith with their reason. This struggle is a process whereby the mind, through reason, searches for understanding, which St. Thomas calls cogitatio, or thought. The sacred authors of the OT Scriptures experienced this struggle in their own faith lives as is seen in the Psalms and in Proverbs. In the NT the apostles struggled with their faith even when Jesus was among them. We are taught, as Christians, that certain truths of faith are mysterious to which we are to assent our minds and wills as true. Yet, our reason tries to understand these mysteries, which have been divinely revealed. Faith does not involve a search by natural reason to prove what is believed, but it does involve a form of inquiry into things by which a person is led to faith. St. Thomas writes that, "Believing is an act of the intellect assenting to the divine truth by command of the will moved by God through grace." In faith, the human intellect and will cooperate with divine grace.
Faith is a response in obedience to God. It is an act of the will. This faith is a gift and not a result of our own natural reasoning. John Paul II, in explaining the Churchs understanding of the inner act of faith, writes, "The Church has always considered the act of entrusting oneself to God to be a moment of fundamental decision which engages the whole person. In that act, the intellect and the will display their spiritual nature, enabling the subject to act in a way which realizes personal freedom to the full." Freedom is absolutely required in order that the act of faith may be genuine. When reason is aided by grace in faith, it is free to inquire more deeply into the mysteries of faith. Faith does not abolish the autonomy of reason, but rather sets before it propositions that are divinely revealed truths from which further truths can be deduced. "Faith sharpens the inner eye, opening the mind to discover in the flux of events the workings of Providence." Natural reason, without grace, is distorted due to sin, therefore, it can err in its judgments. Faith is too personal an act to be based on argumentation, because even when reason is guided by grace, it can still be subject to error because our vision is not yet perfected.
The Church also appeals to the authority of God, which is the Supreme authority, "What moves us to believe is not the fact that revealed truths appear as true and intelligible in the light of our natural reason: we believe because of the authority of God himself who reveals them, who can neither deceive nor be deceived. So that the submission of our faith might nevertheless be in accordance with reason, God wills that external proofs of his Revelation should be joined to the internal helps of the Holy Spirit." Although the argument of authority can be the weakest form of argument, as when children begin to disobey their parents admonitions, it can help to remove obstacles to the faith, by showing that what is proposed for belief is not an impossibility. But, arguments do not lead the mind to clear understanding of faith. Authority is the strongest reason for our beliefs when we have an encounter with Christ and are guided by faith through that encounter. God is the cause of our faith, calling us through grace. We cling to the things we know to be true to our faith. We cant make arguments for our faith, because reason itself is limited and finite. Reason without grace cannot extend to the realm of the supernatural, yet faith hooks onto God and draws us to want to know more.
Pope John Paul II, in his encyclical Fides et Ratio, reminds us of the great importance that reason has played in the Churchs understanding and explanation of the faith. He writes, "On Her part, the Church cannot but set great value upon reasons drive to attain goals which render peoples lives ever more worthy. She sees in Philosophy the way to come to know fundamental truths about human life. At the same time, the Church considers philosophy an indispensable help for a deeper understanding of faith and for communicating the truth of the Gospel to those who do not yet know it." The Church from the very beginning has used the tools of Philosophy to better understand and explain the truths of the faith. The early Church Fathers, such as Origen, St. Justin Martyr and St. Augustine, used the terminology and tools of Greek philosophy to extend their understanding of the mysteries of Christ. St. Thomas Aquinas took many of Aristotles ideas and applied them to Christianity. The Church only used those tools, which helped her to define her doctrine. She also had to defend her doctrines against the errors of Philosophy, which led to heresies. John Paul II, in quoting Stromata I, 20, 100, 1; SC 30, 124, writes, "The teaching of the Saviour is perfect in itself and has no need of support, because it is the strength and wisdom of God. Greek philosophy, with its contribution, does not strengthen truth; but, in rendering the attack of sophistry impotent and disarming those who betray truth and wage war upon it, Greek philosophy is rightly called the hedge and the protective wall around the vineyard." The Revelation of God stands on its own authority, but reason can assist us to reveal the mysteries hidden in this Revelation.
Revelation itself has given signs to assist reason in its search for truth hidden in the mysteries of faith. Yet, these signs " also urge reason to look beyond their status as signs in order to grasp the deeper meaning which they bear." An example of this is our development in the understanding the Eucharist. Our senses tell us it is the sign of bread and wine, our faith tells us it is the body and blood of Jesus Christ and reason helps us to reflect on this mystery to draw out the truths contained in this sacrament. These arguments or reflections on faith do not lessen it merits or destroy the mystery, but rather help us to understand and explain the faith we profess. John Paul II writes, "Reason cannot eliminate the mystery of love which the Cross represents, while the Cross can give reason the ultimate answer which it seeks."
Faith and reason are not contrary to one another, but rather they complement each other. Reason, without faith, is limited to the finite and physical realm where it can be subject to error due to sin. On the other hand Reason, when enlightened by faith, is able to take the propositions presented to it by faith and reflect upon the supernatural mysteries, which it seeks to understand. In this way reason and faith are directed towards our final end which is eternal life with God. Faith is an act of the will. Without reason, faith lacks the ability to expand the boundaries of the mysteries of God in order to understand and explain what is believed. Since we are made in the image and likeness of God, we are called to use all our faculties so that we may come to know and love Him ever more deeply.
1. Pope John Paul II, Fides et Ratio, 43. 2. Ibid, 5. 3. St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae II IIae, Q.2 a.9. 4. Pope John Paul II, Fides et Ratio, 13. 5. Ibid, 16. 6. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 156. 7. Pope John Paul II, Fides et Ratio, 5.
8. Ibid, 38
9. Ibid, 23.
"The Catechism of the Catholic Church", (English Translation) United States Catholic
Conference, Inc., Washington D.C., 1994.
Aquinas, St. Thomas, Summa Theologiae, New York, 1948.
John Paul II, Fides et Ratio, Vatican City, 1998.
Dean Perri, Seminarian, Angelicum, Rome, January 19, 2000
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