Peer deeply into any one of the many contemporary conflicts afflicting human beings on the world stage—the ISIS purge of Assyrian Christians and other minorities from the boundaries of their putative new Islamic state, the felling of Malaysia Flight 17 in eastern Ukraine, the seething hell-hole that is Gaza—and you will eventually discover, if not the utter renunciation of human reason, at least catastrophic failures to approach conflicts reasonably.
When I am assaulted by these headlines each day, my thought sooner or later returns to Pope Benedict XVI—the great herald of the scope, and role, and possibilities, and place of God-given human reason in human life and civilization. (And I am equally reminded every time of the immense historical paradox that it was a Pope of the Roman Catholic Church who played this role at the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st.)
From his reflections in Christianity and the Crisis of Cultures, to his touchstone speech at the University of Regensburg, to his 2007 address to the government and diplomatic corps of Austria, and beyond, the Pontiff did not lose an opportunity to get at the very core of the conflict, namely, our conflicting conceptions about the limits, possibilities and purpose of human reason. And that is because Christianity is the religion of the Logos. Benedict explains:
Yet another part of the European heritage is a tradition of thought which considers as essential a substantial correspondence between faith, truth and reason. Here the issue is whether or not reason stands at the beginning and foundation of all things. The issue is whether reality originates by chance and necessity, and thus whether reason is merely a chance by-product of the irrational and, in an ocean of irrationality, it too, in the end, is meaningless, or whether instead the underlying conviction of Christian faith remains true: In principio erat Verbum—in the beginning was the Word; at the origin of everything is the creative reason of God who decided to make himself known to us human beings.
The sheer irrationality of militant Islam should be lost on no one today. But the fact that Christianity is the religion of the Logos—discovering revelation to be anchored in a God who is the font and source of reason itself, discovering creation to be immensely meaning-laden, and ordered to good ends—this is no guarantee that individual Christians will achieve the necessary synthesis of faith and reason in their own lives.
As Pope St. John Paul the Great reminded us in his encyclical Fides et Ratio, Christians along with all human beings, long to be anchored in absolute truth:
[P]eople seek an absolute which might give to all their searching a meaning and an answer-something ultimate, which might serve as the ground of all things. In other words, they seek a final explanation, a supreme value, which refers to nothing beyond itself and which puts an end to all questioning. Hypotheses may fascinate, but they do not satisfy. Whether we admit it or not, there comes for everyone the moment when personal existence must be anchored to a truth recognized as final, a truth which confers a certitude no longer open to doubt (27).
But the culture has doused that interior yearning with the virulent message that “truth” is too much work (and why bother since we know by now that “truth,” if it exists, remains inaccessible anyway). Christians are immersed in the resulting cultural riptide of metaphysical boredom: Search for truth or… shop the App Store?
Consequently, in the lived reality of Catholicism today, that synthesis of faith and reason is often anemic at best. Faith only remotely connected to reason can lead in two equally undesirable directions: a kind of blind and childish fideism and moral legalism, or to the confusion of freedom with libertinism, and the embrace of moral license and moral relativism. In either direction, the loss of any faith whatsoever often follows, or at least the abandonment of “institutional” religion.
In the face of the tragedies we see unfolding on our televisions and smartphones these days, in addition to prayer, one of the best things we can do is revamp our understanding of the faith, our prayerful study of Catholic doctrine, our personal insistence on the orderly hierarchy of faith and reason over feelings and emotions in our moral lives In this way we will be much better prepared explain to anyone who asks, the reasons for the hope that is ours (Cf. I Pt. 3:15).
Father Thomas Berg is a priest of the Archdiocese of New York and Professor of Moral Theology at St. Joseph’s Seminary (Dunwoodie). More of Fr. Berg’s publications are available at www.fatherberg.com.