Reason and Revelation

In Christianity on December 11, 2012 at 5:56 pm

Two of Fr. James V. Schall’s wonderful books came to my attention a few months ago. The Mind That is Catholic & The Order of Things are among the most important, most helpful, books I’ve encountered in years.

Not long after I had read Fr. Schall’s The Mind That is Catholic, I noticed the following posting to Facebook by a friend:

If we have to use a “God” from above to teach us right from wrong, then we’ve already failed. Integrity is measured when nobody is watching. It’s doing the right thing without promise of reward, it’s avoiding the wrong thing even when there are no consequences for doing the wrong thing.

Fr. Schall often addresses the relationship between reason and revelation. His books speak directly to what my friend was trying to say. With apologies in advance for this very long post, and with credit to Fr. Schall for what follows, this was my comment:

What if the issue is not needing a “god” from above to teach us right, but using our knowledge of right to teach us there is a God above?

Even a child will object, when a playmate cheats at a game or steals a toy, “That’s not right! That’s not fair!” We do so at an early age, without our parents ever providing a complete list of things that are “fair” or not. The child is improvising, applying ideas about right and fair, based on some deeper sense. Where do we get our ideas about right and fairness?

In grand terms, what is being discussed here is the relationship between reason and revelation. Reason alone is enough to suggest we should treat each other decently; show integrity. But the question remains, “Oh, really? Why?” We might answer, “Well, because it works. The world is a better place if we do.” But serious thinkers from Machiavelli, to Nietzsche, to Albert Camus would argue that’s not the case at all. Machiavelli would say it’s better to get what you want. Camus would argue it’s all meaningless anyway.

Is it possible then, that reason as we use it (“Well, of course it’s right to behave with integrity!”) points to a larger reality only available to us ultimately through revelation? If so, then reason and revelation work hand-in-hand.

People rightly object to revelation without reason: “Oh, that’s just a myth about an arbitrary, made-up ‘god’ telling us what to do.” However, if reason can point us to a reality not fully available to us without revelation (yet consistent with reason), that’s huge! It’s a basis for believing “all the pieces fit together”; that this life isn’t an inexplicable puzzle, or worse still, a meaningless one.

The fact we intuitively understand what’s right, and encourage others to live with integrity, may well point us to God who wired us that way. If so, that is a much more powerful basis for striving to live with consistent integrity, because the Source is real and the possibility of doing so successfully really exists. We are living to be our true selves, not what we imagine we ought to be because some arbitrary god pointed a terrifying finger at us and commanded us to “do this or else!”

That relationship between reason and revelation, and the Church’s encouragement for us to use both, is, it seems to me, one of the incalculable blessings we enjoy in living-out Christianity Richly!

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