Reconciling Faith and Reason

“What frightened me was the logic of the world; in it lay the foretaste of something incalculably powerful.” -Osamu Dazai

“That monumental grace / Of Faith, which doth all passions tame / That Reason should control” -William Wordsworth, The Russian Fugitive

In today’s society, the concepts of faith and reason are often perceived as contradictory. As Benjamin Franklin once said, “The way to see by faith is to shut the eye of reason.” This view is especially prominent on the college campus. Upon leaving home (and often the strict supervision of religious parents), an abundance of Christian students either enter a state of spiritual ambiguity or fall away from their faith. Why? Many may claim they have come to realize faith is simply irrational. Faith is doubt-ridden and intangible, and belief in a God that cannot be immediately substantiated by propositional evidence appears preposterous. Reason, grounded in logic, renders faith an ephemeral illusion, like a frail butterfly rapidly blown away by a strong gust of wind, leaving one to wonder whether it was truly there in the first place. Thus, in the minds of many students reason quickly usurps faith, indicating a mutual exclusivity between the two. However, is this dichotomy truly well-founded? Are faith and reason genuinely irreconcilable?

Let us begin by defining faith and reason. Generally, reason can be defined as the principles for a methodological inquiry, under a presumption of some kind of analytical demonstrability. Thus, by demonstrating an assertion, one verifies it as authoritative or true. Faith, on the other hand, is a mindset of trust or agreement, involving a stance toward some claim that is not presently confirmable by propositional observation. Religious faith in particular indicates belief in the transcendent—which, for most of the present discussion, refers to the Christian God.[1] Biblically, faith is defined as “confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.”[2] It is noteworthy that in both definitions of faith mentioned, there involves a certain element that extends beyond human perception.

This transcendent nature of faith often perturbs us; we do not like admitting belief in anything that lacks factual corroboration. We desire evidence, and wish to judge the validity of claims based on the sufficiency of that evidence. There exists a strong notion that if we cannot gather demonstrative proof of a deity, then we should not believe in one. This evidentialist pattern of thought is best summed up in the words of nineteenth-century British mathematician and philosopher W.K. Clifford: “It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.”[3] Many Christians may refute Clifford’s assertion by claiming there is ample indication of God’s existence to justify faith. However, both of these contentions are operating on a common premise—they both assume that evidence is necessary to justify a rational faith. Analytic philosopher Alvin Plantinga questions this presupposition by asking, “Why should we think a theist must have evidence, or reason to think there is evidence, if he is not to be irrational? Why not suppose, instead, that he is entirely within his epistemic rights in believing in God’s existence even if he has no argument or evidence at all?”[4] His question proposes that contrary to the evidentialists’ understanding, evidence is not a fundamental element for rational belief. Philosophy professor Ronald H. Nash clarifies Plantinga’s proposition by pointing out the two major problems of evidentialism. For one thing, “There are countless things that we believe (and believe properly, justifiably, and rationally) without proof or evidence.”[5] One example given by Nash involves our belief in the continuation of the world even after our deaths despite the fact that our perception ceases. If we chose to believe only claims substantiated by propositional evidence, we would lose a great many beliefs that are inherently undoubtable by a sound mind. Secondly, to state every claim needs to be evidentially proven is self-contradictory, for that itself is an allegation that is without propositional evidence. This predicament reveals that “Either evidentialism is false, or it fails the evidentialist’s own test of rationality.”[6] There certainly is information to support belief in the existence of God, but this belief does not need that information for justification. Thus, a rational belief may not fundamentally require any propositional evidence at all.

We can now see that faith may not require the kind of demonstrative proof that many believe it does. Faith could be perfectly valid and rational without propositional evidence. But is faith valid without reason? To what extent does faith require reason?

