“For my part I judge that believing before reasoning, if you are not able to follow reasoning, and cultivating the mind by faith in order to be ready to receive the seeds of truth, is not only most wholesome, but is indeed the only way by which health can return to sick minds” (De utilitate credendi by Saint Augustine).
Does reason stand alone? Can we participate in this educational venture on our own merits and with our own unaided intellects? Or, as St. Augustine suggests, do we need to recognize our inabilities and ask for help from above?
As a Catholic university, Notre Dame is—or ought to be—ordered towards theology, the knowledge of God and all things in God. Indeed, this arrangement reflects the very nature of human curiosity, or the innate desire to seek and to know the truth. We all desire the truth—not just that truth which is convenient for our self-gain—but that which instills peace in the depths of the heart. Above all, even if we do not realize it, we seek the ultimate truth that gives meaning to everything, and this truth is God. All pursuit of truth, no matter the subject, is somehow a way to the greatest truth. Ultimately, if we know God, we have beatitude, and thus this pursuit is of the highest order.
Philosophy is ordered to theology, holding a privileged place as that by which we pursue wisdom and investigate first principles and transcendentals by means of reason. All other disciplines, especially the sciences, are also ordered towards wisdom but use their own particular methods. Philosophy and theology elevate this search for truth by articulating the ultimate ends known by reason and faith.
Only at a Catholic university do faith and reason—“the two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of the truth,” as Fides et Ratio describes them—hold their proper places, and only at a Catholic university can the fullness of truth best be pursued. Reason is properly considered at the service of faith, asking the important questions about higher things, and not limited to scientific experimentation. Faith illuminates reason, preventing it from becoming an end unto itself by providing the ultimate ends of inquiry.
We students often view this connection between faith and reason as found solely in the core requirements we must fulfill, namely our two theology and two philosophy classes. But perhaps this combined effort of faith and reason can enter into our personal struggles and intellectual endeavors as well.
We have all experienced erring, maybe found most clearly in math, in wrongly interpreting a classical text, or in unintentional utterances in a foreign language. In these cases, our reason is clouded, and we do not have the proper information to reach conclusions or to be coherent. We desperately wish for the clouds to be driven away and the sun to shine through. Help often comes in the form of a teacher or intelligent peer, and we have faith that he or she will enlighten us about the truth.
In some matters, however, we must seek the help of the Supreme Teacher, and this is where the strongest faith enters. We might have questions about what happens after death, the meaning of suffering, or the beginning of the universe. We can contemplate these questions on our own, but to reach a real understanding we need to assent to certain beliefs that come through Revelation. In the sphere of morality, faith gives us the teachings and authority of Christ. Where reason alone may end at justice, faith instructs us to love our enemies. In certain situations, therefore, reason must consider what is made known by faith so that clouds of ignorance can be dispelled by the Son.
Reason can also be overrun by our passions, which often overrule or distort our capacity to reason. Pride may blind us to the flaws in our work, anger might prevent us from considering other important viewpoints, envy might cause us to exaggerate claims or invent our own data, lust might distort the way in which we view another’s basic dignity.
A particular scourge on this campus is the excessive use of alcohol. Drunkenness does not only lead to cloudy reason, but it also puts reason in chains and leaves the passions in control. This darkening of reason is all too evident in the incoherent actions of some of our peers. When we choose to get drunk, we temporarily snuff out our ability to reason.
The real problem arises when the passions habitually overcome reason. Vice becomes part of our daily life. Reason is consistently clouded and no longer has the light to know what is good, true, and beautiful because the opposing habits are so firmly ingrained. We might think: drunkenness is good fun, lust is good pleasure, and I must look out for myself.
With our reason clouded and abused, how are we to seek and commit ourselves completely to ultimate truth?
Ideally, our reason controls our emotions and passions so that we can consider higher and nobler things. For example, many of us have had the experience of enjoying a very large meal and feeling very stuffed by its end. Despite this feeling of over-satisfaction, upon clearing our plates, we still grab a cookie from the cookie jar on our way out of the kitchen. Our reason tells us we do not need that cookie for additional nourishment, but our passions take over and we eat it. Or perhaps we are lustful and seek pleasure in ways that our reason, if not unduly clouded, tells us are wrong. It is all too easy to find pornography on the internet or to get drunk at a party and initiate or accept sexual advances.
These are instances in which we seek immediate gratification, ignoring the possibility of more meaningful truths. Constantly and consistently giving in to desires for cheap gratification changes the end of our reason from pursuing higher things to lower things. It obstructs our patient, persevering pursuit of the truth that sets us free.
Blaise Pascal says in his Pensees, “I would then arouse in man the desire to find the truth; to be ready, free from passions, to follow it where he may find it, knowing how much his knowledge is obscured by the passions. I would want him to hate his concupiscence, which is self-determined, so that it may not blind him in making his choice, nor stop him when he has chosen.”
Faith is a light that shines through the darkness and reminds us of who we really are and for what we are made. Restoring the vision of this end gives us hope.
But the path to this ultimate truth is not easy, which is why immediate gratification is so appealing. It is the shortcut that causes us to become lost. We find ourselves in an intense struggle, having to resist the allure of lower things. This point is truly where faith and reason must meet, and we must allow the two wings of our spirits to lift us to the contemplation of the ultimate truth.
Grace assists us in keeping our passions from overruling right reason, leaving reason free to pursue truth, ultimately guided by faith.
Saint Augustine tells us in his Confessions, “By believing, I might have been cured; for then the eye of my mind would have been clearer and so might in some way have been directed towards Your truth which abides forever and knows no defect” (Book 6.4). Believing in the power of the sacraments, he suggests, is crucial for clear sight.
Thankfully, Notre Dame is full of opportunities to reach out to God for His healing grace. Confession is available nearly every day in the Basilica, one can accidentally walk into a Mass, chapels are open for prayer, a Rosary can be said during a quick walk to the Grotto.
These endeavors may seem time-consuming, but if grace assists in controlling the passions and allows reason to seek its end more clearly and with more vigor, we will view the time spent with God as a good investment, so to speak. At this point in our lives, we seek truth primarily in our studies, and with God’s help, we can enter into them with renewed focus. In any class, effort put into studying cultivates a mind that yearns for the truth. In certain classes, readings or notes can become the beginnings of a prayer.
With Saint Thomas Aquinas we can pray part of his “Prayer Before Study: A Student’s Prayer”: “Pour forth a ray of Your brightness into the darkened places of my mind; disperse from my soul the twofold darkness into which I was born: sin and ignorance.”
Prayer illuminates reason. Developing sound and right reason is why we enroll at a university. At Notre Dame, we can do both.
The integration of faith and reason does not have solely theoretical implications nor does it only manifest itself in the required courses. Faith and reason penetrate into the very core of what it means for us to be students and to be humans.
John VanBerkum is a senior studying philosophy and theology. He is grateful to his professors this semester for the opportunity to think about such things as faith and reason. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.