Faith and Reason

I. The Nature of Faith

A. Preliminary Remarks
B. Faith and Reason: Three Aspects
C. The Deliverances of Faith
D. What it is to Have Faith
E. Four Natural Questions

II. Faith and Philosophy

A. The Nature of Wisdom
B. Two Senses of Philosophy
C. Conflicting Conceptions of the Roles of Reason and Affection within Philosophical Inquiry
D. Anti-Secularism and Accommodationism: Two Temptations for Christian Thinkers
E. Some Theses of Aquinas and Augustine
F. Christian Apologetics

III. Augustine and Classical Philosophy

A. Brief Intellectual Biography
B. Augustine and Platonism
C. Some Platonic Doctrines

IA. Preliminary Remarks
  • Ways of teaching and studying medieval philosophy:

    • The cast of characters

    • Externalist vs. internalist approaches: the centrality of faith and reason if we are to understand the projects of medieval philosophers as they themselves understood them.

  • Augustine (354-430) and Aquinas (1225-1274): very different intellectual milieus

IB. Faith and Reason: Three Aspects
  • Faith and reason as powers, acts, and habits which are distinct sources of cognition, where reason includes every "natural" source of cognition.

    • "The (supernatural) light of faith"

    • "The (natural) light of reason"

  • Faith and reason as contents yielded by these powers, acts, and habits -- it remains an open question at this point whether these contents overlap.

    • "The deliverances of faith" -- revealed truths about God and God's relationship to us.

    • "The deliverances of natural reason"

  • Faith and reason as norms or standards for evaluating cognitive claims

    • "Consonant with the faith" vs. "contrary to the faith"

    • "Consonant with reason" vs. "contrary to reason"

IC. The Deliverances of Faith

  • The Christian drama as revealed in Sacred Scripture and the Teachings of the Church (think of these in connection with Kant's three questions: "What can we know? What should we do? What can we hope for?"):

    • The existence and trinitarian nature of God
    • God's creation of the world ex nihilo
    • Original sin and its consequences
    • The promise of redemption enacted by God's covenant with the Jewish people
    • The incarnation of the Son of God and the atonement wrought by his passion, death, and resurrection
    • The continuation of Christ's redemptive work through the Church and the sacraments
    • The last things: resurrection, judgment, heaven/hell
    • Divine moral law
    • The ultimate end for human beings: intimate friendship with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit

  • A distinction among the deliverances of the faith

    • Preambles of the faith: those revealed truths (if any) that natural reason can in principle come to knowledge (scientia) of without the aid of divine revelation.

    • Mysteries of the faith: those revealed truths that natural reason cannot even in principle come to knowledge of without the aid of divine revelation and hence must be accepted, if at all, by faith.

    This distinction prompts the four "natural" questions to be noted below.  

    Note that the Fathers of the Church, along with other intellectually sophisticated Christian writers of the first few centures A.D., generally sided with the philosophical enlightenment in opposition to Greek and Roman paganism.  (Remember Plato's opposition to the poets in the Republic.)  So even though Christianity brought along its own story, the early Christians were insistent that this story was true in a sense that opened it up to philosophical scrutiny.  Thus it was natural for the Christians to define the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation by making use of metaphysical notions borrowed from the Greeks.
ID. What it is to have faith in something?
  • Three operations of the intellect

    • Abstraction: The formation of "quidditative" concepts, i.e., concepts of secondary substances and accidents that allow us to grasp things well enough to begin inquiry.  [Aristotle's Categories]

    • Composition and Division: The formation of affirmative and negative propositions capable of being true or false. [Aristotle's On Intrepretation]

    • Discursive reasoning (sometimes called cogitation): The formation of chains of inference.  [Aristotle's Prior Analytics and Posterior Analytics]

      : Christian faith is an act or habit of the intellect having God as its primary object and what is revealed by God as its propositional objects.

  • The possible (or passive or potential) intellect

    • Aristotle: In intellective cognition the intellect becomes like the thing cognized by being configured by an intelligible likeness of the thing known.

      St. Thomas restatement: Sensible matter : sensible form :: passive intellect : intelligible likeness (intelligible species).

      That is, just as the union of this form (aardvarkiness) with primary matter results in Andy the aardvark, so the union of this intelligible likeness (aardvarkiness*) with the intellect-as-passive (or potential intellect) results in this act of understanding (or act of intellective cognition) of aardvarks.

