Faith vs. Reason: A Quick Glance at the Popeís Latest Encyclical

Why did the pope write an encyclical on faith and reason? Is not faith and reason opposed to each other? It is true that we live in an age of faithlessness, but why did he include reason? Are faith and reason related? Does faith need reason and vice versa? In an age of science and technology, is reason also in serious trouble? The pope addresses these questions and more in this Encyclical.

At least for most Christians, we have a common ground - the Bible. Yes, there are problems of interpretation and canonicity, but still there is a strong commonality in the Bible. The Bible can serve as a basis for intellectual dialog. But with atheists and agnostics, the common ground becomes more nebulas. Since they deny the existence or importance of God, then His Word is even less credible. The only possible common ground is reason. As St. Peter writes: "Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope, but do it with gentleness and reverence." [1 Peter 3:15-16] Unfortunately some atheist can be as unreasonable and dogmatic (i.e. religious) as some Christians. We must bear in mind as the Encyclical recognizes, that: "If human beings with their intelligence fail to recognize God as Creator of all, it is not because they lack the means to do so, but because their free will and their sinfulness place an impediment in the way." [Fides et ratio 19]

Now I am not a professional philosopher, so in one sense, I am technically incompetent to give this talk. But in another sense, philosophy affects all of us, so we all need to be aware of its current trends. Philosophy is the foundation of political systems, e.g. Marxism. We are all thinking beings who strive for knowledge. Gossip is perhaps one bad example of this urge. We all want to know the truth. People may want to deceive others, but very few people want to be deceived. This Encyclical addresses issues that affect all of us.

Hopefully some time in our life, we have wondered about our purpose in life. Are we merely a freak cosmic accident that needs a purpose, or were we created for a purpose? This Encyclical begins with questions like: "Who am I? Where have I come from and where am I going? Why is there evil? What is there after this life?" [Ibid. 1] The answers (or lack of response) to these fundamental questions on the meaning of life "decides the direction which people seek to give to their lives." [Ibid.]

Even though we live in an age of science, we can still be quite unreasonable. We hear how our school systems are failing to teach the new generation. Also TV, radio, newspapers and magazines proclaim to already have the answers, so we do not need to bother about thinking. We merely accept the popular trends without questions. In my opinion, science and technology has made us into concrete thinkers. We are more and more concerned about the material world and our sense perceptions of it. Tax dollars and vaccines can solve social problems. Many years ago while taking a course in abstract algebra, I complained to the professor about being uncomfortable with the subject matter. I was doing well in the course, but I felt lost or, at least, thought that I was missing something important. The professorís response was: "Well, itís abstract!" At that point, I realized that I was also a concrete thinker.

Even though we claim to live in an "age of reason", there are serious problems with modern reason. The first problem that the pope addresses is called "Skepticism." Due to our concrete thinking, it is easy to ignore intangible ideas. According to Skepticism, the only important knowledge is obtained from our observation of material things. We can only know things through our five senses. Knowledge concerning abstract ideas, such as love, beauty and God, are either absurd or fantasy. Also abstract concepts, like freedom and justice, are perverted or bound to concrete things. Skepticism assumes that reason is limited to only sense perception. Any idea beyond particular material objects is not important.

The second problem with modern reason is a false autonomy or independence. This false autonomy of reason is called "Rationalism." Rationalism assumes that human knowledge does not need faith. All the knowledge, that we need, can be personally verified by our sense perception or personal experience. We do not need to believe in anything, since we can prove it ourselves. Reason replaces faith. Unfortunately this presumption is not totally honest. Due to constraints in time and resources, even scientists must accept some knowledge on faith, even though it may not be a supernatural faith. According to the Encyclical, "the human being - the one who seeks the truth - is also the one who lives by belief." [Ibid. 31]

Now for all humans, there are two ways of knowing: faith and reason. Faith is knowing through trust. Reason is knowing through personal thinking, observation or experience. We need both ways of knowing. Knowledge by reason alone would be quite limited. Both need to work together. For example, I have never been to Paris. (I almost went there, but my flight plans were rerouted.) I have no direct personal experience of the city. At this time in my life, I must simply believe that this city exists. I must take Paris by faith; however, this natural faith is not a "blind leap." I have good reasons to trust that Paris is a real city. There is a convergence of evidence. I heard friends, who claim to have been there, talk about it. I read many books, reports and newspaper articles relating to Paris. Now friends can lie, and the literature can be wrong. But I still believe in Paris, because I have many independent sources to trust. A few sources may be wrong, but it is still harder to accept that all of them are wrong.

