Suspicion about God, Religion, and Other Such Things

Maybe it’s more accurate to call it all-out skepticism rather than just suspicion. Knowing I’m about to paint with broad strokes, I start by stating that the modern world generally has little respect for God-or the gods, depending on who you talk to-and His/their followers.  As we’ve seen of late in the United States, the general expectation is for “God-fearing” people to keep their religion to themselves and leave the public sector to, well, reasonable people. Unfortunately, as Christians in general, and specifically as Catholics, we can feel forced by a subtle peer pressure by co-workers, friends, sometimes even family members to follow “the rules of civilized society” by not talking about religion in public.

I’d like to start with a little history lesson. We’ll start in the 13th Century with St. Thomas Aquinas.  While he’s perhaps most famous, he is poster-boy of an entire way of studying and thinking that pervaded the western world for at least four centuries. That “school” of thought is known as “Scholasticism”.  Despite being lumped together, the scholars of the Scholastic period were diverse in many ways and sometimes disagreed on particular things.  For St. Thomas, however, there was a masterful art of st__thomas_aquinas___colour_by_artisforgod-d417pnwexplaining how to hold together what sometimes appeared to be ideas directly opposed to one another: physical and spiritual, sinners and grace, wisdom and freedom, and God and man. Another of those “pairs” is faith and reason. Here’s what he had to say in his work explaining the Catholic faith to non-Christians:

…although the truth of the Christian faith which we have discussed surpasses the capacity of the reason, nevertheless that truth that the human reason is naturally endowed to know cannot be opposed to the truth of the Christian faith. – SCG, I, 7

For Thomas, it was clear that what we know by faith, most importantly, what is directly revealed to us by God, cannot contradict what we know or learn by means of our human reason, assuming that we are reasoning correctly and not taking God out of context.

As a result of various factors, St. Thomas’ insights fell out of general favor for a guillermo-de-ockhamfew hundred years, and the next wave of thinkers pushed Thomas’ thought onto the back shelf in dark corner of the library. It was the thinking and writings of a “God-fearing” Franciscan known as William of Ockham, who, in an attempt to defend the absolute freedom of God, argued that God could do whatever He wanted, even if it meant changing His mind and telling us to do something which was previously forbidden, such as hating one’s neighbor. Again, this was done in the defense of God’s absolute sovereignty by one who professed the Catholic Faith.

The reaction, however, to this line of thinking was a disordered fear of Who God is and What God might potentially do to us in the future. If what William of Ockham said was true, God is not necessarily reasonable and God can contradict what is reasonable because He’s all-powerful.  Frankly, that is a scary thing. There are two natural – and historical – reactions to this line of thinking: either find something else that we can be sure and secure about or simply put absolute faith in God that we do something solely because God has said it.

As you might have already guessed, these two intellectual positions came to the academic surface within about 100 years of each other.descarte The first line of thinking (find something else that we can be sure of) was taken up by the French philosopher, René Descartes, who found his security in himself: I think, therefore I am (the famous Latin phrase is: Cogito, ergo sum.) This started a radical change in the way philosophy had been done for centuries. Descartes had made what is known as the “subjective turn”, that is, the truth starts with me.  Every subsequent philosopher would in some way deal with the world that he had set (or perhaps it’s more accurate to say “thought”) up. martin-lutherThe second line of thinking (absolute faith in God because God has said so) was taken up by Martin Luther. He’s famous concept of “faith alone” (sola fide) highlights this notion that, we must simply have faith in God. There need not be any reasonability involved in the process nor does there need to be a reason that God should give for what He does.  How very different their line of thinking was from that of St. Thomas, who argued that faith and reason stem from the same Source of Truth and therefore cannot be in opposition. The masterpieces of St. Thomas Aquinas, which combined theology/faith and philosophy/reason, in a beautiful harmony, gave way to the division between theology/faith on the one hand and philosophy/reason on the other. The radical divisions set up by Descartes and Luther would lay the groundwork for much of the western world, both in Christianity and in secular thought for centuries.

As both sides radicalized, philosophers came to the consensus that reason had to be the judge of faith because faith is intrinsically unreasonable and, even worse, unverifiable. The “truths” of faith of which Christianity speaks came to be seen-and still are seen in many ways-as about as believable and reliable as fairy tales. This gave way to the over-arching power of science as the supreme source of truth because it is reasonable AND verifiable. Any truth which faith would put forth was to be judged by the criteria of science as the “guardian of truth.” This is not to claim that Catholicism is innocent and the world has gone off the rails. Obviously, it all started with a Catholic who set the groundwork for the separation.

By way of evidence, I quote a French author named Louis Jacolliot who, in 1913, had this to say: A new world is emerging. Science, with its rigorous methods, has dealt a mortal blow to religious poetry and historical legends, and the day is approaching when only sensate, rational, and human phenomena will be believed. Also, a recent Op-Ed in the New York Times spoke directly about this topic by “warning” “rational” people to be aware of the alleged mindset that religious people will have when trying to speak about the truths of religion.  I can’t make this stuff up!

All the same, it is good for us to be aware of the fact that we now find ourselves in a world (the “modern” world) which, whether we have studied philosophy, theology, and history or not, is inspired by the thoughts of Descartes, Luther, and their successors. While some modern philosophers are trying to reconcile the gap between faith and reason, the gap is so very wide and so very deep. For this reason, it will take a long time to bring the two back together in people’s minds.

Beautifully, however, the Catholic Church, in Her teachings, has never waived l_xiiifrom maintaining the balance and complementarity of faith and reason. At the Council of Trent, which served as a reaction to Martin Luther and the other “Reformers”, Leo XIII tells us:

“the Fathers of Trent made it part of the order of conclave to lay upon the altar, together with sacred Scripture and the decrees of the supreme Pontiffs, the Summa of Thomas Aquinas, whence to seek counsel, reason, and inspiration.” Aeterni Patris, 22

Likewise, at the Second Vatican Council, the Church relied upon the wisdom of the Angelic Doctor, and quoting the First Vatican Council (1869-1870), had this to say:

Though faith is above reason, there can never be any real discrepancy between faith and reason. Since the same God who reveals mysteries and infuses faith has bestowed the light of reason on the human mind, God cannot deny himself, nor can truth ever contradict truth. Dei Filius, 4

Admitting the fact that there are plenty of other, more specific reasons why people are skeptical about God, religion, and other such things, this line of intellectual work that has marked the western world for over 600 years certain laid that foundation. All that being said, it remains true, despite Descartes, Luther, and Company, that faith is reasonable and reason is necessary to deepenThe Sermon on the Mount Carl Bloch, 1890 our understanding of the Faith. As St. John Paul II wrote in his 1998 Encyclical entitled Faith and Reason, “Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth; and God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth—in a word, to know himself—so that, by knowing and loving God, men and women may also come to the fullness of truth about themselves.”

We need not be afraid to bring our Faith into the public sphere for we believe not in fairy tales nor in cleverly concocted myths (2Peter1:16), but in Jesus Christ, the way, the truth, and the life (Jn14:6).


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