How an Encyclical Helped to Repair a Razor’s Cut
In religion, balance is critical. Monsignor Ronald Knox wrote a book on heresy with a revealing title, Enthusiasm. He found a common trait in people the Church traditionally called heretics. They’re enthusiastic for the faith. But they pursue the ideal over the reality, and a part in disproportion to the whole. According to Knox, their enthusiasm is “not a wrong tendency but a false emphasis” (1). In other words, they became heretics when they lost their balance.
Likewise, it’s critical to preserve the balance between faith and reason. A wobble to one side becomes fideism; a wobble to the other, rationalism. Both lead to a skepticism that questions our capacity to know God. Unfortunately, modern philosophy offers little help. It’s adept at questioning truth but inept at finding it.
Rather than make use of the human capacity to know the truth, modern philosophy has preferred to accentuate the ways in which this capacity is limited and conditioned (2). Skepticism is defeatism in philosophy (3).
The Ockham Razor Cuts too Close
A philosopher monk, William of Ockham (1287-1347), opened the door to skepticism. He’s known for the Ockham Razor, the belief that “no philosopher should waste his time…speculating on the hypothetical causes of existing things” (4), that he should always choose the “simplest explanation” (5).
His hoped to “simplify Scholasticism” (6). But his Razor cut too close; he lost his balance. Because he found “the attributes and actions of God impenetrable to human reason”, he essentially denied “the whole science of theology [advanced] by St. Thomas Aquinas…” (7). James Hitchcock describes Ockham’s philosophy as “a crossroads in Western thought”, influencing “later philosophers to conclude that there is no rational basis for religious belief”; man believed “without understanding” (8).
And his legacy endures. Often, when science and reason challenge traditional beliefs, people defensively “claim that faith is not subject to rational analysis”, that faith is “solely a matter of feeling and experience” (9). Their fideism fuels skepticism; faith appears to be in conflict with reason. What will repair the Razor’s cut? How can we end the apparent conflict between faith and reason?
On October 15, 1998, St. Pope John Paul II attempted a repair through his encyclical, Fides et Ratio. I recall the excitement it produced. Monsignor Holmes spoke to a large crowd of over 100 people gathered in St. James’ basement to hear him present the encyclical. Noted convert and editor of First Things, Richard Neuhaus, while reading the encyclical, experienced sensations “ranging from intellectual excitement to puzzlement to wonder that such a thing should be attempted and, finally, to a humbling awareness that there is more going on in this text than I understand” (10).
The Two Wings of Faith and Reason
John Paul’s encyclical helped to overcome the effect of Ockham’s Razor, retrieving us from both fideism and the domination of rationalism. It accomplished these ends by revealing the dazzling beauty of truth. A new confidence replaced the old skepticism. And, fittingly, John Paul began his encyclical with a soaring analogy (literally):
Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth; and God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth—in a word, to know himself—so that, by knowing and loving God, men and women may also come to the fullness of truth about themselves (11).
He revealed how we can believe with confidence in an age of reason, how faith and reason are not in conflict but in concert with each other, and how faith “builds upon and perfects reason” (12). As the intellect moves down its path to truth, faith guides it, helping it to understand what faith sees.
Faith alone makes it possible to penetrate the mystery in a way that allows us to understand it coherently (13). … Faith asks that its object be understood with the help of reason… [At the same time,] reason acknowledges that, it cannot do without what faith presents (14). [It] needs to be reinforced by faith, in order to discover horizons it cannot reach on its own (15).
Our Balance Is Restored
Faith and reason lead us to the contemplation of truth. Together, they help answer the question, “What is the meaning of our lives in relation to God?” And the search for meaning “is the theme of philosophy and theology alike” (16). Theology defines the object of faith, and philosophy directs reason to what faith believes to be true. If faith and reason are two wings, then theology and philosophy give those wings their lift, their ability to take flight and to stay aloft. Fides et Ratio helped to restore our balance.
Have you read Fides et Ratio? If so, please post your comments.
1. Enthusiasm, Monsignor Ronald Knox, 590
2. Fides et Ratio, St. Pope John Paul II, 5
3. The Unity of Philosophical Experience, Etienne Gilson, 249
4. Ibid, 62
5. History of the Catholic Church, James Hitchcock, 231
6. newadvent.org, William of Ockham
7. The Glory of Christendom, Warren Carroll, 365
8. History, 231
9. Witness to Hope, George Weigel, 841
10. A Passion for Truth: the Way of Faith and Reason, Neuhaus December 1998, First Things
11. Fides, Greeting
12. Ibid, 43
13. Fides, #13
14. Ibid, 42
15. Ibid, 67
16. Ibid, 15