“I am far from denying the real force of the arguments in proof of a God…but these do not warm me or enlighten me; they do not take away the winter of my desolation, or make the buds unfold and the leaves grow within me, and my moral being rejoice.” –
– Bl. John Henry Newman –
The relationship between Catholic theology and philosophy, and therefore faith and reason, is a dynamically cooperative interaction of the created human intellect and will. Provided this description, it is imperative to recognize the importance of theology and philosophy as the appropriate tools for defending the deposit of faith against scoffers, rather than truncating the apologetic task to that of philosophy complete in itself, which leads to a secularized rationalism. Catholic theology informs our philosophy, and the baptized philosophy directs us back to the theology which has informed it, which effectively amounts to faith seeking understanding. A proper defense of the faith requires an apologetic methodology configured toward its ultimate end – the glory of God in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. This configuration should influence the order of how we approach not only our apologetic task, but our philosophical investigations as well. Maybe a better way to present this methodological commitment is through specific instances of dramatic experiences of the divine found in the Sacred Page, and in the history of the Saints. If philosophy is the handmaiden to theology, it is important to be reminded of this hierarchy of ordered sciences.
As Saul of Tarsus traversed the road to Damascus, the revealing light of Christ provoked him to repentance in an explicitly vivid manner, and his entire understanding of reality, God, revelation, and the Messiah was turned upside down, or rather right-side up. Instead of hunting down followers of the Way so that he might consent to their persecution, or even their death, as was the case with St. Stephen, he became an instrument of Christ’s glory. Given this initial experience of the resurrected Christ, and the subsequent presence of God throughout St. Paul’s missionary activities, why would he ever feel the need to give in to the philosophical and methodological pressure of those philosophers he would eventually confront at Mars Hill? Suppose St. Paul was to preach, speak, or debate on a contemporary college campus, do you think he would feel the need to adopt the naturalistic methods of historical analysis to defend the historicity of Christ’s resurrection? Or would he scoff at such a suggestion given the objective revelation of Christ in conjunction with his experience of the miraculous and transforming power of the Holy Spirit? Can you even begin to imagine St. Paul being shaken in his faith by anything a New Atheist might throw his way, like some lame “god-of-the-gaps” criticism of the Christian faith? Do you think St. Paul, after encountering claims that mystical experiences of the divine are psychological delusions, would ignore his experience on the road to Damascus as mere fantasy? I don’t think he would feel the need to adopt the godless secularism of modernity in his evangelical and apologetic methodology. In fact, I would be willing to bet that he would recoil at such a suggestion.
What about the Lazarus? He spent a couple days on the other side of the curtain before Christ commanded him to rise and walk out of the tomb. Would Lazarus be convinced by a physicist’s explanation of why resurrections “violate the laws of nature and cannot happen”? Would Lazarus, or any person witnessing the event, believe the ivory-tower academic explanation beseeching them to ignore their own objective experience of divine power for the theoretical hypothesis that such events, in principle, cannot take place?
How about St. Francis of Assisi? Can you imagine the Seraphic Father renouncing his wounds of the stigmata after interacting with David Hume’s arguments against miracles? As he spent the final years of his life with the wounds of the cross on his body, would he be convinced by New Atheist naturalistic historicism claiming Christ never really existed; that such stories are mythic fables built upon the political aspirations of overzealous liars committed to controlling ignorant dupes? Or would he present the marks to the atheist and say, “Revelation has defeated your reason.”
Would St. Peter walk away from Christ based on the rhetorical sophistry of Christopher Hitchens? Having experienced Christ pull him out of the water in which he just walked on, and which Christ was still standing, would the vitriol of Hitchens or a David Silverman convince him that Jesus was not the Lord of and over all creation?
Not a chance. It would be unthinkable.
St. Peter and St. Paul eventually died for the cause of Christ as martyrs. St. Francis of Assisi lived a radically ascetic life in which he suffered greatly, and experienced the ecstasy of the divine through cruciform love. If the Nazi death camps could not shake the faith of St. Maximilian Kolbe or St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, what do we have to fear right here and now in our own culture?
Simply stated, there should be no argument produced by an atheist that would move us to turn from our Lord, because there are no arguments any atheist could offer that are not ultimately refutable. Indeed, to imagine an argument that could dethrone the Lord of Glory is unfathomable. The security of experiencing the divine, and the theological end which reason seeks its completion, guarantees the certainty of truth revealed by Almighty God.
It is most certain that the existence of God can be demonstrated with the tools of reason. Metaphysics, natural theology, and the philosophy of nature are vitally important for not only the defense of the faith, but also, for the defense of a reality that is an expression of the Divine Logos. The preambles of the faith are powerful philosophical counters to atheistic attack. However, our faith is not dependent upon the preambles. As Bl. John Henry Newman indicates above, syllogisms do not warm the soul or take away the winter of desolation, it is the Holy Spirit directing us to Christ, who was sent by the Father through the Son that accomplishes consolation of the soul at the hour of darkness. In addition to strengthening our philosophical capabilities, we should seek to experience God and grow in loving union with Christ in deeper, more personal, and mysterious ways. We should want the faith of the Saints. Or as St. Paul says, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.” (1 Cor. 11:1)
If we have truly encountered Christ, then his revelation ought to be what shapes our entire life, including the life of the mind. Philosophy, then, is put in the proper context as the handmaiden to theology, which means reason serves in a ministerial capacity to theology, and never a magisterial role in judgment over revelation.
– Lucas G. Westman