      Note: In composition and division the passive intellect is of itself neutral with respect to accepting or rejecting a proposition. So if the intellect does accept a proposition it must be moved either (i) involuntarily by the very content of the proposition as seen by "the natural light of reason" or (ii) voluntarily by the will.

  • The distinction between acceptance and assent

    • To accept p = to think p true

    • To assent to p = to accept p and to adhere strongly to p

      : Contemporary philosophers often use the term 'belief' for what St. Thomas calls acceptance, whereas many translators of St. Thomas use 'belief' for what St. Thomas calls faith (in the generic sense). This can lead to confusion, and so in what follows I will avoid the term 'belief'.

  • Taxonomy of cognitive acts or "propositional attitudes" (based partly on De Veritate, ques. 14, art. 1 and partly on Summa Theologiae 2-2, ques. 1, art. 4)

    • Different modes in which the intellect is moved (if at all) solely by the the evidential status of the content of the proposition p that serves as its object:

      • Dubitatio (doubt in the sense of hesitation): The intellect hesitates or wavers between p and not-p without accepting either of them. (This can happen either (i) because there is no evidence one way or the other or (ii) because the evidence for one side balances the evidence for the other.)

      • Suspicio (suspecting, as in "I suspect that Joanna is a better person than we give her credit for"): The intellect accepts (or leans toward) p, but very tentatively. (Here p is slightly more evident than not-p, but neither one is compellingly evident.)

      • Intellectus (grasp of the self-evident or the per se compellingly evident): The intellect assents to p immediately upon understanding p. (There is an obvious extension of this act of intellect to what is "evident to the senses".)

      • Scientia (scientific knowledge): The intellect assents to p immediately upon seeing, via discursive reasoning or cogitation, p's necessary connection to propositions that are self-evident--even though p itself is not self-evident.

    • Different modes in which the intellect is moved freely by the will rather than by the content of p:

      • Opinio (opinion):  p does not compel immediate assent, but the intellect is moved by the will to accept p, though not firmly and with a "wariness" of not-p; so the intellect does not assent to p. (What's the difference betwen opinio and suspicio? The evidence might be the same or nearly the same, but the involvement of will and affection suggests that opinio concerns something we care about a lot or else need to decide about.)

      • Fides (faith--or 'belief' in most translations): p does not compel immediate assent, but the intellect is moved by the will to assent to p because (i) the intellect perceives p as being proposed as true by a trustworthy authority and (ii) the person who assents desires some good promised by assent to p. (In the case of Christian faith, God must move us by His grace in order for us to assent to the mysteries.)

      Note 1: In dubitatio, opinio, suspicio, and faith the proposition in question is not intellectually evident to any significant degree.

      Note 2: It is possible for faith in this generic sense to be misguided, as when a person is gullible or deceiving himself or engaging in wishful thinking. On the other hand, it is also possible for a person to reject what is proposed for faith when he ought not to, and this through intellectual arrogance or through a pathological distrust of others, both of which lead to a lack of docility.  (See Augustine on reason and authority below.)

  • The distinctiveness of faith

    • vs. dubitatio: faith involves accepting p

    • vs. opinio and suspicio: faith involves assenting to p

    • vs. intellectus: faith involves cogitation, i.e., discursive reasoning

    • vs. scientia: in faith cogitation does not cause assent by rendering p intellectually evident. Rather, cogitation leads one to see faith as a trustworthy means to attaining a desired end, viz., human flourishing, which is seen to consist in union with the Holy Trinity. Thus, faith does not completely satisfy the intellect, but instead leaves it 'restless'.

  • The certitude of Christian faith (De Veritate 7)
  • St. Thomas distinguishes two types of certitude:

    • Firmness of adherence because of the trustworthiness of the source of cognition (or certitude from the cause of cognition): Christian faith is more certain in this sense than either scientia or intellectus, because the supernatural sunlight of faith, which is caused by the first truth (= the divine intellect), is a more trustworthy source of truth than is the sixty-watt natural light of reason. (Think of the faith of the martyrs and of the fanatical love of God demonstrated by saints like St. Francis of Assisi, aka Saint Nutcase, or Bl. Mother "Let me clean up the puke" Theresa)

    • Evidentness to reason of the object of assent (or certitude from the evidentness of the object of cognition): Christian faith is less certain in this sense than either scientia or intellectus.  It does not put the mind to rest, as it were.

