Faith and Reason – Which to Choose

If repetition is the mother of all learning, as theologian Thomas Aquinas famously said, then preparation is the father of success. Slow, steady application of what we learn ensures a positive result. Aquinas was one of the most influential medieval thinkers and the founder of the Thomistic school of theology. According to his biography, his revolutionary view was that reason and faith were compatible. Not only were they compatible they could work in collaboration: Aquinas believed that revelation could guide reason and prevent it from making mistakes, while reason could clarify and demystify faith.

Conflicts between your intuitive and rational functions can be resolved when you let them work together to create solutions, as opposed to seeing them as adversaries. Intuition often feels exasperated by rationality’s restriction, much like you feel when someone challenges what is obvious to you. If you are not conscious of doubt’s value, however, critics who upset you are mirroring your own misgivings. On the other hand, when you are overly rational you reject unusual ways of looking at a problem because it is unproven. Then you miss out on opportunities that can change your own and others’ lives for the better.

The See Saw Between Opposites

You will probably swing from one extreme to the other during your lifetime, from doubt to faith, hopefulness to despair, and then back again until you reach equilibrium, the balance Aquinas offered to his times. Again, repetition is vital to learning, just as adequate preparation minimizes defeat. Each time we lose hope, we can modify our objectives and try again. Each time we persevere through doubt, we can build on that achievement.

For example, think back to a time when you took on more than you could handle and then suffered a great loss, emotionally and financially. What warning did you overlook? Were you following the lead of someone you thought knew more than you? Were you longing to escape from current difficulties, too eager to slow down and check the facts?

If you were not prepared to deal with the consequences of what impatience set in motion you are not alone. Millions of people were devastated by the aftermath of the financial meltdown that began in 2007. A global tragedy could have been prevented had reason overruled buyers’ and bankers’ irrational enthusiasm. The black humor of the movie “The Big Short” describes how blind faith (and greed) led to a worldwide collapse that destroyed many lives. Like the only non-drinkers at a wild party, the honest characters in the movie were up against mass collusion and denial. Paradoxically, their down to earth viewpoint made them wealthy.

Craving Versus Need

Craving rather than genuine need is often the reason why many of us fall prey to quick and easy solutions. For example, overly optimistic buyers lured into home ownership by interest only payments ignored the cost that would eventually come due. In theory, home ownership leads to more stability, which is why tax law allows for interest deductions that encourage buyers. But ultimately, stability that lasts comes from within, not from what we own.

How can you tell the difference between craving and need, between what will never satisfy, and what will work? Compare the loss you experienced above with a time when faith and reason worked together to bring about a happy ending. What did you do differently in each case? Pay particular attention to what you thought you had to have, instead of what you needed. What did each event teach you about yourself?

Gretchen’s Story

One of my clients wrote about two such events in her life, one where reason’s need to be certain held her back, and one where faith and reason were included before she made a decision. Gretchen’s first example revealed her tendency to defer to authority figures. This kept her in a supporting role, and it also provided relief from the anxiety she felt when she took the lead.

“I let someone less experienced take over a project and then I had to pick up the pieces,” Gretchen said when we discussed her assignment. “I wasn’t aware until you mentioned it that my anxiety about making a mistake checked my intuition. In the second example I made the first move and it worked out well. I remembered you saying that if I bear with anxiety until it passes I’ll see discomfort as a normal part of growth, not something to avoid at all costs.”

“And when you got to the other side of anxiety you were glad you didn’t waver,” I said. “That’s how faith increases: the crucible of doubt hones our character.”

Gretchen said she also realized she was afraid to feel powerful feelings because she felt out of control.

“The irony is that by taking control you reduced the anxiety,” I said. “The truth is you do not like to follow, incompetence enrages you, and that feeling told you to stop turning power over to others.”

Gretchen said she was relieved to know that lack of confidence was the source of her ambivalence.

“I see now that being the authority scared me. It’s such a responsible place to be. Far easier to step back and let someone else take the heat,” Gretchen said. “But then I’m furious with the outcome.”

“Well, that’s the best reason I can think of to take control,” I said, and we both laughed.

Achieving Balance

Focusing on what you can control is a rational decision, since it excludes what is beyond your power to change. It is also a statement of faith, since when you solve your problems you believe others can do the same. Aquinas was a modest man who spent his lifetime thinking about the questions that fascinated him until he came up with a thesis that included the value of faith and reason. We can all benefit from his dedication and wisdom, allowing faith to inspire reason, and reason to ground our faith in reality.

Nancy Anderson is a career and life consultant based in the Sacramento/San Francisco Bay Area and the author of the best selling career guide, Work with Passion, How to Do What You Love For a Living, and Work with Passion and Beyond, Reach Your Full Potential and Make the Money You Need. Her website is

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