Faith and Reason

By Robert Hugh Benson


 

Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child shall not enter into it.—MARK X. 15.

Some things hard to be understood, which the unlearned and the unstable wrest, as also the other Scriptures, to their own perdition.—II PET. III. 16.

 

There are two great gifts, or faculties, by which men attain to truth:

faith and reason. From these two sides, therefore, come two more assaults upon the Catholic position, a position which itself faces in both these directions. On the one side we are told that we believe too simply, on the other that we do not believe simply enough; on the one side that we reason too little, on the other that we do not reason enough. Let us set out these attacks in order.

I.    (i) “You Catholics,” says one critic, “are far too credulous in matters of religion. You believe, not as reasonable men believe, because you have verified or experienced the truths you profess, but simply because these dogmas are presented to you by the Church. If reason and common-sense are gifts of God and intended for use, surely it is very strange to silence them in your search for the supreme truth. Faith, of course, has its place, but it must not be blind faith. Reason must test, verify, and interpret, or faith is mere credulity.

 

“Consider, for example, the words of Christ, This is My Body. Now the words as they stand may certainly be supposed to mean what you say they mean; yet, interpreted by Reason, they cannot possibly mean anything of the kind. Did not Christ Himself sit in bodily form at the table as He spoke them? How then could He hold Himself in His hand? Did He not speak in metaphors and images continually? Did He not call Himself a Door and a Vine? Using Reason, then, to interpret these words, it is evident that He meant no more than that He was instituting a memorial feast, in which the bread should symbolize His Body and the wine His Blood. So too with many other distinctively Catholic doctrines—with the Petrine claims, with the authority ‘to bind and loose,’ and the rest. Catholic belief on these points exhibits not faith properly so-called—that is, Faith tested by Reason—but mere credulity. God gave us all Reason! Then in His Name let us use it!”

(ii)  From the other side comes precisely the opposite charge.

 

“You Catholics,” cries the other critic, “are far too argumentative and deductive and logical in your Faith. True Religion is a very simple thing; it is the attitude of a child who trusts and does not question.  But with you Catholics Religion has degenerated into Theology. Jesus Christ did not write a Summa; He made a few plain statements which comprise, as they stand, the whole Christian Religion; they are full of mystery, no doubt, but it is He who left them mysterious. Why, then, should your theologians seek to penetrate into regions which He did not reveal and to elaborate what He left unelaborated?

“Take, for example, Christ’s words, This is My Body. Now of course these words are mysterious, and if Christ had meant that they should be otherwise, He would Himself have given the necessary comment upon them.  Yet He did not; He left them in an awful and deep simplicity into which no human logic ought even to seek to penetrate. Yet see the vast and complicated theology that the traditions have either piled upon them or attempted to extract out of them; the philosophical theories by which it has been sought to elucidate them; the intricate and wide-reaching devotions that have been founded upon them! What have words like ‘Transubstantiation’ and ‘Concomitance,’ devotions like ‘Benediction,’ gatherings like Eucharistic Congresses to do with the august simplicity of Christ’s own institution? You Catholics argue too much—deduce, syllogize, and explain—until the simple splendour of Christ’s mysterious act is altogether overlaid and hidden. Be more simple! It is better to ’love God than to discourse learnedly about the Blessed Trinity.’ It has not pleased God to save His people through dialectics. Believe more, argue less!”

Once more, then, the double charge is brought. We believe, it seems, where we ought to reason. We reason where we ought to believe. We believe too blindly and not blindly enough. We reason too closely and not closely enough.

Here, then, is a vast subject—the relations of Faith and Reason and the place of each in man’s attitude towards Truth. It is, of course, possible only to glance at these things in outline.

II.   First, let us consider, as a kind of illustration, the relations of these things in ordinary human science. Neither Faith nor Reason will, of course, be precisely the same as in supernatural matters; yet there will be a sufficient parallel for our purpose.

