In my alternative-universe idea of who I might be in another life, I have always said I should have been an accountant. Predictable, stable, no surprises, solidly supporting a family. Of course, this is completely antithetical to my artist/writer/type-B temperament, and I would probably be a horrible accountant. There is also a bit of the “grass is greener” thinking in this, and I would be wise to recall the words of St. Catherine of Siena — “Be who God meant you to be and you will set the world on fire.”
Truthfully, when I became a Catholic at the age of 18, and in my youthful hubris, I did not have much appreciation for the faculties of reason that are so highly valued in the Catholic tradition. St. Thomas Aquinas and his masterpiece of faith, the Summa Theologica, were not even on my radar. However, when I discovered Søren Kierkegaard and his theology of radical subjectivity, that was more my intellectual style.
The primary model of faith
In my mind, the typology of radical faith par excellence was the story of Abraham’s call to sacrifice his son Isaac in Genesis 22, a theme Kierkegaard would return to again and again in works like Fear and Trembling. In that work, the undercurrent of another Kierkegaardian theme – dread and anxiety – is prevalent. His idea is that in a wholly, radically, subjective exercise of individual faith, there is no one to fall back on or lay responsibility on for one’s choices. We must own those choices, choose God in obedience to our callings, or we must reject Him. This is liberating in one sense, but also terrifying. And in the picture of the radical obedience of Abraham, model of faith, could anything be more un-reasonable then killing your own son?
I have been a Catholic for twenty-one years, but it has only been in the last few years that I have come to a deeper appreciation for the foundations of the Ancient Faith. A foundation is what a house is built on. Our Lord admonishes the wise to build their houses on rock, not sand (Matthew 7:24-27). What is that rock? In Matthew 16:18, the Lord says: “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church.” Yes, I am responsible for my moral choices, but I also have the objective teachings of the Church, which has the authority to interpret the Scriptures and guide me to Truth. There is peace in such deference to religious authority, but that deference also requires faith. Though we may have existential moments in our moral lives, ours is not an existential faith, but a reasonable one.
Benedict to the rescue
In my twenties, I would have been put off by the idea of the “reasonableness of faith,” as Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI refers to it. Basically, it would have struck me as boring, square, conservative. But as I have gotten older and have a family of my own, I have grown to appreciate the foundations of tradition, the intellectual strength, and the carefully reasoned theology that comes from the See of Peter and the Magisterium, protected from error by the Holy Spirit. What Pope Benedict says in one of his Wednesday audiences contrasts with Kierkegaard’s idea of faith being opposed to reason:
The Catholic Tradition, from the outset, rejected the so-called “fideism”, which is the desire to believe against reason. Credo quia absurdum (I believe because it is absurd) is not a formula that interprets the Catholic faith. Indeed God is not absurd, if anything he is a mystery. The mystery, in its turn, is not irrational but is a superabundance of sense, of meaning, of truth…The prejudice of certain modern thinkers, who hold that human reason would be as it were blocked by the dogmas of faith, is false.
In our post-modern society, which does not acknowledge objective Truth and in which subjectivity overrides everything, a sort of totalitarian chaos reigns. It lends itself not to courageous moral choices, but to lazy anti-intellectualism, anti-authoritarianism, and anti-reason. Benedict XVI continues:
Exactly the opposite is true, as the great teachers of the Catholic Tradition have shown. St Augustine, before his conversion sought the Truth with great restlessness through all the philosophies he had at his disposal, finding them all unsatisfactory. His demanding, rational search, was a meaningful pedagogy for him for the encounter with the Truth of Christ. When he says: “I believe, in order to understand, and I understand the better to believe” (Discourse 43, 9: PL 38, 258), it is as if he were recounting his own life experience. Intellect and faith are not foreign or antagonistic to the divine Revelation but are both conditions for understanding its meaning, for receiving its authentic message, for approaching the threshold of the mystery.
The implications of this compatibility of faith and reason for our moral conscience should be obvious. Without an objective moral standard, it becomes impossible to inform and form one’s conscience in a meaningful and honest way. The risk of degeneration into subjective desires and whims, and its ensuing anxiety, becomes greater.
St. Benedict in his Rule spoke of the “most detestable” kinds of monks, sarabaites, “who with no experience to guide them, no rule to try them as gold is tried in a furnace (Prov 27:21), have a character as soft as lead. Still loyal to the world by their actions, they clearly lie to God by their tonsure. Two or three together, or even alone, without a shepherd, they pen themselves up in their own sheepfolds, not the Lord’s. Their law is what they like to do, whatever strikes their fancy. Anything they believe in and choose, they call holy; anything they dislike, they consider forbidden.” (Rule, Chapter 1)
Synthesis of faith and reason
Radical freedom and the radical ability to choose the Good in faith was a big theme in Kierkegaard’s work. But listen to what St. Pope John Paul II writes in his Encyclical Fides et Ratio (“Faith and Reason”) on this symbiotic relationship of radical moral freedom and radical faith:
The Council teaches that “the obedience of faith must be given to God who reveals himself”. This brief but dense statement points to a fundamental truth of Christianity. Faith is said first to be an obedient response to God. This implies that God be acknowledged in his divinity, transcendence and supreme freedom. By the authority of his absolute transcendence, God who makes himself known is also the source of the credibility of what he reveals. By faith, men and women give their assent to this divine testimony. This means that they acknowledge fully and integrally the truth of what is revealed because it is God himself who is the guarantor of that truth…. This is why the Church has always considered the act of entrusting oneself to God to be a moment of fundamental decision which engages the whole person. In that act, the intellect and the will display their spiritual nature, enabling the subject to act in a way which realizes personal freedom to the full. It is not just that freedom is part of the act of faith: it is absolutely required. Indeed, it is faith that allows individuals to give consummate expression to their own freedom. Put differently, freedom is not realized in decisions made against God. For how could it be an exercise of true freedom to refuse to be open to the very reality which enables our self-realization? Men and women can accomplish no more important act in their lives than the act of faith; it is here that freedom reaches the certainty of truth and chooses to live in that truth.” (13)
Of course, our moral choices must be evaluated in light of Divine Revelation, Scripture, the teachings of the Church, and Sacred Tradition. We, too, must always take responsibility for our choices, informing our consciences as best we are able. But, in the final analysis, Kierkegaard was wrong; as Catholics we do not live in a constant state of anxiety and existential dread because our moral and intellectual foundation is not built on sand. Like the Psalmist, we attest that “he set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand” (Psalm 40:2). And so we bank on the reasonableness of Catholicism and soar to the heights of heaven on the wings of faith and reason.