The heart needs its reasons

By Carole Brown
Director of Evangelization and Missionary Discipleship

Some years ago, I attended a gala dinner for a Catholic church in Dublin that was having an anniversary celebration. The Church in Ireland already was in a crisis of faith; a crisis that I was keen to try to understand. As drinks and hors d'oeuvre were served, I found myself in conversation with one of the more senior church members, so I took the opportunity to ask him for his perspective on current events.

As the conversation wound around to matters of faith, the man ended up giving me some perspective on his own faith. In all seriousness, he declared, “Do you want to know what I think? I think we are all ‘gods.’ I mean, look at all the things we can invent and build.”

I nearly spit out my wine. Here was an older Catholic gentleman, clearly of some intelligence and civic distinction, who no doubt was a product of Catholic schools, who, in all likelihood, had never missed Mass on Sunday, and who never failed to declare the first article of the Creed: “We believe in one God.”

Certainly, the man had never thought consciously of the content of the Church’s Credo. Nor, I suspect, had he given serious thought to his own theology. It may not have occurred to him that he could not simultaneously hold that there was one God, and believe that he and I also were gods. It was a trendy idea, but a contradiction in terms. I did not dare to ask him what he thought of Jesus, or the Church whose legacy he was present that night to celebrate.

I tried to gently point out that he had not “made” himself, and on that point we agreed. Then, we were called to take our seats. I never saw him again.

But, I began to understand that the crisis of faith in Ireland was much deeper than I had imagined. It was not only a crisis of revealed faith, but also a crisis of reason. His religious system was constructed on a scaffolding of thoroughly rusted beams. As I came to learn in the years that followed, his was not an isolated case.

This same crisis presents a danger to Catholics in the United States, although in different forms. Immersed in a corrosively secular and relativistic culture, we are rather easily shamed into abandoning any hard and fast truth claims about God.

Such pressure becomes quite acute in the secular university setting where faith is treated as a kind of naïve belief in myth, quite distant from the “real world” of science and facts. Meanwhile, the presuppositions of secular fields of study are often adopted uncritically.

But, the universe begs for explanation. And, while we may perhaps be less tempted by the polytheism that my Irish friend had ventured into, we are nevertheless vulnerable to thoughtlessly adopt a kind of agnostic naturalism, in which view, God may or may not exist, and really, whether he does or doesn’t make a whit of difference in my life. Science has all the answers one could need, so I’ll leave it to the scientists to figure it out and get on with my business.

Faith, in our day and age, needs to be thoroughly buttressed by sound reason. I already was in my late 20s when I discovered the “5 Proofs of the Existence of God.” These arguments, developed by Aristotle, and later appropriated into the theology of Saint Thomas Aquinas, also are called “The Cosmological Arguments.” They are part of the field of philosophy called “metaphysics” – the Philosophy of Being itself. How helpful it would have been to have had access to these indispensable tools of philosophy when I started my university studies!

Aristotle and his Greek contemporaries, through the disciplined use of reason, deduced that, contrary to Greek theology with its pantheon of “gods,” there only could be One True God.

He argued compellingly that God – the uncaused Cause, the ordering power of the universe – was all powerful, all knowing, everywhere present – and ONE. This was as far as Aristotle could reach with reason. Aristotle’s conclusions were true as far as they went, but they did not disclose the whole truth about God. At best, he was able to deduce a supernatural power that was something like “The Force” – what the Greeks call “the Logos.”

But, he was not able to grasp by naked reason the fullness of truth that God also was personal. For man to know about God’s inner life, God had to pull back the veil and “reveal” it. God did exactly that with Abraham and the Jewish patriarchs and prophets – confirming what Aristotle had deduced by reason, and going well beyond it to what reason would never have suspected. Ultimately, God’s personal nature was manifested in Jesus.

This is what Saint John the Evangelist testified to in John 1:14.

“And the Word (“Logos” in Greek) became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth.”

The time is more than ripe for a rediscovery of the contribution that Aristotle and his metaphysics can make to the contemporary conversations between faith and reason, faith and science, and faith and ourselves.