The Harmony of Faith and Reason: Today faith is often seen as inferior to reason, but in the wisdom of the Middle Ages, faith was bolstered by reason as they worked in concert to lead the believer to God. (Religion).
Soon after landing on the island, the missionaries began constructing a monastery. From here, Columba carried the message of Christ to the pagan Picts of Scotland. Columba died in 597, but the work of the monks was continued. The island monastery came to include a scriptorium or library that grew to be one of the most famed in medieval Europe. It was here, art historians believe, sometime in the years before 800 A.D., that monks at the monastery completed the most astonishing work of art produced by medieval Ireland. The Book of Kells, containing the four Gospels, is a marvel of ecclesiastical art. Not even the beautiful Northumbrian Lindisfarne Gospels can compare with the majesty of the Book of Kells. "Fine craftsmanship is all about you...," wrote Gerald of Wales, a 12th-century priest, concerning the book. "Look more keenly at it, and you will penetrate to the very shrine of art. You will make out intricacies, so delicate and so subtle, so exact and compact, so full of knots and links, with colors so fre sh and vivid, that you might say that all this was the work of an angel, and not of a man."
The monk-artists of Iona were no mere aesthetes creating beauty for its own sake. Driven by their faith, they undertook their work to glorify God. But theirs was not faith in the modern sense of the word. In our age the very concept of faith has been debased. Now the prevailing definition of the term is that of a belief resting neither on logic nor evidence. Such a hollow conception of faith could never produce such a masterpiece as the Book of Kells. No, that work stands as testimony to a faith that was richer and more sublime, a faith that was as certain as the sunrise, a faith in harmony with reason.
A Time of Reasonable Faith
During the period of late antiquity, and then throughout the Middle Ages -- and, for that matter, deep into the Renaissance -- it was taken for granted by most of the population of the Occident that God was real and that belief in Him was the reasonable position. From the lofty reaches of the 21st century we may look upon these who have gone before us as quaint and ill-informed, but such an opinion would only point to our own ignorance. In fact, the period was marked, not by blind and uninformed belief, but by great intellectual effort dedicated to proving conclusively both the reality of the Judeo-Christian God and the reasonableness of faith in Him.
Among the early writers who made contributions in this arena can be found Philo Judaeus. Little is known of Philo's life. Born about 20 B.C., he lived almost exclusively in the city of Alexandria, dying about 50 A.D. His reputation as a man of learning was unexcelled. He was, therefore, selected to be among the delegation sent to the emperor Caligula to solicit the recall of the imperial command ordering the erection of the likeness of the Roman despot in the temple at Jerusalem. The delegation failed to achieve its mission, but Caligula died before the intended defilement could be realized.
In his writings, Philo emphasized the importance of reason and wisdom in regards to man's relation with God. According to C.D. Yonge, who translated Philo's works into English, the learned Alexandrian held that knowledge of Jehovah "is to be looked upon as the ultimate object of all human efforts." Moreover, says Yonge, Philo "teaches that visible phaenomena are to lead men over to the invisible world, and that the contemplation of the world so wonderfully and beautifully made proves a wise and intelligent Cause and creator of it." But Philo was not solely interested in the visible, material world. Indeed, he cautioned strongly against the material temptations of the flesh as corrupting "the perfect way" which "conducts to God." Man should, instead, cultivate the inner life of the mind and seek wisdom. "For the mind being guided by wisdom, while the road is straight and level and easy, proceeds along it to the end," Philo writes, "and the end of this road is the knowledge and understanding of God."
In the centuries following Philo's death, many Christian and Jewish thinkers undertook to defend their faiths within a Roman Empire that was increasingly convulsed with confusion and upheaval. Moreover, the faltering empire was largely opposed to this monotheism, which it found alien and possibly subversive. In this social and cultural milieu, the spread of monotheistic belief, especially Christianity, was accompanied, typically, by defense and explanation of the finer points of doctrine rather than general philosophical exploration of "the knowledge of Jehovah," as Philo put it. But the monotheistic works of the period nevertheless evince a high degree of erudition. The authors of these works, especially the Fathers of the Christian Church, steeped as they were in the classical philosophical tradition of Greece and Rome, could hardly have failed to comprehend the necessary connection between faith and reason. Lactantius, who suffered under the anti-Christian edicts of the Emperor Diocletian only to find fav or under the reign of Constantine, was explicit about the need to mesh reason and faith. The pagan philosophers, Lactantius said, were "not able to conceive the truth, nor was the religious system of the gods able to give an account of itself, since it is without it. But where wisdom is joined by an inseparable connection with religion, both must necessarily be true; because in our worship we ought to be wise, that is, to know the proper object and mode of worship...."
