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is religion even logical?

If religious belief is all about "faith," and knowledge and science are all about "logic and proof," how can they possibly make sense together? This is the very question that Aquinas struggled with his entire life. And if we want to answer it today, it will help to look at exactly what we mean by logic and reason.

proof vs. reason

Remember all those science projects you suffered though in grade school, with the hypotheses, the experiments, the measurements and the results? That's the scientific method, and it's how we build our repository of knowledge about the world. But it's pretty clear that we're not going to be able to take that sort of approach to much of what we experience in life. There's nothing you can add to a test tube to tell you what love is, or what college to attend, or how to raise your children, or what career to pursue, or why you love Venice, or what music is really about, or whether God exists. The fact is, we live in a hugely complex world where much of the time, intellectual tools such as information gathering, abstraction, pattern recognition, fact checking, analysis and judgment are the only tools we have at our disposal. For many of our experiences, the scientific method is simply not applicable. But that doesn't mean reason is irrelevant. We obviously can think, and do think rigorously about these complicated experiences, even if they are not suited to experimental verification. Human knowledge advances first with insight; proof follows where it can.

thinking about complicated things

How do we reason about complicated things? In many ways. We recognize patterns, we make connections, we abstract, we draw diagrams, we map patterns to one another, we create a new context in which to see things, we name, describe, we categorize (e.g., think about how much of biology is categorization into genus and species). We answer the question, "what just happened" or "what did I just see," specifying the experience in words and creating the inputs for logic. We do what scientists do prior to the experiment, when they exercise scientific insight to figure out how to set up the experiment in the first place. Experimental validation is awesome. It's just that for many experiences in life, the level of complexity is such that we are unable to set up an experiment, nevermind carry it out. Nevertheless, there are many valid tools of thought prior to proof, all of which are utilized in the process of scientific insight, that can be applied to complex experiences, including the experience of the sacred.

In fact, it is in this intellectual space of pattern recognition and action that we live most of our lives; it is in this space that we run our businesses, raise our families, govern ourselves, produce our art and think about the sacred. Scientific insight, daily life, philosophy and theology all work by people recognizing patterns, making connections, and then taking appropriate actions.

thinking about the sacred

It is not only possible to think about the sacred, it is crucial to think about it, and think about it rigorously, using all the intellectual tools we have at our disposal. Religion is not some subjective preference, like whether you like red wine or white wine; it is a reflection of our most basic understanding of the nature of reality. Therefore to engage it with anything less than full intellectual rigor is, well, illogical. In between the sloppiness of fundamentalism and the cluelessness of relativism lies the straight skinny on reality, which includes an engagement with the phenomenon of the sacred.

Understanding religion means understanding existence at the hightest context: one universe, one brain, lots to dispute, nothing off limits, no checking out.

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"There is only one intelligence which both contemplates God and knows the world."
M-D Chenu, Aquinas and His Role in Theology, p. 95.

"At the very heart of the spirituality of Thomas Aquinas rests this conviction: human understanding is a place for holiness because the truth is holy."
M-D Chenu, Aquinas and His Role in Theology, p. 31.

"Thomas feared logic as little as he feared mystery."
Josef Pieper, The Silence of St. Thomas, p. 38


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