 

A scientist, let us say, proposes to make observations upon the structure of a fly’s leg. He catches his fly, dissects, prepares, places it in his microscope, observes, and records. Now here, it would seem, is Pure Science at its purest and Reason in its most reasonable aspect. Yet the acts of faith in this very simple process are, if we consider closely, simply numberless. The scientist must make acts of faith, certainly reasonable acts, yet none the less of faith, for all that: first, that his fly is not a freak of nature; next, that his lens is symmetrically ground; then that his observation is adequate; then that his memory has not played him false between his observing and his recording that which he has seen. These acts are so reasonable that we forget that they are acts of faith. They are justified by reason before they are made, and they are usually, though not invariably, verified by Reason afterwards. Yet they are, in their essence, Faith and not Reason.

So, too, when a child learns a foreign language. Reason justifies him in making one act of faith that his teacher is competent, another that his grammar is correct, a third that he hears and sees and understands correctly the information given him, a fourth that such a language actually exists. And when he visits France afterwards he can, within limits, again verify by his reason the acts of faith which he has previously made. Yet none the less they were acts of faith, though they were reasonable. In a word, then, no acquirement of or progress in any branch of human knowledge is possible without the exercise of faith. I cannot walk downstairs in the dark without at least as many acts of faith as there are steps in the staircase. Society could not hold together another day if mutual faith were wholly wanting among its units. Certainly we use reason first to justify our faith, and we reason later to verify it. Yet none the less the middle step is faith. Columbus reasoned first that there must be a land beyond the Atlantic, and he used that same reason later to verify his discovery. Yet without a sublime act of faith between these processes, without that almost reckless moment in which he first weighed anchor from Europe, reason would never have gone beyond speculative theorizing. Faith made real for him what Reason suggested. Faith actually accomplished that of which Reason could only dream.

III. Turn now to the coming of Jesus Christ on earth. He came, as we know now, a Divine Teacher from heaven to make a Revelation from God; He came, that is, to demand from men a sublime Act of Faith in Himself. For He Himself was Incarnate Wisdom, and He demanded, therefore, as none else can demand it, a supreme acceptance of His claim. No progress in Divine knowledge, as He Himself tells us, is possible, then, without this initial act. Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child shall not enter into it. Every soul that is to receive this teaching in its entirety must first accept the Teacher and sit at His feet.

 

Yet He did not make this claim merely on His own unsupported word. He presented His credentials, so to say; He fulfilled prophecy; He wrought miracles; He satisfied the moral sense. Believe Me, He says, for the very works’ sake. Before, then, demanding the fundamental act of Faith on which the reception of Revelation must depend, He took pains to make this Act of Faith reasonable. “You see what I do,” He said in effect, “you have observed My life, My words, My actions. Now is it not in accordance with Reason that you should grant My claims? Can you explain away, reasonably, on any other grounds than those which I state, the phenomena of My life?”

Certainly, then, He appealed to Reason; He appealed to Private Judgment, since that, up to that moment, was all that His hearers possessed. But, in demanding an Act of Faith, He appealed to Private Judgment to set itself aside; He appealed to Reason as to whether it were not Reasonable to stand aside for the moment and let Faith take its place. And we know how His disciples responded. Whom do you say that I am?... Thou art the Christ, the Son of the Living God.

At that instant, then, a new stage was begun. They had used their Reason and their Private Judgment, and, aided by His grace, had concluded that the next reasonable step was that of Faith. Up to that point they had observed, dissected, criticized, and analyzed His words; they had examined, that is, His credentials. And now it was Reason itself that urged them towards Faith, Reason that abdicated what had hitherto been, its right and its duty, that Faith might assume her proper place.  Henceforth, then, their attitude must be a different one. Up to now they had used their Reason to examine His claim; now it was Faith, aided and urged by Reason, which accepted it.

Yet even now Reason’s work is not done, though its scope in future is changed. Reason no longer examines whether He be God; Faith has accepted it: yet Reason has to be as active as ever; for Reason now must begin with all its might the task of understanding His Revelation. Faith has given them, so to speak, casket after casket of jewels; every word that Jesus Christ henceforth speaks to them is a very mine of treasure, absolutely true since He is known to be a Divine Teacher Who has given it. And Reason now begins her new work, not of justifying Faith, but, so to say, of interpreting it; not of examining His claims, since these have been once for all accepted, but of examining, understanding, and assimilating all that He reveals.