Augustine's Search for Truth
It is not known when Lactantius died, but he was an old man by the time Constantine made the Roman Empire safe for Christianity. Into this newly Christian empire stepped one of history's most influential philosopher-theologians. Augustine of Hippo was born in the Roman province of Numidia in 354. His father, Patricius, was a pagan; his mother, St. Monica, was a fervent, committed Christian who raised her son in the faith. After some rudimentary education in his home town of Tagaste, Patricius sent the boy to the town of Madaura to learn Latin literature and grammar. From this point, Augustine gradually fell away from the religion of his mother. Eventually, he could be found in Carthage studying rhetoric. Here he succumbed to the licentious atmosphere. "To love and to be loved was sweet to me," Augustine recalls in his Confessions, "and all the more when I gained the enjoyment of the body of the person I loved. Thus I polluted the spring of friendship with the filth of concupiscence and I dimmed its luster wit h the slime of lust." Such indulgence, says Frederick Copleston in his A History of Philosophy, "led to his practical break with the moral ideals of Christianity and before long he took a mistress, with whom he lived for over ten years and by whom he had a son in his second year at Carthage."
At the pit of his descent, Augustine came across Cicero's Hortensius. The great Roman orator's words were an epiphany of sorts to a student mired in an immoral morass. "Now it was this book which quite definitely changed d my whole attitude and turned my S prayers toward Thee, O Lord, and gave me new hope and new desires," Augustine wrote. "Suddenly every vain hope became worthless to me, and with an incredible warmth of heart I yearned for an immortality of wisdom and began now to arise that I might return to thee."
Augustine did not initially return to Christianity. Vexed by the question of how evil could exist in the world when the Christian God was supposedly good, Augustine turned to the Manichaeans, who offered what seemed a reasonable answer to the problem of evil. That dualistic sect alleged that there were two ultimate principles in the world: that of light and good (Ormuzd); and that of dark and evil (Ahriman). The strife between these principles is eternal, the Manichaeans taught. "This system commended itself in Augustine's eyes," wrote Copleston, "because it seemed to explain the problem of evil.... Conscious of his own passions and sensual desires, he felt that he could now attribute them to an evil cause outside himself."
Eventually, Augustine came to have doubts about the teachings of Manichaeanism. Finding no answers forthcoming from the famed Manichaean bishop by the name of Faustus, a shaken Augustine set out for Rome where he hoped to open a school in rhetoric. Finding prospects in Rome to be unsuitable, he took a position as a professor of rhetoric in Milan. Here he heard the teachings of Bishop Ambrose and returned to the Christianity his mother hoped he would embrace.
Augustinian Proofs of God
With his life having been largely a search for the truth, and with reason having prepared him for his conversion, it is not surprising that Augustine would turn his intellect toward demonstrating the reasonableness of belief in the Judeo-Christian God. Of course, it would not be reasonable to believe in God unless it could be demonstrated that God does, in fact, exist. Augustine sought to prove God's existence in a number of ways, including the proof from the external world. In his commentary on the 73rd Psalm, he compares the evidence that a man is alive with the proof of God from the corporeal world. "How know I that thou art alive, of whom I see not the soul? How know I? Thou wilt answer, Because I speak, because I walk, because I work. Fool, by the operations of the body I know thee to be living, by the works of creation canst thou not know the Creator?"
The proof from the external, created world is not the only proof given by Augustine for the existence of God. Nor was it his favorite. "It is probably true to say that the central and favourite proof of God's existence given by St. Augustine is that from thought, i.e., a proof from within," says Copleston. As a starting point for this proof, Augustine relied upon the mind's ability to grasp unchangeable, necessary, and eternal truths. The mind of man may apprehend these truths, but can neither alter nor control them. This is the truth, says Augustine, "which thou canst not call thine, or mine, or any man's, but which is present to all and gives itself to all alike."
