This article was previously published in Sword & Spade magazine.
Jared Staudt, teacher and father, explains why distinguishing faith and reason is important when debating and explaining.
In a world that has gone mad, our greatest need in the recovery of our sanity is faith. Without it, the human mind experiences an eclipse, cut off from the true source of its light. Pope Benedict XVI often affirmed that without faith, reason limits itself to merely mundane and utilitarian concerns and, consequently, descends into relativism. Faith without reason, however, also runs into problems as it can fall into superstition or other distortions. We need both faith and reason to help us toward healthy and holy — sane and inspired — ways of thinking about life. Equipped with these gifts, and understanding their differences, we can better help others in thinking through the tough questions of life.
But in the reality of discussing and debating truth in a mad world, we often deploy faith and/or reason in the wrong ways or for the wrong reasons. We can be armed with truth and miss the mark, so it is important to learn how to use faith and reason so that we don’t diminish the power of one or the other.
Conformity to Reality
Truth has become a bad word, as too many people parrot Pilate’s response to Jesus, “What is truth?” (John 18:38). Thomas Aquinas defined it so simply, however: Truth is the conformity of the mind to reality. Truth is not creative, something that each person makes up. Truth is grasping and understanding what is. Really, it is that simple. Something either is or it is not, and if we figure that out correctly, we have grasped the truth. Truth requires humility, as it entails subordinating ourselves to something outside of ourselves and accepting its reality. We cannot impose the truth; we have to receive it.
Although reason can discern with certainty many truths, like the truth that God exists, there are places it cannot go, like knowing God in himself on our own. There are parts of reality that are beyond our reach. God is beyond the universe, completely transcendent from his creation, and in order to know him, he has to reveal himself to us (literally, to pull back the veil that separates us from him). By faith, God elevates our minds to him, giving us a grace to know him in a way that exceeds our ordinary abilities. He also gives us clarity on our nature and His plan of salvation for us. Faith enables us to affirm that Jesus is the Son of God made man who came into the world to save us. This supernatural knowledge reveals an unseen reality which is the very life of the Triune God.
Other things, however, do not require faith to understand. Reason helps us understand human nature, how we are different from all other beings in the universe in our ability to think and make free choices. It can affirm clearly and without doubt that life begins at conception, as a matter of fact and not opinion. Every embryology textbook conveys that a unique human being arises at the moment of conception. It is also clear-cut that mammals, including us rational animals, are biologically male and female, in a way that is rooted in genetics and reaches to every cell of the body. Marriage arises naturally from the reality of the complementarity of man and woman for reproduction and the raising of children. Reason can also tell us that certain things are harmful to human life and happiness — murder, theft, infidelity, lying, and betrayal, for instance. These choices damage human flourishing and lead to a breakdown of communion with others.
We do not need faith to affirm these truths. They stand simply in accord with the reality of human nature. Faith does affirm them, however, to strengthen our minds and to overcome confusion. To say that the nature of marriage, the defense of human life, and the principles of morality are “religious” in nature, however, poses a grave threat to human rationality and society, as it undermines their foundation in our nature and in sheer common sense. Many people try to categorize these realities as “religious” or a “matter of faith” so that they can push them out of public discourse. “The defense of life, marriage, sex, are religious,” they say, “so they are really just a matter of opinion. We can all disagree about them and you cannot push your beliefs on me.” This is incoherent nonsense. We need to make rational arguments, accessible to everyone, to defend the basic reality of what it means to be a human being and to live a good life in accord with our nature.
Other truths do need revelation to make sense. We cannot argue about matters of faith with nonbelievers because they lack the supernatural vision to see them. Without faith, God does seem remote, as beyond our vision, and, therefore, a matter of opinion. In sharing his revelation with others, we have to be careful not to use the Bible in a way that presupposes its acceptance; instead, we have to propose it to others as a divine message that needs consideration. Without faith, the Eucharist is simply a piece of bread. It does not make sense to others, but we can help them to see how it expresses God’s great love to be close to us, to be one with us. For matters of faith, it is not rational argumentation that wins out, although we can answer objections and misunderstandings, but testimony and witness that persuade. We can manifest what faith has done in our lives, giving us deeper purpose and God’s transforming help.
Our response to the craziness of the world must be twofold. First, we have to insist on speaking the truth in a rational way that everyone can understand, pointing to undeniable facts like our biology. On the other hand, we have to propose a higher way, witnessing to God’s great love for us that goes beyond nature and reason, not in a way that undermines them but that transforms them into something greater. Reason and faith need each. Faith awakens the mind to the greatest truths. Reason provides our way of thinking that God uses to help us to understand him and to share our faith with others. Together, they lead us into the fullness of truth, the reality of God and his plan for our lives.