Tuesday, August 19, 2008

"Fides et Ratio": Making Sense of the Senseless

Few concepts seem more incompatible than those of faith and reason. Their relationship to each other is a fascinating one to contemplate. One of the most famous documents to attempt their reconciliation in recent times is the late Pope John Paul II's Fides et Ratio, an instructional letter from the pontiff to the bishops of the Catholic Church on the relationship between faith and reason.

This treatise is not for the faint of heart, among whom I readily consider myself one. (Nor does it lend itself to fair examination with just a few hundred words.) It is written by, and intended for, those who have no doubt achieved an advanced understanding of many philosophical principles and schools of thought. Nevertheless, its flaws in reasoning are plainly revealed in the very things it unapologetically claims to be integral to its understanding: reliance upon perfect faith and divine revelation as instruments of paradoxical resolution.

Early on, a conspicuous prejudice is revealed, one which states by mere fiat that the church is in possession of the ultimate truth about human life via nothing more than what it proclaims to be a mystery: the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Attaining truth via mystery is decidedly unreasonable to us faint of heart.

The intended path of reasoning in Fides et Ratio seems to be the following: The act of believing - that is, faith itself - reveals truth; and this revelation of truth imparts reason upon the act of faith by grounding the object of faith in reality. Convoluted though this may appear, this circle of logic is nonetheless intended to provide the human intellect with the access it seeks to this very reasoning. In fact, invoking the benefits of faith as regards its power to reveal is a constant theme throughout Faith and Reason. It is apparently too much to ask that truth be revealed or evident prior to demanding one's belief in it. To strain logic further, the pope criticizes modern philosophy for not being able to arrive at that which he clearly states only faith and revelation can aspire to in the first place - truth. Not to be caught off guard, the pontiff warns of the dangers of fideism (fee-day-iz-um), the reliance upon faith alone without reasoning and philosophical discourse, which he asserts are necessary for the understanding of faith.

A precept of this dissertation that reveals more circular reasoning is the notion that complete freedom is a prerequisite to the perfect act of faith, and yet it is faith which will set one free. And around it goes. Further, without adequate explanation, it is demanded of reason that the transcendent sovereignty of God simply be recognized. What it fails to acknowledge is that an act of faith - not reason - is required to achieve this recognition.

To its credit, Faith and Reason often contemplates the virtue attained in the mere pursuit of meaning through philosophical contemplation, and rather magnanimously acknowledges even the contributions of "erroneous" philosophies in provoking a more discriminating discussion of purported theological truths. It nonetheless discredits any philosophy which does not find itself eventually in total lockstep agreement with every aspect of its own.

Fides et Ratio only succeeds if one is willing to abandon all commonly recognized definitions of reason itself, and completely buy into the strained and self-serving definitions it proposes. Yet this does not necessitate its total rejection so long as it is seen for what it is: a dogmatic manifesto of Christian philosophy which is beyond its own claims to accessibility via the human intellect. If the purpose of this document is to rationalize Catholic dogma by exhibiting a comprehensible philosophical symbiosis between faith and reason, it fails completely. If a symbiosis between the two exists at all, it is one of convenience only and not rational thought.

In the end, the unintelligibility of Faith and Reason is surpassed only by its verbosity. And in keeping with its utter reliance upon paradox, it is flawed to perfection, providing nonsensical, gift-wrapped answers for every question it poses. This, alone, is reason enough to dismiss this package of papal profundity in its entirety.

The German theologian Martin Luther (1483-1546) offered a bit of timeless analysis when he declared, “Reason is the greatest enemy that faith has; it never comes to the aid of spiritual things, but - more frequently than not - struggles against the divine Word, treating with contempt all that emanates from God.”

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