The Mind’s Ascent to God by Faith and by Reason

By Fr. Dominic Legge, OP
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How do we understand the act a Christian makes when she says: “Credo, I believe”?  Is this a reasonable act?  Can unaided reason lead her to make this act?  Some would say yes, while others would argue that it is not a rational act, or is even fundamentally irrational or a-rational.  Is it a leap in the dark, an act of pure obedience, a pure act of entrusting oneself to God no matter what objections the mind might proffer?  St. Thomas Aquinas offers a classic approach to these questions, an approach that, centuries later, came to typify the main line of the Catholic account of the act of faith.

At the Thomistic Institute, we take Aquinas as our special patron and teacher, and in our work with students in secular universities, we’ve found that his teaching on faith and reason is a powerful antidote to the skepticism that reigns on so many contemporary campuses.  It is worth spending a few moments in thinking this matter through with Aquinas – it pays great dividends!

St. Thomas’s starting point is that God is the source both of faith and of reason, and the human being needs both in order to come to his final end.  These two are eminently compatible, because God cannot be the source of a contradiction or of error.  Consequently, Aquinas has a serene confidence in reason; rightly employed, it will never be able to demonstrate that a claim made by faith is false.  Likewise, Aquinas holds that, while many of the truths of faith – for example, that God is Triune – are neither provable nor disprovable by philosophy, believing those truths is eminently reasonable.  Another way of putting this, for Aquinas, is that the truths of faith are believable or credible – they are worthy of belief.

What makes them “believable?”  Here, Aquinas gives three overlapping reasons.  To begin with, faith depends on certain truths that Aquinas thinks can be proven by reason, such as that God exists, that God is one, and so forth.  Aquinas calls these the preambles of faith or the praeambula fidei, and says that faith presupposes these truths and needs them to be proved by reason.

Second, Aquinas takes from St. Augustine the definition of the act of believing, which, on a natural level, is simply “to think with assent.”  That is, one thinks a proposition to be true, unconditionally, even though we do not ourselves see the truth of it, because we credit the testimony of another.  Aquinas thinks this is an entirely reasonable thing to do.  In fact, we do this every day, when we accept as true the date of our birth, or the existence of a city we have never visited.  The supernatural act of faith adds something more to the structure of this natural act, but in both cases, believing the word of a credible witness remains a reasonable, and sometimes even necessary, thing to do.

Third, Aquinas thinks it is reasonable to believe what Christianity proposes to us, because of the special signs or proofs that God gave to confirm the words of Christ and of the Apostles – things like Christ’s miracles, his resurrection, and the miracles worked by the Apostles.  Here, it is no longer a matter of reason demonstrating the truths themselves, but rather of reason recognizing that God, who is supremely truthful, is confirming what Christianity proposes to us for belief.

But there is one more element to St. Thomas’s teaching, and it is extremely important.  Faith is properly supernatural: it blasts us off, out of this world, as it were, so that by faith our minds are actually raised up into the heavens.  We are not capable of this by our nature – a supernatural gift is needed.  This is because, ultimately, faith orders the believer to God himself.  Or, better, we begin to know God as He knows himself.  Aquinas speaks of this as a participation in the divinity by grace, “such that we are made sharers through Christ in the divine nature.”  In other words, faith is the beginning of our divinization.  It is the start of eternal life.

Fr. Dominic Legge, OP is the Director The Thomistic Institute

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If faith is a supernatural gift - can it be said to be received at Baptism.? It seems that some individuals find it easy to have faith and some struggle - why is that ? The old adage that faith is “caught not taught” - how does it apply to proper cathechesis? If the younger generation have and are leaving faith out of their lives where are we going wrong and why are they not receiving the supernatural gift of faith that was so seemingly abundant in the past?