Scientists must also rely on natural faith. They must trust each other. Each scientist does not have the time or resources to personally verify every experiment or measurement. They must trust the scientific literature. Now faith is knowledge that fosters personal relationship because there is a need for trust. In science this faith fosters the "scientific community." But this faith is not a "blind leap" but is backed by reason. The published scientific literature is carefully peer reviewed. Also if a particular scientist is proven to be dishonest, the trust is broken, and his work is discredited. He needs to find a new profession.

Now faith can also motivate us to pursue reason. According to the Encyclical, "It is faith which stirs reason to move beyond all isolation and willingly to run risks so that it may attain whatever is beautiful, good and true. Faith thus becomes the convinced and convincing advocate of reason." [Ibid. 56] All physical sciences assume that the physical universe is fundamentally knowable. The universe is worth studying for its own sake and not simply for learning how to exploit it. (Studying the universe, for its own sake, is science, while studying the universe, in order to master it, is engineering or technology.) Without this fundamental, unproven belief, very few people would be interested in wasting their time in studying the universe and the fundamentals of matter. Letís face it: accountants and nurses have more job security than scientists. The Encyclical recognizes that, "It is the one and the same God who establishes and guarantees the intelligibility and reasonableness of the natural order of things upon which scientists confidently depend, and who reveals himself as the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ." [Ibid. 34] It is here that the pope quotes Galileo in footnote #29: "Sacred Scripture and the natural world proceeding equally from the divine Word, the first as dictated by the Holy Spirit, the second as a very faithful executor of the commands of God."

During the final year of my Ph.D. program, my experiments were still not giving satisfactory results. These experiments should have given good results, but something strange was happening. I was frustrated and falling into despair. I complained to my supervising professor. His response to me was: "Ye of little faith!" Even though I was pursuing a high-level degree in the physical sciences at a secular university, I still needed faith to motivate me through the hard times.

As a result of supernatural faith in an intelligent Creator who wishes not to deceive, modern science arose from medieval Christianity. The ancient Chinese and Greeks were very intelligent people. The Chinese invented gunpowder, the first rocket and the compass. The Greeks invented the first steam engine and geometry. But due to their pantheistic religions, they did not believe in the intelligibility of the universe. The Greeks believed that nature was divine and thus not fundamentally knowable. These people had the intelligence but not the inspiration to pursue science. According to Stanley Jaki, science in these cultures was "still born."

Ironically "Darwinism", atheistic evolution, assumes that the universe is a freak accident. If the universe is an accident, then is it really worth studying for its own sake? An accident has no purpose. Also an accident usually implies chaos. If the universe is fundamentally chaotic, then it may not be knowable. This presumption of Darwinism can raise doubts in the minds of those attempting to study science. Darwinism not only attacks Christianity but also the fundamental inspiration underlying the pursuit of science.

