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Faith and reason: two wings to knowing truth


By Dr Ryan Messmore

WHAT’S a four-letter word for a freshwater fish whose second letter is “a”?  Take five seconds and fill in the answer on the top row of the crossword puzzle (going across).

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Now for the far right column (going down): What’s a four letter word meaning “meat from a pig”?

Chances are, you feel pretty confident that the second word is “pork.” But there’s also a chance that you thought the first word across was “bass” or “barb,” neither of which would work with “pork”.  

What would you do then?  

If you would go back and try to think of another freshwater fish whose second letter is “a”—and whose fourth letter is “p”—you’d be on the right track.  

In fact, “carp” fits perfectly.    

Dr Rick Ostrander claims that crossword puzzles show us how a great deal of knowledge actually works.  

I believe those lessons can also help us understand Pope John Paul II’s claim that, “Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth.”

In today’s culture, faith and reason seem to make strange bedfellows. 

The modern wall separating the two has emerged, in part, from a misunderstanding of how knowing occurs.  

On one side of the wall stands reason, which is held to be neutral and disinterested.  

Many assume that cold, hard reason gathers information and organises it in a straightforward, strictly logical manner, without being contaminated by personal convictions or desires.   

On the other side of the wall stands faith, which is held to be the softer realm of values and beliefs.  

If the reason side concerns truth, the faith side has to do with goodness and beauty.  If the former deals with logical deduction of facts, the latter deals with subjective judgments based on intuition, tradition, and authority.

But is this wall valid?  

Does the reasoning process actually work this way?  

Consider the crossword puzzle above.  

For many, knowledge of the final answer likely came through an intuition—a hunch—in which they place increased confidence as it fit with other proposed answers.  

Intuition. Hunches. Confidence.  

These factors play an important role in knowledge, whether we’re seeking to know how to solve a crossword puzzle, change a flat tire, discern the meaning of a poem or discover a cure for cancer.  

We begin with an educated guess and then see if it fits with larger patterns of meaning and takes us where we want to go.

St Augustine had a phrase for this fundamental human venture: credo ut intelligam (“I believe in order to know”).  

This is not faith opposed to reason, but faith seeking understanding.  

Here reason isn’t detached, disinterested or neutral logic, nor is faith blind belief or mere superstition.  

Knowing happens as we search for and evaluate reasons for holding premises that we accepted on faith, trust, or authority. 

This should give citizens confidence about the legitimacy of reasoning about faith convictions in the public square.  

And it should challenge all universities to be honest and explicit about the faith commitments upon which their rationality relies.

The conviction that faith and reason are two wings that lift us to truth underpins a new initiative I direct called the Millis Institute (Brisbane).  

We offer fully-accredited tertiary courses in how to think critically, communicate effectively, and understand the world from a Christian faith perspective.  

Students can pursue a one-year Diploma, a two-year or three-year Bachelor of Arts in the Liberal Arts degree, and a five-week study abroad opportunity in Oxford.  

To find out how to apply directly to the Millis Institute, visit  Dr Ryan Messmore

Dr Ryan Messmore is the director of the Millis Institute Brisbane. Before moving to Brisbane, Dr Messmore served as president of Campion College, a Catholic liberal arts college in Sydney. Messmore received his bachelor’s degree in public policy and religion from Duke University. He holds master’s degrees in theology and Christian ethics from Duke Divinity School and Cambridge University. He received his doctorate in political theology from Oxford University.


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