  • Augustine on reason and authority (Confessions 6.4-5)
    • The overriding fear of being gullible (See Fides et Ratio, #6)

    • The spectre of rationalism, where rationalism entails that in order not to be foolish one must proportion one's assent strictly to the evidentness of what one assents to or the evidentness of the relevant claim to revelation (cf. John Locke). (So much for the 'foolish and fanatical' martyrs, it would seem, as well as St. Francis the Crazyman, etc. )

    • The pervasiveness of faith in everyday human life

    • For Augustine the question ultimately becomes not whether to trust in some authoritative teacher with respect to the big questions, but rather which authoritative teacher to trust in. For one thing that is evident is that our natural cognitive powers are unable to provide us with the sort of comprehensive and fixed vision of the world that we need (i) to fulfill our deep affective desire for meaning in our lives and (ii) to order our lives well in the midst of the vagaries of human existence in this world.  This is evident in part from the disagreements among the schools of philosophy and in part from the various sorts of intellectual pride--manifested both in dogmatism and skepticism--that seems endemic to postlapsarian philosophical inquiry.

    • What's more, even our natural cognitive abilities can reach their potential only with trust in and friendship (broadly speaking) with others. (See Fides et Ratio, #33)

IE. Four Natural Questions (corresponding to Summa Contra Gentiles 1.3-6)  (For further reflection, see The Necessity for Revelation:  A Primer on Summa Contra Gentiles 1, Chaps. 1-9)
  • Is it reasonable to think that there are truths about God that exceed our natural cognitive abilities? (Chapter 3)

  • Wasn't it pointless of God to reveal the preambles of the faith? (Chapter 4)

  • Isn't it wrong of God to demand that we assent to propositions that cannot be rendered intellectually evident to us? (Chapter 5)

  • Isn't it foolish (levitatis) and intellectually irresponsible for us to assent to the mysteries of the faith? (Chapter 6)

IIA. The Nature of Wisdom

  • Cicero and Augustine (Confessions 3.4 and Fides et Ratio, ##26-27))

    • The search for wisdom and the search for Christ.

    • The distinction between eloquence and truth.

    • The "uses of philosophy": intellectual technique vs. intellectual virtue embedded in a morally and spiritually rectified inquiry whose goal is ultimate truth and goodness.
  • Aristotle (Plato, too) and Aquinas (Metaphysics 1.1-2 and Summa Contra Gentiles 1.1-2)

    • Experience, art, and knowledge: the progressively enhanced grasp of first principles building upon -- rather than rejecting ala Descartes -- our initial pre-reflective grasp of those principles from within various cognitive, moral, and spiritual practices. On this view, intellectual inquiry is responsible to the first principles of the community within which it takes place, and any radical critique of those principles will itself be from a perspective that could serve as the basis for a better (or, alas, worse) form of community.  (Recall the Republic and see again Fides et Ratio # 33.)

    • Unqualified wisdom = knowledge (scientia) of first causes, beginning from speculative and practical first principles and systematically articulating what flows from those principles. Its objects include (as St. Thomas puts it):

      • God as He is in Himself (metaphysics of God)
      • Creatures insofar as they come from God (metaphysics of origins and nature of creatures)
      • Creatures insofar as they are ordered toward God (destiny of created universe and morality for rational creatures)
    • The pursuit of wisdom as the most perfect, noble, useful, and joyful of human undertakings. (Note here a tension. In other places, St. Thomas distinguishes between being wise by cognition (per cognitionem) from being wise by inclination (per inclinationem). The latter comes from that gift of the Holy Spirit called 'wisdom' and is nurtured by charity (supernatural love of God) rather than by intellectual inquiry.)

IIB. Two Senses of Philosophy or wisdom

  • Philosophy in the broad sense: Philosophy as the love of wisdom free to draw upon every source of truth available to us, including divine revelation. For a Christian, this is metaphysical and moral theology, which is the fulfillment--because of both its completeness and its certitude--of the classical search for systematic wisdom. (See Fides et Ratio, ## 75-79.)