But what about supernatural faith? Supernatural faith is the basis of Christianity. How can this be related to natural reason? According to the Encyclical, "Although faith, a gift of God, is not based on reason, it can certainly not dispense with it. At the same time, it becomes apparent that reason needs to be reinforced by faith, in order to discover horizons it cannot reach on its own." [Ibid. 67] Reason can open our concrete minds, so our will may be more receptive to the grace of supernatural faith. For example the radical question, "Why is there something rather than nothing?" [Ibid. 76], can make us realize that there is something missing from mere sense experience. Also reason can help faith from falling into superstition. Reason can critique our beliefs. The Encyclical states that: "It is an illusion to think that faith, tied to weak reasoning, might be more penetrating; on the contrary, faith then runs the grave risk of withering into myth or superstition." [Ibid. 48] One heresy concerning faith, "Fideism", claims that supernatural faith is so superior to natural reason that faith cannot benefit from reason. Unfortunately Fideism reduces faith to simply a personal conviction or a "blind leap." As St. Peter encouraged, reason can help us better explain our faith to other people who do not share our personal convictions. On the other side, a supernatural faith can give reason a vitality and newness. Once again according to the Encyclical: "By the same token, reason which is unrelated to an adult faith is not prompted to turn its gaze to the newness and radicality of being." [Ibid. 48] Faith can free reason from the bondage of mere sense perception. As in science, faith can motivate us to pursue reason further to acquire more knowledge. According to the conclusion of the Encyclical: "The Church remains profoundly convinced that faith and reason Ďmutually support each otherí; each influences the other as they offer to each other a purifying critique and a stimulus to pursue the search for deeper understanding." [Ibid. 100]

Even though I have spoken mainly about faith and reason, since the title of the Encyclical is "Faith and reason", the Encyclical is really concerned about the relationship between philosophy and theology. Both need their rightful autonomy, but they are more fruitful if they interact with each other. Philosophy is an orderly body of knowledge that aims at explaining something. Like reason, its starting point is sense experience. Theology, on the other hand, is also an orderly body of knowledge that aims at explaining something, but its starting point is the revealed Word of God. It is related to faith but also reason. Since the two disciplines have different starting points, they are distinct. But both can be used to better our understanding of God. Based on the naturally knowable world, philosophy can argue for the existence of God as the ultimate subsistent Being. But philosophy is without a clue concerning the Trinity. Only through revelation and theology, we can better understand God as Trinity.

Before concluding, the pope points out several modern currents of philosophical thought which are fundamentally flawed. Firstly, "Eclecticism", as its name implies, is an approach that borrows particular ideas from different philosophies without any concern for their appropriateness or internal coherence. Its a "hodgepodge" of thoughts. Secondly, "Historicism" assumes that there are no time enduring truths. What was true in one historical period may not be true in another. It is closely related to Modernism. Next "Scientism", which is similar to Rationalism and Positivism, claims that the only reliable knowledge is obtained through the scientific method. It gives the impression that if something is technically possible then it must be morally admissible. "Pragmatism", which is quite popular in Britain and the U.S.A., is an attitude of thought which bases all decisions on results and utility. Any theoretical considerations are ignored. If a given action produces the desired results, then it is good. Finally all of these philosophies eventually lead to "Nihilism". It is the final denial of the dignity of man and manís eternal destiny. Nihilism is the final, honest logical conclusion that without God, we are nothing. It is the despair of atheism. These philosophies tend to reject the need for God and profess a false autonomy. As the Encyclical notes: "Since the created world is not self-sufficient, every illusion of autonomy which would deny the essential dependence on God of every creature - the human being included - leads to dramatic situations which subvert the rational search for the harmony and meaning of human life." [Ibid. 80]

In summary, due to our human conditions, we need both faith and reason in order to properly advance in knowledge. Both go hand-in-hand. Since I am neither a philosopher or a theologian, I will end here. Please read this Encyclical. Thank you for your time and patience.


1. God, The Bible
2. Pope John Paul II, Fides et ratio
3. Dr. Douglas Flippen, Faith and Reason
4. Fr. Maurice Gilbert, Israelís Wisdom
5. Bishop Andre-Mutien Leonard, Rational Justification of the Act of Faith
6. Bishop Peter Henrici, From Many Human Truths to the One Divine Truth
7. Fr. Enrico dal Covolo, The Encounter of Faith and Reason in the Fathers of the Church
8. Fr. Giovanni B. Sala, The Drama of the Separation of Faith and Reason
9. Most of these articles can be found on Peter's Net. Please click here for links.

Phillip B. Liescheski
14 May 1999

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