Faith and Reason

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The relationship between faith and reason is a topic that has interested many thinkers in the Western Christian Tradition for centuries. Faith and reason represent two fundamentally different types of truth and ways of obtaining knowledge. The former gives humans knowledge of salvation, the ultimate meaning of life, and the nature of God as He is in Himself via divine revelation, while the later elicit knowledge of this world, and at least some aspects of human nature via discursive thought.[1] There are three general stances one might take in navigating this relation (these are by no means exhaustive). I shall call these stances the anti-intellectual stance, the both-and stance, and the intellectual stance.

The Three Stances

The anti-intellectual stance imposes a hard divide between faith and reason and pits the one against the other and supports faith as the superior of the two. Towards the end of the second century, Tertullian famously asked, “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?”[2] This is one of the more famous formulations of the anti-intellectual stance. Faith in Tertullian’s estimation was synonymous with salvation, happiness, and blessedness while reason could only sully faith by its intellectual designs that try to pull faith down to the human realm and make it fit in the human mind.

The both-and route seeks to show that there is a harmony and connection between faith and reason even though the two forms of knowledge have different scopes and elicit different truths. One representative of this route would be Thomas Aquinas.[3] The intellectual route seeks to show that human reason can “understand everything and leave no mysteries unresolved.”[4] Thus this route is the opposite of the anti-intellectual route and judges anything outside of reason as ungrounded and unworthy of assent. Many writers, thinkers, and scientists throughout history have taken this stance and many still do today. In this column, I will defend the both-and way of structuring the relationship between faith and reason.

Faith and No Reason

 The anti-intellectual stance is characterized by a lack of trust at best and positive hostility at worst towards reason. The rationale behind this position is that reason is a this-worldly power, specifically, it is a power inherent in human nature. However, human nature has been corrupted by the Fall and is susceptible to a plethora of confusions and temptations. Therefore, we cannot rely upon reason to give us any veritable knowledge of God, salvation, happiness, or the good life in general. The weakness of the human constitution precludes our ability to have confidence in reason’s declarations. We must, therefore, rely solely upon faith to guide our lives in right action and right belief.

There is at least one major flaw in this way of framing the relationship between faith and reason. It is self-defeating. The entire argument outlined above is a rational argument. Nowhere in any of Christ’s teachings does he say anything close to the position above. If then, the anti-intellectual stance is not a stance given to us by faith, then it must be a product of reason. But if it is a product of reason, then it cannot be true because, as the anti-intellectualists say, reason is weak and corrupt and cannot be relied upon to elicit veritable information about faith including the truth that faith is superior to reason and thus reason is not to be trusted. To follow anti-intellectualism is to cease to be an anti-intellectual.

Reason and No Faith

 The intellectual position is the contrary of the anti-intellectual position. Its contention is that reason itself possess the means necessary for understanding all one needs to know regarding salvation, God, and happiness. Typically, proponents of this view are hostile to or at least skeptical of faith. Oftentimes this result from the intellectuals seeing faith as something paradoxical or contrary to the scope and goals of rational discourse. On this view, faith is seen to be a wish or a will to believe something against or in spite of evidence or a strong probability to the contrary.

In response to this view, Bishop Fulton Sheen noted that faith is not a will or a wish to believe contrary to the evidence. Faith is the acceptance of truth based upon the authority of the truth-giver. If the truth-giver is divine, then we have an unbreakable guarantee that what we have been told is in fact true. There are many examples of such cases in our everyday lives. We seek advice from doctors, lawyers, scientists, mechanics about things most of us know little or nothing about. It is not irrational to take the advice of such experts. How irrational would it be then to take the advice of God?

Faith and Reason

However, if we are given truth by a divine truth-giver it would seem then that we ourselves have no recourse for verification. After all, we can do our own research and study as well as we’re able to verify the information of our fellow human experts. But how does one begin to verify truths allegedly given to us by God? As Christ says in John 14:11, we can believe Him based on His authority or we can also believe Him based upon the works that He has wrought. In other words, miracles provide evidence for our rational faculties that what is being said by a divine truth-giver is in fact true. Demanding a sign is a hallmark of a divine stamp of approval in the Old Testament as well. If a prophet was unable to produce some kind of sign to show that God was with him, then he would not be believed or followed.

There is also another way we can “verify” or at least defend the rationality of truths given by faith. We can examine these truths to see if they accord with what Thomas Aquinas called the “preambles to faith.” These preambles are truths about God, human nature, and morality that are knowable by reason alone. For Aquinas, the preambles of faith include, proof of the existence of God, the immateriality of the human soul, a detailed account of moral goodness and badness and so on. If the truths we are given to believe by faith are in accord with these preambles then we have good reason to believe the declarations of faith and vice versa.

Conclusion

Perhaps an analogy would prove useful. Consider a telescope that picks up gamma rays. Human eyes on their own are not equipped to detect gamma rays. But, through the aid of a gamma-ray telescope, the eyes can go “beyond” their natural capacities and see gamma rays. The gamma rays themselves are not paradoxical to the eyes though they are inaccessible to the eyes. Once seen by the eyes the person can now defend the truth of what has been seen without having to presuppose that what has been seen, namely gamma rays, can be seen with the naked eye. So it is with faith. The eyes represent reason which can only understand so much about God and happiness on its own. The telescope represents faith which allows us to come into contact and relationship with God, who is beyond, but not paradoxical to the powers of reason. Reason can then make a case for faith without bringing the whole of faith within its grasp. There is much more that could be said to develop this particular both-and stance of faith. However, that would require much more time and space to develop.

As. St. Anselm said, “Faith seeks understanding.” As I hope to have shown or at least made plausible, a proper understanding of faith and its relation to reason is not one of paradox, but rather one of both points of contact and of transcendence. To understand faith and its relation to reason in such a way makes it possible to answer the charges discussed above. It also seems to make it possible to defend faith using reason without presupposing that the whole of faith can be understood and explained by reason. And that seems to be exactly what a faithful believer should be able to do, namely, to “be ready to render an account of the hope within.”[5]

[1] John Bishop, “Faith,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, (2016), http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2016/entries/faith/.

[2]Tertullian, The Prescription Against Heretics, ed., Kevin Knight, trans., Peter Holmes, (Buffalo: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1885), http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0311.htm.

[3] ST I q.2 a.2 reply obj.1. Aquinas says that reason provides preambles upon which faith builds and exceeds.  

[4] Merold Westphal, Kierkegaard’s Concept of Faith (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Erdmans Publishing Co., 2014), 86.

[5] 1 Peter 3:15.

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2 thoughts on “Faith and Reason”

  1. — Great Article Christian …
    — It is very clear to me now …
    — I have seen articles on the Reasons rather that Faith to aid in the spread of the Illuminate eras of the 14 and 15 centuries ..
    — I have always had trouble tying these two together…

  2. fine article. Perhaps the best statement on faith and reason was given by Pope St. John Paul II:

    “Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth; and God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth—in a word, to know himself—so that, by knowing and loving God, men and women may also come to the fullness of truth about themselves (cf. Ex 33:18; Ps 27:8-9; 63:2-3; Jn 14:8; 1 Jn 3:2).”–Fides et Ratio

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