Friday, December 10, 2010

Integritas Seminar II

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Last night our Integritas group had its second seminar of the year, on "The Dialogue Between Faith and Reason," led by guest Professor John Cavadini. The group read part of St. Thomas Aquinas' Summa Contra Gentiles and much of Pope John Paul the Great's encyclical Fides et Ratio. They explored such questions as: "Why should we believe truths that cannot be known by reason? Why should truths that can be known by reason also be known by faith? Can truths known by reason ever contradict truths known by faith? What is faith? Why can we have confidence in human reason? From where does the contemporary tension between faith and reason spring? What are the consequences of reason becoming estranged from faith?"

Prof. Cavadini explained that truths that can be known only by faith are not simply "higher" or more difficult to grasp than truths that can be known by reason; instead, they are a wholly different kind of truth. The truths that can be known only by faith are those that pertain to God's character, such as His Trinitarian life and His self-emptying love for His creation. They can be known only by faith because they involve a free decision on God's part to reveal Himself to His creatures. The fullest self-disclosure of God comes in the Incarnation of Christ; Christ shows us the face of God. Prof. Cavadini used an analogy to explain that the difference between what faith and reason can attain is like the difference between studying relationship-building and communication skills in a psychology class, versus actually entering into a relationship. Taking a psychology class can't give you a relationship; you can only have a relationship if another person chooses to enter into relationship with you. Human reason can come to understand many things about the beauty and order of creation, but some truths can only be known by entering into relationship with God.

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Under this understanding, there is a dynamic illumination between faith and reason, such that holding the truths about God that can be known only through faith directs and purifies reason to enter the mysteries of God and the created world more deeply. For example, human reason guided by the light of faith was necessary to develop the Church's statement of the doctrine of the Trinity and and creeds over the course of decades. The light of faith illuminates the whole world and gives a new perspective on all knowledge. Many fundamental truths seem groundless or meaningless without the foundation of faith, such as the belief in the fundamental dignity of all human persons, which Steven Pinkers at Harvard calls 'almost a useless concept'. Faith expands our notion of reason: as wise as Socrates was, he could not imagine that the Logos he worshiped would become food for men in the Eucharist.

While many would lump the Scriptures into the same category as all the great pagan myths of the Greeks, the Norsemen, or the Babylonians, they are completely different in character. The pagan gods disclose themselves as petty, manipulative, and fickle, and even when they enter into the mortal realm, they do so only capriciously and contingently, exercising their full powers and holding a 'get-out-of-jail-free' card. When God becomes incarnate in Christ, it is as an infant in a lowly stable, to suffer and to die amongst us. Only the God of the Christians sends His own Son to invite His creatures into friendship with Him.

These ideas made the students wonder why so many very intelligent people, especially philosophers, struggle so much to have faith in anything other than the power of their own reason. One suggested that the trouble lies in our modern notion of reason, which thinks that something is reasonable only if it can be reduced to a logical proof with mathematical certainty. Modern man has lost the understanding that "through the centuries, philosophers have sought to discover and articulate such a truth, giving rise to various systems and schools of thought. But beyond philosophical systems, people seek in different ways to shape a "philosophy" of their own--in personal convictions and experiences, in traditions of family and culture, or in journeys in search of life's meaning under the guidance of a master," as John Paul said. Our culture, our traditions, our practices, the authorities in our lives, our families, the witness of those who have gone before us, especially the martyrs, all reveal that belief in the Christian God is reasonable. While people may think that they want and need a proof for God that has mathematical certainty, in reality, if such a proof could be provided, it would not satisfy the deepest desires of the human heart: a mathematical proof does not invite a response of love, does not draw man into friendship with God. An understanding of human reason that excludes faith also excludes happiness and love, because it precludes the possibility of a free response.

Again, from Pope John Paul: "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--in a word, to know Himself--so that, by knowing and loving God, men and women may also come to the fullness of truth about themselves."

That was the last meeting of Integritas before Christmas break; the group will meet again in January and will begin the second semester with Mass and dinner in Geddes Hall on Thursday, Jan. 20. They went home proudly sporting their new club T-shirts, seen above!

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