Sunday, March 28, 2010

Benedict on Aquinas: "Faith Implies Reason"

By James V. Schall

"According to the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas, human reason, to say it as such, 'breathes,' that is, it moves on a wide-open horizon in which it can experience the best of itself. Nonetheless, when man limits himself to think only of material and experimental objects, he closes himself to the questions of life, about himself and about God, impoverishing himself." -- Benedict XVI, Feast of Thomas Aquinas, January 28, 2007


A seminarian friend of mine in Connecticut brought my attention, via e-mail, to the ZENIT copy of the Holy Father's Angelus for Sunday, January 28, entitled, "On the Faith-Reason Synthesis: A Precious Patrimony for Western Civilization." Naturally, I hastened to look it up as I had not yet read it. One good thing about the weekly papal Sunday "Angelus" talks is that they are short, to the point, and seldom designed to say more than one thing to the folks assembled below the papal balcony to receive the papal blessing. As I had been reading both Chesterton's Heretics and John Paul II's Memory and Identity with a class, this brief comment on Aquinas was of particular interest to me.

I have always considered particularly prophetic the conclusion of Chesterton's book, written in 1905. It described, in his own vivid and far-seeing way, what would, more than anything, be the philosophical irony of the then upcoming 20th and 21st centuries, namely, the "self-limitation" of the human mind so that it denied itself the power to get outside of itself into a reality it did not make. In a certain almost verbatim anticipation of the thesis of Fides et Ratio, Chesterton wrote of the coming centuries, "We (those with the faith) shall look on the impossible grass and the skies with a strange courage. We shall be of those who have seen and yet have believed." The fact is that, a hundred years after Chesterton wrote, it is primarily those with the faith who can affirm that their senses and reason report to them a real world that is. They are the ones with the courage to speak of the skies as "heavens" even if blue and of the grass as green.

Chesterton's paradoxical passage, of course, presupposes that we recall the famous conversation of Christ with the apostle Thomas after the Resurrection. Thomas brashly clamed that he would believe it was actually Christ only after he had put his hand in the side of the Lord's risen body. Christ's equally paradoxical reply was "blessed are those, Thomas, who have not seen but have believed." Here, we find Chesterton stating the obvious, that, in our time, it is those with the faith who are most likely to be the ones who use their senses and mind to see and affirm the world that is, who think that there really is a world to know.

The Pope, in his comment on Aquinas, adds that there are things to be known by our reason that are not limited to the material realm, about which latter many philosophers also doubt whether we can know other than through our man-constructed scientific theories about them. Thus, on such a premise, what we see are not things but our theories of things. And when our theories change, we wonder whether we ever see anything at all. We have to "believe" that what we see with our senses is really there.


Benedict, who is often said to be more of an "Augustinian" than a "Thomist" philosopher (neither of which, be it noted, are sins), remarks that Aquinas has the "charism" of both a philosopher and a theologian. Aquinas "offers a valid model of harmony between reason and faith." Both of these "dimensions of the human spirit (reason and faith)" are "fully realized when they meet and dialogue." If we take this statement literally, as I think we should, it means that philosophy is not philosophy if it is only philosophy, and theology is not theology if it is only theology. To be what they are at their best, both need the other, and more, both need in those who hold them the full experience of human living itself. The notion that faith and reason should not meet--absolute "separation" of church and state, complete "autonomy" of faith and reason--is itself a formula for not "fully realizing" the whole, to which both theology and philosophy are to be open by their own proper approaches. Revelation addresses itself to a reason that has its own unanswered philosophical questions. Philosophy, when it knows what it knows, realizes that it is but a "quest." Only the gods are wholly wise.

Benedict remarks that Aquinas' thought literally "breathes" on the whole "horizon" of the reality to which it is open. Here the Pope uses the analogy of "breathing" rather than that of "seeing." The Spirit "hovers" over the waters, all waters. It is quite possible for us, however, voluntarily to close ourselves off from things higher than those to which our scientific or theoretical methods will allow us to grasp. What the Pope emphasizes here is that this "closing off" is not a theoretically necessary thing, but a "choice" on our part not to see certain things whose existence would impinge on our own self-made image of the world, on the way we choose to live.