Describing Augustine's thinking on the matter, Copleston observes: "This truth is superior to the mind, inasmuch as the mind has to bow before it and accept it: the mind recognises that this truth transcends it and rules its thought rather than the other way around." The mind sometimes perceives the truth only dimly and in some cases perceives it not at all, yet the truth is not diminished by this inborn frailty of the human mind. The essential and eternal truths remain true in all times and all places irrespective of human desire. Thus the truth transcends human existence. The mathematician observes that four and four, combined, can only make eight. This is true enough in the physical world wherein eight apples may justly be arranged into two subsets of four. The abstract concept, however, remains true in the absence of the apples, or, for that matter, in the absence of corporeal existence. Though the universe may pass away, in the abstract, four plus four must still amount to eight. This law, as it may be thus characterized, transcends the existential universe and must, therefore, be grounded in the infinite and transcendent power which men, says Augustine, call God, "the Truth, in whom, and by whom, and through whom those things are true which are true in every respect."
It has been argued that this proof is invalid on the grounds that truths can not be eternal if God is omnipotent, since an omnipotent Creator could create new truths or change existing truths at a whim. According to this view, Augustine can not argue from eternal truths as there are none. This critique, however, suffers from a fatal flaw. Truths created by God or changed by God still transcend the finite physical world inhabited by man. Therefore these truths are still grounded in God.
Through the 13th Century
As Europe progressed into the Middle Ages, Augustine's position as the preeminent philosopher-theologian remained unchallenged. This is not to say that others did not make significant contributions, for a number of keen intellects did. Still, looking back from the cusp of the Renaissance in the 14th century, Francesco Petrarch, the famed Italian poet, could remark, "the great Sun of the Church is surely Augustine."
There were those, however, that did make insightful and notable contributions to the effort to build faith through reason. Among these is Anselm, Bishop of Canterbury. Born in 1023, he sounded Augustinian when he wrote in his Proslogium: "I do not attempt, O Lord, to penetrate Thy profundity, for I deem my intellect in no way sufficient thereunto, but I desire to understand in some degree Thy truth, which my heart believes and loves." Anselm's outstanding contribution to philosophy is his ontological proof of the existence of God. This proof, which has provoked much thought on the part of later philosophers, including such luminaries as Locke, Leibniz, Hegel, and Kant, is given by Anselm in the Proslogium. Therein he argues that "whatever is understood, exists in the understanding. And assuredly that, than which nothing greater can be conceived, cannot exist in the understanding alone. For, suppose it exists in the understanding alone: then it can be conceived to exist in reality; which is greater." Further, Anselm continues, "it assuredly exists so truly, that it cannot be conceived not to exist. For, it is possible to conceive of a being which cannot be conceived not to exist; and this is greater than one which can be conceived not to exist. Hence, if that, than which nothing greater can be conceived, can be conceived not to exist, it is not that, than which nothing greater can be conceived. But this is an irreconcilable contradiction. There is, then, so truly a being than which nothing greater can be conceived to exist, that it cannot even be conceived not to exist; and this being you are, 0 Lord, our God."
Professor Kenneth Scott LaTourette puts Anselm's proof in more accessible terms in his A History of Christianity: "[R]eason demands the idea of a perfect Being, lacking in nothing; the idea of a perfect Being is of necessity the idea of a being which has existence, for a Being which lacks existence would not be perfect. God, so Anselm held, is not only that Being than which nothing greater can be conceived, but is greater than can be conceived."
Anselm's ontological proof has remained notorious. "In the 'modern' era," says Copleston, "it has had a distinguished if chequered career. Descartes adopted and adapted it, Leibniz defended it in a careful and ingenious manner, Kant attacked it."
Another notable contribution was made by Bonaventure. Born in Tuscany in 1221, he employed multiple proofs of God's existence, including a slight reworking of that given by Anselm. Most significant, though, is his adaptation of Augustine's proof from eternal truth. Even if a man says that there is no such thing as a truth, Bonaventure argued, he affirms this negation. Thus, there is truth, and the argument proceeds in proper Augustinian fashion pointing out the existence of God from whom truth proceeds.
Bonaventure's contemporary, friend, and philosophical opponent was the great Thomas Aquinas. When he was canonized, historian Will Durant tells us, witnesses described Aquinas as "soft-spoken, easy in conversation, cheerful and bland of countenance generous in conduct, most patient, most prudent; radiant with charity and gentle piety; wondrous compassionate to the poor." He was also the greatest intellect of his age and his soaring accomplishments find no equal short of Augustine.
