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The Hole in Reason's Ceiling

by Fr. Billy SwanJuly 25, 2017

‘The hole in reason’s ceiling’ is a delightful phrase that comes from a poem entitled ‘To Hell with Common Sense’ by the Irish spiritual writer Patrick Kavanagh. It captures what the Church has consistently taught over the centuries, namely that reason will help us discover the truth but not to determine it fully. Our search for truth leads us out through ‘the hole in reason’s ceiling’ to explore a more distant frontier. From human experience, our quest for truth does not find us locked into some gigantic room where, eventually, we will arrive at the top of the ceiling and finally know all there is to know. For example, we exist in a universe that seems to have no boundaries of space. The latest estimated dimensions of the universe are continually revised to even greater, mind boggling parameters. In scientific research, every answer to a question seems to give birth to a new one. Then there are the ultimate questions of life that science cannot answer. What does all this mean? What is my place within this vast universe and do I still matter?

There is concerning trend emerging of those who profess to be atheist based on a materialist view of the world and a new confidence in science to explain everything. How do we respond to this? Are they right? Does a greater familiarity with science undermine faith? To put it another way, if you are a believing parent of teenagers, should you be worried if you buy them a microscope, telescope or chemistry set for their birthday? Might it lead to them becoming atheist? Is it better to leave them undisturbed in their innocent faith and hope that it holds out, despite what science might teach them?

St Augustine would warn us away from this split between faith and reason. For him, we need to allow our dynamic, restless spirits to look deeply into the heart of reality and to question everything we find: ‘Question the beauty of the earth, question the beauty of the sea…question the beauty of the sky. Who made them if not the beautiful one who is not subject to change?’ (Sermon 241). In obedience to Augustine, there is no shortage of things for us to question and marvel at in the natural world – from the amazing micro-world of atoms and molecules, to microbes and DNA maps, to the macro-world of stars, planets and galaxies. If Augustine is right then the curious observation of the universe will lead us to the God whose beauty is reflected in his creation. In the words of Gaudium et Spes at Vatican II: ‘The humble and persevering investigator of the secrets of nature is being led, as it were, by the hand of God in spite of himself, for it is God, the conserver of all things, who made them what they are’ (para. 36). Science then is to be embraced and engaged with by Christians without fear of it threatening faith since ‘the same God who reveals mysteries and infuses faith has bestowed the light of reason on the human mind…truth cannot contradict truth’ (Cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 159).

But here another question emerges. If we study creation with the full force of reason then why doesn’t every scientist believe? If the study of creation reveals all these clues to God’s existence then why don’t more people come to faith in him? The dilemma points to the insufficiency of reason alone to grasp the truth of things. In the words of Kavanagh, ‘there’s a hole in reason’s ceiling’. While reason helps us understand what things are, a sharp and lively imagination helps us to appreciate why they are and what they mean. Imagination supplements what reason observes thus disclosing a richer vision of reality. But note that imagination is not the same as what is imaginary. It is not about constructing reality but using our imagination along with our reason to take in all there is to see.

Imagination is soul mate of reason for it is the human capacity to realise that the universe is always greater than we can measure and that reality is more dimensional than reason and science can determine. Imagination allows us to grapple with ultimate questions such as suffering, death, love and the meaning of life. It allows us to consider how the realities we experience can be interpreted in a way that that makes faith in God a reasonable option. This is a crucially important task – to interpret what we see and what we find. For many who subscribe to a world view where God does not exist, the universe ‘just is’. Period. But if Aristotle is right and ‘all human beings desire to know’, then this lazy settlement at the existence of things is not an option. We want to know the truth of what caused things, what sustains things and how everything hangs together. For people of engaging faith and enquiring minds, we want to know where something fits in to the overall narrative of the Bible that speaks of a God who created the world, sent his Son to redeem it after the Fall and is moving creation towards its final goal and purpose. For us this is the key question – does the book of creation that we observe through reason and imagination correspond to the book of the Scriptures we contemplate through faith? To put it another way, does the Biblical narrative embrace reality as we know it in a coherent web of meaning?

