The relationship between Faith and Reason
Here’s the sermon that Fr John Deighan gave last night at our monthly prolife mass.
One of the issues that we have to deal with a pro-life Christians is the relationship between reason and faith. The sinfulness of abortion, of euthanasia, of experimentation on embryos, and so on, is part of the authoritative teaching of the Church, to be received in faith by all Catholics. But the Church also teaches that the same, identical moral judgements can be arrived at through the correct employment of human reason. We are pro-life because we are Catholics; and we are pro-life because it makes sense.
In the first reading, we hear about Samuel listening to the voice of the Lord. Now, faith and reason, in different ways, are based on a form of listening. In the case of faith, we listen to the message of God as revealed in the history of salvation, in the Scriptures and in the living voice of the Church, all of which point to Jesus Christ who is himself the Word of God made incarnate. Jesus himself cried out “Listen, if you have ears”; because through faith, listening is transformed into an event of salvation. But reason, too, is based on a kind of listening. St Paul tells us, in the letter to the Romans, that the truth of God is plainly revealed to our minds through the things he has created. In other words, there is a message implicit in the created order, a message that comes from God, who is its author. God endowed us with reason so that, gradually, we would succeed in interpreting and understanding that message. And ethical content of that message is what we call the natural law. The natural law is the fruit of a kind of profound listening to reality, a paying-attention to creation itself. Thus, an authentically rational attitude begins with the humility of one who listens, one who hushes his own voice in order to hear the voiceless message of God in the things he has created.
Humility, then, is the key to successful listening, both when it comes to faith and when it comes to reason. We need to be humble enough to listen to God, and we need to be humble enough to seek help from others in understanding what God has to say. If we fail to do this – if we fail to take a humble and listening attitude reality – then we are going to get into serious trouble. This is, in fact, one of the roots of the culture in which we live today, to which Pope John II gave the name “culture of death”. Rather than approaching reality with the humility of an attentive listener who asks “what can I learn”, modern man too often approaches reality with the question “what can I gain?” Rather than submitting his mind to reality in its every dimension – which is the basis of a truly ethical life – modern man too often seeks to dominate reality and to force it into submission. This is exactly what we see with the 20th century abortion boom: for abortion is the unilateral exaltation of human freedom over reality itself. The human mind – and perhaps more pertinently, the human will – rather than taking reality as its measure, becomes the measure thereof. But to measure reality rather than to be measured by it is proper only to the mind of God. Hence, behind the culture of death, there is concealed – and I use the word in the strict sense – a satanic idolatry of the human will itself. Confronted with reality – and behind that reality, ultimately, with God himself – the human will repeats those satanic words: “I shall not serve!” I will not submit.
This at least tells us what we are up against. While minds remain trapped in error, the real rebellion is in the will. For this reason, argumentation, however convincing, will often not be sufficient. Satan himself knew, rationally speaking, that he was not God; he knew that his rebellion could only end in disaster. And yet he rebelled, because he could not bring himself to submit. A similarly wilful refusal to submit to reality, it seems to me, is at the heart of our present culture of death.
Which brings us full circle – back to faith and reason. For while reason is competent to influence the mind, it can do nothing to overcome the resistance of a stubborn will. God, however, has the power not only to change minds, but also to change hearts. Therefore, with those people whose wills are genuinely submitted, but whose minds are darkened by error, we employ rational argument, so as to remove the error. And with those whose will are in revolt against reality, we use prayer; for their malady can only be healed by God. In this way, argument and prayer, faith and reason, come together and work in harmony in the cause of the culture of life.
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