Reason is a Matter of Faith

magdalenquad1

The Quad at Magdalen College, Oxford

 

“Neither reason nor faith will ever die; for men would die if deprived of either.”  – G. K. Chesterton

“It is idle to talk always of the alternative of reason and faith,” wrote G.K. Chesterton in his book Orthodoxy.[1] “Reason is itself a matter of faith,” he continued, “It is an act of faith to assert that our thoughts have any relation to reality at all.”[2] He was assessing the state of modern thought, noting that since the Enlightenment philosophy has begun from a place of unyielding skepticism when it comes to religious faith. Yet, he adds that so far as religious faith goes, reason goes with it because “they are both methods of proof which cannot themselves be proved.”[3] In other words, reason and faith are intertwined in such a way that to reject one means that the other will eventually be questioned, too. The two must exist in tension, or neither will survive. Why then is religious faith still viewed with extreme suspicion? Does the requirement of faith undermine the religious believer’s quest for genuine knowledge? Two extreme positions have emerged from considering these questions: (1) the strong rationalist who believes that reason demands that all faith commitments be avoided versus (2) the fideist who claims that our reasoning on religious matters is so untrustworthy that we must begin from a position of complete commitment and faith before we can think about God. In the middle stands the critical rationalist approach that claims that a certain degree of both faith and reason are needed in order to proceed, or we will be forever frozen between the two. Taking a closer look at these three positions – the strong rationalist, the fideist, and the critical rationalist – and their approach to understanding the Gospel will help us discover which of the three represents “a more excellent way” when it comes to thinking about faith and reason.[4]

Strong Rationalism

In an effort to avoid the subjectivity that inevitably colors our thinking, possibly entangling us in error, the strong rationalist approach seeks a neutral stance when considering religious claims. Only that which can be verified with absolute certainty can be truly and safely known. For the strong rationalist, “a reasonable person … is one who avoids commitment in cases where the commitment cannot be objectively guaranteed, verified or proven.”[5] Not a drop of faith is allowed! The risk-averse rationalist “asks that we begin with basic premises which are self-evident to reason” and nothing else.[6] Never mind that it is not self-evident that our reasoning faculty has been fine-tuned to find truth, in the first place!

Here we see the most important limitations of strong rationalism: it fails to recognize its own limits. Such an approach then overestimates the level of certainty that can be attained. All thought must begin, as Chesterton writes, on “an infallible dogma, and that infallible dogma can only be disputed by falling back on some other infallible dogma; you can never prove your first statement or it would not be your first.”[7] The problem for the strong rationalist is that they cannot prove the truth of their strong rationalist approach. Strong rationality is his infallible dogma. On what grounds does he assume that his method is best? On what grounds does he assume that a position of complete, presupposition-free neutrality can even be achieved?

We cannot take the ‘neutral’ stance of a scientist in the lab, for the truths we seek are incorrigibly personal. This is especially true in the realm of religion, for here we deal with ultimate issues that can’t but leave deep impressions on us. Indeed, it is because we are personal beings that even our laboratory science can’t help but be touched by certain kinds of a priori commitments. In Philosophy of Religion: Thinking About Faith, C. Stephen Evans points out that even scientists must begin with unprovable assumptions. “They assume that nature is basically intelligible and orderly,” he writes.[8] On what basis, though?

We are not “calculating machines.”[9] We encounter the world of facts as personal beings with perspectives, histories, temperaments, and, yes, a fallen nature. Given these limits, should the rationalist then concede that because he cannot begin from indubitable assumptions about his ability to reason, he cannot trust reasoning faculty at all? Since objective certainty is unattainable, should we either completely refrain from committing ourselves to the Gospel, or commit first and see what follows (as the fideist suggests)?

Not at all. What the rationalist appreciates is that we are, as Aristotle says, rational animals. Some amount of reasoning is unavoidable when it comes to religious matters. Thomas Aquinas noted that our intellect works through our senses, perceiving the created things of this world. Through these, we come to a rudimentary (but convicting) knowledge of God (Romans 1:20). Yet he writes, “sensible things cannot lead the human intellect to the point of seeing in them the nature of the divine substance; for sensible things are effects that fall short of the power of their cause.”[10] Though the finite things of this world point beyond themselves to God, we cannot have complete, exhaustive knowledge of Him through them. The finitude within and without sets the limits, but it does not necessarily exclude all knowledge of God. Reason herself can tell us her limits.

Fideism

The fideist holds “that one cannot arrive at true religious beliefs as a result of rational reflection,” because man is hopelessly fallen.[11] For the fideist, “faith is the precondition for any correct thinking about religion.”[12] The view is that a limited creature such as man could never have any right thoughts about an infinite God without His help – and this requires a personal faith commitment in Him first.

One difficulty is immediately apparent with this position: the fideist arrived at this conclusion through her reasoning faculty! The fideist claims that we lack the ability to have correct thoughts about God, yet, is not this claim itself a thought about God? She appears to undermine her own claim. Evans puts it succinctly: “human thinking would have to have a certain competence even to recognize its incompetence.”[13]

More troubling is the fact that, as Evans points out, “the fideist also encloses herself within ‘the world of the committed,’ and in a similar manner, she eliminates the possibility of showing the nonbeliever the superiority of a religious worldview.”[14] This seems to run counter to one of the most important tasks a Christian believer is given: the Great Commission. After all, consider that the Apostle John ends his Gospel with an appeal to rationally consider the evidence he had put forward: “these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”[15] This challenge to the reader presupposes mental engagement with the truths about the life of Christ that John has meticulously laid out for his audience.

