Explaining Reason: Atheism or Christianity?

Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, now our beloved Pope Benedict XVI, devoted much writing and attention to questions such as this, not in isolation, but as they relate to academics and civil societies. In an essay, “Theology and Church Politics” published in a 1987 book Church Ecumenism and Politics: New Endeavors in Ecclesiology, he explains what theology is, what the relation of theology is to the Church, and what the relation of the Church is to education and politics. He explains why such culturally shocking assertions, such as the subordination of the University and the State to the Church, are naturally and rationally ordered relationships for the common good, and it all begins with an explanation about reason.

The University and the State should be subordinate to the Church? Atheism would not agree with this, of course, and it sounds like an outlandish claim in the world today. If you have ever wondered how to respond to the insistence that faith should play no part in academic instruction or public policy, you will find Cardinal Ratzinger’s explanation illuminating. This will take a few essays to cover, so this is the first in the series and it deals with the fundamental claim to reason itself.

Can Atheism Explain Reason?

The word “reason” is repeated a lot today, but without an understanding of what it really is. Atheists lay claim to it, assuming that it is the opposite of faith. The word has its root in classical Latin, ratio, and it means intellectual power, the capacity for rational thought.

A tenet of atheism is that reason is a product of human evolution, just another step along the pathway that began with the Big Bang, a “random byproduct of the ocean of irrationality from which everything actually sprang.” But how can this be? If reason is real, then it is as inconceivable that the Big Bang is the primordial beginning of the universe as it is inconceivable that a circle can be squared. That is — it is impossible. The foundation of rationality cannot be irrationality; reason cannot spring from the unreasonable. No, atheism has no explanation for the existence of reason.

Can Christianity Explain Reason?

The Christian position is not based on “In the beginning was irrationality…” but on the opposite. The Gospel of John says, “In the beginning was the Word: and the Word was with God: and the Word was God.” God, the Creator who made everything out of nothing, is Reason Itself, and since we are made in the likeness and image of God, our ability to reason came from Reason Itself, revealed to us by Christ, the Word or Logos.

The ancient Greeks spoke of such rationality. When the Gospel of John names Christ the Logos, ?????, the Greek word for rationality, for Word, it shows the “blending of biblical faith and Greek rationality upon which historical Christianity is based.” Faith illuminates reason and gives foundation for it. Faith demands reason, and reason needs faith to guide it.

As reason searches for truth, faith requires an acknowledgment of where reason came from – God. In turn, we as humans understand this limit and realize that we cannot know everything. Why? That would abolish the very foundation of reason, and make us our own god. Theology, the methodological science of faith, takes up the fundamental question of Greek philosophy, the question about truth and being. Theology is a force for enlightenment, thinking illuminated by the truth beyond it. Theology’s foundation is reason itself.

What is Free Thought?

In the secular culture there is also confusion about what it means to “think freely.” Atheists claim to be “free-thinkers,” a byproduct of the teaching that more or less began with Immanuel Kant, a German philosopher who lived in the 1700’s. To assert that faith guides reason sounds, to them and to anyone else with a poor understanding of Christianity, like religion restricts free thought. Is that true?

Kant said in his famous 1784 essay, What Is Enlightenment? that enlightenment is “man’s release from his self-incurred tutelage.” (Tutelage is the incapacity to reason without guidance from another, i.e. the incapacity to think freely.) He said that accepting guidance demonstrates a “lack of determination and courage to use one’s intelligence.” But if “free-thought” is only a byproduct of materials obeying the laws of physics, then how does anyone think freely? Impossible.

Enlightenment thinking actually narrowed the concept of reason by abandoning the illumination of faith. Under those explanations, reason becomes restricted to what is reproducible, what can be demonstrated over and over again experimentally, what is pragmatic. It chained free-thought.

Why is that an important distinction? Because it means that truth does not guide man, but is guided by man. It means that man makes up truth as he goes, which is not truth at all. The philosophical question of antiquity “What is it?” is replaced with the question “What does it do?” and the ever-popular modern over-reliance on science as the source of all truth becomes atheist dogma — anything that needs explaining beyond that is left to personal or popular expedience.

How does that translate into academics and politics? Think about it. Next…

More to explorer


  1. Stacy, I enjoyed this very much. And yes, do read more Cardinal Ratzinger who, when he writes about things like this, makes profundity sound easy.

  2. Thank you WSquared.

    I understand science (was a chemist before converting, still am in my kitchen) and I’m determined to understand theology, particularly doctrine. It seems to me that there is a great deal of opportunity for dialogue at the intersection of these two things, and it seems to be an area people would like to know more about — What is science? What is religion? What is faith? What is reason? What is Church? What is State?

    Thus, my studies have led me into ecumenism, and that led me to Cardinal Ratzinger’s writing. I’m tackling it, it’s a very difficult concept, not very easy to explain. Cardinal Ratzinger offers some brilliant tools, and I know I could read my whole life and never finish, but I am certainly enjoying the journey. Such treasures we have!

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