Probably the most famous line from Blaise Pascal’s Pensées claims that “the heart has its reasons that reason knows nothing of.” Taken in isolation, this remark can make Pascal sound like a romantic at best, an irrationalist at worst. Actually, his position is much more nuanced, perhaps best expressed in his observation: “If we submit everything to reason, our religion will be left with nothing mysterious or supernatural. If we offend the principles of reason, our religion will be absurd and ridiculous.”

Pascal is mentioned only in passing in this book, but the latter quotation could easily serve as the epigraph to this rich volume of quite remarkable and supremely intelligent essays. The theme of faith and reason may at first seem recondite; but everything depends on it. On the one hand, if God did truly raise Jesus from the dead, then that divine intervention must trump the dictates of reason, or else Christians are, in the words of St. Paul, “of all people the most to be pitied” (1 Cor 15:19). Yet at the same time, Christians hardly want to be caught in the old accusation of believing six impossible things before breakfast.

Consider Thomas Aquinas, who worked so hard to solder together a viable harmony of faith and reason. Whatever the cause, his synthesis fell apart after his death. Nominalism insisted that words are mere tools of convenience, which left reason orphaned also: since words didn’t really refer to anything real, reason too became a kind of coping mechanism for dealing with the complexity of the sensory world (it cannot be stressed often enough that “reason” and “word” are denoted by the same term in Greek, logos). Little wonder, then, that given reason’s unreliability, Martin Luther could find no other recourse to God but in faith “alone,” which also prompted him, in one of his less charming moments, to call reason a “whore.”

Luther may have thought such an attitude gave the Christian faith a safe redoubt, but his stance brought two crises in its wake. First, if Christians don’t agree about the contents of their faith, to what court of last appeal can they resort if reason is given no say in theological debate? But second, what happens if reason regains its former prestige, as happened when Isaac Newton discovered the law of gravity? At that point, Christianity-both Protestant and Catholic-found itself on the defensive, forced to confront a new confidence in “enlightened” reason, as in Immanuel Kant’s Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone, which, needless to say, could find little room for such key Christian doctrines as the Trinity, incarnation, and resurrection except as symbols of something more reasonable and universal.

I rehearse this potted history of the neuralgic relationship between faith and reason for two reasons: to show how much the presentation of the Christian religion depends on getting their relationship right; and to highlight the importance of this book. The editors and authors frankly admit that their chapters were born out of a response to Pope John Paul II’s encyclical Fides et ratio (Faith and Reason). Needless to say, given the wide confessional and ideological commitments of the authors (Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox; Western and Eastern), they disagree; but within their debate a few key themes emerge. First, none of the authors is in the least intimidated by Kant or the Enlightenment. Second, most (but not all) authors revert time and again to Aquinas, as either foil or support. Third, the contributors recognize that, while their own critiques of enlightened reason rely on (or at least jibe with) such postmodern thinkers as Friedrich Nietzsche and Jacques Derrida, secular postmodernism presents its own dangers to the Christian religion.

Perhaps the real disagreement among the authors can be gauged along a spectrum of optimism versus pessimism about what reasoned debate can achieve. The strongest pessimist of the contributors, co-editor Paul Griffiths, explicitly relies on Augustine’s theory of “volitional depravity” to justify his pessimism. Admittedly, on a surface level he has a strong case. Catholics rely on natural law to justify both their opposition to abortion and, crucially, their right to intervene in public debate on abortion law, precisely because it is accessible (at least in theory) to all reasonable human beings. Yet unanimity on abortion (or capital punishment or just war for that matter) hardly obtains among us supposedly intelligent beings, so what does that say about reason’s claim to serve as the adjudicator of natural law?

Perhaps natural law fails as the “Great Adjudicator” because so many people start with a conclusion and then cobble together whatever reasons seem expedient for its justification. Faced with that reality, who wouldn’t be a pessimist? But is Augustine really the person who offers the best explanation for the will’s decision to start with a conclusion and then argue back to the premises? Only if Augustine himself is not in error. According to Aquinas, the bishop of Hippo misunderstood from the outset how the human mind gains access to the truth, because he relied too much on a Platonic theory of inner illumination (to speak colloquially, a kind of divine flashlight in the mind). Thomas held that all knowledge begins in the senses, so that we can only work back slowly and tenuously to more general conclusions, with errors in reasoning threatening us each step of the way. (This was one reason why he held revelation to be necessary: the dangers of getting it wrong about God were too perilous without the aid of an authoritative revelation vouched for by the teaching church.)

Given the vigor of his pessimism and the overpowering authority of Augustine, most contributors return to Griffiths’s challenge in their own papers, especially since he explicitly criticizes Fides et ratio for its excessive optimism about reason’s integrity. Griffiths even seems to call on Catholics to abandon any appeal to natural law, at least if I interpret him correctly.

Needless to say, that was not the position of Pope John Paul II, nor-I am happy to report-of most of the other contributors. In fact, I was struck by how much more often Aquinas’s authority still dominates the proceedings, especially for Janet Martin Soskice, who points out in her chapter that, at least historically, theologians have been much more successful in evangelizing a culture when they are confident of reason than when they despair of its deliverance. For example, the early church fathers saw Greek philosophy as their best ally against what they regarded as the decadence of pagan myth: “The earliest Christian theologians wrestled their pagan or heretical foes with confident intellectualism,” she rightly points out. Today, though, the prestige of science tends to intimidate Christians: they may either let science trump the “myth” of Christianity, resort to an inner light of certainty, or fall prey to the obscurantism of fundamentalism, supposedly immune from alleged threats like evolution and cosmology.

Given the variety of voices and attitudes represented in this volume, not to mention the range of topics (from the Trinity, the folly of the Cross, postmodern nihilism, and the analogy of being, to such figures as Luther and Karl Barth), the reader may come away wondering what to make of it all. Does the fact that no consensus emerges here mean we should be pessimistic? I still hold with Hans Urs von Balthasar that proofs for the existence of God won’t do much good (or any good, actually) for those who do not already perceive the beauty of revelation from the outset. But reading this lucid, albeit demanding, work has taught me that aesthetics can only go so far. The problems addressed in this volume will not go away, for as Aquinas himself insisted, perception is merely the first step, and without the aid of reason we wander aimlessly and pointlessly. There will also come a time, as Pascal said, when reason’s last step will be to admit its limits-and then to link up with faith to give the true and best answer to the human dilemma: “Men despise religion,” he said. “They hate it and are afraid it may be true. The cure for this is first to show that religion is not contrary to reason, but worthy of reverence and respect. Next, make it attractive, make good men wish it were true, and then show that it is. Worthy of reverence because it really understands human nature. Attractive because it promises true good.”

Edward T. Oakes, SJ, is Chester & Margaret Paluch Professor of Theology at University of Saint Mary of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary, the seminary for the Archdiocese of Chicago.

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Published in the 2006-01-27 issue: View Contents
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