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Reason and the Year of Faith: Wake Up from Newton's Sleep and Believe!
By Andrew M. Greenwell, Esq.
October 23rd, 2012
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)
CORPUS CHRISTI, TX (Catholic Online) - Benedict XVI has ushered in the Year of Faith. In his apostolic letter Annus fidei, Pope Benedict XVI expressed his desire that during this Year of Faith every believer profess the faith "in fullness and with renewed conviction, with confidence and hope."
Faith, however, does not deal only with God, it also relates to realities about us and about the world. It may seem counter-intuitive, but one of those things that we are called to have faith in is reason.
It is part of our Faith that reason can inform us reliably albeit limitedly about reality, about what is and what is good. We believe that there is reason behind created reality, a Logos, and we also believe that our reason, which participates in the Logos, is adequate to discover the reason behind created reality. Reason can even get right to the edge of created reality and grasp out toward, if not quite touch, the reality of God's uncreated existence, that He is, and that he is the Creator or the First and Uncaused Cause of what is.
Faith believes also that not only is reason able to witness to us of God the First Cause, but it also informs us that God is our Final Cause, that our being and becoming participate in, that is, emerge from God and ultimately must return to God. Reason allows us to know that there is what is called an exitus-reditus structure in the created order, that there was a beginning in God, the First Cause, and that there must be an end or purpose to the whole created order, in God, the Final Cause.
Reason therefore takes us to the threshold of faith.
As John Paul II famously put it in the very beginning of his encyclical on faith and reason, Fides et ratio: "Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth," truth about ourselves and, ultimately, the source of all truth, Truth himself, God.
Our Faith requires us to believe that we have two wings that propel us to truths about ourselves and about God, and not just one.
And this one wing we call reason has two aspects to it. That aspect of reason that discovers what is true is called theoretical reason. That reason that discovers what is good and the means to achieve it is called practical reason.
Reason, then, both theoretical and practical, can participate in the search of reality in tandem with, and not in opposition to, faith. As Pope Benedict XVI mentions in his apostolic letter Annus fidei, reason's "search is an authentic 'preamble' to the faith, because it guides people onto the path that leads to the mystery of God."
"Human reason, in fact," the Pope continues, "bears within itself a demand for 'what is perennially valid and lasting.' This demand constitutes a permanent summons, indelibly written into the human heart, to set out to find the One whom we would not be seeking had he not already set out to meet us."
This should come as no surprise. After all, the neo-Platonic pagan philosopher Plotinus, for example, grasped the truth of the One through the use of reason without benefit of Revelation. And Aristotle was able to grasp some great moral truths with the use of reason. Similarly, some of the higher forms of Hinduism have grasped the concept of one God, for example in the Katha Upanishad and the Shvetashvatara Upanishad, and a law based upon fittingness or nature, dharma.
So part of the Year of Faith, in addition to Faith's increase, must be a restoration of reason. For only with the restoration of reason can we have a reasoned faith and only with a restoration of faith can we have a faithful reason.
It is important, however, to understand that the reason that both John Paul II speaks of in his encyclical Fides et ratio and which Benedict XVI speaks of in his apostolic letter Annus fidei is not limited to what that narrow sliver of reason that we would call empirical or scientific reason.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church clarifies that the reason that is involved in the discovery of what is and what is good is not the kind of reason used in natural sciences such as physics. Not that there is anything wrong with that reason; however, by its very nature that sort of reason is very limited, very one-dimensional, stunted and blunt when it comes to larger reality.
The reason the Church has in mind, the reason that leads us to the threshold of God, the source of all being, all truth, and all good, is a broader, thicker reason, one which relies upon "converging and convincing arguments" based upon what we perceive through our senses and common sense about reality. [CCC 31]
Medieval thinkers distinguished between two kinds of reason: ratio and intellectus. Ratio is discursive, deductive, logical, active, searching, aggressive. It is where we would put empirical, scientific thinking so prevalent today. Intellectus, on the other hand, was more passive, intuitive, contemplative, inductive, a sort of "simply looking," or simplex intuitus, as Josef Pieper put it in his Leisure, The Basis of Culture.
The reason that Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI want us to have faith in is that sort of broader reason that was known by the medievalists by the name intellectus. Intellectus is capable of much larger truths than ratio, thought it may be less certain and more open to argument given the subject matter involved.
