Over the course of his long pontificate, John Paul II directly addressed the biggest problems of the age. The first years of his pontificate were devoted especially to disposing of what was then the world’s most pressing practical problem—the Soviet Union specifically and Communism generally. Then, on September 14, 1998, the former philosophy professor turned in Fides et Ratio to the most profound and fundamental of all theoretical problems—the question of the relationship between faith and reason.
This question about the relationship between faith and reason is at the very center of Catholic higher education. As we come to the twentieth anniversary of Fides et Ratio, I would like, as a philosophy teacher, to offer some small account of my two decades of experience in grappling with John Paul’s program. This is especially so because, under the impetus of Fr. Robert Spitzer, S.J., a “Faith and Reason Institute” was founded at Gonzaga University within a year of the release of John Paul II’s encyclical. Between the urging of that letter, the energy of Fr. Spitzer, the existing intellectual resources already present in especially the philosophy faculty at Gonzaga, and a small but continuous parade of expert speakers, I have been privileged to be part of a unique intellectual fellowship centered in Gonzaga’s Faith and Reason Institute.
Gonzaga University is of course hardly the center of the Catholic university scene. But what the GU Faith and Reason Institute has been able to do that may distinguish our efforts is to make the questions arising from the study of the relationship between faith and reason accessible to students and non-specialists, and indeed even drawing the uninitiated into the discussions. From the beginning, the Institute was a laboratory for a new course for students, a course called simply “Faith and Reason”. The members of the Institute who have taught the course most frequently over the past two decades are Brian Clayton, the Director of the Institute, and myself.
Earlier this year we published, with Ignatius Press, a book based directly on the course that aims to be accessible to an audience of non-specialists. The title of our intellectual labors, which is really the fruit of the entire Institute, is Two Wings: Integrating Faith and Reason. The title takes its bearings from the opening of the encyclical itself:
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…
Trying to fly with only the wing of faith is what the philosophers call “fideism”; trying to fly with only the wing of reason is what they term “rationalism”. One-winged flying, to extend the analogy, is to live a maimed existence. Following the course curriculum, the book then treats in turn arguments for and against the existence of God, arguments pertaining to natural science, as well as debates regarding ethics and political life.
As John Paul’s encyclical turns twenty, the Faith and Reason Institute at Gonzaga is now pausing to reflect on the current situation of this key question. It will be assisted in this effort by events marking the anniversary of Fides et Ratio. On Thursday, September 13, well-known author and journalist Robert Royal, who has himself founded a Faith and Reason Institute in Washington, D.C., will speak on the Gonzaga campus. On Friday, September 14, Charles Chaput, Archbishop of Philadelphia and another noted author who has already been speaking about the encyclical in anticipation of its anniversary, will lecture.
What has been our experience so far working in the light of Fides et Ratio? Given Fr. Spitzer’s philosophical interests and magnetic personality, the questions that first came to the fore emerged from natural science, and especially from physics. What are the implications of Big Bang cosmology? Is the universe the result of chance or of design? Is natural science really the enemy of belief? The Institute held a series of public conferences on “Physics and the God of Abraham” that drew very large crowds intrigued to learn what was being said by both scientists and philosophers. There was a freshness and excitement about these questions in light of the encyclical and in light of developments in natural science—and our students could sense it.
If we look back at the developments occurring outside of Gonzaga, the post-encyclical faith and reason debates also devoted much of their attention to the more narrow relationship between natural science and theistic faith. In some ways, this was an old argument; the Enlightenment thinkers had frequently attacked Christianity in the name of empirical natural science and their followers had even advocated a “war” between science and religion. Even prior to the encyclical, however, it was becoming clear to philosophers that contemporary natural science had changed dramatically since the beginning of the 20th century. The suddenly old-fashioned natural science—committed as it was to a materialist interpretations of all of reality—had to backpedal. The new natural science, profoundly influenced by Einstein, “Big Bang” cosmology, and quantum physics, was moving toward conclusions that aligned more with traditional Christian thinking than with Enlightenment materialism.
