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The False Opposition of Faith and Reason

June 15, 2009

faith and reasonNow 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
Hebrews 11:1-7

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:

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5 comments

  1. I found this on an Amazon Forum contributed by a fellow named Rodney. It rather dovetails nicely into the nature of knowledge that John Paul II and Saint Paul were making about Faith:

    “Perhaps an analysis of knowledge claims would be useful.

    If we look at the Christian tradition of `contemplative prayer’ we observe a school of science: spiritual science.

    What is spiritual science? Perhaps one needs first to ask what is science?

    We are free to define science any way we wish, as long as we are consistent. We may define science simply as knowledge, in which case it is possible to have a spiritual science. On the other hand we may define it as empirical-sensory knowledge, instrumentally validated, in which case spirituality becomes non-scientific. If we take the second option then one of two options is available:

    1. View spirituality as a form of personal faith, belief and values not open to scientific scrutiny;

    2. View spirituality as non-scientific in the purely pejorative sense, as a superstition, or a purely private fantasy or delusional or emotional affair, not deserving of the title of knowledge.

    Perhaps we need to go a little further and distinguish between the method of science and the domain of science. The method of science refers to the ways or means that whatever we call science manages to gather facts, data, or information, and manages to confirm or refute propositions vis a vis the data.

    The domain simply refers to the types of events or phenomena that become, or can become, objects of investigation by whatever it is we mean by science. Thus method refers to the epistemology of science, while domain refers to its ontology.

    So, instead of asking ‘What is science? ‘, we first ask ‘What is scientific method? ‘and ‘What is scientific domain?’. As for scientific method, general science texts seem to be in agreement: a method of gaining knowledge whereby hypothesis are tested ( instrumentally or experimentally) by reference to experience (data) that is potentially public, or open to repetition (confirmation or refutation) by peers.

    Notice that this definition makes no reference to the domain or objects of the scientific method. If there is a way to test a knowledge-claim in whatever domain by appeal to open experience, then that knowledge can legitimately be called scientific. The definition does not specify that only sensory or physical objects are open to scientific investigation. There is nothing in that definition that prevents us from legitimately applying the term scientific to certain specifiable knowledge-claims in the realms or domains of psychology, history, sociology or spirituality.

    The point is that because the definition concerns only method and makes no reference to object-domains, the dividing line between scientific and non-scientific is not between physical and metaphysical; the dividing line is between experientially testable and non-testable (or merely dogmatic) pronouncements, the former being exposed to confirmation/ refutation based on open experience, the latter being on evidence no more substantial than the because I-told-you-so variety. If science were restricted to physical-sensory object-domains, then mathematics, logic, psychology and sociology could not be called scientific.

    To return to the question, does spirituality deserve the title of knowledge, does it deserve the status of scientific knowledge? Are spiritual phenomena such that they can become a proper domain for the scientific method? Contemplative tradition demonstrates to us that these domains are open to scientific investigation because these domains are open to experiential disclosure. There is spiritual experience just as surely as there is psychological experience and sensory experience. In this sense we can speak of spiritual science just as legitimately as we can speak of the science of psychology, biology or physics.

    By spiritual experience, it is meant the direct apprehension, in consciousness, of the phenomena of the soul and spirit. The central features of these domains are not only experienced, they are public, because consciousness can be trained to apprehend those domains, and a trained consciousness is a public or intersubjective consciousness, or it couldn’t be trained in the first place.

    Simply because spiritual experience is apprehended in an interior milieu does not mean it is merely private knowledge, any more than the fact that mathematics and logic are seen inwardly, by the mind’s eye, makes them merely private fantasies without public import. Mathematical knowledge is public knowledge to all equally trained mathematicians; just so, contemplative knowledge is public knowledge to all equally trained contemplatives.

    The works of the masters of contemplative prayer contain method and experiment, which, if followed correctly, disclose to consciousness data that may be confirmed or refuted by equally trained peers just as geometric theorems can be checked with other equally trained mathematicians.

    “God is our being and in Him we are what we are. Any experience of a self other than this must be destroyed.” -Anon. author of The Cloud of Unknowing.

    God is objective truth in the contemplative tradition.

    St John of the Cross makes the point: “In the prayer of union there is no one left to know anything. All that can be known of God is through the impressions that have been left on the memory when one returns to oneself.”

    Take the statements of these two masters of the spiritual life together. Truth arising out of a total self abandonment can’t be subjective. In the contemplative tradition the term God applies to objective truth.”

    From Rodney on an Amazon Forum


  2. A convert of three years has created this website? Three years of intensive research by the look of it.
    The bulk of the “analysis of knowledge claims” you have blogged here is lifted from Ken Wilbur. Specifically,from the Introduction to a publication “Quantum Questions”.
    The Amazon Forum doesn’t seem to be going anywhere interesting. I just happened to be buying a book and noticed the statement under discussion. As to analysis of spiritual science, Rudolf Steiner offers clarity – although it is difficult to find a brief summary of the thought of Rudolf Steiner. Having edited his work for a Biodynamic journal I summarized his thought myself and posted a summary on the ‘Spirit’ page of our website http://www.biodynamics-tas.com.au/web/en/biodynamic/Spirit.html.
    I am a Carmelite myself, currently enjoying the work of Joseph Ratzinger: The Spirit of the Liturgy


    • I gave the direct link to the spirit page, which was quite interesting. Never heard of Ken Wilbur, so perhaps that is where Fr. Barron lifted it from…


  3. “He who seeks the truth, whether he is aware of it or not, is seeking God.”

