The Catholic faith is a rich and diverse set of beliefs. The mandate of the Church is to reach out to all peoples and cultures to tell them the Good News of Jesus Christ. Although there is only one truth, it is necessary to explain the faith in different ways to reach different people and as time moves forward our understanding of truth can change. The way we express the truth of the faith can change, even though the truths of the faith cannot change.
Throughout history people have relied on systematic formulas to express tenets of the faith. A certain line of thinking reduces the faith to a series of abstract propositions which must be adhered to. It is certainly true that there are right ways of thinking about God and wrong ways of thinking about God; however, we cannot replace a personal and loving God with a series of logical propositions. Rowland notes that there is a “temptation to think that the finite human mind might be able to pin God down into the confines of human conceptual packages... and becoming so hooked some particular theological methodology that one’s life of faith is reduced... to promoting the system” (Rowland 13).
One of the areas that this tends to crop up is in the discussion between faith and reason. There is a famous phrase attributed to Mark Twain, “Having faith is believing in something you just know ain't true.” This is absurd. It is difficult to imagine the mental gymnastics to honestly “believe” something you know isn’t true, but this is a profound misunderstanding of faith and knowledge.
St. Augustine wrote that most of what we could call knowledge is actually trusting the testimony of an authority (Augustine, 11.3). Common experience can demonstrate this. Someone may believe that there is a place called Sydney, Australia even if they have never been there. They have taken it on the authority of those have been there that it exists. They are implicitly placing their faith in the voice of others. This is not an unreasonable faith; in just such a way, the Catholic Faith is not unreasonable. We rely on what God has revealed to us through His Church and trust in His truth. We can then use philosophy to demonstrate the reasonableness of our faith.
Scholastic Theology is an attempt to systematically demonstrate the reasonableness of our faith. However, over time some people have spent too much time on the framework instead of the object the philosophy is intended to illuminate. Their “reason has been reduced to discursive thinking alone (ratio) and to what is empirically verifiable” and they ignore the understanding that the method was intended to bring about (Rowland 11). Systems such as Scholasticism can be of use when they direct us to both truth and love.
When used properly systematic theologies can be extremely valuable. Since each part of the system is necessary for the other pieces of the system to function in harmony it can help prevent “some principle or doctrine [from being] taken out of its rightful position and exaggerated” (Rowland 15). The unity of the system can help insure the balance between the truths. For example, Arianism was a problem because Arius could not reconcile the unity of God with the Incarnation of God. Thus, we can affirm true pluralism while rejecting false pluralism.
On the other hand, systematic theologies can distort the relationship between the faith and history. When we spend so much time focusing on abstract concepts we can lose sight of the personal and historical reality of Jesus Christ. “Since Christian faith is founded on the incarnate Word, its historical and practical character distinguishes it in its essence from a form of historicity in which man alone would be the creator of his own direction” (Rowland 14). Salvation history isn’t merely a story of man relating to one another; rather, it is the story of God reaching down to us to save us. It is a love story. The Dogmas of the faith help us understand the story, but they are not the story.
History is a reflection on the Revelation of God as embodied in time. We do not create history, but we receive it as a gift from Him. God’s love for us is so real that He took on the form of a man so we might see the truth of His love. The Incarnation extends to all men in all times. The doctrines of the Church do not place limits on God. We who are so limited, however, need the guidance of Church doctrines. They help guide us up toward God when we realize that our reason is a tool and not an ends. God provided us the Church and Her “magisterium is the guarantor that what is passed on from one generation to another is the same faith as that of the apostolic generation and not something that has been mutated or contaminated by ideologies” (Rowland 15).
The mystery of our faith exceeds any system. We need a teacher – the Church - to guide us to Christ through her doctrine and magisterium. Men sadly tend to forget the object of our love, and instead focus on the system itself. We must maintain the balance between truth and love, which are never in true conflict. We must be careful not create false dichotomies - many times we focus on either/or when we should focus on both/and.
Augustine. The City of God, Kevin Knight, 2017, http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/120111.htm. Accessed 1 February 2020.
Rowland, Tracy. Catholic Theology. Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2017.