"Faith, Reason & Freedom"

Below is a small excerpt from an article by Fr. John M. McDermott, SJ. I was fortunate enough to have Fr. McDermott as a professor at the Josephinum a few years ago; he specializes in Thomistic and neo-Thomistic thought. This article is on the place of reason and love in knowing the infinite, transcendent God. The following is his conclusion and demonstration of the ontological primacy of love over reason:

Catholic theology recapitulates in theological terms the perennial epistemological conundrum: how may the finite intellect know the infinite? How may the relative know the absolute? The same problem re-emerges in ontology and ethics: how can the finite exist alongside the infinite? How can man be free when God is omnipotent? In short, how does one reconcile the finite with the infinite in knowing, being, and acting? Faced with this conundrum, atheism short-circuits thought. Denying God only intensifies the problem. There remains another infinity resisting thought’s penetration: the ‘base infinity’, which the ancients identified with prime matter, the principle of individuation. The human mind cannot comprehend the individual as such, and since reality is composed of individuals, the mind cannot apparently know reality as such. Human beings have identity crises, being opaque to themselves. But if you do not know who you are, who can tell you your identity? Unless there exists an infinite God who comprehends the base infinity of matter and calls individuals by name, the intelligibility of this world is lost. Many existential and deconstructionalist thinkers draw such a nihilistic conclusion, destroying the very reason by which they draw their conclusion. Faced by man’s inability to grasp the infinite, other philosophers support a ‘faith’ in reason. But a faith in something finite is idolatry and doomed to disappoint. Pope John Paul II is more intelligent and sane. Following Vatican I, he recognises the need of faith and reason. Precisely because of his faith in God he affirms the validity of reason. A good God does not destroy man’s ability to know and love Him. Analogy must exist between God and the world. Without finite intelligibility perceptible to human reason, God cannot be known and freedom is reduced to a useless passion constructing human projections of which, like a spoiled child, it soon tires and destroys.

God can be known by human reason. But how? Here we propose our solution: not by absolutising reason but by love. Human beings primordially accept that existence has a meaning not because a philosopher convinced them at the age of three by irrefutable arguments, but because their parents loved them. Without love babies die. Their parents’ love mediates a meaning which harsh experience and rational conundrums later put into question. Love is the basis of morality because the love bestowed creates the obligation of a response. As one does not choose one’s parents but is called to love them in return, so obligation precedes right. Five main characteristics of the moral experience can be enumerated: it is absolute, suprarational, personal, free, and liberating. Absolute signifies that the doing of the good involves total dedication; one must be prepared even to die, to go to apparent non-being rather than to deviate from what is right. All the attractions of this world are as nothing before the claims of duty. Such absolute commitment cannot be effected merely by a rational argument; one person cannot be argued into loving another person; for every argument can be relativised in view of the infinite-finite conundrum; so the commitment must be suprarational, transcending reason. Then it must be personal, i.e., both the moral subject and the one loved must be endowed with intelligence and freedom; human ideals exist only as abstractions elaborated by reason, and no one should give his life for something sub-human. The moral experience is free because it depends upon a should, not a must, and experience quickly testifies to human failures. Finally it is liberating insofar as every finite reality and value is relativised by the commitment unto death; nothing else matters but fidelity to the moral summons. Such moral commitment can be found in antiquity in the conduct of Phintias and Damon, Achilles’ acceptance of death for the sake of Patroclus, and Socrates’ self-sacrifice for his fellow citizens. It is manifested most clearly in Jesus’ teaching and death: ‘Greater love no one has than to give his life for his friends’ (Jn. 15:13).

Philosophers can find the fly in this ointment: how can a finite man perceive something absolute? Do not values exist only in relation to individual men? As relational, they are limited by the one perceiving them. Sartre considers love an illusion, only a subjective projection designed to make oneself loved. Is love only an illusion designed to warm and cover our cold, naked loneliness? Is there no hope of a meaning transcending us? After rejecting love as an absurdity, Sartre rejects reason as absurd. But if reason is absurd, its judgment on love cannot be valid. Cannot then the tables be turned on Sartre? Love manifests the structure of Infinite and finite: an absolute claim made on a finite freedom. Through so many philosophies, the same tension between infinite and finite appears in the structure of reason. Man needs some absolute in order to think at all, but his intellect is finite. Instead of employing reason to judge love and then fall into hopeless confusion, cannot love save reason? The structures of love and reason manifest the same polar tension between absolute and relative, infinite and finite. If love is reality, then the structure of reason reflects the structure of love, which is the structure of reality. Truth is the correspondence of reason and reality, and it is attained in the acknowledgment of love’s reality. Of course love can be recognised as real only by the person who gives himself over to love and runs its risks. Praxis and theory go together as do freedom and thought. Here the Greek notion of truth as conformity is synthesised with the Hebrew notion of truth as fidelity. ‘He who does the truth comes to the light’ (Jn. 3:21). Only the one faithful to love can affirm its truth.

