After the Ascension of Jesus Christ, the apostles and disciples sought to obey Christ’s mandate to spread the gospel to every corner of the earth (RSV, Matthew 28:16-20). Armed with the truth and the grace of our Lord, the early Christians wanted to convince everyone of the gospel message. While they were successful in the conversion of many, they were also met with scorn and derision. In an attempt to appeal to these unbelievers, some early Christians - some of whom we call the Early Church Fathers - used their philosophical learning as a tool to argue that the faith they were proclaiming was completely within the bounds of reason. Perhaps in no other period was this synthesis more emphasized than the Scholastic Period of the Middle Ages. The Christians living at this time were well aware that reason and will were gifts that should be put to good use.
Since the so-called Enlightenment, and especially so in the modern era, there has been an over-emphasis on the value of empirical scientific knowledge. According to this view the only knowledge that is possible is that which is gathered by our senses and anything that cannot be measured in this way cannot exist. The very idea of God is dismissed since He cannot be found in a test tube. However, the philosophical backing for science has been abandoned and the need for non-material truths has been forgotten.
The opportunity to discover truth via philosophical reason is still a live option and the arguments made by the Fathers offer the opportunity to test our own reasoning and demonstrate the depths of our faith. Many of the Fathers looked at different aspects of creation and used natural theology to make arguments for the existence of God. Some, such as St. Anselm, argued that God’s existence must be self-evident because the concept of God necessitates His existence. Aquinas rejected Anselm’s argument (ST I, Q 2, A 1, ad. 2), but came up with five other arguments such as the necessity of a First Cause to explain all contingent existence (ST I, Q 2, A 3, co.).
Although his arguments have convinced many people of God’s existence, Aquinas was quick to point out “the existence of God and other like truths about God, which can be known by natural reason, are not articles of faith, but are preambles to the articles” (ST I, Q 2, A 2 ,ad. 1). Faith is a supernatural gift of God. God can use our reason to help lead us to Himself, but He works in different ways with different people. Natural theology can put us on the path, but it cannot complete the journey.
The other gift that God gives for exploring the world around us is freedom of will. If God exists and the entire world if governed by His Providence, what could human freedom possibly mean? As Americans, we are very sensitive to being free. However, what we mean by freedom is often quite different than the real meaning.
Americans tend to view freedom as having no external compulsion to prevent us from doing whatever action we please. It makes very little difference if that choice is choosing ice cream or sexual deviancy. This view of freedom is really just slavery. It makes us unable to deny our passions which means our passions are in control of us, and not the other way around. St. Anselm puts it another way, “Therefore, since the capacity to sin when added to will diminishes liberty, and its lack increases it, it is neither liberty nor a part of liberty” (On Free Will 176).
True freedom consists in being free to do what is good and just (CCC, par. 1733). This freedom is not easily found. We are compelled by our desires. We are ridiculed for doing the right thing. We are afraid of what we might lose. Thus, our freedom is diminished especially when it appears that we are most free.
Although reason can see the problem, it is not easy for reason to find a solution. Our faith cannot be reduced to reason, but reason is a tool that can be used to aid the faith. We are completely reliant on the grace of God to help us overcome our slavery to sin. “It is a greater miracle when God restores rectitude to the will that has abandoned it than when he restores life to a dead man” (On Free Will 188).
It starts to become apparent just how reliant we are upon God. God is the First Principle which keeps all things in existence, ourselves included. We rely on His grace to have true freedom and to choose to do the good. Every good thing that we have is really a gift.
When faced with this, the value of humility becomes more apparent. Humility is seeing things as they really are. When we realize that “you must attribute every good work to Him and not to yourself” (Bonaventure 12) then true wisdom is possible.
Next, we look to Christ as our model (Bonaventure 14). He emptied Himself and took the form of a slave (RSV, Philippians 2:6-7). How much greater an example of humility can we find than He? God who had every reason to boast chose to offer Himself up to torture and death, and he remained silent. While we, when we do even the smallest good, want to shout about everything we have done. We complain about the smallest inconvenience. We forget that even the slightest good deed we perform is only because we cooperate with His grace. He is always at work in us.
We share our origin with Adam who came from the dirt of the earth. We must never forget the lowliness of our origins and always keep our focus on our Lord who gives us life. If we take our eyes from Him, we lose the freedom He has given to us. Our reason and our will are both great gifts, but the greatest gift He bestows on us is faith. This gift enables a ball of dirt to become a son of God and to live with Him forever.
Aquinas, Thomas. “Question 2”. Summa Theologiae, Kevin Knight, 2017, http://www.newadvent.org/summa/1002.htm. Accessed 27 December 2019.
Bonaventure. Holiness of Life.2nd Edition. Translated by Laurence Costello, Edited By Fr. Wilfrid, B. Herder Book Co.,1923
Catholic Church. Catechism of the Catholic Church. 2nd ed. Vatican: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2012.
The Holy Bible. Rev. Standard Version, Meridian, 1962.
On Free Will is taken from:
Anselm, et al. Anselm of Canterbury: The Major Works. OUP Oxford, 1998. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=e000xna&AN=287495&site=ehost-live&scope=site. Accessed 27 December 2019.