According to Aquinas, "the existence of God can be proved in five ways." He begins with the notion of motion. "Now whatever is in motion is put in motion by another," he says in the Summa Theologica, since it is "impossible that in the same respect and in the same way a thing should be both mover and moved, that is, that it should move itself." Thus everything that moves was once moved by another, and so on. "But this cannot go on to infinity," Aquinas says, and so "it is necessary to arrive at a first mover which is moved by no other. And this everyone understands to be God."
Next, Aquinas argues from cause to effect, an argument that is quite similar to his first. There is, Aquinas asserts, no known instance "in which a thing is found to be the efficient cause of itself, because in that case it would be prior to itself, which is impossible." There must always be, therefore, some efficient cause to bring about the subsequent effect. This, however, cannot go on to infinity, says Aquinas, "because in all efficient causes following in order, the first is the cause of the intermediate cause," which, being either one or several, is the cause of the ultimate effect. "Now to take away the cause is to take away the effect," Aquinas argues. "But if in efficient causes it is possible to go on to infinity, there will be no first efficient cause, neither will there be an ultimate effect, nor any intermediate efficient causes, all of which is plainly false. Therefore it is necessary to admit a first efficient cause, to which everyone gives the name of God."
For his third argument he depends upon the concepts of possibility and necessity. In nature, he says, we find things that always have the possibility not to be. "[I]f everything is possible not to be," he says, "then at one time there could have been nothing in existence." If this were true, then it would have been impossible for anything to have begun to exist so that even now nothing would exist. But clearly, things do exist. "Therefore," says Aquinas, "not all beings are merely possible, but there must exist something the existence of which is necessary." Now, necessary things that exist must owe their existence to some prior necessary thing, but this relationship of cause and effect cannot go on to infinity. "Therefore we must admit the existence of some being having of itself its own necessity, and not receiving it from another, but rather causing in others their necessity," Aquinas says. "This all men speak of as God."
For his fourth proof, Aquinas relies upon gradations, a proof given by an earlier theologian, Richard of St. Victor. "Among beings," Aquinas says, "there are some more and some less good, true, noble, and the like." If there are degrees of goodness, then there must be some ultimate degree of goodness. "There is, then, something which is truest, something best, something noblest, and, consequently, something which is most being," Aquinas writes. Now, he continues, "the maximum in any genus is the cause of all in that genus; as fire, which is the maximum of heat, is the cause of all hot things.... Therefore there must also be something which is to all beings the cause of their being, goodness, and every other perfection. And this we call God."
Finally, Aquinas concludes with the argument from design. As order can be perceived in the natural world, it is evident that order must have originated in a design. This, of course, necessitates a designer, God.
Thomas Aquinas died in the year 1274. His life had spanned only half a century. Not long before his death, a friend had urged him to complete the Summa Theologica. "I cannot," he replied. "Such things have been revealed to me that what I have written seems but straw." Still, his works are among the marvels of human achievement. "His writings," Will Durant says, "span the universe, but contain not one immodest word. He faces in them every argument against his faith, and answers with courtesy and calm." He unquestionably epitomized the Medieval spirit which sought to understand the reasonableness of faith.
An Age of Reason
"We are tempted to think of the Middle Ages as a fallow interval...," says Will Durant in the epilogue to The Age of Faith, his majestic survey of the period. Too many moderns, afflicted by a shallow understanding of faith, have seen this period as an age when reason was lost and man sought solace in ignorant superstition. But ignorance is not the hallmark of the Middle Ages. Quite the reverse, in fact. For a millennia the brightest intellects of the age turned their efforts toward proving that God exists and that, consequently, faith in Him is reasonable and logical. Surely it cannot be said that Augustine, whose life was a quest to understand the truth of faith, was ignorant. And what of Anselm, whose subtle ontological proof of God's existence has inflamed the passions and incited the efforts of some of history's most notable philosophical geniuses? This, indeed, was an age of incredible intellect and sagacity, when reason was shown to be in accord with faith, and man, thus suitably inspired, set about to glorify God with the intricacies of manuscript illumination and the majesty of the Gothic cathedrals. It was, truly, an age of reason.
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|Author:||Behreandt, Dennis J.|
|Publication:||The New American|
|Date:||Dec 31, 2001|
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