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General Audience on Faith and Reason

1970, July 22

The way to God Reason and Faith

Let us talk about God for a while. Rather, let us talk about ourselves in regard to the great question of God. We ask you to perform this act which is fundamental for our thought, consequently for our moral life, for the lives we lead. It is a permanent question, existing at all times and applying to all people, but it is more urgent for all today.

Let everyone ask himself, what do I think about God? The answer can be many-sided, and we may classify these aspects according to three kinds of people living today. One group accepts religion; they accept it without discussion, perhaps without thought, and without feeling the giddiness, the inebriation the happiness which the name of God can cause, without going deeply into that vague, yet always profound feeling which that mysterious and potent name produces or should produce within us. Then there is the kind of person who doubts, those for whom God’s name is wrapped in a cloud of uncertainty, doubt, dissatisfaction. They therefore prefer not to think of it, not to believe in it any more. They abandon themselves to practical scepticism, a pseudo-superior and apparently convenient and elegant attitude, particularly in fashion among young people who deny the name, the idea and the reality of God. They who do this by adopting an attitude of simple but conscious rejection are the atheists; those who do it with an attitude of rebellion are anti-God, God’s declared enemies both in theory and in practice.

If we look for a common denominator n these summarily described categories, perhaps we may find that it is a different and more or less deep seated lack of confidence: a belief that it is impossible to know God. Some have even gone so far as to say that “God is dead”. Perhaps some say this without bad intentions, because this blasphemous and sacrilegious negation was meant to refer to false, incomplete and unsupportable concepts of God. These are the idols which men have often set up to suit their own religious feeling or ideas, in backward and empirical states of mind, in cultures which we call pagan, in historical periods of superstitions that have passed away and within philosophical systems which are not acceptable.

In others, this devouring temptation to lack of confidence in the possibility of knowing God was felt as an unfortunately agnostic acknowledgment of his being inconceivable, of his absolute, consequently unreachable transcendence, of his incomprehensibility. It was almost as if it were understood as an act of humility before the infinite mystery of the divine Being.

But nowadays non-philosophic, exclusively scientific thought more frequently does not make it easy for man to get beyond the experimental sphere and rise to the sphere of metaphysical rationality. It halts him at knowledge of realities which seem to be the only positive ones, the only useful ones for technical, social and temporal purposes. The human mind resigns itself to, or rather takes pleasure in admitting that it is impossible to acquire real knowledge of God.

Have you ever done any mountain-climbing? Four young men were once sitting around a fire in a mountain village, talking of the great peaks surrounding them. Naturally someone brought up the bold idea of attempting a climb, but a new climb, one never tried before by anyone, a very daring one, therefore a most attractive one.

One said: It must be possible. The second said: Of course it is. The third added: Yes, but certain conditions must be fulfilled. The fourth asked, What conditions? The discussion continued, and they ended by agreeing to try to climb. That is what mountain-climbing is. That is what theology and religion are: conquest of knowledge of God.

We children of the Church declare: It is possible to know God. There are two royal roads to it: Reason and Faith. Is reason alone perhaps good enough for attaining to knowledge of God? Yes, it is valid, but not entirely sufficient. It is good enough, on condition that the constituent requirements be respected– that is to say, you must use it as it ought to be used. This is the first condition. These conditions are not so difficult that they surpass the normal powers of thought. They are not out of accord with those of “common sense” (cf. Garrigou-Lagrange, Le sens commun).

We might also remark in passing that it is not only the science of God, theodicea, which has recourse to those same requirements of reason. The experimental positive sciences do so too. They likewise are intelligible and authoritative to the debree that they make use of the same rational principles, such as reason for being, finality, causality, etc., according to the nature of their work.

We children of the Church are often accused of obscurantism. But we are actually optimistic about human reason’s capacity to solve (to a certain extent, of course), its greatest problem, the problem of truth, of the supreme Truth, which is God. If the testimony given by the wisdom of the centuries and of the great thinkers, if the testimony of Holy Scripture, and that of our own conscience and our own experience were not enough, we might at least be grateful to the I Vatican Council for having defended human reason and provided us with teaching in this regard which is certain, and full of clarity, comfort and nobility (cf. Denz. Sch. 3016).

But we have to pay attention to a fundamental distinction in this matter of the knowableness of God. It is one thing to say that God exists and another thing to say who he is. We can know the existence of God with certainty, but his nature is mysterious to us. What we can glimpse of him comes by way of analogy, by way of negation, by way of exaltation of that which we know of things which are not God; their limited being helps us to have some intuition of what may be said of his infinite perfections. The Church’s Magisterium warns us that between the Creator and the creature we note not so much similarity but rather dissimilarity (IV Council of the Lateran – Denz. Sch. 806-432).

God remains a mystery. But a positive mystery, which gives rise to ever continuing and never ending investigations and discoveries from our incipient motions about it. Our knowledge of God is a window looking out on the light of heaven, the infinite of heaven. But he is the intrinsic requirement of thought, the absolute principle of being. “I am, who am” (Ex. 3,14), he said of himself.

If we join the evidence of reason to the evidence of faith, then our knowledge of God will become marvellous. “No one”, the Gospel says, “has ever seen God, but the only-begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, has manifested him to us” (Jn. 1,18). We shall have the very face of Christ, the Son of God and son of man, as the mirror of God the Father. “Who sees me”, Christ said, “sees the Father also” (jn. 14,9). Christ is an image even more than a Teacher. St. Paul told us this when he said, “He is the image of the invisible God” (Col. 1,15). So, in order to know God we have a Way to which all other ways–if such there be– lead, by which all are tested, are straightened and are strengthened: He is the Way, the Truth and the Life (Jn. 14,6).

We must overcome that temptation which is so strong nowadays, of thinking that it is impossible to acquire knowledge of God such as shall be adequate for our cultural maturity and respond to our existential needs and spiritual duties. To think so would be sloth, it would be cowardice, it would be blindness. Instead we must seek. Seek in the book of creation (Rom 1,20), seek in study of God’s Word; seek in the school of the Church, the Mother and Teacher; see in depths of one’s own conscience. Seek God, seek him always. Know that He is near (cf. Is 55,6).

To your Our encouragement and Blessing.

L'Osservatore Romano, weekly edition in English 1970, July 30 (in vol. I 1968-1975)