It is apparent that faith completely devoid of reason may lead to superstition and prejudice. This idea is promulgated in Pope John Paul II’s encyclical letter Fides et Ratio: “It is an illusion to think that faith, tied to weak reasoning, might be more penetrating; on the contrary, faith then runs the grave risk of withering into myth or superstition.”[7] A faith uncorroborated by reason could lead us to stubbornly clench on to our beliefs rather than embrace our faith with an open mind. Such a faith takes on an appearance very similar to that of superstitious fear. Importantly, this prejudiced mindset is opposed by Biblical teachings, which command us to supplement our “faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love.”[8] We should yield to knowledge, for it is meant to strengthen our faith. It is also important to note that we are called to be steadfast, but not obstinate. The difference lies in the fact that steadfastness, despite not wavering under mere circumstantial changes, still maintains an open temperament while obstinacy remains thoroughly unyielding, ignoring instead of addressing all cogent objections that are brought before it. Ironically, in contrast to the previously mentioned obstinacy, faith without reason could also become precariously volatile. Such a faith could rely too strongly on emotion and experience, both which vary widely amongst individuals. A faith so strongly rooted in sentiment coupled with a lack of reason could become erratic, directly correlating with the emotional state of the individual. Consequently, faith becomes a matter analogous to personal opinion, and “[runs] the risk of no longer being a universal proposition.”[9] Reason is necessary in faith in order to procure knowledge, and to avoid the risks of superstition, prejudice, obstinacy, and volatility.

On the other hand, and particularly in the Christian tradition, faith is more essential to reason than reason is to faith. At first, reason often seems capable of standing on its own. Reason appears to keep everything in pristine order—it is logical, intelligible, and gives us a sense of control. However, one must remember that reason is confined to, as stated earlier, methodological inquiry and algorithmic demonstrability; it deals solely with the mechanical and numerical. These are all very useful for approaching and handling the particulars of material observation, but there lacks an absolute standard for forming moral judgment. Thus, reason without faith leads to moral relativism. When operating under guidelines derived from faith, reason can be used to determine “good” from “evil”, and “right” from “wrong.” However, without faith, everything is reduced to relative terms. There is no simple “right” or “wrong,” and thus all our reasonable judgments lack a real standard. The significance of maintaining an absolute standard lies in the fact that there are no degrees of relative reasoning; there is only the wholly relative. In the case of the wholly relative, we have no true right to be indignant towards anything at all—not even the most obvious atrocities or moral wrongs.[10] It is faith that provides the perspective from which reason should be applied—it is the anchor that keeps reason from drifting outside universal principle into the realms of individual perception.

In these ways, one is able to see why faith and reason are essential to each other. However, albeit both indispensable, faith ultimately occupies a higher place than reason in Christianity. This can be interpreted from Scripture: “But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.”[11] It can be seen in this verse that Christians are called to supplement faith with reason, in order to elucidate our faith to the secular world. Nevertheless, it is essential to take note that faith is the main entity, while reason acts as the supplement. Faith is guarded by reason. While both are requisite, reason is also merely a guard. Generally, a guarded entity is always, to some degree, more significant than the guard. Faith is above reason in that there is an aspect of faith much beyond reason, so that “faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power.”[12] Accordingly, reason can also be the way by which one discovers faith. An individual, upon discovering the guard, realizes that there must be something beyond being guarded. For if the guarded did not exist, then the guard ceases to have a purpose, and becomes meaningless. In the words of seventeenth-century French mathematician Blaise Pascal, “Reason’s last step is the recognition that there are an infinite number of things which are beyond it. It is merely feeble if it does not go as far as to realize that.”[13]

Faith is the way it is because it has a transrational characteristic; without it, faith simply becomes a disinterested rational belief. Such indifferent confidence leaves no room for one of the most important aspects of faith—hope. Without hope, genuine faith can no longer exist, “For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have?”[14] Nineteenth-century Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard calls this belief in the transrational a “qualitative leap.”[15] Kierkegaard has said, “If I am able to apprehend God objectively, I do not have faith; but because I cannot do this, I must have faith. If I want to keep myself in faith, I must continually see to it that I hold fast the objective uncertainty, see to it that in the objective uncertainty I am ‘out on 70,000 fathoms of water’ and still have faith.”[16] It is hope and uncertainty that keep the flames of faith alive, and away from fading into the ashes apathetic belief. Nonetheless, the incomprehensibility of faith is far from rendering it irrational or unreasonable.[17] Transrational is not equivalent to irrational—“believing against understanding”[18] is not believing nonsense. According to Kierkegaard, the Christian believer “cannot believe nonsense against the understanding, which one might fear, because the understanding will penetratingly perceive that it is nonsense and hinder him in believing it.”[19] Rather, a Christian “uses the understanding so much that through it he becomes aware of the incomprehensible.”[20]