Benedict next refers back both to John Paul II's Fides et Ratio and to his own Regensburg Lecture in which these very issues were discussed in greater detail. The "challenge of faith and reason" has directly to do with the problem of Western culture's understanding itself, itself and other cultures. The Pope never misses an opportunity to praise what in modern technological culture is worthy and even noble. These good results "must always be acknowledged." Yet, there is an Enlightenment problem. The tendency to consider true only "that which can be experienced constitutes a limitation for human reason and produces a terrible schizophrenia, evident to all, because of which rationalism and materialism, and hyper-technology and unbridled instincts, coexist." Because something cannot be "measured" or reproduced by mathematical methods, themselves rightly based on matter, does not mean that everything is material. Mathematical "ideas" are themselves, as Plato said, spiritual. If we insist that only matter exists, we "reduce" our sights so that we only see what is material. We confuse it for everything.

What is needed? We must "rediscover in a new way human rationality open to the light of the divine Logos and to its perfect revelation that is Jesus Christ, Son of God made man." Does this view not "restrict" our range of freedom and knowledge? Quite the opposite. Any closing off of the mind from the full range of things to which it is open is itself a denial both of freedom and reason. "When Christian faith is authentic, it does not mortify freedom or human reason." There is no reason for faith and reason to be "afraid" of one another. This is particularly so because, when faith and reason meet in dialogue, both "can express themselves in the best way." Reason by itself is not full reason. Faith by itself is not full faith.

Benedict puts St. Thomas' famous dictum that "grace builds on nature" in this way: "Faith implies reason and perfects it." When reason is itself "illuminated" by faith, it finds strength "to rise to knowledge of God and of spiritual realities." Does reason somehow "lose" something if it is stimulated by faith to be more reasonable on its own terms? Hardly. Faith or revelation is not in the least interested in a reason that is somehow under compulsion from revelation or anything else. This lack of freedom would corrupt both reason and faith. Faith calls for "free and conscious adherence." What is seen by reason in faith makes sense to it, that is to reason, on its own grounds.

Thomas, Benedict points out, spent much effort, especially in the Summa contra Gentiles, with the thoughts and positions of Jewish and Muslim philosophers. Thomas is always "present" in dialogue with other religions and cultures precisely because of his ability to press the question of reason to any claim to truth, even a truth of revelation. He simply wanted to know if what was held contradicted reason. If it did not, its credibility was naturally much enhanced.

To "introduce this Christian synthesis between reason and faith that represents a precise patrimony for Western civilization," which was the achievement of Aquinas, is the key to dialogue with "the great cultural and religious traditions of East and South of the world." The East and South, of course, include but also go beyond both the Jewish and Muslim worlds. It is significant that Benedict's vision is not a restricted one precisely because of what is at the heart of the Western tradition, a universality of reason addressed to any mind whatever its geographical or cultural or religious background or intellectual component..


The second chapter of John Paul II's last book, Memory and Identity, is entitled "Ideologies of Evil." It is intended to ask about the meaning of the major ideologies of the twentieth century, Nazism and Communism. Why so much evil? Does this not prove that God does not exist? John Paul II, like Benedict in the Regensburg Address, is conscious of the relation of historical events to salvation history. In order to reflect on this issue, John Paul II, himself, like Benedict, no mean philosopher in his own right, endeavors to explain, in theological terms, the meaning of the fact of the evil of these ideologies and their actual record of human devastation. In order to do this, Pope Wojtyla presents a brief history of philosophy that serves to reinforce what Benedict had today of Aquinas.

John Paul II initially recalls his first three encyclicals, on the Son, the Father, and the Holy Spirit. Following Augustine's definition of pride, he explains the relation of modern ideology to the claim of man to be able to form his own laws independently of God (modernity in the ideological sense). The temptation of Adam and Eve is precisely to enable us to" decide what is good and what is evil". To overcome this pride, the love of God must replace the love of self. The evil of historic movements can only be overcome by reestablishing the proper order of man to God. Mankind needs something more than himself, a help which is offered in grace. But he may freely refuse it. Out of this "refusal" comes most of the disorder in the world that we know.

Man cannot get back onto his feet unaided: he needs the help of the Holy Spirit. If he refuses this help, he commits what Christ called "the blasphemy against the Spirit," the sin which "will not be forgiven" (Mt. 12:31). Why will it not be forgiven? Because it means there is no desire for pardon. Man refuses the love and the mercy of God, since he believes himself to be God. He believes himself to be capable of self-sufficiency.

John Paul II wants to know: what "limits" evil, the actual experienced evil of our times? To talk of its "limits" implies knowing what evil is, or better, what it is not, that is, the lack of a good that ought to be there in a good being.

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