  • Philosophy in the narrow sense: Philosophy as the pursuit of wisdom appealing only to the deliverances of reason and without direct appeal to divine revelation. This is "philosophical" metaphysics and moral theory, which presuppose the ancillary philosophical disciplines such as logic, philosophy of nature, philosophy of mind, etc.
    Question: Why does St. Thomas make this distinction? Answer: Because of his respect for the intellectual achievements of certain key predecessors among the philosophers.  Notice the distinct projects of the Summa Theologiae (articulating the metaphysical and moral dimensions of Christian wisdom, including its central Christological element) and the Summa Contra Gentiles (showing that Christian wisdom is a plausible candidate for philosophical wisdom by the very same criteria -- certitude and completeness -- employed by the classical philosophers).  The Summa Contra Gentiles is a work addressed as a whole to a Christian audience, but what the audience gets to see is the conversation of St. Thomas (and his Christian friends) with the intellectually and morally well-disposed non-Christian philosophers, both classical and medieval.  Think of St. Thomas as visiting the first circle of Dante's inferno (limbo), where Aristotle, Socrates, Plato, Cicero, Seneca, Thales, Empedocles, Anaxagoras, Democritus, Heraclitus, Averroes, Avicenna and others are milling around.  (Zeno's there, too!!)  In fact, one way to think of the main problem of faith and reason for the early intellectually sophisticated Christians and their medieval university counterparts is this:  In what sense are we the successors of the classical philosophers and the philosophical traditions they established?  St. Thomas's view is that the best classical philosophers can be led to see, by their own standards of successful intellectual inquiry, that Christian doctrine is a plausible candidate for the wisdom they are seeking.

IIC. Conflicting Conceptions of the Roles of Reason and Affection within Philosophical Inquiry

  • Modernist (Enlightenment): Philosophical inquiry is, ideally, an act of "pure" or "cool" reason alone, and the inquirer, qua inquirer, should strive to make inquiry as free from tradition, authority, and any affective commitments as possible. Historically, this conception of philosophical inquiry is initially accompanied by an excessive optimism about the reliability of reason and its ability to lead us to true wisdom on its own [Manicheans, Averroes, Descartes in the Discourse on Method, Locke in his Essay, Mill in On Liberty, the character of Cleanthes in Hume's Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion]; but it can easily be turned to a despairing skepticism--or even a pragmatic indifference--with regard to the search for wisdom when this optimism proves unwarranted [the character of Philo in Hume's Dialogues, at least in his more cheerful and superficial moments].

  • Post-modernist (or Post-Enlightenment) : It is a delusion to think of the search for wisdom as anything but a movement of will or instinct, with reason serving only to rationalize what one already accepts without "reasonable" grounds. Every appeal to intellectual authority is thus simply an attempt to exercise power over others.  Here the presumed "authority of reason" is put on a par with any other claim to epistemic authority. This view can very easily lead to nihilism. Characterized by both (i) a seriousness with regard to ultimate metaphysical and moral questions (vs. pragmatism) and (ii) a suspicion regarding any claim to "absolute" truth or to intellectual authority, including the [sneer stage left] authority of reason [Nietzsche, Philo in his darker and more profound moments].

  • Classical: At its best, philosophical inquiry is (i) an act of reason, (ii) presupposing moral rectitude fostered within a community which inquiry serves and to which it is responsible, (iii) by which we are able to discover--within severe limitations--metaphysical and moral truth. [Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Stoics]

  • Christian-Classical: At its best, philosophical inquiry is an act of reason enlightened by a voluntary act of faith in divine revelation as a source of truth and informed by supernatural moral rectitude (charity) fostered within a community (the Church); beyond this there are disagreements among (i) the pessimists, sometimes called fideists or antisecularists, who hold that reason in its fallen state is at best very unreliable with respect to metaphysical and moral truth and who lean in the direction of post-modernism as defined above [Demea in Hume's Dialogues];  (ii) the guarded optimists, who hold that reason, even in the state of fallen nature, still retains its own relative autonomy and its ability to discover some metaphysical and moral truth [Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas and Pope John Paul II in Fides et Ratio (see # 16)]; and (iii)  the accommodationists, who tend to play down the distinctiveness of faith as a context for intellectual authority and who lean in the direction of modernism as defined above (liberal Christians).

IID. Anti-Secularism and Accommodationism: Two Temptations for Christian Thinkers

  • Antisecularism (aka Fideism): "What has Jerusalem to do with Athens?"

    • Emphasis on the fallenness of human reason, with a deep-seated pessimism with regard to absolute truth claims outside of those found in the sources of divine revelation.

    • Secular philosophy as no more and no less than a competitor of Christian wisdom. (Cf. Confessions 5.4)

    • Disdain for -- or at least suspicion with respect to -- one or both of (i) natural theology and (ii) the use of secular philosophy in the articulation of Christian theology.