Unfortunately, largely as a byproduct of Enlightenment thinking and the success of the empirical sciences, the modern world has fallen into the trap of believing that empirical reason is the only real reason that is valid. Many are convinced that physical matter is all there is to reality, and that the reality that is in nature is something like a machine that can be fully understood by mathematical laws, by laws of physics, of chemistry, of biology and so on.
With respect to man himself, Descartes, of course, is the philosophical father of all this, and his theory of knowledge--which separated mind from matter--is called the "epistemological turn." He saw mind as separate from body, and the body as nothing but a sort of machine, composed of atoms and really nothing more. Man was a ghost in a machine. Nature was therefore demoted to nothing but matter, and all form, which is to say soul, was gone from it.
"Nature," Descartes said, is limited to "matter itself," and the rules that govern it, rules based upon mathematical formulae and machine-like models, are the "laws of nature." Truths about God, about man and his immortal soul and truths about moral principles based upon a natural law could not be derived from such thin gruel.
Newton likewise adopted a mathematical and mechanistic notion of nature, and he saw greater nature even the cosmos as a self-contained machine. Newton's view of nature was materialistic, indeed atomistic: it was Democritus redivivus, Democritus revived.
This materialistic understanding of man's nature and of nature in general, while it is a boon for the sciences and the reason known as ratio, is a bane for metaphysics and the reason known as intellectus.
The poet William Blake objected quite strongly Newton's notion of reason, as he realized that this sort of narrow reason crippled the ability to grasp reality which was much broader. As he famously put it in a letter to Thomas Butts, Newton's vision resulted in a "single vision," and it gave rise to a phenomenon called "Newton's sleep."
For Blake, Newton's "single vision" and "Newton's sleep" would never allow one to see a "World in a Grain of Sand" or a "heaven in a Wild Flower." One could therefore never "Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand," or "Eternity in an hour."
Even more importantly, Newton's "single vision" and "Newton's sleep" will never lead you to the threshold of faith.
Seizing on Blake's comment, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Steven Weinberg called the modern empirical way of thinking "Newton's Dream," and he defined it as that quest "to understand all of nature, in a way that he was able to understand the solar system, through principles of physics that could be expressed mathematically."
This sort of mechanistic, mathematical thinking is good for science, but it is not the kind of thinking that is the preamble to faith or the basis of a natural moral law. It will never usher us into the supernatural life because it is not able to really tell us fully about the natural life.
In his essay The Idea of a Christian Society, T. S. Eliot observed that the "natural life and the supernatural life have a conformity to each other which neither has to the mechanistic life."
For example, science and the mechanistic model of man may tell us a lot about man as individual, but it will never tell us anything about the human person. The reality of the human person is something that is learned by reason qua intellectus. It cannot be grasped by reason qua ratio.
So the year of Faith must also be the year of reason. And there must be a reanimation of the notion of intellectus, an intellectual vision that goes beyond the narrow ratio. We cannot see the Logos if we do not see the logos in nature, and we cannot see the logos in nature if reason's eyes are closed in Newton's sleep dreaming Newton's dream.
Physical reality is not all that there is to nature. The concept of nature has both matter and form. And form is something that is not discoverable by experiment, by dissection, by looking at the molecular makeup under an electron microscope or at the stars with a telescope.
While experiment, dissection, and what is seen under an electron microscope or a powerful telescope is knowledge as far as it goes, it is knowledge only as far as it goes. And there is much farther to go if we want to grasp the fullness of reality, of what is and what is good.
As part of the Year of Faith, then, we have to recover the ability to find the form in nature.
As Jacques Maritain described it in his Art and Scholasticism, form is the "principle that bestows the distinctive perfection of every existing thing-that which constitutes and completes them in their essence and qualities." Form is the "ontological secret" that things contain within them.
Form tells us what things are and what is their good. The form in nature, the form in man is what leads to the One, the True, the Good, and the Beautiful: to God. If we blind ourselves to form, we live the "single vision" of "Newton's sleep."
We have to wake up from Newton's dream in order to believe!
Andrew M. Greenwell is an attorney licensed to practice law in Texas, practicing in Corpus Christi, Texas. He is married with three children. He maintains a blog entirely devoted to the natural law called Lex Christianorum. You can contact Andrew at email@example.com.
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