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Blessed Cardinal John Henry Newman
Blessed Cardinal John Henry Newman
Faith and Reason in Newman, Wojtyla and Ratzinger
St. John Henry Newman by Mary Fotheringham

Since the sixteenth century there has often been a mistaken understanding and confrontation between faith and reason. John Henry Newman, Carol Wojtyla and Joseph Ratzinger are among the outstanding modern Christian thinkers who have best explained the correct relationship between faith and reason. These authors dealt with the problem of skepticism and moral relativism in culture, philosophy and religion.

In the mid-nineteenth century, John Henry Newman, delivered a series of sermons on the subject of faith and reason.These are known as his Oxford University Sermons. In these sermons Newman defends the rational nature of faith. For him the act of faith involves an act of reason. In other words, the faith is something which does not contradict reason but which reaches beyond the limits of reason. In one of the sermons, Newman explains: “(Thus) Faith is the reasoning of a religious mind, or of what Scripture calls a right or renewed heart, which acts upon presumptions rather than evidence, which speculates and ventures on the future when it cannot make sure of it.” The certainty of human faith is based on the confluence of many associations, perceptions and antecedent beliefs. But religious faith is based on God’s revelation of himself rather than human evidences obtained from the material sciences.

The British saint also discusses how humility and love dispose a person to believe in God. “Faith is an intellectual act; right Faith is an intellectual act, done in a certain moral disposition.” It is “animated by the spirit of love and purity.” Faith is safeguarded by reason from credulity and superstition, and from unbelief by love. In his words: “We believe, because we love” where by love he means the right disposition towards God.

Another theme which Newman developed, especially in his Idea of a University was the full circle of knowledge. For him, when theology and empirical sciences stay within their bounds they do not collide. They each have different methods and study reality under different aspects. Instead, they complement each other.

Over a century later, Pope John Paul II dedicated an encyclical letter, Fides et Ratio to address the subject of the right relationship between faith and reason. He began this letter with the following words: “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.”

John Paul II reaffirmed the belief that man is capable of knowing the truth about God and man. The Church affirms this belief in the face of philosophical skepticism. However, she holds that the knowledge of God involves a mystery: “It should nonetheless be kept in mind that Revelation remains charged with mystery. It is true that Jesus, with his entire life, revealed the countenance of the Father, for he came to teach the secret things of God.13 But our vision of the face of God is always fragmentary and impaired by the limits of our understanding. Faith alone makes it possible to penetrate the mystery in a way that allows us to understand it coherently.”

In this treatment of the relationship between faith and reason the pope traced developments in thought through the centuries. Speaking of contemporary man, he writes “Abandoning the investigation of being, modern philosophical research has concentrated instead upon human knowing. Rather than make use of the human capacity to know the truth, modern philosophy has preferred to accentuate the ways in which this capacity is limited and conditioned. This has given rise to different forms of agnosticism and relativism which have led philosophical research to lose its way in the shifting sands of widespread scepticism.”

For his part, the theologian Joseph Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict XVI, repeatedly pointed out the error of contemporary man of reducing knowledge to the empirical sciences. For Ratzinger, there is a unity between being and truth in which the understanding of reason is open to the fullness of being. This classical conception summed in the saying: truth is being (verum est ens) was rejected by Descartes, Kant and Vico. Ratzinger identified the origins of the reduction of reason to scientific reasoning and to technological reason in two stages. Descartes attempted to establish the certainty of reason based on mathematics, discarding as unscientific what could not be expressed in mathematical terms. Later in 1710, Giambattista Vico reduced reason to technology, to man’s control over creation. The consequence of the latter is that reason no longer seeks to know reality and discover meaning in creation. The concern of reason is limited to the control man exerts over nature.

In a 1988 lecture at the University of Cambridge, Cardinal Ratzinger noted how inability to know God because of the reduction of reason to scientific reason leads men to a lack of hope and instead to seek a worldly eschatology which is the result of their action in the world rather of God’s. In some people this gives rise to terrorism which pursues with a religious fanaticism what reason does not provide.

Years later in his 2006 Regensburg Address Pope Benedict XVI returned to the vindication of reason open to the truth which cannot be reduced to scientific reason. He also explained that God who is the Logos gives intelligibility to his creation; “the truly divine God is the God who has revealed himself as logos and, as logos, has acted and continues to act lovingly on our behalf.”  Thus to act contrary to reason is contrary to the nature of God. Scientific reason fails to give a complete account of reality; it is unable to explain the meaning or logos in the world and to appreciate beauty as the expression of the Creator.

A very brief look at the thought of these important authors indicates the rational nature or intelligibility of the world and of the content of faith. The three sustained the classical understanding of the harmony between faith and reason and St. Augustine’s notion of fides quarens intellectum, (faith seeking understanding). By means of reason man understands and develops his faith whereas faith illumines and enriches reason. With this view – John Paul II spoke of a sort of circular relationship between faith and reason – man not only avoids skepticism, superstition and fideism but the modern day moral relativism.

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