We can agree with the fideist that sin certainly plays a part in obscuring the light of the truth to our minds. In essence, we come to the Gospel, conditioned by experience and personal choice, to either accept it or reject it. The question we must ask is to what extent any negative conditioning can be overcome. Must we assume that any accurate knowledge of God is forever beyond our grasp? The first chapter of Romans seems to indicate that even without divine revelation, we are without excuse if we reject God because enough can be perceived of Him through what He has made. Arguably this perception involves our reasoning faculty. “After all,” Evans writes, “God remains God, the Creator, and he may well establish limits to the ways in which even a rebellious creature may run amuck in his thinking.”[16]

However, the fideist is correct in noting that our thinking with respect to religious matters is like no other. Alvin Plantinga points out that the difference comes down to the orientation of the will, and “not primarily in the executive function of the will (the function of making decisions, of seeking and avoiding various states of affairs) … but in its affective function of loving and hating, finding attractive or repellent, approving or disapproving.”[17] In other words, faith for the believer is not only about coming to the right beliefs, but also entails a right response to those beliefs. Unlike our experience with truth in other matters, the truth of the Gospel necessarily engages our will in its entirety.

Critical Rationalism

In the end, both fideism and strict rationalism fail – “the former because it precludes rational reflection, the latter because it places impossible demands on rational reflection.”[18] The a priori total commitment of the fideist is not only undesirable, but it is also logically impossible, and the supposed neutrality of the rationalist is an illusion. Both seem to overlook the fact that many of our day-to-day beliefs rely on a combination of both evidence and faith. What Evans, et al point out is that “faith – and the risk that attends it – is unavoidable for finite, epistemically limited human beings” such as ourselves.[19]

We are personal, relational beings and we cannot approach any truth blindly, as the fideist believe, or mathematically, as the rationalist requires. This relational aspect of our makeup is why the philosophy of religion must proceed in the form of a critical dialogue. No one enters into a conversation as a blank slate. We bring to the dialogue a set of presuppositions or pre-understandings that enable us to interpret what we are hearing. This is the very subjective element that the rationalist disdains, yet without it, we would hear only gibberish. What we seek, then, is a reasonable interpretation. Evans writes that “a reasonable interpretation is one which accounts for the facts, suggests new insights, illuminates meaningful patterns—and does so better than its rivals.”[20]

What is required is an interplay between faith and reason – what Evans calls critical rationalism. Not unlike the testing of scientific theories, the testing of religious beliefs is complex and involves a continual movement between commitment to a theory and the collection and consideration of facts. The theory begins by seeking and testing the facts, then the facts fine-tune the theory, in turn. Citing the work of Thomas Kuhn, Evans points out that, in the least, even the scientist has to enter his work with a certain amount of commitment that would not withstand the strong rationalist’s doubt; otherwise, science would never proceed. How much more commitment is necessary, then, for a set of claims like the Gospel that engages more of our being?

Religious truth demands more of us – especially Christian truth – because it is profoundly relational. When faced with the truth of the Gospel, one’s heart, soul, and strength are challenged, as well as one’s mind. The Gospel requires much more than mere mental assent to a proposition, as it presents us with seemingly disquieting truths that reach into every aspect of our lives. The writer of Hebrews likens the Gospel to a sword that pierces our soul with truth, judging “the thoughts and intentions” of our hearts.[21]

In fact, the Gospel demands that we lay down our own swords and pick up our crosses. This demand is like no other, so it makes sense that, as Plantinga writes, “conversion … is fundamentally a turning of the will … a turning away from love of self, from thinking of oneself as the chief being in the universe.”[22]

Conclusion

Writing about the rise of rationalism in the eighteenth century, Chesterton wrote that “neither reason nor faith will ever die; for men would die if deprived of either.”[23] He continues with the fact that “the wildest mystic uses his reason at some stage; if it be only by reasoning against reason,” and “the most incisive sceptic has dogmas of his own; though when he is a very incisive sceptic, he has often forgotten what they are.” He concludes that “faith and reason are in this sense co-eternal…”[24]

Faith and reason must co-exist and work together to move us towards the truth. The challenge for us is defining the boundary line between them, a challenge made all the more difficult by the fallibility of the ones surveying the boundary. Nothing but a “humble inquiry after truth,” as Aquinas called it, will suffice. In the end, the virtue of humility is what will unite faith and reason in our quest for Truth. “God resists the proud.”[25]

Cloister

Cloister at Canterbury

[1] G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (Peabody, MA:  Hendrickson Publishers, 2006), 25.

[2] Ibid,

[3] Ibid.

[4] 1 Cor. 12:31, NASB.

[5] C. Stephen Evans & R. Zachary Manis, Philosophy of Religion, 2nd ed. (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2009), 189.

[6] Ibid., 189.

[7] G.K .Chesterton, “Philosophy for the Schoolroom.” American Chesterton Society, 1 Apr. 2014, www.chesterton.org/philosophy-for-the-schoolroom/.

[8] Evans, 29.

[9] Ibid., 33.

[10] Thomas Aquinas, Contra Gentiles: Book One: God, Trans. by Anton C. Pegis, https://dhspriory.org/thomas/ContraGentiles1.htm#3, accessed November 18, 2018.

[11] Evans, 24.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid,, 26.

[14] Ibid., 25.

[15] John 20:31, NIV.

[16] Evans, 26.

[17] Alvin Plantinga, Knowledge and Christian Belief (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2015), 71.

[18] Evans, 31.

[19] Evans, 197.

[20] Evans, 200.

[21] Hebrews 4:12, ESV.

[22] Plantinga, 74

[23] G.K. Chesterton, “Anti-religious Thought in the Eighteenth Century,” An Outline of Christianity: the Story of our Civilization (London: The Waverley Book Co., 1926.).

[24] Ibid.

[25] 1 Peter 5:5, NKJV.

 

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