Is Faith Rational/Relevant?
“The Truth will set you free” (John 8:32)
Many of our contemporaries are sceptical about whether one can rationally embrace faith in Christ, or whether it can make practical sense to follow His teachings in our lives. If you are exploring Catholic faith for the first time, or even as a practicing Catholic, you might wonder if Catholic faith can really be rational and relevant. Below, we address a few common worries about the rationality of embracing Catholic faith.
Isn’t faith just wishful thinking?
According to Mark Twain, faith is “believing what you know ain’t so”. However, that’s not the way in which Catholic understand faith. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) (433; 150) describes faith as an act of the whole person (i.e. her mind and will), which is a “personal adherence of God to man”. Faith also has a particular intellectual component (CCC 150), because it involves belief in truths which God has freely chosen to reveal about Himself and about his dealings with the world. We wouldn’t know these truths if God had not chosen to reveal them to us. However, since God is perfectly knowledgeable and truthful, we can be confident that what He tells us is true. So when a Catholic believes something through faith, he or she doesn’t claim to believe this through her natural intellectual abilities. Rather, the revelation of God’s truth, and the human response to it in faith, are entirely God’s gift.
But how can anyone rationally believe that God exists, or has revealed Himself through Christ?
In his Letter to the Romans, St. Paul indicates that creation provides evidence for the existence of God. St. Paul writes that “Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made” (Romans 1:20). The Church has interpreted this to mean that using our natural powers of reason, we can be confident that God exists (CCC 31-5). It’s important to remember that the Church doesn’t mean that God’s existence is a hypothesis that can be investigated by all branches of human enquiry. In particular, some people make the mistake of expecting that science might discover God, just as scientists discover new planets by observation, or infer the existence of sub-atomic particles through experimentation. However, since God is immaterial (see John 4:24) it would be wrong to expect science to discover Him in this way; although scientific discoveries might lend weight to philosophical reasons to think that God exists, such as when current cosmology seems to indicate that the Universe began to exist.
Historically, Catholics have often interpreted St. Paul to mean that there are powerful philosophical arguments for the existence of God. Many of the most brilliant philosophers, such as St. Augustine, St. Anselm, St. Thomas Aquinas, Bl. John Duns Scotus, Descartes and Leibniz developed arguments for God’s existence. In the past few decades, many academic philosophers have revived their intellectual legacy by defending persuasive arguments to show that the concept of God is coherent, and which argue that God’s existence can explain many features of our world. Some features which philosophers have argued are well-explained by God’s existence include the existence of finite beings, the order inherent in the Universe, the existence of objective moral duties, our knowledge of those duties and the existence of consciousness.
When it comes to Christ’s claim to reveal God, there is also publically available evidence (CCC 156). In this case, the evidence comes primarily from the historical witness of the first disciples, as recorded in the Gospels. The disciples had first hand evidence of Jesus’ teaching. Through his conduct, fulfillment of prophecy, performance of miracles and particularly His resurrection from the dead, they saw clear signs that Jesus taught with God’s authority. Nowadays, many Christian academics who study Scripture professionally have defended the historical reliability of the Gospel stories about Christ, at least in their essential outline.
The publically available evidence for the existence of God and His revelation in Christ is, of course, complicated and controversial. But here are a few books written by Christian scholars which discuss the evidence for God’s existence and His revelation in Christ at a relatively accessible level:
- Edward Feser, Five Proofs of the Existence of God (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2017)
- Michael Rota Taking Pascal’s Wager (IVP, 2016)
- Richard Swinburne, Was Jesus God? (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010)
On the other hand, it’s important not to restrict our notion of evidence too much. One might think that it’s only reasonable to believe what seems likely according to the evidence of our senses, or can otherwise be demonstrated by logical/mathematical proof. However, as some recent Christian philosophers have noticed, many people who lack religious faith nevertheless hold some beliefs which can’t easily be shown to be true by sense perception or logical deduction. For example, most people believe that the Universe has existed for a length of time (rather than just having begun to exist with the appearance of age) or that other people are conscious. To many people, these beliefs just seem obviously true, even though they are not widely thought to admit of empirical or logical proof. In a similar way, it strongly seems to many Christians that God is present in their lives, particularly when they turn to Him in prayer. It’s plausible, therefore, that belief in God or the central truths of Christian faith can be rational even aside from its support from the evidence seen above. A powerful presentation of this line of thought can be found in Alvin Plantinga’s Knowledge and Christian Belief (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2015).
It’s hard to know anything about religious truth for certain. Why should I bother trying to follow Jesus?
It’s important to acknowledge that not all philosophers or theologians informed about the arguments for the existence of God or the authority of Christ embrace faith. Faith is a gift from God, and can only be exercised when humans choose to co-operate with His grace (CCC 153-155). Perhaps, as the seventeenth century Catholic philosopher Blaise Pascal suggested, this is why God makes the evidence for his existence and revelation somewhat ambiguous: so that those who do not wish to believe can freely reject faith.
However, as Pascal also famously observed, there are enormous potential benefits to following Christ. Jesus promises those who follow him eternal life (cf. John 11:25-6), and Christians believe that faith in Christ’s death has the power to forgive the sins which prevent us having a relationship with God, who loves us more than any human can. Even in this life, many Christians experience great comfort and joy through their relationship with God, through Jesus and His Church. Pope Francis often speaks of the life-changing joy which Christian faith brings, making it a theme of his Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium. Ultimately, though, the real proof of the value of Christian life can only be appreciated by taking the risk of getting to know God personally, and of trusting in His promise that we shall see Him “face to face”. (1 Corinthians 13:12).