Faith and Knowledge

By Guest Blogger Dr. Aaron Urbanczyk

A Brief Reflection on the Catholic Vision of Faith as Knowledge

Benedict XVI has declared that the Church celebrate a “Year of Faith” from 12 October 2012 to 24 November 2013.  We find ourselves now of the very eve of this year in which the Church is called to contemplate the great gift of faith, and it seems to me a suitable time to reflect upon the theme of faith’s relationship to reason.

Reasonable Faith?

What has reason to do with faith, one might ask?  This question, of course, grows out of the widely held secular notion that the religious assent of “faith” is the contrary opposite of reason.  According to this view, “reason” is what the mind can rationally know (the empirical, the scientific, what is demonstrable to the five senses).  Even logic itself is constricted to the procrustean bed of empirical data (e.g. what isn’t material cannot be “knowable” and most likely doesn’t exist).  Thus, to the modern secular mind faith is simply assent to the unprovable, the unknowable, the indemonstrable – in other words, it is absurd and below the dignity of reason.

The Catholic intellectual tradition has a fundamentally different understanding of what faith means.  According to our tradition, faith is, in fact, a form of knowledge.  Further, this form of knowledge is anything but the brain shutting itself off in favor of wild bouts of affective enthusiasm (a common but distorted caricature of faith popular among secular religious critics).  Faith is, however, unlike the type of knowledge that is natural to us.  We can know much through human reason:  we can unlock many of the mysteries of the natural world; we can peer deeply into human nature; we can even know that a single perfect God must exist who is the creator and cause of all things.  Yet we can never deduce on our own the content of the Christian faith’s mysteries – the Triune God, the Incarnation, salvation through Christ, and other such sublime doctrines.

Faith is thus different from the knowledge reason can acquire on its own on two counts:  1) its content is a great mystery (something not irrational, but not deducible by reason alone) and 2) this knowledge must be received as a gift through an encounter with the Living God.  In this latter point I underscore the notions of “gift” and “encounter.”  Anyone who properly receives even the most meager gift knows that it is in the character of a gift that it is freely given from the giver and the receiver has no rightful claim to the gift on his own – it can only be given in generosity (and love) and must be received in humility and gratitude.  I also emphasize “encounter,” because as attractive as the Holy Catholic Faith may be to the intellectual, one cannot be saved by accepting the doctrines of the Church as merely intellectual postulates.  We must, like Moses, experience the all consuming presence of God and be compelled in the entirety of our persons to come into the covenant of love with Him.  Surely, reason compels us toward the truth, but ultimately, the Truth is a relationship with the person who is Truth Himself.

Papal Wisdom

I will conclude my reflection by recommending two papal encyclicals, the only two of which I am aware that explicitly deal with the relationship between philosophy and faith.  One might profit by reading Leo XIII’s 1879 encyclical Aeterni Patris, which called for the Church to return to the sound bastion of its own intellectual tradition to ward off the errors creeping into the modern mind through misguided philosophies.  Further, we find in the writings of one of our late contemporaries, the saintly and brilliant John Paul II,  a real gem – his 1998 landmark work Fides et Ratio.  This encyclical properly situates the relationship between faith and reason in the face of our current postmodern relativism and nihilism.

It is my sincere hope that in this year of faith, the Church popularizes and defends its tradition that faith is a form of divine knowledge, a knowledge that respects our rationality, but calls us beyond what we can “prove” according to our limited lights and into the mystery of God’s eternal truth and reality.  Faith is not the irrational or the absurd, as Leo XII and John Paul II remind us; rather, faith is the assent to the highest of all truths that come to us a the free gift of love from Christ, whom St. Augustine was fond of calling the one true Teacher of all that can be known.

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