Are Faith and Reason Compatible?
A friend recently asked me a great question. Should decisions we make be made on faith alone or should we have faith and use reasoning. Put another way, could the Holy Spirit point us in a direction which seems like a logically poor decision?
At the heart of this question is whether God could ask us to go against valid and sound reasoning. Valid reasoning means that a conclusion logically follows from the premises. Sound reasoning means that the argument is valid, and the premises are true. Before we get into that a bit deeper, we should see what Pope St. John Paul II had to say about the relationship of faith and reason. He wrote:
Faith and reason are, therefore, both gifts that God has given to human persons to rise to the contemplation of Himself, who is Truth itself, and truth about ourselves. So, faith and reason are more than merely compatible; they are complementary.
What is Faith?
Faith means to trust in God. Faith is belief. What we believe, contained in the Creeds of the Church, for example, can be referred to as Faith. The entirety of the Catholic religion can be called the Faith. Faith is not believing in something in irrationally. There is a great amount of evidence for God and the truth of the claims of Christianity.
The Gospels are historically reliable. The Resurrection of Jesus Christ is well attested. And the last two thousand years establish how well founded the Faith of the Christian religion is. The Catholic Church is the Church of Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is God. God exists. On these three levels of God, Christ, and the Church, we have Faith.
The tenets of the Faith lead us to assent in belief to God and to trust Him. This intellectual way of coming to know God moves our free will towards love of Him. Of course, this requires trusting the Church, trusting the saints and holy writers of the past, and trusting in the testament of Tradition, written, or orally handed down to us. In this way, we are trusting what we ourselves have not seen personally, but it is certain rational to trust such a firm witness.
What is Reason?
Reason is the God-given gift of rational thought. Beyond mere reaction, we can come to the knowledge of things, events, and persons through thought and observation. Like Faith, this second wing of the human spirit, leads us to know in order that we might act. We know and we love. We believe and we act.
Lest we think that reason is somehow more rigorous than Faith. We must reject the notion that the only tool of reason is science. Science is an incredibly powerful tool to investigate the material world. What exists and how does it exist? Science, however, can never answer the question, for example: why do we exist at all? For these questions, we might use the tool of philosophy.
Truth is True, Regardless of Feelings
Certain things exist in a certain way and our feelings on the matter do not change that reality. There are certain things which are always true, always and in all places. We might refer to these as “principles.” The application of these principles can be many and varied, but the principles themselves might not change.
When the Church teaches on a matter which pertains to Faith or Morals, the teachings can develop but they will never change. These truths point to the nature of God, of man, and of the created order.
How to Decide Where the Holy Spirit leads?
So, could the Holy Spirit point us in a direction which seems like a logically poor decision? The answer is no. The Holy Spirit is the third Person of the Holy Trinity. The Holy Spirit is God. God never wants to deceive us.
If we are deciding and we have a strong indication that God is leading us in a certain direction, we must figure out why we think that. And, if we feel that logic dictates a different path, we must figure out why we think that. In other words, are we cooperating with the gifts of faith and reason properly?
For reason, we can look at our arguments to ensure that they are valid. Does the conclusion necessarily follow from the premises? If the argument is sound, however, then the conclusion will be valid if the premises are true. It is possible that we have an improper understanding of something. This can affect us greatly because we might think that something is logical, but our arguments are bad or our premises are wrong.
For faith, we must think with the mind of the Church. What does the Church teach on Faith and Morals? We must form our conscience well and learn as much as we can about Church teaching.
Ideally, when we are deciding, we want to know the truth about the best course of action. As Pope Benedict XVI put it, “In the irresistible desire for truth, only a harmonious relationship between faith and reason is the right road that leads to God and to the person’s complete fulfillment (Gen. Audience, Nov. 21, 2012).” He also taught there was a “fertile connection” between understanding and believing. Even the field of Theology which studies the things of God and God Himself is classically defined as “faith seeking understanding (fides quarens intellectum).”
What to Do with a Supposed Contradiction?
God never wants to deceive us.
If we come up against a supposed contradiction where reason seems to be saying one thing and faith is saying another, then necessarily our understanding is wrong as it regards either reason or faith. So, we must diligently investigate our premises and data points, pray, ask for guidance, or research the answer from someone who has wisdom and incite. What we cannot do is act in a way which seems truly illogical, and we cannot act against something we feel convicted by the Holy Spirit to do or not do.
Keep learning about the Holy Spirit!