    “You have become estranged from Christ, you who attempt to be justified by law (Galatians 5:4)”. Dogma is always in danger of being enshrined as law, as man is tempted to justify himself, but the Spirit gives pre-eminence to conscience as the justification of faith, independent of mental constructs. “For if there had been a law given which could have given life, truly righteousness would have been by the law” (Galatians 3:21).

    In affirming “Outside the Church there is no Salvation” Vatican II, in its article The Profession of Faith states (847): This affirmation is not aimed at those who do not know Christ and His Church: Those who do not know the Gospel of Christ or His Church, but nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and moved by Grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience-those too may achieve eternal salvation. (848) In ways known to himself, God can lead those who are ignorant of the Gospel to that Faith without which it is impossible to please him. . .

    From these statements we notice that Grace informs conscience which in turn informs faith. Grace moves people to faith through the dictates of their conscience. If conscience was nothing more than a law of the mind it would have to subjugate to dogma. Why does conscience have pre-eminence over dogma?

    Vatican II, Article 8 proclaims: Conscience is a messenger of Him, who, both in nature and grace, speaks to us from behind a veil. Conscience is the Aboriginal Vicar of Christ. It is man’s most secret core and his sanctuary. The just judgement of conscience can remain within as the witness to the universal truth of God.


  4. Dogma describes and circumscribes the identity of the Church. The dogmatic development of the Church was the necessary form by which the Church established its identity. What, ideally, the Church should be has to be defined. Dogmas are both preservative and protective (Tillich). They are not philosophical affirmations, but preserve something experienced as a living reality. Dogma is not and can not be posited as answers to questions of meaning. God is the answer in Himself. Dogma serves to direct and maintain the search for meaning, but in itself is simply rhetoric. If dogma were the ultimate proof of our faith, and that on which it were based, then our faith would be in ideas of the mind, not God. Dogma constructs the transcendent in terms of the empirical.

    The inadequacy of reason for dealing with questions of meaning is demonstrated in the works of the modern western philosophers, Immanuel Kant and Ludwig Wittgenstein. Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason explains the limitations, offering a comprehensive analysis of the function of the mind (reason). It is in the “Critique” that dialectic is introduced. The purpose of dialectic is to demonstrate the subjectivity of the categories of thought; that they are of empirical validity and can be used significantly within phenomena only. Dialectic is at once the consciousness of total and inevitable (antinominal) conflict of reason and the resolution of it by rising to a higher standpoint.

    The relevant point of Kantian philosophy is the transcendental illusion. Transcendental illusion is Kant’s term for the unrestricted use of the ordinary categories of thought beyond their legitimate field of experience. The utter transcendence of God as impervious to thought, as God is unidentifiable with anything in experience, condemns conceptual patterns as relative and confined to the empirical realm. The transcendental illusion arises when our explanations are pushed beyond their legitimate field to the unconditioned.

    “Whereof one can not speak thereof one must be silent” is both the opening and closing statement to Wittgenstein”s work ‘Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus’, which further establishes the limitations of the mind. “Thus the aim of this book is to draw a limit to thought, or rather – not to thought, but to the expression of thoughts: for in order to draw limit to thought, we should have to find both sides of the limit thinkable (i.e. we should have to be able to think what cannot be thought)”. Wittgenstein acknowledges , in closing his treatise, (6.522): “There are, indeed, things that cannot be put into words. They make themselves manifest. They are what is mystical.”

    Wittgenstein’s concept of “family resemblances” – his thesis that what appears to be a definite commonality shared by all instances and covered by a single general word in fact comprises a whole range of indefinite, overlapping similarities and relationships – highlights the reality that there is no uniformity of perception that would allow for a uniform interpretation/ understanding. Thus any statement receives its meaning; and receives its meaning through the individual. Dogma preserves something that has been experienced as living reality and it is only the living reality, as perceived by the individual, that can give meaning to dogma.

    The fund of data available to the human mind is of such intrinsic complexity and diversity that it provides plausible support for many different conceptions. Although there exist many defining structures in the world and in the mind that resist or compel human thought and activity in various ways, evidence can be adduced and interpreted to corroborate a virtually limitless array of world views. Because the human understanding is not unequivocally compelled by the data to adopt one metaphysical position over another, an irreducible element of human choice supervenes. Hence there enters into the epistemological equation, in addition to intellectual rigour and social/cultural context, other more open ended factors such as conscience.

    Kant looked to a non intellectual agent to do the work that could not be done by the intellect. He made use of ‘The Critique’ to silence reason altogether, giving free scope to faith and the dictates of conscience. Conscience being, to Kant’s mind, the higher standpoint in which the conflicts in reason are resolved.

    Saints and Doctors of the Church such as St Francis of Assisi and St John of the Cross have understood concepts and beliefs as worldly wealth. Knowing what reassurance and justification we find in such they persistently discouraged seeking security in the mind. God alone suffices and our security is to be found in Him alone.

    St John of the Cross tells us that God is, and can only be known by the impressions left on the soul, relayed through the memory, when the soul returns to itself; the soul being necessarily absent to itself during communication (union) with God. “This most subtle and delicate knowledge penetrates. . . .into the innermost substance of the soul.” This knowledge, St. John informs us, flows over into the intellect. The intellect receives this knowledge “stripped of accidents and phantasms”. “When Scripture refers to communication of God. . . .this communication amounts to a manifestation of these naked truths to the intellect. These are pure spiritual communications, which are given only to the spirit without the service of the senses”. These impressions, the effects of God on the soul, the communication of virtue, are experienced as conscience. Conscience is directly informed by God. It is the product of a living relationship with a living God.

    Conscience informs both faith and reason. To what extent is reason informed by faith? Can reason be regarded as existing independently of faith?



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