Since no finite person can ground the absoluteness of love’s demand, God is revealed as the One calling men to Himself through the other finite person, His image. Men reflect the love of God to each other and in their love God is present. Thus is established the sacramental structure of reality, i.e., in and through a finite figure the infinite God makes Himself present, calling men to the total dedication of love, and upon man’s response depends his eternal salvation or damnation. Marriage is the ‘sacrament’ of creation in which Adam and Eve mediate God to each other. This structure entails its perpetuation not only in its openness to children as love’s superabundant, self-sacrificial fruitfulness but also in everlasting life. The life God intends for men cannot be limited to this earth. In such a case, merely carnal propagation would result in the frustration of death and the destruction of all personal values; then, without a wider vision of significance, life in the world might too easily be interpreted as a continuous subjugation of man to pain and frustration so that death, in a strange reversal of perspective, would be seen as a release. But the very call of fidelity unto death, in which the absoluteness of God’s power is manifested, cannot involve the annihilation of the person. For in it the God of endless love is revealed, and He does not wish the death, but the life of those whom He calls to respond to and out of His power of love and so to share His everlasting life. God has all power over moral men and it is exactly this divine omnipotence that awakens man’s freedom and makes him live the life of Love, which is God. Dr. Johnson once remarked, ‘When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully’. So much the more does the acceptance of death in free fidelity imply the greatest self-awareness as well as mark the greatest realization of freedom. In that God does not destroy what He creates, the one who entrusts himself to God’s love and shares in that love shares God’s triumph over death; for he shares in the very communication of God’s eternal life, which is infinite Love.

The ‘proof’ of God’s existence briefly sketched here is not a rational demonstration. A rational demonstration presupposes an absolute, undeniable premise. Otherwise no conclusion follows necessarily. The conclusion of an absolute God’s existence cannot be deduced from a contingent premise. There is no finite absolute. Were there such a reality or principle of reason, there would be no need of God as the necessity grounding contingency. Our ‘proof’ consists merely in laying open the structure of reality. If God is not present at the beginning of an argument, He will not be present at all. God does not force Himself upon man’s reason through an irrefutable rational argument. One must have the eyes of love to perceive the God of love. One must recognise existence as a gift and an obligation. One must have faith in love’s reality in order to recognise the validity of reason. There must be a faith in reason, which derives from the more fundamental faith in love, and in the Love that is God. Without faith in God, human reason becomes meaningless, a mere sophistical tool to deceive the unwary and protect oneself against love’s reality. Unless reason acknowledges love’s reality and interprets itself as called to reflect love in truth, it falsely absolutises itself and lends itself to all types of manipulation.

On the basis of creation it would be possible to affirm God’s love. But creation no longer breathes forth its pristine freshness and love. Looking around this world, we see so much lovelessness: man’s exploitation of man and its justification in terms of economics, psychology, evolutionary theory, politics. Children are abused, promises unfulfilled, oaths broken, lies told, marriages destroyed, people repressed, tortured, and killed, and there is so much indifference as we are bombarded with horror stories by a media intent of making a profit and pushing an ideology. Is love real? Who can assure us of love’s reality? Once the idealistic enthusiasm of youth, so blind to its own failings, has given way to reality and we are forced to look at our own twisted hearts, can any of us, on the basis of our experience, testify authentically and authoritatively to the reality of love? We need a witness who surpasses our broken condition. Such is Christ. The Infinite was made man in order to renew the image of God among us and testify infallibly to Love’s reality. Incarnate Love testifies in His own person to the reality of Love, which He has from the Father in the Holy Spirit. This testimony occurs not only in word but also in deed. Jesus gives His life in obedience to His Father and out of love for us. In going to death, heeding the command of Love, He is not abandoned. On the third day He rises to show us that Love is stronger than sin and death. That is the basis of Christian faith. Jesus is the concrete, historical proof of our ‘proof’ of God’s existence. In His death and resurrection, we know that Love is a concrete reality, a reality that transcends our ambiguous experience. Because Jesus died and rose we can have a faith in Love that is stronger and surer than any faith in love and reason based on our experience of a fallen creation. Hence Christian faith is more certain than the certitude of reason.

  1. gravatar

    # by Anonymous - February 29, 2008 at 9:07 PM

    Many prayers for you. Would you possibly Fr. James F.X. Pratt, S.J.? I believe he is now at the Jesuit Seminary in Rome. He baptized my daughter.

  2. gravatar

    # by Andrew Haines - March 3, 2008 at 10:51 AM

    Sorry for the delay. Actually, I think I have met Fr. Pratt.. a few years ago. He was working in the Jesuit Curia last time I knew.. I think?

    Thanks for reading!