Faith and Reason: The Two Wings of the Human Spirit
Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth…” (Pope St. John Paul II, Fides et Ratio, no. 1).
With this image of the two wings, Pope St. John Paul II summarizes two thousand years of Christian reflection on the relationship between faith and reason. The image is surprising. For according to the predominant mentality of our times, one must choose between either being a person of faith or being a person of reason. One cannot be both. That there is a dichotomy between the two is almost a given within the contemporary academy and within our society at large, even among many Christians.
However, the good news that we will illustrate in and with this series of essays on evolution and the Christian faith is that the one and the same God who created us with reason also gifted us with faith. No one has to choose between the two. Everyone can have both. Faith and reason are meant to work together.
Why is the view that one must choose between either living a life of a faithful and devout believer or leading the life of an intelligent and enlightened adult, so widespread today? The answer is complex, but I will give five reasons here.
The first reason is that at face value, faith and reason can appear to be opposed to each other. Thus, human beings had to actually learnhow these two ways of contemplating truth could work together. The integration between the two does not happen by nature but by nurture. For this reason, it took the Catholic Church well over a thousand years from her founding by the Lord Jesus to learn and then to show the Christian people and the world how faith and reason can come together harmoniously.
Furthermore, even after the first thousand years of development, one of the lessons learned was that the task of integrating faith and reason always continues in the Church. It is a task always before the Church due to new developments in mankind’s ways of thinking and of understanding reality.
It is widely acknowledge that this task of synthesizing faith and reason was brought to unprecedented heights by the end of the thirteenth century, especially in the work of St. Thomas Aquinas. It was the accomplishment both of the Church Fathers, who lived in the first six hundred years of Christianity, and of the Scholastics, who lived between 1000 and 1300 A.D. However, this synthesis between faith and reason was fragile, and vulnerable to fracturing. And it has been continually challenged and attacked ever since.
A second reason why faith and reason are widely perceived to be in conflict today is sin. The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines sin as follows: “Sin is an offense against reason, truth, and right conscience; it is failure in genuine love for God and neighbor caused by a perverse attachment to certain goods. It wounds the nature of man and injures human solidarity. It has been defined as “an utterance, a deed, or a desire contrary to the eternal law” (CCC, no. 1849).
Because of sin, human beings are prone to all forms of disintegration. Sin tears apart things that otherwise would go together peacefully in our lives. For example, the male and the female naturally form a complementary pair. In principle, a man and a woman are capable of living together in love, joy, and harmony. But sin has introduced many tendencies into the actual lives of men and women that incline them to treat each other in destructive and harmful ways. Sin is the origin of the mutual suspicion, the lies, and the discord that we often see in relationships.
Similarly with faith and reason. Although God meant both these ways of contemplating truth to work together, there are many sinful tendencies that make the work of integrating faith and reason difficult. The tendency to reject God’s truth when it is difficult to live or to understand; the tendency to take the world into our hands and to dominate it for our own plans and purposes; the tendency to refuse to depend upon God from our hearts for a truth which is genuinely beyond our powers of direct verification; and the tendency to despair over the difficulties of working through all the many perplexities about God and the world. And then there is the tendency to despair over knowing truth itself. In a fallen and a sinful world, these are only some of the tendencies that tempt us to give up on the arduous task of reconciling faith and reason.
A third reason is historical. The sixteenth century was a time that placed an unusual number of perplexing social and intellectual challenges before the Church. The invention of the printing press, the Protestant reformation, the discovery of “the new world,” the rise of modern science, the growing awareness of the great diversity of world religions, and the development of new philosophies. These are only some of the historical developments that tested and continue to test the synthesis of faith and reason accomplished by the Fathers and the Scholastics by the end of the thirteenth century.
Moreover, as the Church herself was learning to deal with these new intellectual challenges, various elements of European intellectual life gradually drifted away from her orbit. As Europe became increasingly secularized, it became increasingly common for people to think that one must choose between belief and though, between religion and science, between a rational life and a spiritual life, because they did not have the Church to guide them in seeking a harmonious whole. These dichotomies come down to us today as cultural givens, a kind of counter-tradition to the tradition of the Church.
A fourth reason is found in our contemporary culture. Our contemporary culture has an extremely impoverished understanding of what faith is and of what reason is. On the one hand, faith is equated with religion. It is commonly thought to be nothing but feelings about certain matters. It is a set of feelings about life, meaning, values, and God.
On the other hand, faith is sometimes understood to be a set of private convictions about these matters, but not convictions based on evidence. Rather, to many contemporary minds, faith has little or nothing to do with truth. A person’s faith cannot be said to true or false. At most, a faith conviction is true for this individual, i.e. it is his belief. But the belief itself cannot be simply true.
Reason, on the other hand, is equated with science. It is understood to be thinking based on experiment, critical analysis, and evidence. The results of science, it is widely thought, are verified facts and publicly accessible truths. In fact, to many contemporary minds, only the results of science are bona fide verified facts or publicly accessible truths. For contemporary people who think that faith is merely a matter of feelings that have nothing to do with truth, it seems obvious that faith and reason either have nothing to do with each other or have to be in conflict.
The final reason involves certain movements in contemporary society. In a society where faith and reason are not integrated and where it seems that one must choose between the two, many people do choose one or the other with a conscious exclusion or rejection of the others. Some people choose to fly by reason alone, and reject faith altogether. Most commonly, they claim to live on the basis of science alone. This choice is often called rationalism or scientism. Its motto could be, “Forget faith. Reason alone is the guide to life.”
Other people choose to fly by faith alone, and reject reason in some serious way. They may sincerely and deeply believe the Bible or some other religious text, but as is often the case, they refuse to ask hard questions about the meaning and interpretation of this sacred text. Thus, they often refuse to accept well-established results of modern science because they think that these scientific claims would undermine their faith. This alternative is often called religious fundamentalism. Its motto could be, “Don’t think. Just believe.”
These contemporary tendencies take the perceived conflict between faith and reason and harden it into actual opposition between fixed positions. The widespread presence of rationalism/scientism and fundamentalism only compounds the difficulties of learning to reconcile faith and reason in a life lived harmoniously.
In sum, it takes time, teaching, and effort to learn how to integrate faith and reason. Our sins and our weaknesses make it difficult to learn to fly with both wings of the human spirit. The history of the last several centuries has moved our civilization away from an intellectual synthesis that shows us how this can be done. Finally, our contemporary culture does not teach people how to fly with both wings, and it is populated by vocal minorities who confuse people about even the possibility of synthesizing faith and reason. Is it any surprise that for nearly all people today it seems that faith and reason are opposed to one another?
The purpose of this series of essays on evolution and Christian faith is to show men and women of good will how to grow out of the dichotomies between faith and reason that have crept into out society. In it, we hope to show how the Catholic Church’s intellectual tradition, and especially the synthesis of St. Thomas Aquinas, offers our contemporary society, a powerful and potentially life-shaping wisdom that is ever ancient and ever new.
Our plan is to investigate the topics raised by creation and by evolution in order to demonstrate how the Catholic Church’s understanding of faith, reason, scripture, man, grace, the fall, and redemption through Jesus Christ can cohere marvelously and profoundly with a contemporary scientific account of the origin of life, the development of species, and the origins of our species.
We want to illustrate our claim that one does not have to choose between two stories of the world, the world according to the Bible and the world according to science. Rather, there is one world. It is God’s world. And it is a good world. Created in love and wisdom, fallen and redeemed, God and the world are knowable by faith and reason together.
— Rev. James Brent, O.P.
Next: What is Reason?