When we look at the Gospels, part of Jesus’ work of salvation was to expand the minds and hearts of all. He invited people to a ‘metanoia’ or a new mind that would be deeper and wider than old perspectives. Jesus’ healing of blindness is an example of this invitation to see reality more expansively (Mark 8:22-26; John 9:1-12). Also with his parables, Jesus invited people to engage with truth and meaning through stories that often challenged people to push back the boundary of their horizons that were too limiting and exclusive.

For Paul, faith in Christ bestows God’s wisdom which is a participation in his way of seeing. As ‘God has made Christ our wisdom’ (1 Cor. 1:30), Paul prays that ‘the faithful may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding’ (Col. 1:9). All who believe in Christ receive this spirit of wisdom and perception ‘to enlighten the eyes of your mind’ (Eph. 1:17-18). For early Christianity, this enlightenment by faith included a recognition of Christ’s role in the creation of the universe. Jesus Christ was sent by the Father to inhabit the world ‘that had its being through him’ (John 1:10). For Paul, Jesus was the cosmic Christ for ‘in him all things were created and in him all things hold together’ (Col. 1:17). With this profound insight, Paul connected faith in Christ with all reality - ‘things in heaven and things on earth’ (Col. 1:20). He invites Christians to see reality in its totality through the eyes of faith. This has profound implications. While most of us think of Christianity as having to do with Jesus and ‘human stuff’, here Paul suggests that Christianity speaks to all dimensions of reality – the physical, chemical, biological, the human, spiritual, religious, psychological, etc. But how do we ‘take in’ all these dimensions? For this to happen we need the paired faculties of reason and imagination which lead us closer to faith.

The reconciliation between reason and imagination in the mind of C.S. Lewis led him to faith in God. For the great writer, a key symptom of the 20th century crisis was a paralysing split between reason and imagination – a split he first noticed in his own mind: ‘The two hemispheres of my mind were in the sharpest contrast. On the one side a many-islanded sea of poetry and myth; on the other a glib and shallow rationalism’ (Surprised by Joy). In his poem called ‘Reason’, Lewis wonders aloud how this dilemma in his mind could be solved: ‘Oh who will reconcile in me both maid and mother’ where ‘imagination's dim exploring touch’ could ‘report the same as intellectual sight?’ For Lewis, the reconciliation between reason and imagination was the key to faith: ‘Then could I truly say, and not deceive, then wholly say, that I believe’. As we know from Lewis’ story, this reconciliation happily occurred and moved him from atheism to faith and being one of the greatest Christian apologists of the 20th century. The ‘maid and mother’ he speaks of in the poem turns out to be not two people but the same woman, namely Mary the mother of Christ in whom he sees the harmonisation of both our rational and imaginative powers. This was the breakthrough for Lewis’ dilemma – how he did not have to dismiss either his reason or imagination but accept both as gifts from God, given to comprehend truth and meaning. For him, Christianity made rational and imaginative sense for ‘reason is the natural organ of truth but imagination is the organ of meaning’ (Rehabilitations and other essays). For Lewis, everyone is gifted with the faculties of reason and a ‘baptized imagination’ (Surprised by Joy) that makes us more likely to accept Christianity as harmonious with our experience of the universe we inhabit.

Before hearing the Gospel at Mass we make the sign of the cross on our heads, lips and hearts. With this simple but profound gesture, we invoke the Holy Spirit to anoint our heads, our hearts and our speech as we hear God’s Word. The gesture expresses the truth that the Gospel speaks to both head and heart, to reason and imagination in ways that can, with God’s grace, lead to faith. The love of God and love of science are compatible for both faith and reason ‘are the wings on which the human spirit can rise and discover the truth’ (John Paul II, Fides et Ratio, Preface). Reason alone does not and cannot give us exclusive access to the truth. In the words of former atheist Alister McGrath, ‘faith reaches out to where reason points and does not limit itself at where reason stops’ (Mere Apologetics). As Patrick Kavanagh would say, faith takes us out through ‘the hole in reason’s ceiling’ where we can better grasp the reality and meaning of our beautiful enchanting universe and be led to discover and contemplate its beautiful enchanting Creator.

About the Author

Fr. Billy Swan

Fr. Billy Swan

Fr. Billy Swan is a priest of the Diocese of Ferns, Ireland. He holds a degree in chemistry and worked for a number of y...

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