Tuesday, February 10, 2009

A sense of balance: Faith and Reason; Natural and Supernatural

In his 1998 Encyclical Letter Fides et Ratio (Faith and Reason), Pope John Paul II said that, "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" (cf. Ex 33: 18; Ps 27: 8-9; 63: 2-3; Jn 14:8; 1 Jn 3:2).

And, in No. 9 of this wonderful Encyclical Letter, John Paul cites the First Vatican Council: "The First Vatican Council teaches...that the truth attained by philosophy and the truth of Revelation are neither identical nor mutually exclusive: 'There exists a twofold order of knowledge, distinct not only as regards their source, but also as regards their object. With regard to the source, because we know in one by natural reason, in the other by divine faith. With regard to the object, because besides those things which natural reason can attain, there are proposed for our belief mysteries hidden in God which, unless they are divinely revealed, cannot be known'. Based upon God's testimony and enjoying the supernatural assistance of grace, faith is of an order other than philosophical knowledge which depends upon sense perception and experience and which advances by the light of the intellect alone. Philosophy and the sciences function within the order of natural reason; while faith, enlightened and guided by the Spirit, recognizes in the message of salvation the “fullness of grace and truth” (cf. Jn 1:14) which God has willed to reveal in history and definitively through his Son, Jesus Christ (cf. 1 Jn 5:9; Jn 5:31-32).

Why is this point so important? Dr. Dietrich von Hildebrand explains: "To see the purely human aspect of things is a necessary foundation for seeing the supernatural aspect. One who does not see the human aspect is insensitive and superficial, and his attitude is incompatible with the true faith. The deeper one sees the natural tragedy of death [for example], then the more one is able to grasp the tremendous significance of our redemption through Christ, and the more one possesses that true faith which St. Paul expresses by asking, 'O death, where is your sting?' But as soon as one jumps over the human aspect without passing through it, one does not ascend to the supernatural aspect, but rather replaces the natural with the supernatural aspect, which can only be attained by faith - one treats the supernatural aspect as if it were the natural, one takes it for granted, and omits that sursum corda, that ascent into the supernatural world which is possible only in faith. If the human aspect is not duly seen, then the aspect of faith is naturalized, and dragged down to the level of the obvious. If the human aspect is suppressed or omitted, then the aspect of faith becomes ungenuine, unreal." (The Devastated Vineyard, pp. 224-225).

We need to maintain this sense of balance between faith and reason, natural and supernatural, at all times. Without it, our life as Christians becomes distorted. For example, some have made an idol out of learning and have embraced a false intellectualism which ignores faith in an attempt to avoid the will of God and His Commandments. This is what Soren Kierkegaard meant when he said, "It is to get rid of doing God's will that we have invented learning...we shield ourselves by hiding behind tomes." (Kierkegaard, quoted in Lowrie, Kierkegaard, New York, Harper, 1962, Vol. II, p. 539).

In an article which addresses illness and healing, and which may be found here, Michael Brown writes, "'Strange as it may seem to many Christians today, the main factor in conversion [in olden times] was exorcism -- the driving out of demons,' MacNutt [referring to Fr. Francis MacNutt] notes emphatically in a book called Healing. 'Belief in the supernatural was accepted in those days and Christianity was presented as being in direct conflict with pagan gods, something like a spiritual 'shoot-out.' That's in contrast to the modern way of attributing ailments (whether bodily or mental) to purely physical and psychological effects. Perhaps the safest approach is to first cast out potential spirits. Exposure to evil can cause maladies.
'What has happened to the major thrust of early Christianity: to heal and exorcise?' asked the former professor, who now runs a ministry in Jacksonville, Florida. Perhaps the decline of fervor dates to a decline in belief in prayer for healing. What happened in all those centuries to diminish the Church's belief in Christ's healing ministry is complicated; but certainly one of the main factors was that Platonic, Stoic, and Manichean thought infected Christian spirituality.
'Another attitude, one of superiority toward healing, holds that miracles were needed to establish the Church, but now that people believe, there is no further need for signs or proof,' he says. 'This attitude is the outcome of an overemphasis on doctrine: healing of the sick takes place, not primarily because God is compassionate and desires to heal broken humanity, but because He wants to make a point.' In other words: Christianity has been over-intellectualized. It is a fact that both healing and exorcism have been shoved aside in modern Catholicism -- which strikes at the heart of our faith."

As Avery Cardinal Dulles explained in his book "The Assurance of Things Hoped For: A Theology of Christian Faith," "Thomas Aquinas at one point defines faith as 'the habit of mind whereby eternal life begins in us, causing the mind to assent to things that do not appear' (S.Th., 2-2, 4.1). Later he explains that, 'since in assenting to matters of faith a person is raised above his own nature, it is necessary the ascent arise from a supernatural principle moving the person inwardly; and this principle is God.' (S.Th., 2-2, 6.1). Once faith is understood as a foretaste of the beatific vision it follows evidently that it cannot be other than supernatural. Only God can impart, when he chooses, a share in his own divine life, which lies beyond the capacities and merits of any creature." (pp. 225-226).

We ignore this balance of faith and reason, natural and supernatural, at our own peril. As John Paul said, "..reason and faith cannot be separated without diminishing the capacity of men and women to know themselves, the world and God in an appropriate way" (Fides et Ratio, No. 17).


Sanctus Belle said...

Notice the two: faith and reason - NOT faith and emotion! We are so many sheep led astray into the fog of emotion, or that I call the "cult of emotion" which leads us to wander in the wilderness rather than to the Truth.

Paul Anthony Melanson said...

Sanctus, you are right in saying that we cannot cave into emotionalism or mere sentimentality. The cult of softness does not produce saints but only eggheads. As Sheen said, Cabbages have heads but no brains. On the other hand, the saintly Archbishop described a Catholic as one with a "cool head" and a "warm heart." While it is important to avoid a purely "sentimental Christianity," still, we must remember that our emotions are valid and often need to be expressed.

Recall the events of Lazarus' death and how Jesus wept: "When Jesus saw her weeping and the Jews who had come with her weeping, he became perturbed and deeply troubled, and said, "Where have you laid him?" They said to him, "Sir, come and see." And Jesus wept. So the Jews said, "See how he loved him." (John 11: 33-36).

There is nothing wrong with expressing our emotions. But, as you correctly note, there is a problem if we live our lives purely on emotion.

Anonymous said...

I just discovered your blog today. And I have to say that it is just terrific. You are filling a void here. So many Catholics are afraid and cower in silence. You boldly proclaim and defend the Faith. Good for you! You are in my prayers. As everything in our culture unravels and the persecution intensifies, may our Lord and His Mother watch over you....God bless!!!

Site Meter