WelCom News
A newspaper for the Wellington and Palmerston North Catholic Dioceses

Faith and reason in limbo

Andrew Hamilton SJ

It is coincidental that the Pope has received simultaneous media attention for his views on faith and reason, and for his alleged plans to decommission Limbo. But the history of Limbo does illuminate troubling aspects of the relationship between faith and reason.

Limbo is less a place than a halt on the line of questions that enquiring minds have asked about faith. These questions are provoked by the New Testament conviction that Jesus Christ is the Saviour of the whole world, and that the basis of salvation is our acceptance of Christ through faith and baptism. Early Christians were led periodically to ask about the salvation of virtuous Jews, like Abraham and Moses, who lived before Christ, and of babies who die before they can be baptised.

In the West, these questions became urgent when entangled with a wider debate about salvation. Theologians asked whether we are saved by Christ’s gift alone, or by living decent lives. St Augustine said that salvation is by God’s gift alone, and that we depend on grace even for our good actions.

His opponents, mainly moral reformers, argued in response that if we rely entirely on God’s gift for our salvation, God becomes responsible for deciding who will receive this gift and who is to be saved. God must also be responsible for deciding who is to be damned. This seems unjust.

Augustine replied that God does decide who is to be saved, but that it is not unjust for God to save only some people from damnation. When Adam sinned, he was rightly condemned. All human beings inherited his guilt, and so are justly condemned with him. Salvation is a pure gift, to which issues of justice are irrelevant.

Augustine found confirmation for his position in the African practice of baptising babies. They were baptised because otherwise they would not be saved. But Augustine conceded that the punishment of unbaptised babies would be of the mildest kind.

This account was generally accepted, but provoked periodic unease because it seemed very harsh. Some suggested that babies would be spared the punishment of fire, and would suffer only the pain of the loss of God. Others saw this to be a purely verbal concession, like the recent distinction between torture and hard interrogation.

Later reflection on the relationship between faith and reason led to a less harsh theory. It distinguished between what we could say about human nature and human destiny on the basis of reflection, and what we learned through revelation. It argued that human beings were made for natural happiness. But through Christ, we were also given a gift beyond our natural capacity – to share in God’s life.

Unbaptised babies, then, could enjoy a natural happiness that would completely fulfil their human desires. But they would neither enjoy, nor miss, the added gift of seeing God. This theoretical construct became a place, Limbo. The theory later fell out of favour with the Reformers, who saw in it an inappropriate intrusion of speculative reason into faith.

This potted history shows Christian thinkers working systematically at the implications of faith. It also suggests that this conjunction of faith and reason does not always work happily. It now seems incredible that theories which demand that unbaptised babies are consigned to hell, and that God predestines some people to damnation, should ever have seemed consistent with either human or divine goodness.

What is missing in this theological use of reason is an imagination grounded in ordinary humanity and, in the case of Christians, in the humanity of Christ, the criterion for our knowledge of God. Once you imagine concretely infants tormented forever by fire or by the pain of loss, you cannot but reject as morally and theologically indecent any account of God’s gift that demands such a fate.

Yet, it is common for reason, even when joined to faith, to rest happily in such theories. No less than United States legislators who sanctioned the use of torture under other names, devout Christians, are liable to seduction by the logic of their arguments.

The conjunction of faith and reason may bless society. But a humane imagination, which measures theories about faith and about policy alike by their human implications, is as necessary a gift. And a humane imagination is sometimes joined to, sometimes separated from, religious faith.