Rediscovering the relationship between faith and reason is necessary for understanding and engaging with the atmosphere of our times. Indeed, it has been the church’s constant tradition to show those outside its fold how they possess vague glimpses of what the church teaches, believes, and confesses. However, before analyzing the relationship between faith and reason, we must know what faith and reason are. For through understanding the two terms we can better understand the nuances and particularities of their relationship.
The moderns have often overlooked the dual nature of reason: intellectus and ratio. D. C. Schindler points out that the Western philosophical tradition has always emphasized this distinction:
[There is a distinction between] the intuitive moment (intellectus), by which the mind directly apprehends its object or perceives its self-evident first principles, and the discursive moment (ratio), by which the mind makes inferences, reasoning from principles to conclusions.
St. Thomas teaches that both intellectus and ratio are two distinct aspects of the same act just as movement and rest are two aspects of the same act. As I said before, it is a particularly modern disorder to totally ignore the role of intellectus, but even those who have acknowledged the role of intellectus have tried to put it in the background, as something fore-theoretical. Yet intellectus is not simply a springboard for reason, but governs reasoning as both origin and end. Reason is catholic: it takes into account the whole of reality and, in doing so, elevates man above the beasts and makes him godlike.
Given this view of reason, so the classical tradition goes, it is a kind of divine illumination accessible to the pure of heart. Mark Andersen describes how the Platonists, as a consequence of their view about reason, saw a virtuous life as a necessary prerequisite for reasoning rightly. The Church Fathers’ interactions with the pagan philosophers become more intelligible once we understand how they shared the same view of reason. For one, the Church Fathers liked to say that Plato and the Greek philosophers stole from the Sacred Scriptures. The praise the Church Fathers heaped on the ancients sheds light on the meaning of this apparently harsh rebuke against philosophy’s own autonomy. Let us hear the words of St. Justin Martyr:
Those who lived according to reason are Christians, even though they were accounted atheists. Such among the Greeks were Socrates and Heracleitos, and those who resembled them.
St. Clement of Alexandria offers a similar perspective:
Philosophy is in a sense a work of Divine Providence…It is a Divine gift to the Greeks. It came into existence, not in its own account, but for the advantage reaped by us from knowledge.
St. Nectarios of Aegina offers the most resounding praise:
Plato and Aristotle are auxiliary defenders of the Truth. Divine providence presented them before the arrival of Christianity, in order that they might help Christianity in its struggle against falsehood.
In the light of these wise comments, one understands why the Church Fathers often accused the Greek philosophers of copying the Old Testament: they attributed to them a certain kind of lesser divine illumination akin to that received by the Hebrew prophets.
That same rationalization, which has torn down reason from its lofty heights, has obscured the Church’s traditional doctrine of revelation. Faith is not opposed to reason: we can prove the existence of God and his essential attributes as well as provide examples of miracles. Yet faith is also above reason and the various proofs of aspects of the faith are different from actually proving the faith itself, which is by its very nature improvable through rational demonstration. Most importantly, faith is, like reason, a certain kind of divine illumination, the highest possible known to man in his earthly state. To understand the nature of faith we must understand its formal and material object. St. Thomas teaches that every apprehension involves two aspects: the material thing apprehended and the formal thing by which it is apprehended. For instance, in geometry we can apprehend an infinite number of possible theorems—these are materially apprehended things. How do we know geometric theorems? We use a common device, the syllogism, in all our proofs. The syllogism is a formal object which mediates the material object apprehended. According to St. Thomas, faith is a kind of divine illumination with regard to the material thing apprehended:
[Revelation is] the very perception itself of divine things, by which prophecy is brought about; and by this very perception the veil of darkness and ignorance is taken away.
God himself mediates the divine things perceived as the formal object of faith. Thus I fully agree that faith is total trust in God but, at the same time, faith is total trust in God about something, and that something is the divine truths of the Trinity and Incarnation.
Now that we have seen what faith and reason are, it behooves us to consider how they relate to one another. It seems fitting to delve deeper into the subject matter such that we may flesh out the nuances. Early on we must refute a common error: to view faith as merely adding on a few propositions to reason and then using reason to understand the objects of faith more clearly. I will lay two charges against this view. The first charge is that it makes faith meaningless by ignoring the notion that grace perfects nature and so transforms it in a way that goes beyond just adding a few extra things within the same framework given us by natural reason. The second charge is that saying that we should use unaided reason to understand faith launches us deep into a rabbit hole. For, as all proponents of this position agree, reason is incomplete in that it cannot fully understand all of reality without the aid of faith, even if faith only provides a few extra bits of information to an essentially static picture of things. But if this is the case, then why should we use an incomplete reason to understand a complete faith? Why should we spoil the truths of revelation by using a pagan understanding of things to understand them? The rabbit hole ultimately leads to Luther’s total rejection of philosophy. What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?
Tradition tells us that both faith and reason are at different degrees of divine illumination: reason has a vague understanding amid innumerable errors while faith is a perfect divine illumination by the grace of the new covenant. Given that faith reveals previously hidden things to the intellect, reason’s true role is to grasp this divine wisdom and understood it as far as is possible in our earthly state. Thus we have the notion of a Christian philosophy. In relation between the two wisdoms, pagan wisdom and Christian wisdom, pagan wisdom exists only as a vague glimpse at the Christian wisdom which transcends it without destroying it. Christian philosophy, from Augustine to the Greek fathers to St. Thomas himself and onward, has used pagan notions, such as the distinction between act and potency, and transcended them with new insights such as the distinction between essence and existence. I mentioned earlier that St. Bonaventure praised Augustine for his skillful combination of both Aristotle and Plato, something which the pagans could not have done without the light of faith to guide them. I should also mention St. Basil the Great and St. John Damascene’s comparison between Christian philosophy and the bee. St. Basil the Great teaches us:
Altogether after the manner of bees must we use these writings. For bees do not visit all the flowers without discrimination, nor indeed do they carry away entire those upon which they light, but rather, having taken so much as is adapted to their needs, they let the rest go untouched.
I should, most importantly, mention that the entire Scholastic project and its theory of fides quarens intellectum were founded upon the idea of a Christian philosophy as the completion and fulfillment of pagan wisdom.
Can our discoveries provide new insights for engaging the modern world? Firstly, to the few of good will, ancient philosophy can bring them toward the faith by teaching them about the transcendent and their own longing for it. As St. Clement of Alexandria teaches:
Before the advent of Christ, it prepared mankind for the acceptance of His teaching, and now it serves the same purpose.
Secondly, disordered wills lead to disordered intellects and, as a result, appealing to an autonomous reason leads to the Enlightenment misunderstanding that if one only educates people they will instantly do the good. We should not hope to work miracles in the opinions of society by introducing them to philosophia perennis, especially when that society reviles the very notion.
In conclusion, a close look at what reason and faith are shows us how faith is the true Wisdom which completes the wisdom of the pagans. Hence, I disagree with the notion that both faith and reason are equal approaches toward God. Rather, faith, and that understanding of faith called Christian philosophy, is the true Wisdom, and as such philosophy is not its equal but its mere forerunner.
Listen to the words of the great St. Nectarios of Aegina (whose monastery I passed by when I was in Aegina but unfortunately failed to visit because of ignorance!) :
The lack of knowledge of revealed truth leads man to false theories or erroneous doctrines, and these lead to absurd inferences. Revelation is the lamp that illuminates and guides the mind in its inquiries and leads it to the truth.