Thoughts on the Intersection of Faith and Reason

There is tendency in our world to juxtapose faith against reason as if the two are somehow mutually exclusive to each other.  As if they represent polar opposites and are, in fact, so diametrically opposed to each other that one cannot be both a person of reason and a person of faith.  There seems to be a high degree of agreement as to the mutual incompatibility of faith and reason regardless of whether you look at sources secular or spiritual; the primary difference being which of the two views you decide to eviscerate for the sake of the other.  Lets look at just two quotes – one from a secular source, the other from a spiritual one.

Christopher Hitchens (April 13, 1949 – December 15, 2011) was a British-American author, polemicist, debater, journalist, socialist, Marxist, noted critic of religion and, what he referred to as an antitheist. He said that a person “could be an atheist and wish that belief in god were correct”, but that “an antitheist, a term I’m trying to get into circulation, is someone who is relieved that there’s no evidence for such an assertion.”  Mr. Hitchens had the following to say regarding faith, “Faith is the surrender of the mind, it’s the surrender of reason, it’s the surrender of the only thing that makes us different from other animals. It’s our need to believe and to surrender our skepticism and our reason, our yearning to discard that and put all our trust or faith in someone or something, that is the sinister thing to me. … Out of all the virtues, all the supposed virtues, faith must be the most overrated”

At the other end of the spectrum (but still very much in agreement that faith and reason are like oil and water) was Martin Luther (November 10, 1483 – February 18, 1546) a German monk, Catholic priest, professor of theology and ultimately, the father of the 16th-century movement in Christianity known as the Protestant Reformation.  He had the following to say about reason, “All the articles of our Christian faith, which God has revealed to us in His Word, are in presence of reason sheerly impossible, absurd, and false.” (Werke, VIII) and “Reason is a whore, the greatest enemy that faith has; it never comes to the aid of spiritual things, but – more frequently than not – struggles against the divine Word, treating with contempt all that emanates from God.” (Table Talks 1569)

Here’s the thing though; I don’t believe that either viewpoint is particularly reasonable.  I think that the dichotomy between faith and reason is a false one, and moreover unnecessary.  Let’s start with reason, or logic if you will.  Ayn Rand who was avowedly an atheist has the following to say about logic, reason, reality, and the pursuit of truth in her book Atlas Shrugged.  “His means to establish the truth of his answers is logic, and logic rests on the axiom that existence exists.  Logic is the art of non-contradictory identification.  A contradiction cannot exist.  An atom is itself, and so is the universe; neither can contradict its own identity; nor can a part contradict the whole.  No concept man forms is valid unless he integrates it without contradiction into the total sum of his knowledge.  To arrive at a contradiction is to confess an error in one’s thinking; to maintain a contradiction is to abdicate one’s mind and to evict oneself from the realm of reality.  Reality is that which exists; the unreal does not exist; the unreal is merely that negation of existence which is the content of a human consciousness when it attempts to abandon reason.  Truth is the recognition of reality; reason, man’s only means of knowledge, is his only standard of truth.”

Ayn Rand can be a little wordy – feel free to re-read the statement above slowly. When it comes to her philosophy, there are many areas where she and I would disagree, but when it comes to the quote above, there is much that I like.  Please allow me to restate a couple of her points for the sake of clarity, and also, the indulgence of making a couple of minor changes to her thoughts in order to more accurately reflect my own views.

  1. Truth is the recognition of reality – we could fairly say that truth and reality are synonymous.  Reason (man’s primary means of knowledge) is also his primary means of arriving at truth.
  2. To arrive at a contradiction is to confess an error in thinking.  To maintain that contradiction (error) is to abdicate both reason and reality – in other words, to abdicate truth.

Is there anything in these points over which we would disagree?  Anything that is in anyway opposed to faith?  For me, it was through these very principles that I first came to faith.  It was through an investigation of reality; through the study of science and cosmology, and through the application of logic and philosophy (reason) that I first came to a reasoned belief in God.  For me it was more reasonable to believe that God existed and that this universe was caused by Him than that it wasn’t.  For me faith always had to be a reasonable faith.  I happen to believe that this idea of a reasonable faith is a profoundly Christian idea.  I believe that it is supported by Scripture, the teaching of the Church, the witness of countless saints, as well as Christian scientists, philosophers, and theologians throughout the ages.  I believe it is one of the key distinctions between Christianity and other world religions and cults. Bottom line? I believe that Christianity is true because it is reasonable – i.e. because it accurately represents reality.

Allow me to share with you some additional conclusions that I have arrived at over the years:

  • I believe that truth is an accurate representation of a fundamental reality of which God is the very foundation.
  • When Christ claimed to be not a truth but the Truth – it revealed to us that Truth is a person, and that that person is God.
  • Because real truth conforms to God/reality it is certain. Certainty derives from truth.
  • Absolutes (the practical application of truth) derive from certainty.

Now let’s move the discussion forward to faith.  There are many in this world who would consider faith not just blind, but also lame and impotent.  For them faith is not only a blind leap in the dark, but also an unwarranted belief.  Sadly, many of those who would consider themselves “religious” are content with this unwarranted faith.  A faith that has been separated from reason.  A blind faith. mortimer_adler_on_blind_faith

Mortimer Adler (December 28, 1902 – June 28, 2001)

I, for one, am not interested in a “superstitious faith.”

Blind faith is faith with a disability. Faith with a blind man’s cane, fearfully and carefully tapping through the darkness of life. Faith which has not been illumined by the light of reason and truth.

I really like what C.S. Lewis has to say in Mere Christianity about what I would call reasonable faith. “Now Faith, in the sense in which I am here using the word, is the art of holding on to things your reason has once accepted, in spite of your changing moods. For moods will change, whatever view your reason takes.  I know that by experience. Now that I am a Christian I do have moods in which the whole thing looks very improbable: but when I was an atheist I had moods in which Christianity looked terribly probable. This rebellion of your moods against your real self is going to come anyway. That is why Faith is such a necessary virtue: unless you teach your moods “where they get off,” you can never be either a sound Christian or even a sound atheist, but just a creature dithering to and fro, with its beliefs really dependent on the weather and the state of its digestion. Consequently one must train the habit of Faith.”  

Here, Lewis, a former atheist himself, suggests that faith is necessary for the human condition regardless of whether one is a Christian or an atheist.  That faith is an act of constancy based on reason, and in opposition to mood swings.  That faith and reason are two sides of the self same coin, and are in no way (either secularly or spiritually) opposed to each other.  In this view we see faith and reason joined together to create an individual who is able to navigate a straight course through life. Not the blind man with his cane and his timid tapping through the dark, but rather the ship’s captain with compass firmly gripped in one hand, and ships wheel held resolutely in the other, confidently navigating the rough seas of life.

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