|Krysten Massa, 13, is confirmed by Bishop William F. Murphy of Rockville Centre, N.Y., during a Mass at Christ the King Church in Commack, N.Y. CNS photo
The Catholic tradition has a very high regard for the right use of natural reason. It urges upon us both the wisdom literature of the Jews and the philosophical and logical brilliance of the Greeks. From Jesus telling us to judge with right judgment (and very often appealing to us to use the sense God gave a goose) down through St. Thomas Aquinas to the present day, the Catholic tradition is chockablock with practical counsels to live by, including the natural virtues of prudence, justice, temperance and fortitude. The goal is to cultivate the ability to think clearly, to make logical judgments and distinctions, and to keep our heads when all about us are losing theirs.
A well-trained and informed natural reason is the indispensable foundation for thinking with the mind of Christ. This is one of the many reasons people like St. Thomas are doctors of the Church and the reason that the medieval university spent huge amounts of the curriculum teaching things like logic and reason and inventing things like the scientific method.
Respecting natural reason
At the same time, while the Catholic tradition has a very high regard for natural reason — just as it has for natural law and natural morality — it also insists that supernatural revelation teaches us things that we cannot know by the light of merely natural reason, natural law or natural morality. So, for instance, while the Church says that the existence of God is knowable by the light of natural reason, the fact that God is a Trinity is not knowable by the light of natural reason. He has to reveal that to us supernaturally since we are a) merely creatures and b) fallen creatures, at that. Likewise, supernatural revelation takes us to higher planes of moral thought than we would reach on our own. So, we find Jesus constantly upping the ante on the old covenant natural morality by saying things like:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven” (Mt 5:43-45).
The whole “love your enemies” thing has been tough for Christians since the beginning, precisely because it is something rooted in divine revelation and not in natural (much less fallen) moral reason. Left to ourselves, we would prefer to retaliate against our enemy, not love him every time.
Likewise, Jesus’ command that “whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against any one; so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses” (Mk 11:25) is a command to do something that would never occur to us in a million years had not Jesus both commanded it and attached to it a warning so dire — “For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Mt 6:14-15) — that we could not ignore it.
Finding the mind of God
The paradox, then, is that at some point we have to offer our natural reason in sacrifice in order to find the mind of God.
Jesus himself is the great exemplar of this and the response of fallen natural reason to this revelation is encapsulated, for all time, in this exchange between Jesus and his great, plain-spoken, and dead wrong disciple, Simon Peter:
“From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, ‘God forbid, Lord! This shall never happen to you.’ But he turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me; for you are not on the side of God, but of men.’ Then Jesus told his disciples, ‘If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it’” (Mt 16:21-25).
In short, the mind of Christ does not break or go below natural reason, but it can and does transcend it. Not a jot of the law is abolished, but it is rather fulfilled by Christ. Idolatry, dishonoring father and mother, murder, theft, lying, adultery, covetousness: none of these become “good.” But merely keeping the law is not enough. Mere logic is found to not satisfy the human heart because, as philosopher Blaise Pascal said, the heart has reasons that reason knows nothing of. Natural reason does not satisfy because we are not made merely for nature. We are made for God and can only be satisfied by union with him.
Stepping toward maturity
The way to union with God is through the life of Christ offered to us by him in the sacraments and life of the Church. We enter into that life, of course, in baptism: “all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death[.] We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his” (Rom 6:3-5).
This is why the second sacrament of initiation — confirmation — is so vital to us: it gives us the gifts necessary for putting on the mind of Christ and thinking as God thinks. Without the help of the Gifts of the Holy Spirit, we continue to live at the level of Peter when he tried to stop Jesus from taking up his cross.
Confirmation is the sacrament ordered toward maturity, friendship with God and mission. Each requires that we both embrace and transcend natural reason. The New Testament tells us: “For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need some one to teach you again the first principles of God’s word. You need milk, not solid food; for every one who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, for he is a child. But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their faculties trained by practice to distinguish good from evil” (Heb 5:12-14).
This letter to the Hebrews is written for those tempted to remain focused on what was old and comfortable: the Mosaic system of sacrifices from their childhood that prefigured Jesus but could not, itself, save. We can fall for the same habits of mind, seeking what is old and familiar and refusing to “put out into the deep” as Jesus told Peter to do (Lk 5:4).
Putting out into the deep means, among other things, embracing the call to simultaneously embrace the shocking promise of Jesus that he will make us “partakers in the divine nature” (2 Pt 1:4) as well as his frightening assurance that the only way to do that is to deny yourself, take up your cross and follow him.
St. Paul, who himself had to acquire the mind of Christ after being spectacularly wrong, gives us the tip about how to proceed:
“Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. For by the grace given to me I bid every one among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith which God has assigned him. For as in one body we have many members, and all the members do not have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another” (Rom 12:2-5).
Next time, we will look at how to renew the mind by learning to think with the Church, the Body of Christ.
Mark Shea writes the “Catholic and Enjoying It” blog at www.patheos.com/blogs/markshea/.