In case anyone reading has ever wondered why it is vital to look beyond fundamental, blind faith without questioning or applying reason, let us begin with a video. The clip below is a scene from The West Wing, written by Aaron Sorkin. It addressed why philosophy and religion must be interrelated.
Believers Need Reasoning
Many religious commandments, edicts, and teachings can be ambiguous, and are sometimes contradictory. It is only by through critical and logical thinking that religious believers can interpret and understand these directives and try to apply general rules to specific cases (Fieser). In spite of Marin Luther’s sola fide (faith alone) approach to religion, a full grasp of religious belief requires examination through a philosophical lens.
Faith demands reason. In order to truly understand religious belief and prove its validity, we must incorporate logic, reason, and critical thinking. That’s where philosophy comes in. The challenge is to apply the philosophical techniques we’ve learned to the theology upon which we are building.
Faith and Reason
Consider the words of contemporary theologian and religious philosopher Saint John Paul II, who was leader of the global Catholic Church from 1978 to 2005. He wrote in his 1998 encyclical Fides et Ratio: On the Relationship Between Faith and Reason, “Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth; and God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth.” Here the former Pope stressed the importance of applying reason, critical thinking, logic to the theology and religious practice we are taught from childhood.
John Paul II is hardly the first philosopher to stress the importance of connecting faith and reason. Saint Anslem of Canterbury used Fides Quaerens Intellectum as a motto. It means “faith seeking understanding” or “faith seeking intellect.” He said in Proslogium, “The believer does not seek to understand, that he may believe, but he believes that he may understand.”
Augustinian and Thomistic Examples
In De Genesi ad Litteram (On the Literal Meaning of Genesis), Saint Augustine of Hippo accomplishes two major things related to faith and reason. First, he explains its value and second, he presents an excellent example. “We find in Holy Scripture passages which can be interpreted in very different ways,” Augustine writes. “We should not rush in headlong and so firmly take our stand on one side that, if further progress in the search of truth justly undermines this position, we too fall with it.”
What Augustine is saying here is that the religious faithful should not hold so tightly to a concept or teaching that when new information alters the meaning or validity of such teaching the faithful’s beliefs crumble. We must be willing to examine religious thought as part of an ever evolving world of knowledge and apply that knowledge in an effort to more deeply understand religion.
The example Augustine presents—if you couldn’t guess from the title of his work—relates to the Judeo-Christian teachings on creation. Specifically, he examines the book of Genesis, the first book of the Torah and the Holy Bible. Augustine believed in the authoritative meaning of Genesis, its value in explaining that the universe itself was indeed created. He argues in De Genesi ad Litteram that the first few chapters of Genesis were written to suit the understanding of the people at the time.
So, now when science tells us that it took longer than seven calendar days for the earth to come into being, we can take comfort in the fact that God could still have guided the process and that “seven days” may simply mean seven stages or periods of time. In fact, when one examines the cosmological evolution of our planet and everything on it, as I did in graduate school, one finds that the stages of development match the “days” of Genesis.
Another religious philosopher—this one of the 15th century—addressed the same issue. Saint Thomas Aquinas presented this argument in Summa Theologica:
“On the day on which God created the heaven and the earth, He created also every plant of the field, not, indeed, actually, but ‘before it sprung up in the earth,’ that is, potentially . . . All things were not distinguished and adorned together, not from a want of power on God’s part, as requiring time in which to work, but that due order might be observed in the instituting of the world” (Article 2, Reply 1).
Examining religious belief, the concept of God, and Church teaching is most effective when done through critical and logical thinking and reason. This has been an established method of understanding for centuries. Now, we must embark upon our studies with the same rigor using these essential tools.
Fieser, James and Samuel Enoch Stumpf. Philosophy: A Historical Survey with Essential Readings, 9 ed. McGraw Hill, 2015.
O’Halloran, Thomas J. Pope John Paul II at Old Yankee Stadium. U.S. News and World Report Magazine, October 1979. (image)
Saint Anslem of Canterbury. Proslogium. Shenandoah Bible Ministries, 2009.
Saint Augustine of Hippo. De Genesi ad Litteram. University of Chicago Press, 1950.
Saint John Paul II. Fides et Ratio: On the Relationship Between Faith and Reason. Pauline Books and Media, 1998.
Saint Thomas Aquinas. Summa Theologica. Christian Classics, 1981.
Sorkin, Aaron. The West Wing. John Wells Productions / Warner Brothers Television, 1999-2006.