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Spirituality Mondays examines faith and reason

| Thursday, March 20, 2014

The Saint Mary’s College Spirituality Monday series continued this week with a discussion on spirituality and philosophy with professor Michael M. Waddell, the Edna and George McMahon Aquinas Chair in Philosophy.

“This is a series on the intersection of faith and reason, so different faculty members from different departments are speaking on the relationship of faith and reason from their area of expertise,” director of the Center for Spirituality Elizabeth Groppe said.

Sponsored by the Center for Spirituality, Spirituality Mondays offer a weekly opportunity for Saint Mary’s faculty, staff and students to gather as a community and share their wisdom through civilized conversation, Groppe said.

Waddell opened the discussion by addressing the intersection of faith and reason.

When faith and reason meet, the question as to how a spiritual tradition challenges or enhances the exercise of reason in an academic discipline or a profession comes into play, he said.

“I’d like to talk today a little bit about the relationship between spirituality and philosophy not just as an academic discipline, but more in a classical sense,” Waddell said. “I’m going to use the term spirituality and the term philosophy in a specific way, but I at least want to clarify that specific sense.”

Waddell said he takes his definitions from the classical Greek tradition.

“Philosophy was construed in the ancient tradition as love of wisdom,” he said. “And wisdom was construed as knowledge of the highest truth such as matters of the cause of all existence [and] the purpose of human life.

“Knowledge would have to do with the smaller domains. Knowledge might tell you how to change the tire on your car. It might tell you how a cell functions, but wisdom was the glue that held it all together. Wisdom is a kind of a specific mode of knowledge.”

In order to draw the parallel between faith and reason, Waddell said he drew from the elements of the Christian faith.

“This is a horrible oversimplification, but for my purposes I’m going to take Christian faith to stand for spirituality,” he said. “There is no doubt there is a talk to be given about how those beliefs have interacted with philosophy. I think for example, Neoplatism. Christian [faith] is trickier.”

Discussing the encounter between Western philosophy and Christian faith, Waddell said he considered scholarly ideas previously developed by St. Augustine of Hippo and St. Thomas Aquinas.

“In book 13 of ‘De Trinitate,’ Augustine observes that all people want happiness.,” he said. “We know that Aristotle said essentially the same thing. So this was a claim that was generally accepted to be true.

“The kind of happiness we desire which Augustine takes to be an immortal life of the body and the soul, it’s some kind of resurrection of the body in which we only desire good things and we have all the things we desire. This is what Augustine thinks constitutes the [definition of faith].”

Waddell said humans universally long for something only attainable through the Christian faith.

“Philosophy finds its true fulfillment in Christian faith,” he said. “[Augustine] means the basic intuition all the philosophers shared. He means all philosophy needs Christian faith to be fully complete. Philosophy seems to reveal to us aspirations of human existence.”

Waddell said he then reflected on a passage of Aquinas’s Summa Theologica.

“Aquinas is discussing the nature of faith, and he appeals to two definitions that are handed down from the tradition where we read faith as the substance of things,” he said.

One of the definitions of faith Aquinas gestures toward in faith is thinking with assent, Waddell said.

“There are lots of ways to use the word ‘thinking’ to describe an intellectual activity from moving from one idea to the next,” he said. “Thomas says that in order to understand what Augustine means, we have to keep in mind this second sense of thinking.’”

All of these observations motivate the theme of Spirituality Mondays, Waddell said.

“We have firm adherence to the truth of proposition, yet faith is different from knowledge,” he said. “[It] is not grounded in the intellectual apprehension. I would also say that God is Trinity, and yet I can’t prove to you that God is Trinity, so the level of assent or conviction is different.

“Faith is different from knowledge. It is a certainty that arises from an act of will. There’s a sense that’s motivated by will. When Aquinas says faith is thinking with assent, it’s not grounded in knowledge.”

Waddell said Aquinas’s discussion of Augustine’s definition of faith has an important implication.

“To say that faith is thinking with assent is to say that faith, by its very nature, must always be exploring,” he said. “Because these questions deal with the highest truth, faith must be seeking the kind of understanding philosophers call wisdom. Faith needs the activity of reason.”

Augustine’s view suggests that the aspirations of philosophy find reason in faith, and Waddell said philosophy teaches mankind that the purpose of existence is pursuable only through faith.

“The discipline of philosophy is to challenge faith, but rather in a way that brings to fruition that [which] brings the way of philosophy’s nature,” he said.


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