A rather interesting article was written in 1953 by the then still very young Robert Spaemann, and he draws the reader’s attention to a little-known figure of the French counterrevolution: Louis de Bonald. I doubt that I would ever had heard of him, had I not encountered his thought by way of trying to understand Robert Spaemann. Not with the French revolution but with de Bonald, Spaemann argues, begins a new way of looking at religion: understanding it through its social function, as something that is good because it is good for society. This kind of thinking became ever more powerful in 19th century thought. It domesticated religion, as it blunted the unconditional reverence one feels when becoming aware of the infinite abyss that opens up when reflecting on the origin of all existence. This domestication by sociologizing is where the trouble started.
The Power of Reason as an Article of Faith
Spaemann’s article begins with something paradoxical. In 1870, the first Vatican Council held it to be an article of faith that knowledge of God was possible through the power of human reason. Faith is not blind, but enlightened by reason and articulated in rational understanding. The Church Council affirmed this power of reason and reason’s openness to God and the rationality of faith. Even if apparently paradoxical as a statement about reason that is taught as faith, it needed to be said. Reason needs to be affirmed by faith, just as faith needs to be affirmed by reason. As we make sense of the world, faith and reason must emerge together in a mutually supportive relationship, as without the other, neither can prevail.
What our age has lost is reverence for truth, the recognition that truth is something that we strive for rather than expect to adapt to our needs. Our age lacks is the recognition that truth is sacred, and that it cannot be separated from our lived understanding of the sacred, and that this relationship need to be made explicit so that it can be understood. But without reverence for truth, the dialogue about faith and reason in all the complexity of a modern society cannot be had.
Maybe you think that at least, we can all agree on science and show reverence to science, as we all know that science will reveal true facts about which all should agree. The trouble is that the price for doing science is abandoning all that might give it meaning. Science gives us a common body of knowledge. Science shows that our understanding is not merely subjective. But science, when done properly, does not speak of values. These must come from somewhere else if we want to find meaning in facts.
The Catholic Tradition
The Catholic intellectual tradition is a long history of dialogue between faith and reason. It remains a rich source for those who want to understand how faith and reason come together. It continues to uphold it. The most recent example is Pope Francis’s Encyclical Letter “Laudato Si: On Care for Our Common Home.” The Holy Father calls for an “openness to categories which transcend the language of mathematics and biology.” We must show such openness, if we want goodness to come from what reason has accomplished. The Holy Father calls for an acceptance of reason in a spirit of faith, moving beyond facticity and seeking goodness. The Holy Father has a deeply Franciscan view of creation, and an old-fashioned Catholic view of faith and reason in unity, in the larger unity made possible in Christ.
The Catholic tradition knows that without faith, reason cannot long prevail. And those who believe that the human social order is self-organizing, without need to show reverence for truth, ought to ask themselves whether they can truly have faith in such an order. Those who seek a larger dialogue between different cultures and their religions would be well advised to frame the dialogue in the question of what it means for faith to be reasonable and reason to be faithful.
Religion and Society
What gave occasion to this week’s blog was reflecting on what I have learned from one year as a part-time participant in the discussions of the Centre for Studies in Religion and Society at the University of Victoria. A little more than a year ago, I asked the Centre’s director for his opinion on Pope Benedict’s “Regensburg Address,” which was entitled “Faith, Reason and the University.” It remains a challenge. I thought that it was fitting to return to the same topic, now that my year there is over. Pope Benedict’s challenge has not yet become part of the intellectual life of secular universities, but I hope that one day, it will, and when it does, it will mark the beginning of a renewal of life in the university.