Perhaps a way to illustrate the relationship between faith and reason is to use the metaphor of a painting a picture. Reason involves the mechanics: blending the paints into the correct colors and using the proper painting techniques. Faith, on the other hand, is artist’s intent to create an image. Without the proper techniques and hues, the painter’s creation is unintelligible to everyone but himself. However, as the painting still carries intrinsic value for the painter, he will vehemently exclaim that his painting portrays a meaningful image. It is obvious he is trying to convey something, but no one quite understands what. His faith is very much personal, but cannot be understood by others. No matter how staunchly he defends it, it does not have any value for the rest of the world, save for a potential select few that think in a way extremely similar to the artist himself. On the other hand, if the painter paints without the purpose of creating an image, the precision of his brushstrokes and the perfect hues he blends on his palette will only descend into oblivion upon his canvas. His painting, albeit maybe beautiful, amounts to nothing—it is utterly absurd and devoid of true meaning to all its viewers, including the painter himself, even if it is visually stunning.

In the end, is it truly reason that renders faith disposable on so many college campuses? Up until quite recently, it was assumed that the conflict in the minds of students was truly between faith and reason. But how many students have truly fallen away from their faith because they found themselves being torn away by a logical, compelling and elucidating philosophical argument? If students were to be honest, with others and with themselves, perhaps they would see that disagreement often does not lie between faith and reason, but rather faith and sight. It is the senses, rather than the reasons, that becomes the grounds for disbelief, grounds that would not stand for a second under the scrutiny of genuine reason. The Bible declares that Christians “live by faith, not by sight.”[21] Notice the antithesis is not between faith and reason, but faith and sight. In the end, perhaps we are simply afraid of what it means to live a life coram deo. It is as C.S. Lewis says:

Reason may win truths; without Faith she will retain them just so long as Satan pleases. There is nothing we cannot be made to believe or disbelieve. If we wish to be rational, not now and then, but constantly, we must pray for the gift of Faith, for the power to go on believing not in the teeth of reason, but in the teeth of lust and terror and jealousy and boredom and indifference that which reason, authority, or experience, or all three, have once delivered to us for truth.[22]

 

1 Swindal, James. “Faith and Reason.” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. N.d. Web. 24 Sept. 2016.

2 Hebrews 11:1, NIV

3 Clifford, William K. Readings in the Philosophy of Religion. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1974. 246. Print.

4 Plantinga, Alvin, and Nicholas Wolterstorff. Faith and Rationality: Reason and Belief in God. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1983. 30. Print

5 Nash, Ronald H. Faith and Reason. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1988. 73. Print.

6 Ibid.

7 John, Paul. Faith and Reason: Encyclical Letter Fides Et Ratio of the Supreme Pontiff John Paul Ii on the Relationship between Faith and Reason. Sherbrooke [Québec]: Médiaspaul, 1998. Print.

8 2 Peter 1:5-7, NIV

9 John, Paul. Faith and Reason: Encyclical Letter Fides Et Ratio of the Supreme Pontiff John Paul Ii on the Relationship between Faith and Reason. Sherbrooke [Québec]: Médiaspaul, 1998. Print.

10 Westacott, Emrys. “Moral Relativism.” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. N.d. Web. 24 Sept. 2016.

11 1 Peter 3:15, NIV

12 2 Corinthians 2:5, NIV

13 Pascal, Blaise. Penseés. London: Penguin Group, 1995. 56. Print.

14 Romans 8:24, NIV

15 Kierkegaard, Søren. A Kierkegaard Anthology. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1946. 384. Print.

16 Kierkegaard, Søren. A Kierkegaard Anthology. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1946. 204. Print.

17 Amesbury, Richard, “Fideism”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)

18 Popkin, Richard H. “Fideism, Quietism, and Unbelief: Skepticism For and Against Religion in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries.” Faith, Reason, and Skepticism. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1992. 568. Print.

19Ibid.

20 Ibid.

21 2 Corinthians 5:7, NIV

22 Lewis, Clive S. “Religion: Reality or Substitute?” Christian Reflections. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1967. 43. Print.

 

Sarah Liu is a Sophomore from Brookfield, Wisconsin majoring in English and hopefully French. She likes smelling books, drinking tea, and taking long walks.

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