John Paul II’s papal encyclical, “On the Relationship between Faith and Reason” (Fides et Ratio) is an important work that should be read by all thinking Catholics and Protestants who care about the life of the mind. And yet, though I am a great proponent of the encyclical, I feel a great sadness that it had to be written in the first place!
In the centuries before the Enlightenment seized control of our wisest and best educated scholars, no one would have been surprised to see the words “faith” and “reason” placed side by side. After all, the Catholic Church invented the university, and the Christian worldview shaped some of the finest minds in history: Augustine, Dante, Aquinas, Luther, and Pascal, to name but a few. Likewise, the scientific achievements of such men as Roger Bacon, Copernicus, Galileo, Francis Bacon, Kepler, and Newton were all underwritten by their faith in a super-natural Creator.
Had C. S. Lewis grown up in the medieval or renaissance periods, his training in logic and rhetoric would have been carried out in direct conversation with the doctrines of Christianity. As a citizen of the modern world, he was trained instead by an atheistic tutor named Kirkpatrick who used reason to inoculate Lewis’s mind against religious “superstitions.”
But life has its little ironies. When Lewis became a Christian, he did not forget Kirkpatrick’s teachings. Rather than throw the baby out with the bathwater, Lewis marshaled the full weight of logic and reason to defend the faith from its modern detractors. With great boldness, Lewis restored a great truth that had been forgotten: namely, that reason is on the side of the angels.
In Miracles, for example, Lewis argues that naturalism (the belief that nature is all that there is and that nothing super-natural exists) is self-refuting. If we are merely products of evolutionary forces guided (or “un-guided”) by time and chance, then we have no reason to trust our senses or our powers of logic to arrive at the truth. In fact, if naturalism is true, then truth itself becomes impossible—for truth stands outside nature, but the naturalist says nothing stands outside nature.
The modern naturalist too often overlooks the fact that the laws of naturalism rest on abstract principles that lie outside the supposedly closed system of nature. To formulate such principles we must step outside the flow of nature to achieve a perspective that is, quite literally, super-natural. But if naturalism is true, then we cannot do that. If the naturalists are right and nature is a vast, impersonal, unguided mechanism, then how can we have any knowledge of that mechanism? Surely an objective judge who is not pre-committed to a naturalistic worldview would conclude that our knowledge and understanding of nature cannot be a part of nature.
So Lewis explains it in Miracles, but it is in his Screwtape Letters that he drives the message home with a bracing wit that is not soon forgotten. Again and again, senior devil Screwtape advises his nephew to do whatever he can to prevent his patient from engaging his reason.
The job of the devil is not to make us think but to fuddle our minds—to keep us endlessly fixed on the daily stream of life. God, in contrast, would fix our attention on things we cannot see, on laws and theorems and principles that transcend the stream. It was God, Screwtape concedes, who created reason and logic; against it, the devils can only offer propaganda, jargon, and spin.