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Two Cultures: Faith and Reason


Faith and reason, first of all, are not to be taken for granted.


They are historical events that arose at a certain time in history.  They are not simply permanent realities in human nature that are timeless and not culturally determined.  Human nature is of course by nature religious.  That is, the religious instinct, as even atheists like Freud admit, is ingrained in human nature.  It's either an innate illusion or an innate wisdom.  But it is innate.  And, of course, man is by nature a rational animal.  So in that sense, reason is also ingrained in human nature.

However, two premodern civilizations, namely, the Jews and the Greeks, became self-conscious about faith and about reason in ways that were radically different and that radically distinguished them from all other civilizations in the world, and just about everything we have in our present Western civilization comes from these two sources.

What happened in Greece, especially with Socrates, is that reason, which is like a little baby in the womb of humanity, got bored.  You saw it.  Socrates confused people because he knew what reason was so much more clearly than they did.  He would win every argument he ever participated in simply because he had this consciousness about what reason could prove and what reason couldn't prove, and nobody else did.  And everybody else copied him, from there.  If there ever was a human being other than Jesus Christ who has a claim to be something more than human, more than other people, it was Socrates.  Not that he was divine, but that he seemed to come from another planet.  Nobody really did logic before Socrates.  So it's like an iceberg — the stuff under the water suddenly becomes visible in the sun, and you see it.

What happened in Israel was equally remarkable, and equally distinctive.  Just as everyone is by nature rational, everyone is by nature religious, but what faith meant to the Jews was a different sort of thing than what faith meant to all the Gentiles, whether they were pagan polytheists, or whether they were mystical pantheists in the East.  Faith, to the Jews, meant a response to a public divine revelation.  To the God who manifested himself, who didn't simply wait until we got there where He was either by mystical experience, as was the usual route in the East, or by the imagination and myths and traditions, as was the usual way in the polytheistic West, but rather, the God who spoke, who inspired prophets, who performed public miracles.  Faith is a response to that.

Now, these two things, faith and reason, could meet and could marry — the old things couldn't.  The old unconscious kind of reason and the old unconscious kind of faith were different, and even in Greece in Socrates' day, the priests and the philosophers were enemies. 

Socrates went a long way towards reconciling them.  But they remained pretty much enemies until the Christian era, because Christianity inherited faith, this new notion of faith, from the Jews, and reason, this new notion of reason, from the Greeks, and the central intellectual project of the whole middle ages was a marriage or a synthesis of these two things.  They were different, but they were made for each other, like Romeo and Juliet.  It was a storybook marriage, but it was a happy one.  And perhaps the best way to characterize the modern world is the word 'divorce'.  The two partners have sort of set up houses on their own and produced all sorts of arguments against each other, such as the so-called war between religion and science, which is total mythical, which does not exist, which is an invention of the secular media.

But there you are.  I've summarized all the history of human thought in five minutes, so what do I do next?  Well, let me take a leaf from Socrates, and define my terms.  What do we mean by reason?  What do we mean by faith?


Reason could mean something very, very broad.  I said before that every human being, even primitive pagans, have the power of reason, which distinguishes them from animals.  In that sense, reason is simply the ability to know any kind of truth, wherever it is, and by whatever means we have it.  Animals don't do that.  In a narrower sense, reason is the ability to clearly understand things and prove things.  That's the more logical and narrower definition of reason that we have with the Greek philosophers.

We have an even narrower definition of reason in modern philosophy.  Descartes tried to narrow and concentrate reason to make it more effective, like laser concentrates the power of light.  And sense the modern scientific method in Descartes's day had just been discovered and was used so remarkably successfully, that was his way of narrowing reason, and pretty much everybody followed him, not only the rationalists that followed his philosophy and the empiricists that opposed it.  And pretty much everybody in modern times thinks of reason by the prime analogative science.  The closer you can get to the scientific method, the more rational you are.  So that's a much more narrow definition of reason than the classical Greek and medieval one.

In terms of what Aristotle called the three acts of the human mind, which are first of all understanding the meaning of a concept like man, secondly, judging the truth of a proposition like "All men are mortal", and thirdly, proving one proposition by other propositions, such as "All men are mortal, and Socrates is a man; therefore, Socrates is mortal."  — in terms of those three acts of the mind, the second meaning of reason, classical Greco-medieval reason, included all three acts of the mind.  The modern, narrower definition of reason focuses on the third act of the mind: proof, conclusive proof, because the first step of the scientific method is "Accept nothing without proof."

Now, when we talk about the relation between faith and reason, which of those three reasons are we talking about?  When the medievals like Thomas Aquinas talked about reason, they talked about the broader Aristotelian three-acts-of-the-mind kind of reason.  When moderns talk about reason, they usually talk about things that can be conclusively proved and things that can't.  Those are two different questions.  So we have to get our terms clear first before we talk about the relation between two terms.


And that's also true of the term faith.  Faith, like reason, has at least three different meanings — a very broad meaning, a middle meaning, and a much narrower meaning.  The broadest meaning is the thing that characterizes every single human being, including atheists, including skeptics; they all have faith in something — at least faith in their own reasoning, or faith in the inability of reason to do its work.  You've got to start somewhere — you don't start with nothing; you start with something.

