Saturday, April 4, 2009

Faith and Reason - Fides et Ratio

I happened to turn on the TV this evening, and came in right at the start of Inherit the Wind, made in 1960, based on the play by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee (no, not that Robert E. Lee) which in turn was based on the Scopes "Monkey Trial" in Dayton, Tennessee, in 1925.

It's a powerful movie, partly because some of it (I'm not sure how much) really happened, and, to my mind, mostly because it's a clash between science and religion. Now I have to qualify that. It seems to me the movie portrayed a clash between atheistic science and very fundamentalist religion; in other words, two opposite poles -- two extremes -- which I think a Catholic thinker would avoid, because neither pole represents the balance that Catholicism offers.

I'm currently reading John Paul II's encyclical Fides et Ratio, in which it seems (I'm only a little way into it) he insists there's no real conflict between real science and real religion. This is a notion that, as far as I know, the Church has held since at least Aquinas and probably further back than that. (I understand the great Fathers of the first few centuries adopted the methods and some of the terminology of Greek philosophy, in order to attempt to make divine revelation clearer.)

Anyway, in the textbook used for the course in medieval history at the University of Minnesota in the late 1960s, Robert S. Hoyt's Europe in the Middle Ages, there is a good five-page discussion of Aquinas. One of the principal things Prof. Hoyt says in the book about St. Thomas is this (on p. 383):

"To summarize Thomas' view of the Christian universe, part is cognizable by unaided natural reason , and it is connected in logical probability with the second part which must, ultimately, be accepted on faith. But if revelation be granted as providing valid premises or first principles, this second part also can be shown to be no less rational than the first part. The two parts of the Thomistic universe are nature and supernature. The conclusions concerning nature can be demonstrated to be true; nature can be demonstrated to be consonant with supernature as revealed, in the sense that by arguments from natural reason no revealed truth can be demonstrated to be false and all revealed truths can be demonstrated to be not impossible. The Christian universe is thus coherent: its parts fit together logically if faith is accepted, and if faith is not accepted it still cannot be shown that the two do not fit together logically. Hence the final conclusion that the universe is one and rational."

G. K. Chesterton wrote a little book on St. Thomas (I highly recommend it to anyone) which Etienne Gilson -- arguably the finest scholar of St. Thomas -- praised by saying, "I consider it as being without possible comparison the best book ever written on St. Thomas."

(Chesterton wrote a great heap of equally brilliant works too; my favorites are Orthodoxy and The Everlasting Man.) In one of these books he came up with a brilliant little quip which I stole and used against an atheist (or at least agnostic) professor of philosophy at the U. of M. about 1969: "Faith and reason are not incompatible. It's an act of faith to believe your thinking bears any relation to reality."

Religion has the Ten Commandments, science has the ten postulates of Euclid. A rabbi I read many years ago said that the Ten Commandmants are not the last word in morality, but the first word that must be said before any others can be. As to Euclid, the statement "Any quantity equals itself" is either self-evidently true or it's nonsense. The common thing is that whether with morality or science, you have to start somewhere. You have to have first principles, or else you've got nothing. You can't put Descartes before the horse. :-}

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