Keeping faith with reason

Matthew’s story of the visit of the Magi is ripe for reflection: the topic of art and poetry, it can help to communicate central themes of the Christian gospel. Matthew himself almost certainly intended that the story speak of the inclusion of the Gentiles within God’s covenant and of the fulfillment of God’s promises to God’s people.


Myself, I am struck by an aspect of the account which speaks to a contemporary need. The Magi (Greek magoi – the sense is of something intermediate between a priest, a magician and a scientist) are led by the sight of a star. I imagine these wise ones (the plural magoi doesn’t force an image of an all male group, even if that is what was intended in context) pondering maps, charts and books of lore in order to interpret the appearance of the heavenly body.

Unlike Luke’s shepherds, the Magi do not get a vision of angels. There is nothing obviously revelatory about anything that happens to them. Instead, their natural reason, their human capacity to reflect on the world around them leads them to Jerusalem.

One of the most appealing aspects of the Catholic tradition for me, and especially of the Dominican strand within it, is our high view of human reason. Even without access to God’s self-revelation as communicated in the Bible, our Church thinks, human beings can come to know things about God. Nor does possession of that self-revelation render human reason irrelevant. Rather, through our reasoning about and grappling with the content of revelation we come to appreciate it better. It is though we were both the shepherds and the magi at the same time. Needless to say, for me, the combination is most clearly seen in the Summa Theologiae.

I think that at the present moment there’s a tendency to retreat from our high view of reason. Partly that’s for understandable reasons – contemporary culture can have too narrow a view of reason, as something cold, bloodless, and discarnate, whereas we want to affirm that our religion is the stuff of emotion, ritual, and raw, animal, self-giving love. Rather than ditch reason as the sole preserve of Mr Spock types, though, we could reclaim a more generous understanding of reason. More challenging is the modern world’s relegation of religion to the sphere of the non-rational, or even the irrational. For many friends and foes of religion alike, faith is a matter of blind acceptance, where it starts reason stops. Upon passing the church door, one ceases to be a thinker. Whether or not one considers that to be a good thing is very much a secondary matter.

This is disastrous for all sorts of reasons. It effectively involves the abandonment of any claim that the Christian faith is saying anything true (the notion of a truth with which we cannot reason is nonsensical), so if it is intended as a maneuver to protect faith from criticism it is self-defeating. That aside, it is both dangerous and beneath our dignity as human beings to put our ability to reason to one side. The use of religion to further bigotry and violence ought to persuade us of this if more abstract considerations do not. Crucially though, and seasonally, in the Incarnation God has assumed and redeemed everything it is to be human – including our reason – the thoughtfulness of our engagement with our faith is not a pretension, or simply a pass-time, but a witness to that redemption, to the fullness of our redeemed humanity. It is therefore a matter of faith that we continue to reason.

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