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Between faith and reason

Dee Tian | Sunday, March 25, 2012

Pope John Paul II called faith and reason the “two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth” in his encyclical “Fides et Ratio.” The Pope believes human beings come to know truth through a combination of faith and reason. The absence of either one will impair our ability to know ourselves, the world and God. The two, in fact, exist harmoniously.

Aquinas also articulated a similar argument. Because the light of reason and the light of faith both come from God, there can be no contradiction between them.

Or can there?

Many of my philosophy and science courses have caused me to wonder about the relationship between faith and reason. Often, it seems the tension is now said to be between religion and science.

I think it’s interesting that. as students we take many courses from different disciplines, but we rarely try to synthesize what we learn from each. Many times, what we learn in these courses are actually contradictory. In ecology, we learn that sexual selection was the mechanism by which evolution worked and that there is no truly altruistic act (depressing). In psychology, we learn that there are many reasons for our motivations and desires.

In genetics and anthropology, we discuss the question of nature versus nurture – are we born a blank slate, or are our natures mostly genetically decided? In philosophy, we question Mackie’s Problem of Evil and the issues of free will and determinism.

I walk out of these courses interested but slightly confused, and sometimes even concerned. What did all these things mean for my faith? My values? How I view the world? But like most busy college students, I dismiss these worries quickly in favor of partying, watching TV or doing homework. I didn’t have time to think about these things with my insane schedule of balancing friends, work and extracurriculars.

Unfortunately, this semester, I was forced to consider how my beliefs may conflict with the “truths” I was being taught in class. I signed up for a seminar that explored the theological and philosophical impacts of Darwin’s evolution.

I never previously saw a problem with evolution and the existence of God. I thought, “Simple, God worked through evolution.” I could hold onto my religion while being a 21st century person of science, right? Wrong. It was not that easy.

The class challenged me to reevaluate how I viewed God and the world. Details of philosophical and scientific arguments aside, it seemed that evolution provided many problems to the traditional Christian God.

So what to do now? Dismiss God? Well there was no way I could do that. Dismiss evolution? That doesn’t seem very reasonable either. For the first time, I was forced to attempt to reconcile two seemingly conflicting truths.

I’m not sure if I’ve made too much progress, but I think it’s important for us (as students, Christians and human beings) to not just take everything we learn in class at face value and to consider how they interact. Wasn’t that the original purpose of universities? To pursue truth and knowledge?

While I refuse to believe science alone can ever provide all the answers, I also refuse to be completely ignorant of its findings and theories. It drives me nuts when students and professors dismiss areas outside their expertise as unimportant. As I harped about in my article “Thou Shall Not Judge,” how arrogant was it for my philosophy professor to look down on business majors?

At the same time, how frustrating when someone doesn’t know the answer and so decides just not to think about it (guilty as charged).

At Mass one Sunday, a priest said that Notre Dame was one of the few places left where smart people still believed in God. How impactful. Notre Dame’s mission has always been to educate, not just the mind, but the heart and spirit as well.

I would love to be able to understand the harmonious relationship between faith and reason as easily as the Pope and Saint Aquinas. I may not be there yet, but I’ll definitely continue trying. Through both faith and reason, I hope to better know myself, the world, and God. Is ignorance really bliss? Maybe. But I would argue not.

Dee Tian can be reached at

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The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not

necessarily those of The Observer.