Reason is a Matter of Faith

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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]

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“Anti-Religious Thought in the Eighteenth Century” by G.K. Chesterton

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Ivan Konstantinovich Aivazovsky

“What was called the Age of Reason has vanished as completely as what are called the Ages of Faith.”

Originally a contribution to An Outline of Christianity; the Story of our Civilization.  Vol.  IV.  Christianity and Modern Thought, 1926.  The Waverley Book Co., London

by G.K. Chesterton: THE ECLIPSE of Christian theology during the rationalist advance of the eighteenth century is one of the most interesting of historical episodes.  In order to see it clearly, we must first realize that it was an episode and that it is now historical.  It may be stating it too strongly to say that it is now dead; it is perhaps enough to say that it is now distant and yet distinct; that it is divided from our own time as much as any period of the past.  Neither reason nor faith will ever die; for men would die if deprived of either.  The wildest mystic uses his reason at some stage; if it be only by reasoning against reason.  The most incisive sceptic has dogmas of his own; though when he is a very incisive sceptic, he has often forgotten what they are.  Faith and reason are in this sense co-eternal; but as the words are popularly used, as loose labels for particular periods, the one is now almost as remote as the other.  What was called the Age of Reason has vanished as completely as what are called the Ages of Faith.

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“The Spice of Life” by G.K. Chesterton

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“ I am perfectly certain that all our world will end in despair, unless there is some way of making the mind itself, the ordinary thought we have at ordinary times, more healthy and more happy than they seem to be just now, to judge by most modern novels and poems.  You have to be happy in those quiet moments when you remember that you are alive; not in those noisy moments when you forget.  Unless we can learn again to enjoy life, we shall not long enjoy the spices of life.  ” 

~G.K. Chesterton

This short essay comes from one of the last radio broadcasts by G.K. Chesterton. It was published posthumously in a collection of the same title, The Spice of Life. With a strange but not uncharacteristic prescience, Chesterton appears to be handing off the baton to the next generation of culture shapers. He does so with a warning, though. Dale Ahlquist at The American Chesterton Society writes the following:

“It is Chesterton’s parting shot. He refers to none other than T.S. Eliot, who in many ways would be his successor as the great man of letters in the English language, who, though he shared many of Chesterton’s ideas and certainly admired him, nonetheless represents a change in outlook towards the modern world.”

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G.K. Chesterton on Tolstoy, Nietzsche, Joan D’Arc, and Jesus

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From Orthodoxy, “The Suicide of Thought”

“….Here I end (thank God) the first and dullest business of this book— the rough review of recent thought. After this I begin to sketch a view of life which may not interest my reader, but which, at any rate, interests me. In front of me, as I close this page, is a pile of modern books that I have been turning over for the purpose— a pile of ingenuity, a pile of futility. By the accident of my present detachment, I can see the inevitable smash of the philosophies of Schopenhauer and Tolstoy, Nietzsche and Shaw, as clearly as an inevitable railway smash could be seen from a balloon. They are all on the road to the emptiness of the asylum. For madness may be defined as using mental activity so as to reach mental helplessness; and they have nearly reached it. He who thinks he is made of glass, thinks to the destruction of thought; for glass cannot think. So he who wills to reject nothing, wills the destruction of will; for will is not only the choice of something, but the rejection of almost everything.

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Charlotte Brontë by G.K. Chesterton

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“She approached the universe with real simplicity, and, consequently, with real fear and delight. She was, so to speak, shy before the multitude of the stars, and in this she had possessed herself of the only force which can prevent enjoyment being as black and barren as routine. The faculty of being shy is the first and the most delicate of the powers of enjoyment. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of pleasure.”

CHARLOTTE BRONTË

by G.K. Chesterton, from Twelve Types, 1902

“Objection is often raised against realistic biography because it reveals so much that is important and even sacred about a man’s life. The real objection to it will rather be found in the fact that it reveals about a man the precise points which are unimportant. It reveals and asserts and insists on exactly those things in a man’s life of which the man himself is wholly unconscious; his exact class in society, the circumstances of his ancestry, the place of his present location. These are things which do not, properly speaking, ever arise before the human vision. They do not occur to a man’s mind; it may be said, with almost equal truth, that they do not occur in a man’s life. A man no more thinks about himself as the inhabitant of the third house in a row of Brixton villas than he thinks about himself as a strange animal with two legs. What a man’s name was, what his income was, whom he married, where he lived, these are not sanctities; they are irrelevancies.

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Dragons, Telescopes, and Treasure

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This is the remarkably true story of a flying telescope, dragons, adventure and an unfathomable treasure in the heavens.

by Daniel Ray

In October of 2013, a team of dedicated astronomers and astrophysicists took up a fantastical quest to push the Hubble Space Telescope to its limits, to see deeper into the heavens than any previous mission had done in Hubble’s nearly three decades of service. “How deep can we go?” they wondered. “What are the faintest and most distant galaxies we can see with the Hubble Space Telescope now?”[1] And from the imaginations of a core group of scientists was birthed the Frontier Fields mission, a grand celestial adventure that focused Hubble’s sights on the most ancient light in the universe; exotic and enigmatic light that will “set the scene” for the new James Webb Space Telescope to explore after its launch in early 2019.

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The Revival of Philosophy by G.K. Chesterton

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by G.K. Chesterton

“Some people fear that philosophy will bore or bewilder them; because they think it is not only a string of long words, but a tangle of complicated notions. These people miss the whole point of the modern situation. These are exactly the evils that exist already; mostly for want of a philosophy.”

From The Common Man: “The best reason for a revival of philosophy is that unless a man has a philosophy certain horrible things will happen to him. He will be practical; he will be progressive; he will cultivate efficiency; he will trust in evolution; he will do the work that lies nearest; he will devote himself to deeds, not words. Thus struck down by blow after blow of blind stupidity and random fate, he will stagger on to a miserable death with no comfort but a series of catchwords; such as those which I have catalogued above. Those things are simply substitutes for thoughts. In some cases they are the tags and tail-ends of somebody else’s thinking. That means that a man who refuses to have his own philosophy will not even have the advantages of a brute beast, and be left to his own instincts. He will only have the used-up scraps of somebody else’s philosophy; which the beasts do not have to inherit; hence their happiness. Men have always one of two things: either a complete and conscious philosophy or the unconscious acceptance of the broken bits of some incomplete and shattered and often discredited philosophy. Such broken bits are the phrases I have quoted: efficiency and evolution and the rest. The idea of being “practical”, standing all by itself, is all that remains of a Pragmatism that cannot stand at all. It is impossible to be practical without a Pragma. And what would happen if you went up to the next practical man you met and said to the poor dear old duffer, “Where is your Pragma?” Doing the work that is nearest is obvious nonsense; yet it has been repeated in many albums. In nine cases out of ten it would mean doing the work that we are least fitted to do, such as cleaning the windows or clouting the policeman over the head. “Deeds, not words” is itself an excellent example of “Words, not thoughts”. It is a deed to throw a pebble into a pond and a word that sends a prisoner to the gallows. But there are certainly very futile words; and this sort of journalistic philosophy and popular science almost entirely consists of them.

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