    • Possibility of a genuine, all-things-considered conflict between faith and reason. That is, even if we use reason as well and carefully as we can, we can still end up with falsehoods that we cannot in principle expose as falsehoods by the light of natural reason (ala William of Ockham).

    • Some representatives of this general attitude (though in each case various qualifications must be made):  Tertullian, Ockham, Luther, Karl Barth.
  • Accommodationism (aka Toadyism): "What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?"

    • There is no properly Christian philosophy. (On this point, see, once again, Fides et Ratio, ## 75-79.)

    • The agendas of Christian philosophers should be set by prevailing agendas among non-Christian philosophers, and Christian philosophers should always work within problematics set by the best non-Christian philosophers.  (The same holds for all the arts and sciences.)

    • Standards of evaluation used by Christian philosophers should conform wholly to those set by non-Christian philosophers, independently of which conception of philosophical inquiry the latter are presupposing.

    • The main modern representative of this approach is to be found in the various currents of 19th and 20th century Protestant "liberal theology," along with its Catholic counterpart in the late 20th century. This is also the attitude of those Catholics who have managed, with a high degree of success, to secularize the study and practice of philosophy in the larger and older Catholic colleges and universities. (Note: Here liberal theology, which is on the wane these days, is to be distinguished from more radical approaches which are inspired by post-modernism and which come in both orthodox and unorthodox brands, e.g., various strains of feminist philosophy and theology and the "Radical Orthodoxy" movement centered at Cambridge University.)

IIE. Some Theses of Aquinas and Augustine

  • Augustine:

    • Both antisecularism and accommodationism are to be avoided

    • Christian intellectuals should be versed in the best of secular thought

    • Christian intellectuals should distinguish as clearly as possible what is essential to the faith from what is not. (Confessions 5.5)

  • Aquinas (whose main teacher was St. Albert the Great -- you might want to remember that name):

    • There can be no genuine conflicts between the deliverances of faith and the deliverances of reason.

    • Apparent conflicts are in principle resolvable by us, either by showing that the philosophical or scientific arguments against the faith are not sound or that the faith does not entail the thesis under attack by those arguments.  Reason and faith thus serve equally as checks on one another.

    • Philosophical (in the narrow sense) or 'scientific' arguments against a deliverance of faith can be answered on their own terms, i.e., without recourse to revelation, and, depending on the dialectical context, should be so answered.

    • Reason in its fallen state is still capable of reaching objective truth, but it needs the guidance of faith in order to do its best and, in many cases, in order not to go astray. On a more positive note, the faith can suggest theses and lines of thought which, though they can in principle be attained by reason without revelation, in all likelihood would not be attained if it were not for revelation. (On this last point, see Fides et Ratio, #76.)

IIF. Christian Apologetics

  • The role of philosophy in the narrow sense: Even though it is not the case that the faith of any given individual depends on proofs of the preambles of the Faith, it is nonetheless true that one indication of the reliability of the Christian claim to revelation is the ability of Christian intellectuals to carry out the project of the Summa Contra Gentiles, i.e., to show that some revealed truths can be established by natural reason and that none of them is contrary to the deliverances of reason.

  • Respect for philosophical adversaries vs. muddleheaded condescension (= "All philosophies [or religions] say the same thing or are equally true and therefore do not, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary and despite the protestations of their practioners, contradict one another.")

  • The limitations of reason: How far can reason take us?  Is it reasonable to look for some self-revelation on God's part?

IIIA. Brief Intellectual Biography (from the Confessions -- for more details see notes on St. Augustine)
  • Early academic career (books 1 and 2)

  • Cicero's Hortensius (book 3)

  • Manichean rationalism (books 3 and 4)

  • Flirtation with skepticism (book 5)

  • The role of authority in the search for wisdom (book 6)

  • Platonism (book 7)

  • The witness of others (book 8)

  • "Tolle et lege"

IIIB. Augustine and Platonism

    Look at Confessions 7.9-21

IIIC. Some Platonic Doctrines

  • One can understand the ordinary "life-world" aright only by seeing it in the light of higher realities

  • The possibility of immaterial being (God, angels, the human soul)

  • Evil as a privation of good (vs. cosmological dualism)

  • The divine attributes (immateriality, incorruptibility, omnipresence, eternality, perfect goodness, immutability)

  • The forms ----------------> divine ideas

  • Recollection --------------> divine illumination

  • Philosophy as purification (asceticism) and ascent

  • The parts of the soul and internal conflict