Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Faith, Reason, Certainty, and Getting a Grip

Faith isn't reason, but it's not unreasonable.

My faith involves certainty, but I don't think I know everything.

It's Faith and Reason

Quite a few folks say that religion isn't reasonable, and that faith is against reason. Some folks who are religious at the top of their lungs seem determined to prove that faith is a psychiatric condition. Others seem convinced that faith is a sort of emotional high: and that it's time to change churches when the feeling's gone.

I'm a practicing Catholic, so I don't have to check my brain at the door when I enter a church. We don't worship reason - that would be idolatry, and a very bad idea1 - but the Catholic Church does encourage reasoned thought:
"By natural reason man can know God with certainty, on the basis of his works. But there is another order of knowledge, which man cannot possibly arrive at by his own powers: the order of divine Revelation.1..."
(Catechism of the Catholic Church, 50)

"By his reason, man recognizes the voice of God which urges him 'to do what is good and avoid what is evil.'9 Everyone is obliged to follow this law, which makes itself heard in conscience and is fulfilled in the love of God and of neighbor. Living a moral life bears witness to the dignity of the person."
(Catechism, 1706)

What About Miracles?

I've posted about miracles before. Bottom line, I don't assume that every happy coincidence is a "miracle." On the other hand, since I believe that God "sustains and upholds" creation (Catechism, 301), my continuing existence is a sort of miracle. More topics.
"'Nothing is more apt to confirm our faith and hope than holding it fixed in our minds that nothing is impossible with God. Once our reason has grasped the idea of God's almighty power, it will easily and without any hesitation admit everything that [the Creed] will afterwards propose for us to believe - even if they be great and marvellous things, far above the ordinary laws of nature.'115"
(Catechism, 274)
That "far above the ordinary laws of nature" thing isn't the same as being mindlessly credulous. But it's not compatible with the secularist fashions of the day, either. I've been over this before:One of my favorite quotes about how folks deal with unusual experiences is from a sort of contemporary fairy tale:
" 'Your mistake is to think that the little regularities we have observed on one planet for a few hundred years are the real unbreakable laws....' "
(Grace Ironwood, Chapter 17.4, "That Hideous Strength" C. S. Lewis (1946))

Faith, Certainty, and Fanatical Intolerance

Faith and certainty go together. Which doesn't mean that I think:
  • God wants everybody to be pretty much like me
  • I know when the Last Judgment will happen
  • Anyone who disagrees with me is stupid
  • I can't make mistakes
  • The Pope can't make mistakes
That last point may sound odd, coming from a devout Catholic. Papal infallibility doesn't mean that a pope can't make any mistakes:
"INFALLIBILITY: The gift of the Holy Spirit to the Church whereby the pastors of the Church, the pope and bishops in union with him, can definitively proclaim a doctrine of faith or morals for the belief of the faithful (891). This gift is related to the inability of the whole body of the faithful to err in matters of faith and morals (92)."
(Glossary, Catechism of the Catholic Church)
I mentioned Rodrigo Borgia, who became Pope Alexander VI, on Monday. Popes are not perfect people. Maybe you know a Catholic who thinks that Popes never make mistakes: but that's not what the Church teaches. And I'm getting off-topic.

The idea of certainty and faith has taken a beating from folks whose beliefs are alternatively-sensible. There's the sort of 'certainty' that prompted someone to damage 'art' with a crowbar, or that made folks believe in a 'Biblical' dress code.

Here's a start on what the Catholic Church says about faith and certainty:
"Faith is certain. It is more certain than all human knowledge because it is founded on the very word of God who cannot lie. To be sure, revealed truths can seem obscure to human reason and experience, but 'the certainty that the divine light gives is greater than that which the light of natural reason gives.'31 'Ten thousand difficulties do not make one doubt.'32"
Catechism, 157)
I think that sort of certainty is close to the "confident and assured" dictionary definition of "certain."2

Faith, and Reason, and Understanding

One thing I like about being Catholic is how the Church embraces the idea that God created the world: and that it's okay to learn about what God's been doing.
" 'Faith seeks understanding':33 it is intrinsic to faith that a believer desires to know better the One in whom he has put his faith and to understand better what He has revealed; a more penetrating knowledge will in turn call forth a greater faith, increasingly set afire by love...."
(Catechism, 158)
"Faith and science: 'Though faith is above reason, there can never be any real discrepancy between faith and reason. Since the same God who reveals mysteries and infuses faith has bestowed the light of reason on the human mind, God cannot deny himself, nor can truth ever contradict truth.'37 ... the things of the world and the things of faith derive from the same God...."
(Catechism, 159)
Somewhat-related posts:Background
  • Faith and understanding
    (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 156-159
  • Faith, a theological virtue
    (Catechism, 1814-1816)
  • Faith and reason
    (Catechism, 35, 156-159, 1804)
    (As usual, there's more)

1 "Idolatry" is treating anything as if it's God. That can be money, social position, pleasure: anything or anyone that's not God. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2112-2114)
"IDOLATRY: The divinization of a creature in place of God; the substitution of some one (or thing) for God; worshiping a creature (even money, pleasure, or power) instead of the Creator (2112)."
(Glossary, Catechism of the Catholic Church)
2Like I've said before, I'm a recovering English teacher: which might explain why I put so many definitions in this blog. Like these:
  • Certainty (noun)
    1. The state of being certain
    2. Something that is certain
    (Princeton's WordNet)
  • Certain (adjective)
    1. Definite but not specified or identified
    2. Having or feeling no doubt or uncertainty
      Confident and assured
    3. Established beyond doubt or question
      Definitely known
    4. Certain to occur
      Destined or inevitable
    5. Established irrevocably
    6. Reliable in operation or effect
    7. Exercising or taking care great enough to bring assurance
    (Princeton's WordNet)
  • Reasonable (adjective)
    1. Showing reason or sound judgment
    2. Not excessive or extreme
    3. Marked by sound judgment
    (Princeton's WordNet)
  • Unreasonable (adjective)
    1. Not reasonable; not showing good judgment
    2. Beyond normal limits
    (Princeton's WordNet)

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