The Catholic Thing
Faith's Greatest Threat Print E-mail
By William E. Carroll   
Wednesday, 03 June 2009

The secular and materialist understanding of nature and human nature seem to be everywhere and they have come to inform what has been called "a new post-Christian narrative of life." Witness the appearance over the past several years of a strident "new atheism," a kind of "evangelical atheism," evident in the popular books of scientists and philosophers like Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens. This new atheism claims to be purely rational; it is quite often a kind of scientific idolatry that sees the natural sciences as completely sufficient to explain all that needs to be explained.

But contrary to what appear to many to be the current fundamental challenges to faith, the greatest threat to faith is not unbelief, the "new atheism" (or the older varieties, for that matter), the simplistic philosophical judgment that the world needs no explanation beyond itself and that, as Stephen Hawking once famously remarked, "there is nothing for a creator to do." Rather, the greatest challenge to faith comes from a view often used to defend faith: the view that radically separates and opposes faith and reason and which, at times, maintains that belief is a matter of the heart and not the mind.

In the face of what appear to be challenges from reason and science, believers often retreat to a spiritual citadel, insulate themselves from such challenges, and embrace a kind of "blind faith" that appeals only to the authority of the Bible. We see such appeals in the debates about the great social issues, from abortion and human embryonic stem cell research to same sex marriage. But the wider relationship between faith and reason concerns every element of Christian thought and practice: from the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation to the sacraments and biblical interpretation. The failure to see the essential role of reason in what we believe is one of the great threats to the faith. It is also a threat which is not new.

In the eleventh century, St. Anselm summarized the importance of the fruitful relationship between faith and reason in a famous phrase: fides quaerens intellectum – faith seeking understanding. Two centuries later, St. Thomas Aquinas often noted that faith perfects reason. God is the author of all truth, the truth that faith reveals and the truth that reason discovers. Not only is there no contradiction between these paths to truth. When each is properly navigated, there is a proper unity between them. Faith is a divine gift to a human being and a human being is an animal capable of reason.

Faith informs the human mind and will; it does not negate them. Rather it perfects both, by providing new knowledge and helping to orient the human will to virtue. Reason allows us to probe ever more deeply into what is believed, but even the initial act of believing requires the human intellect. Catholics believe, for instance, that the consecrated bread and wine have become the body and blood of Christ, that there is a new reality present. Reason cannot prove it, but through the doctrine of transubstantiation reason helps to make clear what is believed. Christian doctrines are examples of reason in the service of faith.

Mistrust of reason as the sole guide to truth in ethical matters has often meant that ethics has been reduced to religious belief and belief has been identified with mere opinion. Take abortion. When human life begins is not a matter of faith. That it is immoral intentionally to kill an innocent human being is not first of all a matter of faith. Faith perfects what we know about the dignity of each and every human life; that each human being is created in the image and likeness of God and, thus, is sacred. But the moral judgments necessary for a just society are first of all based on reason.

Faith enhances these judgments; it does not contradict them. That abortion is immoral is a conclusion of reason; that it is sinful is a conclusion of faith. This distinction between what is moral and just, on the one hand, and what faith requires, on the other, is also essential for coherent discourse about marriage and all forms of social relations. Without the proper cultivation of reason, claims about right and wrong based exclusively on faith are not only ineffective in public debate, but ultimately lack intelligibility. Of course, the proper cultivation of reason is not an easy task. Ethics is not geometry. The complexities, however, do not justify a retreat to relativism or the reduction of all moral judgments to matters of faith.

To flee from reason (and science) to the seeming safety of faith alone flies in the face of Catholic teaching and, ultimately, eviscerates faith itself. There can be no faith without reason. This does not mean that faith is subordinate to reason, even though faith presupposes reason. The new atheists are the ones who really have a restricted and distorted notion of reason. They think that there can be reason without God, or, even worse, that to embrace reason one must reject God. But faith helps the believer to see the full amplitude of reason: to see how reason, as well as faith, leads us to God.

William E. Carroll is Thomas Aquinas Fellow in Theology and Science, Blackfriars, University of Oxford.

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Comments (9)Add Comment
written by Michael Francis James Lee, June 04, 2009
Excellent! I found myself thinking of G. K. Chesterton & Benedict XVI as I read this article. Well stated, sound, and clear exposition of Catholic teaching.
Thank you Dr.Carroll
written by debby, June 04, 2009
what a REASONABLE post!
hasn't the "culitivation of reason" has been methodically replaced?
systemic in our educational systems is a lack of formation w/regards to how to think, present an idea, have a civil discussion/debate, i.e., basic LOGIC. its criminal. we do not have to be stupid, passion-only driven beings, yet it seems as if a vast majority are comfortable w/such a low existence.
Like Ancient Rome, we've reduced ourselves to "bread & circus" for the masses,etc. our Fall is coming.
Whose Fault, No Faith?
written by Willie, June 04, 2009
I agree that faith and reason together are necessary for man to understand his place in creation. However, faith is a gift; it is a theological virtue. How does one aquire this faith? Are some given more faith than others or some not at all. How do you tell someone to pray for faith if they don't have faith? Are we all predestined for a certain amount of faith? On the other hand I don't think our answers to life can be answered by pure reason. Such questions as' why am I here.' Just thoughts!
written by Mark, June 04, 2009
I've noticed this "retreat to faith" in the marriage debate. Pro-marriage people will go on and on about how marriage is a sacred institution, but never mention how only a man & a woman can bring forth children.
response to willie
written by debby, June 04, 2009
i think the parable of the Sower (Matt, Mark & Luke) sheds light on this. God is the Sower, every one receives the seed of faith. not everyone responds.
we, the faithfilled, can pray for more grace & seeds of faith for others. once received, faith grows as the person exercises it, steps out of the boat, risks, etc. for me, growing in my belief in His love for me (me alone) & not relying on results are key.
Gift of devotional to grow in faith.
God wants to save us ALL.
written by Willie, June 04, 2009
Thanks Debby. Well said!!!
Still an 'umble Mr.
written by Mack Hall, June 05, 2009
Excellent! THE CATHOLIC THING publishes a gem every day! Thank you!
written by isa, January 04, 2011
'Rather, the greatest challenge to faith comes from a view often used to defend faith: the view that radically separates and opposes faith and reason and which, at times, maintains that belief is a matter of the heart and not the mind.'

Astonishing. Simple, yet so complex.
written by Denny, February 22, 2011
Reason is only one faculty of our soul. The faculty of reason is held up on too high a pedestal. Almost to the point that theology becomes a sterile philosophical string of arguments and conclusions. Reason can only take one so far, and while it is still capable of organizing the mind of one too loud or harsh inside to listen to the Spirit; it can also be over-emphasized as a faculty to the point where one loses the ability to listen for a new answer. Reason may create the inner structure of you personal ethics and decision making, but it must yield to a constant listening into the quiet to the soft promptings and light of the Spirit. The proper disposition, given by Christ, is: "do not worry what you you will say, it will be given to you at the time". Reason only works properly when this inner listening always comes first. Otherwise your reason has little difference from that of the atheists. Reason is only a tool. When Christ was brought the woman in adultery, he did not reason a solution.....he knelt down and drew in the sand until he saw the answer. Reason usually weighs opposites and picks one, whereas the Spirit finds the Way of Christ.

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