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Reason and the Glory of God

By John Haughey, S.J.

A talk delivered at Woodstock's annual Riggs Dinner, June 3, 2003

When we see someone who embodies a special quality, especially a virtue or an intellectual gift, do we take a moment to enjoy the quality and appreciate the person? Do we take more than a moment to think prayerfully about what might explain this quality, what reality lies behind it? Those were questions asked by St. Ignatius of Loyola, and they are grounds for reflection in the following presentation made by John C. Haughey, S.J., on June 3, 2003, at Woodstock's annual Riggs Dinner, hosted by the Woodstock board of directors and its director, Gasper F. Lo Biondo, S.J.

When we see someone who embodies a special quality, especially a virtue or an intellectual gift, do we take a moment to enjoy the quality and appreciate the person? Do we take more than a moment to think prayerfully about what might explain this quality, what reality lies behind it? Those were questions asked by St. Ignatius of Loyola, and they are grounds for reflection in the following presentation by John C. Haughey, S.J. On June 3, Father Haughey spoke at the Woodstock Theological Center's annual Riggs Dinner, hosted by the Woodstock board of directors and its director, Gasper F. Lo Biondo, S.J. Father Haughey is a professor of Christian ethics at Loyola University of Chicago, and was an associate editor of America magazine and a senior research fellow at Woodstock, among other previous posts and assignments. He has also played an important role in official Catholic dialogues with the evangelical Protestant world, and has published numerous articles and nine books, including Virtue and Affluence (Sheed and Ward, 1997) and, most recently, Housing Heaven's Fire (Loyola Press, 2002). He is at work on a book that connects the methodology of Bernard Lonergan to a study of Pope John Paul II's encyclical letters. Following is his Riggs presentation, in full.

Tonight I would like all of us to come to an appreciation of reason, of the capacity we human beings have for reasoning. Especially in this city where there is endless fighting over the positions taken on a multitude of subjects, let's just declare a temporary cease-fire so that we can go behind all the fights and savor the capacity that generates the fray, that takes sides, that argues even to the point of fractious disagreement. So, for tonight, I recommend that we just focus on the uniqueness that is thinking. Have you ever just marveled at thinking? Look at what is done when a human being reasons. It is an act unlike any other on the planet because it produces something that can shape history, granted, maybe only my own and that maybe only slightly. But something that wasn't there before comes to be...a conclusion, an insight, an intuition, an idea and the actions that come from these! This is how we become most like chips off the old block, that old block being our Creator.

Why do I want to marvel at reasoning, at the use of reason, at the capacity we have to think, to think things through alone or together? Because I think we should glorify God for this gift, this capacity. We spend our lives acting from the reasoning we or others do or reacting to reasoning out of synch with our own. But if we stopped, here and now, and maybe for the first time ever in our lives, we could look at the act of reasoning and appreciate its character. In the whole universe of actions it is singular.

Searching for the Font of Reason. Ignatius Loyola (you've probably heard of him somewhere along the line) has a recommendation at the end of his Spiritual Exercises to the effect that when your attention is drawn to a special quality in a person, a quality like justice or goodness or compassion - sure, go ahead and enjoy it and appreciate the person's embodying it. But he recommends that we go further since the perceived quality could also be an occasion for prayer. How? By seeing that it is not able to explain itself, thus forcing us to seek further what does explain it. He recommends we imagine it descending from above like a ray streaming from the sun. (#237 of Spiritual Exercises) So, with the subject I am addressing here, my recommendation is that when we become aware of a really good exercise in reasoning, see it "coming down from above." Not independently of the reasoner, of course, but in tandem with him or her. I have learned to do what Ignatius suggested, and find myself tracing a notably good use of intelligence to its source - as an instance of participation in the Eternal Reason that God does and is.

Why am I talking about this? Because the new director of the Woodstock Theological Center, Father Gasper Lo Biondo, S.J., chose as the theme of the work of the Center this year how to grow to trust in the institutions of society and church. I immediately thought that institutions, like people, are only as worthy of trust as the quality of the reasoning done by them. But on an evening such as this I think it is appropriate to prescind from a given use of reason to exalt the font from which all right reasoning flows into time and history.

Another way of looking at this matter is prompted by the Anglican theologian Evelyn Underhill. That early 20th century master of mysticism noticed that all reasoners engage the same reality but in two very different ways. The first group's use of reason gets them to reality with a small 'r'; the second group goes further, namely to reality with a big 'R.' In the first of these ways the perceiver perceives reality in its immediacy. In the second way the perceiver sees more, namely reality in its big R, the divine suffusing the temporal, the eternal presenting itself through the latticework of materiality. It would be so much more consoling if while living one's life as attentive to the mundane as we have to be, we were not blind to what is behind it.