The second and middle meaning of faith is religious faith: response to some sort of divine revelation.  A third and even narrower meaning of faith is the intellectual ingredient in religious faith, or belief: "I believe it because God says it."  The Baltimore Catechism definition of faith is "that act of the intellect prompted by the will, by which we believe everything that God has revealed, on the grounds of the authority of the God who revealed it."  That's the narrower, theological definition of faith.

The Protestant Reformation was sparked mainly by confusion about the meaning of the word faith, because the New Testament has two sets of texts in it, one of which uses the middle meaning, and one of which uses the narrower meaning of faith.  The narrower meaning of faith is an act of the intellect.  And when Paul in I Cor. 13 says you need faith, hope and charity, and the greatest of these is not faith, but charity, he's talking about intellectual faith.  That's not sufficient for salvation.  James says, "Do you have faith that there is one God?  Ooh, good for you; the devils believe that, too, but they tremble with fear."

On the other hand, there are texts in the New Testament, especially from Paul himself, that say faith is sufficient for salvation; that's saving faith.  That's ontological faith.  That's letting God in, the whole of God into the whole of your soul.  And once we sorted out those things — it took about 400 years.  The Decree on Justification, approved by the Vatican and many Protestant groups, such as the Worldwide Conference of Lutheran bishops, declared that this most divisive issue in Christian history was, unfortunately, misunderstood for 400 years, and is not fundamentally a contradiction at all.  In other words, both sides were right, because both sides were based on the New Testament.  It's much more complicated than that, but essentially it was a confusion of two different meanings of the word faith — is it an act of the intellect, or is it an act of the will and the whole self, by which God is allowed into the soul.

Well, when we talk about faith and reason, we're usually talking about the narrowest meaning of faith and the narrowest meaning of reason — how much truth can be known by faith, how much truth can be known by reason, and what's the relation between those two sets of truths.  That's the clearest and narrowest and most precise meaning of how faith and reason get together, both in themselves and when we talk about a Catholic school — educating people in both faith and reason.

Thomas Aquinas wrote the clearest thing I've ever written — oh, boy; Freudian slip — ever read about the relation between faith and reason.  I still remember trying to understand the Thomistic doctrine of faith and reason by reading commentators on Thomas, and then Father Clarke at Fordham, who was a wonderful Thomist, told me the secret.  He said, "You can't understand Thomas through the Thomists; you can only understand the Thomists through Thomas."  And that's true; Thomas is marvelously clear: Here are all the things that we know by faith and divine revelation, and here are all the things that we know by the operation of natural human reason alone.  What is the relation between these two kinds of truths, or two classes of propositions?  Well, they could be simply different.  They could be identical.  They could be such that one includes the other.  Or they could overlap.  And the answer is that they overlap. 

There are some things like the Trinity, and the fact that God chooses to love you and save you, that can be known only by divine revelation.  They can't be proved by human reason, or even fully understood — they are divine mysteries.  There are other things, like most of the propositions of natural science, and common sense, that form no part of divine revelation.  And there are a third category, the most interesting kind — for instance, the existence of God, and the perfection of God, and the fact that God is one, and the fact that God is moral, and natural morality, which are both divinely revealed and knowable by reason.  And that's the area that Christian apologetics focuses on.  That's where the two meet the most.  That's, so to speak, the marriage bed of the two of them.

Now, all of this was hopelessly abstract and logical, and that's because I didn't know what I was going to talk about until two minutes before I entered the room.  So there's your absent-minded professor's introduction to the topic by defining terms and placing them in some sort of a context.

And now is the time for you to do the interesting part.  However long or short the talk is, it's always duller than the question-and-answer session because monologue is intrinsically duller than dialogue, because dialogue means two people, and that's closer to ultimate reality, which is a trinity, than just one person.  So you have finished your purgatory, and now you enter what is a little more like heaven, namely, dialogue — questions about either theory or practice, or anything else that you think fits under either the topic of faith and reason, or Catholic education.

Read the question and answer session which followed this talk here.



Peter Kreeft. "Two Cultures: Faith & Reason." Napa Institute Conference (2012).

The Napa Institute exists to equip Catholic leaders to defend and advance the Catholic Faith in "the Next America" — today's emerging secular society.

This article is reprinted with permission from Peter Kreeft.

The Author

kreeft1kreeftPeter Kreeft, Ph.D., is a professor of philosophy at Boston College.  He is the author of many books (over forty and counting) including: Ask Peter Kreeft: The 100 Most Interesting Questions He's Ever Been AskedAncient PhilosophersMedieval PhilosophersModern PhilosophersContemporary Philosophers, Forty Reasons I Am a Catholic, Doors in the Walls of the World: Signs of Transcendence in the Human Story, Forty Reasons I Am a CatholicYou Can Understand the Bible, Fundamentals of the Faith, The Journey: A Spiritual Roadmap for Modern Pilgrims, Prayer: The Great Conversation: Straight Answers to Tough Questions About Prayer,  Love Is Stronger Than Death, Philosophy 101 by Socrates: An Introduction to Philosophy Via Plato's Apology, A Pocket Guide to the Meaning of Life, Prayer for Beginnersand Before I Go: Letters to Our Children About What Really Matters. Peter Kreeft in on the Advisory Board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

Copyright © 2013 Peter Kreeft
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