To be sure, so-called “new atheists” such as Richard Dawkins have sold a lot of books since the publication of Fides et Ratio. But most philosophy professors are unimpressed. Dawkins’s claims, for instance, simply seem out of date now. To my mind, it is books such as Stephen Barr’s Modern Physics and Ancient Faith that have won the day, or at least have the upper hand at present. Barr, and others, have shown that the natural world is turning out to be much more like what theists have been saying all along. The alleged “war” between science and religion has devolved more into something like a mopping up exercise. One of the many aspects of this development that John Paul presumably never anticipated is that so many of the soldiers on the Christian side would be Protestants. Catholic philosophers had always found Enlightenment claims to be suspect; many Protestants originally weren’t so sure, and thus many embraced the new offensive against the old Enlightenment materialism with enthusiasm as soon as they realized the conflict was winnable.
The agenda of Fides et Ratio, however, was always much broader than just a question about the implications of trends in modern physics. These comprehensive questions that had their roots in older, more traditional viewpoints, became part of the discussion, too: Are there arguments that really can prove God’s existence? What would it even mean to use a word like “God”? Does the presence of evil in the world mean that God cannot possibly exist? And so forth. Integrating such perennial questions and arguments from the Catholic tradition into the new course was another crucial topic that Gonzaga students were asked to participate in. The results were at first surprise and even shock. It had never occurred to them that there might be such things as actual arguments—and serious ones at that—that could possibly establish the existence of God. But when the novelty wore off, philosophical reflection crept in. It became no longer especially rare to run into a student who knew the difference between the cosmological and the ontological argument.
As was the case with the study of natural science and religion, the study of the traditional questions pertaining to faith and reason has also flourished outside of Gonzaga University since the publication of the encyclical. Although it is still a minority interest in colleges and universities, the traditional arguments are receiving new attention. And once again, it is often non-Catholics who are devoting the attention.
Looking forward, the Institute can already anticipate some of the many questions that will become of primary concern among those who are thinking about the relationship between faith and reason. The abuse scandals are obviously on the minds of everyone, and they give rise to new iterations of the old question about evil and suffering. The problem of evil has been part of the faith and reason curriculum at Gonzaga since the Institute began to develop its course. Fr. Spitzer was particularly effective at talking with students about it. Now one surmises that questions specifically about moral evil will come to the fore: if God exists and cares about human beings, then why does God make creatures with the ability to harm others so gravely? Why doesn’t he put a stop to it?
Of greater and greater concern to all advocates of Catholic liberal arts education in the United States is that students have turned more and more toward technical and STEM studies, and at the same time become less and less interested in all of the “big questions,” including the question about faith and reason. Today all liberal arts teachers have to work harder than ever to show their students that studies not immediately connected to future employment may still be worth the effort. This has admittedly been a problem for a long time, but within the last decade it has become even more urgent. University studies are more than ever preparation for the work force. The economy of the United States may have recovered since 2008, but the recovery of intellectual curiosity among students continues to lag.
Finally, on the most theoretical level, those devoted to the debate about faith and reason will need to confront a fundamental problem identified already in Fides et Ratio and sharpened in Benedict XVI’s Regensburg Address. This has to do with the tremendous loss of confidence in the ability of reason to know truth. Contemporary philosophy itself doesn’t claim to know much truth these days; with the notable exception of natural science, modern reason tends towards skepticism. It’s hard for faith to have a debate with reason if reason doesn’t have much to say.
Fides et Ratio begins by claiming that two wings are needed for the human spirit to ascend to truth. John Paul and Benedict after him suggested that it is the wing of reason that is currently more damaged than the wing of faith. As John Paul II wrote,
with the light of reason human beings can know which path to take, but they can follow that path to its end, quickly and unhindered, only if with a rightly tuned spirit they search for it within the horizon of faith. Therefore, reason and faith cannot be separated without diminishing the capacity of men and women to know themselves, the world and God in an appropriate way. (par 16)
And so contemplating, studying, teaching, and learning about the life-giving and truth-revealing relationship between faith and reason continues to be crucial to the work of Catholic education as well as the witness and teaching of the Church. As the late pontiff summed it: “The parrhesia”—that is, the true and free speech—“of faith must be matched by the boldness of reason.”