The False Opposition of Faith and ReasonJune 15, 2009
Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval. By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible.
By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain’s. Through this he received approval as righteous, God himself giving approval to his gifts; he died, but through his faith he still speaks. By faith Enoch was taken so that he did not experience death; and “he was not found, because God had taken him.” For it was attested before he was taken away that “he had pleased God.” And without faith it is impossible to please God, for whoever would approach him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him. By faith Noah, warned by God about events as yet unseen, respected the warning and built an ark to save his household; by this he condemned the world and became an heir to the righteousness that is in accordance with faith. By faith …
PAUL TILLICH SAID that “faith” is the most misunderstood word in the Christian vocabulary. If that assessment is true, we Christians are in some serious trouble, for faith stands at the very heart of our program. Thomas Aquinas said that faith is the door that gives access to the divine life. Without it, neither the church, nor the sacraments, nor the liturgy, nor the moral life make any sense. Moreover, on the biblical reading, salvation history is nothing other than the journey in faith undertaken by a series of figures from Abraham to Jesus and beyond. If we’re murky in regard to the meaning of faith, that entire narrative becomes unintelligible.
So, what is faith? How should we understand this absolutely indispensable concept? A good place to start is the eleventh chapter of the letter to the Hebrews, where we find this definition: “Faith is confident assurance concerning what we hope for, the conviction of things not seen.”
The “conviction of things not seen” are also echoed in these words from St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 2:6-13 about the wisdom of eternal life:
“The true wisdom of eternal life is the contemplation of the profundities of God, which the Spirit of God alone knows and of which, through faith and in faith, God causes a mysterious knowledge to come down upon us when we have reached the perfect age of the Christian.
We do, however, speak a message of wisdom among the mature, but not the wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing. No, we speak of God’s secret wisdom, a wisdom that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began. None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. However, as it is written:
‘No eye has seen,
no ear has heard,
no mind has conceived
what God has prepared for those who love him’
But God has revealed it to us by his Spirit.”
We glean from this description that faith is a straining ahead toward realities which are, at best, only dimly glimpsed. It is, necessarily, a walk in the darkness. But we also notice that faith is anything but a craven, hand-wringing, unsure business, for it is “confident” and marked by “conviction” and “assurance.” Consider for a moment great figures of faith from Jacob and Joseph to Mother Teresa and John Paul II: these are hardly people that you’d be tempted to characterize as vacillating and unclear in their motivations. For faith, there is always a paradox of obscurity of vision and strength of purpose.
It is this paradox that the philosophers of modernity couldn’t bear. They tended to see reason alone as the legitimate ground for confidence, and so they saw a resolute faith as a species of foolishness or irrationality. The English philosopher John Locke gave pithy expression to this typically modern sense when he said that there should be a tight relationship between inference (cogent argument) and assent (acknowledging something to be true). If these two moves of the mind are separated — as they seem to be in people of faith — obscurantism and fanaticism follow. It is fascinating to note how often, in the wake of the events of September 11, this Lockcan argument has been reproposed. In the face of the dangers of religious extremism, many commentators are saying, give us cautious and skeptical people of reason rather than superstitious people of faith, willing to act with utter conviction despite the lack of any compelling evidence.
Faith is this “mysterious knowledge” that Paul refers to above that God “causes to come down upon us when we have reached the perfect age of the Christian.” Could anything be in any greater opposition to the Lockean proposition above? John Paul II in Fides et Ratio comments on a twofold order of knowledge that the gift of faith creates within us, this “mysterious knowledge:”
“The First Vatican Council teaches then, that the truth attained by philosophy and the truth of revelation are neither identical nor mutually exclusive: “There exists a twofold order of knowledge, distinct not only as regards their source, but also as regards their object. With regard to the source, because we know in one by natural reason, in the other by divine faith. With regard to the object, because besides those things which natural reason can attain, there are proposed for our belief mysteries hidden in God, which, unless they are divinely revealed, cannot be known. Based on God’s testimony and enjoying the supernatural assistance of grace, faith is of an order other than philosophical knowledge which depends upon sense perceptions and experience and which advances by the light of the intellect alone. Philosophy and the sciences function within the order of natural reason; while faith, enlightened and guided by the Spirit, recognizes in the message of salvation the “fullness of grace and truth” that echoes from John 1:14: “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”
Are we simply at an impasse, then, between faith and reason? Does the definition of faith in the letter to the Hebrews hook us on the horns of a hopeless dilemma? One of the most insightful explorers of the relationship between faith and reason was John Henry Newman, and in many ways, his work in this area was an attempt to expose Locke’s modern dilemma as false. Newman was writing at a time — the mid-nineteenth century — when the Christian churches were coming under withering attack from philosophers, social theorists, and especially scientists. Newman’s rejoinder to the critics of Christianity was a subtle form of what the logicians call a tu quoque (you do it, too) argument.
In his masterpiece The Grammar of Assent, Newman showed how even the most ordinary forms of reasoning involve something akin to faith. Why, to use Newman’s famous example, does someone claim that England is an island? He does so on the basis of a collection of pieces of evidence from a wide variety of sources, very few of which could be directly or empirically verified, He has to consult maps (the accuracy of which he must take on faith); he has to read books of history (whose testimony he must take on faith); he has to listen to a host of other people (some or all of whom could be lying). In this process of coming to assent in the matter of England’s insularity, reason is certainly in play, but it is by no means the only player. Hunch, intuition, trust, hearsay, and faith are all ingredient. And so it goes with any act of intellection, save the most banal of mathematical calculations. In a word, assent, even in this simple matter, is not simply reducible to inference. And Newman’s keenest insight is this: despite the lack of totally convincing inferential support, the person who claims that England is an island is not the least bit hesitant or vacillating in his claim. He makes it, on the contrary, with utter confidence. So, he implies, does the man of faith combine lack of surety and strength of conviction.