Think of the Song of Songs in this regard. "Hark! my lover - here he comes springing across the mountains, leaping across the hills. Here he stands behind our wall, gazing through the windows, peering through the lattices" but with a fleeting shyness "like a gazelle or a young stag" therefore, so easily missed. (Song of Songs 2:8-9) We could become expectant about perceiving the Love peering through the lattices in order that the consolation of God might accompany us as we use our minds to know, examine, analyze, argue, critique, express, deny, affirm, prove, disprove, and so forth. Why should we? Because as the scriptural passage continues. "My lover speaks;" he says to me, "Arise, my beloved, my beautiful one and come! For see, the winter is past, the rains are over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth...and the song of the dove is heard in our land." (Song of Songs 2: 10-12) We will live in the winter of thought if we stay stuck in the little r's.

The objects that engage our consciousness, therefore, can do so in a way that rivets and confines us or they can be seen within a horizon that isn't satisfied with its finiteness. A deep horizon enables reason to ask questions that a horizon confined to the object doesn't ask. A deep horizon is open to seeing objects of consciousness as sign bearing, pointing reason beyond itself to the source from which the gift descended. By now you may be wondering - where is this talk going? It isn't going anywhere except to the praise of God!

But, of course, your reason might be objecting by now, there is reason and reason. There is poor reasoning and good, selfish reason and disinterested, pragmatic reason, utilitarian reasoning, analytic reasoning...the list could be endless. But it is at sapiential reasoning that I want to pause. Sapiential reasoning (the Latin is sapere, to savor), is reasoning that can savor or taste something more in the object that is engaging our consciousness. Sapiential reason learns to taste and see the goodness of the Lord. Some like to refer to Aristotle as a pagan but he savored the great dignity of human reasoning, seeing the good use of reason as "the divine in man." Not simply the sublime but the divine! Have we believers been as farsighted as "the pagan"?

There is much of paradox in this matter of reason. This "divine in man" has produced so many goods that it has often gotten confused about "the good," as Plato called it. If reason is not sapiential, its use can be fatal. Think of the technology that reasoning has produced, like our weapons of mass destruction. But we won't go there tonight! Think, too, how technology can begin to tell us who we are rather than having us determine its meaning and value.

One of the great values of the Woodstock Theological Center, is that in its recent years, beginning with Father Jim Connor and now with Father Lo Biondo, it has been probing the mind of one of the giant intellects of the last century, Bernard Lonergan (1904-84). He had the wit and wisdom to see into the structures of human reasoning and the ways that make its use trustworthy while pointing out the cul de sacs that divert it, making it untrustworthy.

Knowing Thy Thoughts. Lonergan insisted that reason is more likely to be trustworthy if we know better how it works, if we can see into the process whereby a thought is conceived and judged and acted on. We can't afford to trust reason if we remain ignorant about what goes into a good use of it. Until and unless we get clearer about what is incumbent on reason for it to be used well, we should be pessimistic about our future as a government, city, church, nation, race, planet.

I am of the opinion that Bernard Lonergan was of the same stature as Thomas Aquinas and that, like Aquinas, was intended by God to be a gift to the church and the world. Like the rest of us, he was born into a church that sought to have the answers to the questions the world was asking. Unlike the rest of us his contribution to the church and the world was not in the form of answers but in the form of method. What he bequeathed to us is a methodology for responsible reasoning. His insight was that reasoning that was able to check itself by its attention to its own operations would be much more likely to produce the thoughts and actions that are needed for the human race to come to the flourishing that God intended for it when God made a species that could reason.

So, without subjecting you to explaining his method which would be more complex than is called for on an occasion like this, let me only lead you into reflecting as he did on our reason as light. The light of reason, the lumen rationis, is a most interesting phrase if you think about it. Without this light we would be like owls in the daylight, apprehending nothing. But with this light we can see not only objects but understand our understandings and produce reasons and make judgments. With this light we can even peek into the dark cavern of our own interiority. So, we live off the value of this light daily, hourly, minutely. But reason does not provide an explanation of its own light. What does? Where does reason's light come from? Thomas Aquinas asked this question and answered it with the beguiling observation that it comes from the prima lux or first light, which is God. What a beautiful understanding of human reason as coming from and being a participation in the divine and uncreated light! (cf. Lonergan's Verbum p.100)

But there is more light available to us than our reason can supply. This further light comes from the same source that reason gets its light. This further light is the wisdom of faith. There is "the humble surrender of our own light to the self-revealing uncreated Light" that brings us to "a learning and receiving of divine things"(Verbum 101). This further wisdom does not disdain but only intensifies what the light of reason can understand, thus enabling us through Revelation to see the deeper Reality. Although the Holy Spirit is never an absent partner to an intellect in its quest to know the true and the good, its assistance has several levels to it, culminating in time with the gift of wisdom and in eternity with the beatifying vision of the Reality that is God.

It is faith that gives reason access to its limitless breadth and depths. It is faith that keeps the mind on track so as to gain access to the otherwise hidden gold that the mind is ever searching for. It is faith that keeps the journey to knowledge humble but one that can be blessed with wonder and praise. It is faith that can see God's hand in a tiger's coat. "Tyger! Tyger! Burning bright in the forests of the night, what immortal hand or eye could frame thy fearful symmetry?" (William Blake)

The light of reason and the light of faith - they need each other. One without the other is "impoverished and enfeebled"(Fides et Ratio #48). Faith employs reason because it needs to plumb its own inexhaustible plenitude. But the hire is mutually beneficial since reason left to itself easily gets confused and begins to meander if it cannot stretch out towards the horizon that faith gives it to explore. Without faith reason is easily diverted, lured into cul de sacs of acquisition, pride and power. This has always been true but we are at a particularly dangerous moment in history if faith doesn't have to submit to the bar of reason and reason to the bar of faith because of the fundamentalisms, both secular and religious, that threaten whole peoples and civilization itself.

Faith in Reason, Reason in Faith. The most recent try at clarifying these two sources of light, faith and reason, has been the encyclical Fides et Ratio issued by the Holy Father in September of 1998. In it the Holy Father places a great deal of faith in reason. He notes that when faith doesn't employ reason it begins to put too much stress on experience and feeling and loses what should appeal to many. And a reason that is not open to faith will eventually lose its ability to "turn its gaze towards the newness and radicality of being."

Faith needs reason to make itself understandable and reason needs more than itself to keep it from heading towards meaninglessness and destruction. Somewhere in the back of our minds there is an awareness of many of the inglorious moments in the relation between faith and reason down through history. The enlightenment, for example, announced and pursued an emancipation of reason from faith because of the bloody religious wars that represented partisan reasoning by those who were convinced that they had reasoned correctly about their faith. Then came the age of positivism and science that disbelieved the further horizons articulated by philosophy and theology. So much immanent knowledge has been acquired in the last few centuries that systems of immanent meaning intentionally short of transcendence continue to proliferate, leaving minds bereft of transcendent meaning.

God entrusted us humans with that which makes us unlike all the other species. We can think. Our ability to think, to reason is what makes us most like God. The good use of our reason glorifies God. But it would be to the greater glory of God if we were more explicit about what goes into responsible reasoning. For purposes of brevity let me prescind from the commonalities in irresponsible reasoning of, for example, the terrorist, the ideologue, the fundamentalist and all the intentionalities born of hatred or envy or ignorance in order to make just one point. That point is that responsible reasoning is reflective, self critical, introspective. Reason that cannot reflect on itself, its own workings, its own operations is almost certainly going to be impetuous, haphazard in its operations, unaware of its own components - in a word, it is untrustworthy.

On the other hand, our reasoning is more likely to be trustworthy if it knows how it works. Have you ever reflected on the process whereby a thought is conceived and judged and acted on? If we are careful about the process we will be attentive to our experience, intelligent about the understandings and come to our judgements responsibly. Deliberation, choice, action follow judgment. But to come to a good judgment usually much sifting has to go on; sifting of knowledge, of information, of opinions, of insights. We are at present suffocating in information overload, in mere sentiments and hunches and opinions and misinformation and prejudices - all communicated to us as true, as accurately judged.

What I most admire in the work of Bernard Lonergan is his having spelled out the calling all of us have in common, namely to exercise a responsible rationality.responsible about both the particular good and the common good. To attain to this we must get serious about our reasoning so that might work better than it has been doing about the good. We have to understand our understanding better than we have; understand it, that is, in a way that takes responsibility for its use so that our lives, our nation's life and our world can overcome its alarming declines relationally, politically, religiously, ecologically. I would describe this task as having to aim at a conversion of rationality so that the misuses of reason might be greatly lessened. This is how God might best be glorified at the present moment of history. So, let us return to the fray tomorrow in our respective niches, fighting for the better reasoning we have access to or insight into or responsibility for, having had this brief respite for the praise of God for this wonderful capacity with which we have all been scripted.