III. Turn now to Catholicism.

 

It is the Catholic Church, and the Catholic Church only, that acts as did Jesus Christ and offers an adequate object to Reason and Faith alike. For, first, it is evident that if Christ intended His Revelation to last through all time, He must have designed a means by which it should last, an Authority that should declare and preserve it as He Himself delivered it. And next, it is evident that since the Catholic Church alone even claims that prerogative, clearly and coherently, her right to represent that Authority is in proportion to the clearness and coherence of her claim. Or, again, she advances in support of that claim precisely those same credentials as did He: she points to her miracles, her achievements, the fulfilment of prophecy, the unity of her teaching, the appeal to men’s moral sense—all of them appeals to Reason, and appeals which lead up, as did His, to the supreme claim, which He also made, to demand an Act of Faith in herself as a Divine Teacher.

For she alone demands it. Other denominations of Christendom point to a Book, or to the writings of Fathers, or to the example of their members, and she too does these things. But it is she alone who appeals to these things not as final in themselves, not as constituting in themselves a final court of appeal, but as indicating as that court of appeal her own Living Voice. Believe me, for the works’ sake, she too says. “Use your reason to the full to examine my credentials; study prophecy, history, the Fathers—study my claims in any realm in which your intellect is competent—and then see if it is not after all supremely reasonable for Reason to abdicate that particular throne on which she has sat so long and to seat Faith there instead? Certainly follow your Reason and use your private judgment, for at present you have no other guide; and then, please God, aided by Faith, Reason will itself bow before Faith, and take her own place henceforth, not on the throne, but on the steps that lead to it.”

Is Reason, then, to be silent henceforth? Why, the whole of theology gives the answer. Did Newman cease to think when he became a Catholic?  Did Thomas Aquinas resign his intellect when he devoted himself to study? Not for one instant is Reason silent. On the contrary, she is active as never before. Certainly she is no longer occupied in examining as to whether the Church is divine, but instead she is busied, with incredible labours, in examining what follows from that fact, in sorting the new treasures that are opened to her with the dawn of Revelation upon her eyes, in arranging, deducting, and understanding the details and structure of the astonishing Vision of Truth. And more, she is as inviolate as ever. For never can there be presented to her one article of Faith that gives the lie to her own nature, since Revelation and Reason cannot contradict one the other. She has learned, indeed, that the mysteries of God often transcend her powers, that she cannot fathom the infinite with the finite; yet never for one moment is she bidden to evacuate her own position or believe that which she perceives to be untrue. She has learned her limitations, and with that has come to understand her inviolable rights.

See, then, how the features of Christ look out through the lineaments of His Church. She alone dares to claim an act of Divine Faith in herself, since it is He Who speaks in her Voice. She alone, since she is Divine, bids the wisest men become as little children at her feet and endows little children with the wisdom of the ancients. Yet, on the other hand, in her magnificent Humanity, she has produced through the exercise of illuminated human Reason such a wealth of theology as the world has never seen. Is it any wonder that the world thinks both her Faith and Reason alike too extreme? For her Faith rises from her Divinity and her Reason from her Humanity; and such an outpouring of Divinity and such an emphatic Humanity, such a superb confidence in God’s revelation and such untiring labours upon the contents of that Revelation, are altogether beyond the imagination of a world that in reality, fears both Faith and Reason alike.

At her feet, and hers only, then, do the wisest and the simple kneel together—St. Thomas and the child, St. Augustine and the “charcoal burner”; as diverse, in their humanity, as men can be; as united in the light of Divinity as only those can be who have found it.

So, then, she goes forward to victory. “First use your reason,” she cries to the world, “to see whether I be not Divine! Then, impelled by Reason and aided by Grace, rise to Faith. Then once more call up your Reason, to verify and understand those mysteries which you accept as true. And so, little by little, vistas of truth will open about you and doctrines glow with an undreamed-of light. So Faith will be interpreted by Reason and Reason hold up the hands of Faith, until you come indeed to the unveiled vision of the Truth whose feet already you grasp in love and adoration; until you see, face to face in Heaven, Him Who is at once the Giver of Reason and the Author of Faith.”

 



 

 


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