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“Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth” —Pope St. John Paul II in his encyclical Fides et Ratio, On the Relationship Between Faith and Reason
Our society often seems to equate “faith” with an idea of blind and unquestioning belief: to have faith means to believe exactly what we are told to believe, simply because we are told to believe it. This kind of faith has nothing to do with reason. Not only is it completely separate from reason, it is commonly taken for granted that faith and reason are not compatible and their opposition is inevitable.
But faith is not blind. Faith is reasonable—although it also goes far beyond the reach of reason.
Faith is reasonable because it doesn’t begin with the proposal of an isolated idea—it begins first with a Person (actually three Persons). The Church does not ask us to have faith in a series of abstract ideas. Rather, we are invited to have faith in God, and, because He is trustworthy, to believe what He tells us:
“Faith is first of all a personal adherence of man to God. At the same time, and inseparably, it is a free assent to the whole truth that God has revealed” (CCC 150).
In other words, faith means “we believe in God and believe all that he has said and revealed to us” (CCC 1814).
This kind of faith—believing what someone tells us because we have judged that they know what they are talking about and can be trusted to tell us the truth—is the source of pretty much all of our knowledge outside of our own direct experience. Whenever we “know” something because we read it in a book or news article, heard it from a friend, learned it in a class at school, etc., we are coming to know by a kind of faith. We are making the judgment that the source is trustworthy, and therefore we believe what we have heard or read.
Faith and Reason
This may seem like circular reasoning—it is reasonable to believe God because God is trustworthy, but how can we know that He is trustworthy? For that matter, how can we know that He is? Do we need to have faith to justify having faith?
Not entirely. The Church has always taught that our human reason is sufficient to know that God exists and even to know some aspects of his divine nature. Through our observation of the world and of our own selves we can come to know that God exists and that he is the origin of everything that is (see CCC 31–34).
But there is much about God that we cannot figure out for ourselves just by observing his works. So God also reveals himself to us so that we can know with certainty what would otherwise be difficult to ascertain through our reason, and so that we can know him beyond what our reason is capable of discovering by itself (CCC 35). In a similar way, I can discover many things about a new friend through the use of my reason and powers of observation, but I will come to know her much better—much more quickly and much more thoroughly—if she tells me about herself.
Faith takes us where our reason cannot reach on its own, but faith is never opposed to reason because “the things of the world and the things of faith derive from the same God” and “truth cannot contradict truth” (CCC 159). The one God who is Truth Himself created the world, gave us our power of intellect to observe and reason and seek truth, and revealed Himself to us. So there can be no real discrepancy between faith and reason.
Into the Mystery
That God is knowable through both our reason and, even more so, through faith in what He has revealed about himself is a foundational tenet of Christianity. But our finite minds can never fully wrap themselves around our infinite God: He is necessarily Mystery to us. This should not discourage us from seeking an ever-deeper understanding of Truth, but it should put our seeking in proper perspective. As theologian Frank Sheed says in his classic work Theology and Sanity:
“A Mystery, in short, is an invitation to the mind. For it means that there is an inexhaustible well of Truth from which the mind may drink and drink again in the certainty that the well will never run dry, that there will always be water for the mind’s thirst.”
And so let us rest in the profound mysteries of God, while we also pray for deeper faith and work for greater understanding—both of God and the things of this world He has created.