Faith and Reason – Bride and Groom?
Ten years ago I stood before a class of high school seniors, as their campus minister, and made the following confession: “My faith is hanging by a slim thread right now. I still believe, but I’m struggling.”
Dramatic, I know.
But that wasn’t my intention, actually. I was merely trying to be vulnerable with them, even if it was risky, and communicate to them that you can be a person who loves their faith while still struggling deeply to understand it.
Now, many years later, I can honestly say that my faith has never felt more certain, that I have the (admittedly subjective) experience of saying that my personal faith actually seems, and feels, real, instead of like a clown’s mask,like I’m putting on a show that I believe.
I have realized that many, many people can relate to the question that plagued my younger mind many years ago: “But how can you know what we believe is really real?” After many years of thinking about the relationship between faith and reason, I want to take a minute to explain how I see the relationship between the two.
First, I want to encourage and explain a better understanding of the mutual relationship between faith and reason, a nuptial relationship.The Church has always proposed that the mysteries of nature and grace are best understood in a nuptial light - God desires to marry his Bride, redeemed humanity. However, we are at a time in history when we need to apply the same metaphor for our understanding of faith and reason. In a world that is absolutely certain that truth doesn’t exist - do you see the contradiction there? - we must be clear about what reason is and what faith is, according to the Catholic Church, and see how they were always meant to come together in a beautiful unity.
Next, reason. Do you know rocks are hard, water is wet, and fire is hot? That’s not a joke. If you were to write an article to the campus newspaper on the certainty of holding to the truth of the above mentioned facts in a normal university setting, you might be banned from being able to submit an article again. Modern relativism holds that there is no absolute truth - absolutely so. And although this is an obvious logical contradiction, studies show that this is increasingly the position of many 21st century Americans.
But both the Church and common man know better than this, praise be. We can be certain that, under normal conditions, human reason is the ability to affirm what is real and what is not through our own powers of verification: touch it, taste, see it, hear it. It’s there, it’s real. Indeed, rocks are hard, water is wet, and fire is hot. So first of all, let us be clear as to what reason is: our capacity to verify through our powers the existence of certain things. Two plus two is four. Evil, though mysterious, is real. The sky is blue. Colorado has mountains. Notre Dame is the best football team in the U.S. (OK, you caught me on this one - that’s actually a matter of belief). In short, reason allows us to know reality directly and immediately through our own powers of intellect and senses.
Then, faith. The mysteries of faith, and above all THE mystery of faith - the life, death, and resurrection of the Son of God - are presented to us in an order different from, though not opposed to, reason. If reason is knowing something is real based on our own powers of observation, then faith is knowing something, not through our direct verification of the fact, but rather on the credibility of the one presenting the message.
It’s still an assent to affirm something is real and that we feel confident in it, although we do not have direct verification of it. We make acts of natural (earthly) faith all the time: believing your spouse will not leave you when you say “I do” on your wedding day, believing the pilot at his word when he tells you to sit back and enjoy the flight and that he won’t nose dive the plan into a cornfield, and believing that Tuscany really is a beautiful land when your friend returns home from a honeymoon there although you’ve never seen it. All of these examples are acts of faith - albeit dealing with natural realities - and we don’t question the truthfulness of them because we trust the credibility of the one presenting the message.
So, I propose that if people can be comfortable making an assent to the above-mentioned truths based on the credibility of imperfect people, perhaps the act of faith in the reality of Jesus and in his inherently trustworthy example and word might be the most reasonable act we can do.
Now, I want to stress here that when we believe in the word of Jesus through his teaching, his life, his very Person, as presented to us through his Bride, the Church, this is not a merely rational act - it’s in fact a mystery of grace. We believe that God takes the first step in enlightening the person to receive the light of his truth. In whatever context the person is being presented the proposal of believing in Christ and walking with Him, God in his grace first moves the person to the possibility of assenting to grace or not. Saying yes or no. “I will follow you” or not.
Once grace has dawned in the soul, producing a light, then it’s the person’s decision through his mind and heart (intellect and will) to say “yes”! And this decision, this act of faith (that can perhaps be a first time decision but then must be repeated every day in a person’s life of faith) becomes, in my mind, the most reasonable thing a person can do - if he’s looking for truth: “Yes, I believe that you are the fullness of truth because of the trustworthiness of your word.” Here is the crux. If reason is the openness to reality in the totality of its factors (according to Monsignor Luigi Giussanni, founder of the international Communion and Liberation movement within the Church), then faith says, “Yes, you are the ANSWER to my heart’s deepest desires and my mind’s strongest longings.”
How can I know his word is trustworthy? The Church presents to us many ways we can see this. The continuity of the Church’s unity (as promised by Jesus to Saint Peter in Matthew Chapter 16), the beauty of her art, the miracles of both Jesus and his Bride throughout the history of the Church, and most of all the holiness of her saints (showing the authenticity of Jesus’ power to transform human lives in a way that is literally out of this world) combine to make powerful reasons for the credibility of Jesus’ message and therefore the reasonableness of assenting to it as true.
Finally, assenting to Christ in faith is reasonable because he is, quite simply, worthy of our trust. His word, his message, his works, his beauty, his person, he himself, is what we say yes to. All these years later, I’m actually glad I was honest with those high schoolers because what I shared with them was true, I was struggling to understand how and why to believe. Thanks to a great mentor who explained to me the above, I came to a fuller understanding of faith and reason and how they relate to equip each person on their journey towards Love himself, the deepest answer to the desires of our minds and hearts. “Yes, I believe in you Lord! I believe that you are my way, my truth, and my life” (John 3:16).
John O’Brien currently serves as the Executive Director of the Aquinas Forum in Denver, Colorado, a nonprofit dedicated to providing adult Catholics with formation for an integrated life.