One of Newman’s best-known twentieth-century disciples was the Canadian Jesuit Bernard Lonergan. Lonergan demonstrated that every scientist relies upon faith, precisely in the measure that he assumes the accuracy of huge amounts of material from the multiplication tables, to the value of pi, to the trajectories of projectiles, to the periodic table of elements he does not directly verify. And moreover, something like faith is at the bottom of any scientific enterprise. Every great intellectual searcher, from Aristotle to Newton to Einstein, is lured in his knowing by what he doesn’t know, by the intriguing darkness that stretches out ahead of him. Einstein, for example, dedicated the last years of his life to finding a unified field theory that would bring together the data and conclusions of all of the major physical sciences. Did he know that there was such a coherent, all-embracing theory? No, but he intuited it and allowed himself to be directed by it.
What all of these observations and examples indicate is that the line between faith and reason is not nearly as sharp as the avatars of the Enlightenment thought. In fact, if Newman and Lonergan are right, religious people and scientific people think in fundamentally similar ways, through a blend of belief and strict calculation, Therefore, we should not place religion and science on opposite sides of some great divide, but rather see them as modes of knowing that, despite their obvious differences in object and method, share a deep family resemblance, How do reasonable people come to believe in God? In much the same way that they come to convictions about matters geographical or chemical or historical — that is to say, on the basis of experiences, deductions, arguments, testimonies, and gut feelings. Thus there are rational demonstrations for God’s existence based upon the radical contingency of the world (Thomas Aquinas’s “five ways” are prime examples of these); God’s existence can also be intuited directly through the witness of the conscience (Newman developed an argument along these lines); there is the long and steady witness of inspired figures over the centuries (especially as recounted in the Sacred Scriptures); and many have their own personal experiences of God.
Perhaps none of these is absolutely convincing in itself; perhaps all could be quarreled with or explained away. Yet when all of these arguments, intuitions, and experiences converge on the same point, the mind is moved to assent. Newman referred to this instinct of the mind for the coherence of probable evidences as the “illative sense,” implying that it carries (laws) the intellect to assent. One thin cable might not be enough to lift a great weight, but fifty such cables wrapped tightly around one another could easily get it off the ground. In the same way, any single argument or feeling or hunch would not be enough to move the mind to assent in the matter of God’s existence, but five or ten or fifty of them would be more than enough to do so.
In Hebrews 11 a number of citations beginning with a reference to creation and then moving in verse four to a consideration of Abel. In this and all subsequent references to the Old Testament exemplars the words are intoned “By faith…” Do we note that in this parade of Old Testament patriarchs and their faith the most glaring omission, the name of Adam, the mighty progenitor of the human race?
God walked in the garden in the cool of the evening and called, “Adam, where art thou?”; And where is he? He is lost, disinherited, sentenced to eternal death, tortured by the knowledge of what he should be haunting his pitiful consciousness of what he is. It is not of Adam that we speak, but of his race. “Where art thou?” The words live forever, calling people to consider, to view their hopeless estate, and to move toward that reconciliation that is possible through Christ.”
Our peril, and the peril of our race, is that the human intellect is free to destroy itself. My favorite, G.K. Chesterton on the relationship of faith to reason, begins by telling us that:
“Just as one generation could prevent the very existence of the next generation, by all entering a monastery or jumping into the sea, so one set of thinkers can in some degree prevent further thinking by teaching the next generation that there is no validity in any human thought.” I would submit that we are part of several generations now that does precisely that; witness how our current secular orthodoxy embraces the relativism of the age. Chesterton saw this happening, too, in his time. He pointed out that “It is idle to talk always of the alternative of reason and faith. Reason is itself a matter of faith. It is an act of faith to assert that our thoughts have any relation to reality at all. If you are merely a skeptic, you must sooner or later ask yourself the question, “Why should ANYTHING go right; even observation and deduction? Why should not good logic be as misleading as bad logic? Aren’t they both movements in the brain of a bewildered ape?” The young skeptic says, “I have a right to think for myself.” But the old skeptic, the complete skeptic, says, “I have no right to think for myself. I have no right to think at all.”
Thus we can conclude that the description of faith in the letter to the Hebrews is coherent. Like all forms of knowing, faith will involve a certain groping in the darkness, an ordering toward things unseen, an element of nonrationality. In fact, these features will be exaggerated in relation to faith, since it is directed to the ultimately mysterious reality of God. However, none of this precludes assurance in the person of faith, any more than the nonrational dimension of scientific or historical knowledge precludes confidence in the scientist or historian. There, just as Einstein was motivated by an epistemic ideal he only barely glimpsed, so the faith-filled person is lifted up, guided, and inspired by that most alluring of unseen realities, the Lord God.
Much of the above is an argument lifted from Fr. Robert Barron’s “Word on Fire,” with additions from Saint Paul, John Paul II and G.K. Chesterton. Fr. Barron speaks here on Faith and Reason as seen by St. Thomas Aquinas: